A Wistful Look Back: Charity Girl

Something—perhaps old age, perhaps the growing realization that she would never finish My Lord John, the book she hoped would be a masterpiece—kept Georgette Heyer in a somber mood as she began to write her second to last novel, Charity Girl.  It was a response to both fans and critics: for her fans, she has one last aristocratic hero, Viscount Desford, son and heir of the Earl of Wroxton, along with a ludicrously pompous villain, Mr. Wilfred Steane and a happy ending after the, er, what was that of Cousin Kate; for her critics, a realistic take on the restrictions faced by aristocratic women.

But even her happy ending and the bright and witty dialogue in parts of the book have an often wistful tone.  Charity Girl is the novel of an author revisiting the world she created, this time, not quite able to believe in all of it.

After receiving a thundering scold (one of Heyer’s better phrases) from his dominant, father, Viscount Desford takes off for a long house party at the home of his aunt, Lady Emborough.  Because one party isn’t enough, in the middle of this party, the hostess and about half the guests take off for another party, a private ball on a night that—say those with no sense of fun—is just too hot for dancing, especially when mean people refuse to have the windows open, and with an approaching thunderstorm. Here, Desford meets the charity girl of the title, Charity Steane, a young girl living with her aunt.

Charity is, in all senses of the word, a charity girl, and not just in name. Her mother is dead; her father has abandoned her at a decent enough school—but a school that does not have the money to keep a girl whose father is no longer paying her school bills.  Since Charity is neither old nor educated enough to be a teacher, the school has reluctantly sent her to Lady Bugle, who in turn has decided to use the girl as a servant, and subject her to various levels of emotional and verbal abuse. Not surprisingly, Charity now hates her name, and demands that people call her Cherry.

Suddenly, a shot of realism rings out:

“Charitable!” said Miss Montsale. “Why, yes—if the charity was not used as a cloak to cover more mercenary aims!”

“Good god, Mary, what in the world do you mean?” demanded Lady Emborough.

“Oh, nothing, dear ma’am, against Lady Bugle! How could I, when I never met her before tonight?  But I have so often seen—as I am persuaded you too must have seen!—the—the indigent female who has been received into the household of one of her more affluent relations, as an act of charity, and has been turned into a drudge!”

“And has been expected to be grateful for it!” struck in the Viscount.

Don’t worry about Miss Montsale; she soon vanishes from the page, before the reader has been able to find out anything about her age, appearance, or station in life (presumably decently well off, since she is visiting the house of Lord Emborough with either her brother or her parents). Or before the reader has had a chance to find out just what turned Miss Montsale into this unexpected defender of poor relations that she has not even met.  It all mostly serves to reassure the readers—and Viscount Desford—that Cherry has not been exaggerating her problems, necessary after several Heyer books featuring teenagers who have been very definitely and dramatically exaggerating their problems. But it also allows Heyer to take yet another piercing look at the frothy Cinderella tales she had often told, where women of little fortune or beauty or both had managed to meet and marry very wealthy men, thanks to their wit. 

Not knowing that she’s gained some unexpected sympathizers, Cherry runs away the very next day in a rather pathetic fashion, dragging an old suitcase with her.  By complete chance (also known as “plot contrivance”) she meets Desford on the road.

In an earlier Heyer book, this would have been the start of a romance. But Heyer had already dodged that plotline in Sprig Muslin, and does so here again. Desford listens to Cherry’s story, and feels pity, not attraction. He takes her to London that day to her grandfather’s house; finding that the grandfather is not there, he decides to take her to his friend, Hetta.   (And if you are thinking that it’s awfully convenient for both Desford’s aunt and Hetta to live so close to London, I can only again say, plot contrivance.) 

Desford and Hetta have known each other all their lives, for all intents and purposes growing up together and becoming best friends.  So much so that nine years ago both sets of parents very reasonably suggested the two marry: they are of similar backgrounds, they get along marvelously, and fully trust each other—the fundamentals of a long term, happy relationship by Heyer’s reckoning.

Unfortunately, Hetta hears this suggestion from her mother before hearing it from Desford.  Heyer, whose own relationship with her mother was often strained, created sympathetic mothers for many of her heroes, but rarely if ever for her heroines.  The one genuinely sympathetic mother in Arabella soon disappears from the scene; the sympathetic mother in The Unknown Ajax is ineffective. More often, the mothers, when not dead, function as obstacles, as here.  Hetter and her mother may share a house, and may observe common courtesies, and Hetta even, in a way, loves her mother. But Hetta does not like her mother, and she is well aware of her mother’s many and myriad flaws.

So it’s not terribly surprising to read that after her mother encourages a match with Desford, Hetta runs to her friend—and begs him not to ask her to marry him.  Desford remembers every detail of this nine years later—a sign that the refusal still stings.  That this happened when Hetta was only fifteen does not seem to weigh much on either of them. Desford now insists he still has no interest in Hetta—even though, as Hetta sharply points out, he objects to every man who shows an interest in her. Hetta is also upset that her mother continues to want the match, ranting about it to Desford, and complaining about how fond her mother is of him.   Meanwhile, Desford is 29 and Hetta 26; by Heyer’s standards, certainly not too old to marry, but by the standards of their contemporaries, Desford certainly should have produced an heir by now, and Hetta is—almost—firmly on the shelf. Not that firmly; other Heyer heroines have been older, and Hetta has a comfortable if small fortune and, as the book opens, at least two other suitors courting her. Desford objects to both.  One of Hetta’ suitors, Cary Nethercott, finds this reaction Slightly Suspicious. This is all very nice if slightly tiresome. 

I only wish a better plot was around to drive these two crazy fools together.  It turns out that all of this background and not so hidden suggestion that they have been in love all the time—with Desford only holding back because he is still hurt, and convinced that Hetta doesn’t want him, and Hetta convinced that Desford doesn’t want her—is a very good thing, because for plot reasons they spend very little time together. Not that there’s exactly much of a plot to keep them apart.

Desford spends most of the rest of the book going around England trying to hunt down Cherry’s grandfather, a notorious miser and general recluse hated by nearly everyone.  This does lead to a rather hilarious breakdown of an early 19th century Guide to Harrogate—Heyer must have encountered one in her research, or perhaps it was already part of her private library. Here Desford eventually find Cherry’s grandfather, who has just married his housekeeper in hopes of saving money (a failed hope; she likes shopping). She is willing to take Cherry in as a household servant—it will save money, always a plus—an offer Desford declines. He rides around the country some more.  Cherry’s father, a card-shark with an unctuous manner, arrives, ready to put the worst possible spin on this and either force Desford and Cherry to marry or force Desford or his father to pay a very large sum of money to hush things up.

If generally somewhat free of the Regency cant, Charity Girl borrows liberally from Heyer’s earlier books: the villain from The Foundling and before that, The Masqueraders; the aristocratic miser marrying his housekeeper from Cotillion; the kindly aristocratic hero, unknowingly in love with an older lady, who encounters a runaway teenager from Sprig Muslin; the patriarch inflicted with gout from multiple novels; the sensible young woman managing her brother’s estates from Venetia; the poverty stricken young heroine with limited education and few options from Friday’s Child and other novels, and so on.

Perhaps as a result of this, it’s all very slow moving, with gentle humor here and there, but nothing approaching the sharp with of Heyer’s earlier books.  Characters, many of them potentially interesting, meander in and out, never to appear again; it might be interesting to find out what happened to the lovely Lucasta Bugle, who does not need to paper her hair; to the Honorable Rachel Emborough; to nearly everyone else met at the Emborough and Bugle parties, introduced with ironic flourishes, and then abandoned; and even to find out what happens to Charlie, Hetta’s younger brother, and if the argument between him and his mother is ever resolved, but we never do.  (Probably, since Hetta’s mother has other news to delight her, but still.)

The ending is not exactly convincing; I mean, it’s great that Desford has finally figured out after nine years that he’s in love with his best friend, but this both happens too quickly and too slowly: too quickly, since this happens only a month or so after he finds out that Hetta is close to accepting an offer from Cary Nethercott; too slowly, since during this month he spends most of his time at a party, and then careens around England, not, as far as we can tell, spending much time thinking of Hetta at all. Oh, he occasionally wishes she were there to share the joke—always a sign of love from Heyer—but the step from “hmm, I’m jealous, hmm, she shares my sense of humor” to “hmm, we should get married,” is missing. And Cherry’s sudden offer of marriage from Cary Nethercott has all the marks of Plot Contrivance.

And yet despite these flaws, I still retain a fondness for this gentle book.  Partly because it was the first Georgette Heyer novel I ever found, starting me on a road to humor and wit, and partly because, for all of its seeming unoriginality and not overly convincing ending, it offers a surprisingly realistic blend of escapism and reality.  Heyer’s portrait of Cherry, a girl desperately eager to please, terrified of any criticism, with few prospects, rings very true, more so than many of the spunky teenagers Heyer had earlier specialized in.  Granted, those teenagers could be spunky because they had grown up knowing they were loved; Charity has no such resources, thus her desperation to be of use, to not offend, to not get into trouble.  She stands up for herself on only two occasions: once, when she knows herself to be morally right (and in this case, “standing up” means “running away”), and at the end of the book, when she joins a large chorus of people (pretty much everyone in the book, down to the most minor characters) pointing out her father’s major moral lapses. It’s significant, I think, that she can point out her father’s flaws to him only after she has secured an offer of marriage and safety. Prior to this, she defended him.

And for a book that spends considerable time arguing, in the great Heyer tradition, that women are better off married, Charity Girl also offers some striking examples of happily unmarried women and a discussion of unhappy marriages.  If the Honorable Rachel Emborough is happy mostly because of a cheerful personality, and membership in a family that can easily support her without her having to work, she is still happy, as are other single women in the Emborough party. Lady Emborough mentions that her in day most of her peers (in the full sense of “peers”) married to oblige their parents, not for love, and that this was a mistake.  

I also have no doubt that Hetta and Desford who can laugh together, say anything to each other, and trust each other completely, will be happy; I have a little more doubt about Mr. Nethercott and Cherry, who don’t know each other that well (about ten days), but Cherry is eager to please, and Mr. Nethercott easy to be pleased, and neither are particularly interesting to other people, but seem to be able to talk to each other, so it could work out well. It’s a quiet little book, with a moments of gentle humor here and there, and a happy ending, not a bad near end for a writer who was facing increasingly ill health.

Next up: Lady of Quality, and the summary.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida


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