A Quiet End to an Era: Lady of Quality

For her last completed novel, Georgette Heyer took up the story of the financially independent spinster Annis Wychwood of Bath, a Lady of Quality, who, bored with life and her tedious elderly companion, Miss Maria Farlow, impulsively offers a home to Lucilla Carleton, a young teenager she meets on the road, agreeing to shepherd her through Bath society—well, the bits of Bath society suitable for young girls. Some of the activities in Bath are very shocking indeed, you know. Perhaps not as shocking as London, but still, shocking.

This does not please her companion, or, for that matter, Lucilla’s guardian, Oliver Carleton, a wealthy and very rude man who informs Annis that she is far too young to be a chaperon. Or, for that matter, Annis’ older brother, who is shocked, shocked, that Annis is associating—associating!—with someone with Oliver Carleton’s reputation.

If this is all sounding just a touch familiar, you’re not wrong. Lady of Quality follows more or less the same plot as Black Sheep, only more listlessly. The heroine is once again a twenty-something woman shepherding a teenager through informal Bath social events deemed suitable for teenagers. She is once again living with an older female relative devoted to her interests, but with a habit of babbling foolishly. The hero is once again a man despised by Society but immediately liked by the heroine, for no good reason that she can discover, who comes into her life thanks to the teenager. Her older brother once again deplores her choice. A gazette fortune hunter is once again chasing the teenager and the protagonist is having problems showing the teenager his true motives. The young teenager once again forms a close friendship with another young teenager with a sympathetic, wonderful mother. The protagonist once again has a thoroughly respectable and boring suitor. And, sure enough, various characters come down with a severe case of the flu. It’s even set, again, in Bath.

I was more or less trying to avoid the similarities until the flu episode, at which point I found myself kinda gritting my teeth. (My notes have, “Seriously, FLU AGAIN?”) Oh, the flu hits somewhat different people, but that’s about it. Except where the flu in Black Sheep actually had a plot point, this flu feels more like Heyer realizing, whoops, I can’t bring Oliver Carleton back yet. Huh. What did I do last time? Oh, right, flu. Tell me again why I agreed to write another book?

The problem isn’t just that the plot (and some of the dialogue) is lifted directly from an earlier book, but that this time around, everything feels tired—paragraphs are longer, events are more drawn out. Heyer had been retreating further and further from her derring-do plots of previous years, but this is arguably her most static book.

This in turn means that Oliver Carleton, the hero, doesn’t actually do anything. He shows up in Bath, chatters with Annis (who knows him at once, thus depriving the book of Black Sheep’s very funny misidentification scene), talks to his niece, rides a horse, goes to a party, proposes to Annis, goes to London, comes back to Bath. And that’s it. No, really, that’s it, unless we add that at one point he buys a horse for his niece, which is all very nice but not exactly earthshaking or anything. He remains static throughout the entire book. The same can be said for nearly every other character, with the arguable exception of Maria Farlow, who becomes more whiny and annoying and jealous—not exactly positive changes.

Most of the characters, too, are weaker versions of their counterparts in Black Sheep, with fewer redeeming qualities. Ninian Elmore lacks the calm good sense of Oliver Grayshott, not to mention his usefulness. Annis is more subdued and less funny than Abigail Wendover. The fortune hunter is less charming and less evil and more easily dismissed. Even Annis’s older companion has been diminished. Selina in Black Sheep, after all, does have some admirable qualities despite her lack of intelligence: she has exquisite taste, she is more than willing to defend Abigail against the rest of their family, and is an excellent and popular hostess. Maria Farlow, on the other hand, starts off as incredibly dull, and descends into hysteria and ongoing whining. Nearly every character expresses hostility to her at one point or another, with only a few of the minor characters grudgingly admitting that Miss Farlow is good with children and willing the help. Even the closest thing she has to a defender, Amabel, admits that she finds Maria trying and boring. It’s understandable, but also unkind. Maria Farlow, unlike Selina, has no money of her own, and her prospects, should she lose her position, are worse than poor. By “no money” I mean “no place to live.” She is also trying, certainly too hard in some instances, but she is more than willing to help—and her presence has allowed Annis a certain degree of freedom.

The resulting portrait, of a desperate and terrified and yet oh so boring is not just unkind but more than once painful or irritating or both to read. It’s thoroughly convincing, but I find myself cringing whenever Maria appears on the pages—and cringing at the way she is treated at the end of the novel by Annis, who may have every reason to be irritated, but also has every reason to be grateful. Grr.

The worst change, however, lies with the hero. Miles Calverleigh may have lost his reputation, but since then, he has earned an enormous fortune—and gained some genuine compassion for others. Oliver Carleton, on the other hand, inherited his fortune and then done nothing with it. Miles does more for his scum of a nephew than Oliver does for his niece, even though Oliver’s niece is perfectly nice and Oliver is her legal guardian. Miles comes to Abigail’s assistance and while many agree that Miles Calverleigh has greatly improved since his reckless youth, the same cannot be said for Oliver Carleton. It makes it all very difficult to like or enjoy most of the characters in this novel, or find it very interesting.

For all that, I do like one scene very much: Oliver’s first proposal to Annis. She does not immediately accept, and he asks why, leading to a genuine, heartfelt dialogue between the two of them that is Oliver’s one shining—well, less shining, and more just decent – scene in the book. Thanks to the presence of Maria Farlow, adding the needed touch of respectability, Annis has been independent for a long time, with a carefully ordered life she’s become accustomed to. It’s not perfect—her boredom and mild depression at the beginning of the book, along with the many disadvantages of living with Maria Farlow prove that—but it is her life, and Oliver’s acknowledgement of this is touching and insightful.

And Lady of Quality also has one unexpected element: the generally conservative sister-in-law, Amabel, ends up being shocked that Annis thinks that a young girl in Bath needs to be so closely supervised and chaperoned, believing that Annis can and should give Lucilla more freedom.

But this in turn leads me to question just why Annis accepts Oliver Carleton’s proposal—love, or a desire to leave her current life? When the book starts, she is unhappy, forced to live with a woman she finds annoying and tedious in order to avoid living with her brother and sister-in-law, wealthy, but unable to do much with her wealth. She rarely travels, even to London; she seems to have no close friends. A major contrast to Abigail, who does seem happy, and marries Miles because he makes her laugh, and life with him will be interesting.

The book ends on a rather whimpering note, drained of what limited energy it had by the flu. It’s not unsatisfying, exactly: everyone gets a happy ending, more or less, although we never do find out what happened to the fortune hunter (robbing this book of a satisfactory revenge on the closest thing it has to a villain.) It’s all a pale shadow of what was, a sign that Heyer really had come to the end of her Regency novels.

And, unlike her last few Regency novels, it ends without any attempt at experimentation (Cousin Kate), however misguided, or reexamining previous concerns (Black Sheep, Charity Girl). It’s just, well, there, a novel Heyer wrote because she had to, but a novel that also showed that she was no longer interested in creating a genre and a world—or questioning that creation.

And with that, since as I noted at the outset, I would not be rereading Heyer’s posthumously published novel, My Lord John, we also come to the end of this reread. It’s been fun, everyone; thanks so much for reading along with me!

Mari Ness lives in central Florida


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