Saturday, November 05, 2016

Georgette Heyer: the problem with 'April Lady'


I’ve always loved the novels of Georgette Heyer for their wit, well-researched period detail, terrific story-telling and escapist fun. And I am not alone. When, in June 2015, I went to the Blue Plaque ceremony at 103 Woodside, Wimbledon, where she was born, Stephen Fry, a great fan, did the honours, opened the red curtains to reveal the plaque and spoke enthusiastically of Georgette Heyer’s stylish and witty novels. He’d discovered them at school and has loved them ever since; he finds them great comfort reading if ever he’s under the weather. 

 


Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster, 1939, National Portrait Gallery

There were many appreciative messages from people who couldn’t be there, including Antonia Byatt and Nigella Lawson.

I also met Professor Mark Noble from Aberdeen University (an authority on the science of the cardiovascular system), who’d come down from Scotland especially for the ceremony. He’d been given a Georgette Heyer to read when recovering from flu as a teenager, and has been a fan ever since. He looked very dapper, as befitted the occasion – I’m sure Georgette Heyer, very stylish herself, would have approved.

 

Professor Mark Noble awaiting the ceremony

So why am I having a problem with April Lady when so many eminent people probably disagree? It has more or less the same plot as The Convenient Marriage (1934); and the heroine, Nell, is rather too quiet and subdued. Her personal problems (debt, her husband’s supposed mistress, thinking he doesn’t love her, and so on) make it difficult for her to be proactive. As a novelist myself, I can see the technical problems here.  

However, I can cope with all this. What I find very difficult, though, is that, in the last few pages of the book, the hero Giles, Nell’s estranged husband, allows his very young and flighty half-sister, Letty, to marry the proper but ineligible Jeremy, and go with him to Brazil of all places. Letty is headstrong, self-centred, spends money like water (fortunately, she’s an heiress) and, frankly, is a pain.

 


 Stephen Fry speaks before pulling the cord

Jeremy Allandale is a very proper young man of good, but impecunious, family. He has a mother and sisters to support, and must make his own way in the world. When he’s offered a position (he’s in the Foreign Office) as a secretary in Rio de Janiero, he accepts it. It’s a step up for him but it means he will be in Brazil for a couple of years.

Very sensibly, Giles has hitherto refused to allow an engagement between Letty and Jeremy. She, after all, is only seventeen when the story opens. So why does he backtrack in the last few pages and allow them to marry and Letty to sail to Brazil with Jeremy?

First edition cover for 'April Lady'. My own copy is a first edition, costing 45p

It’s bonkers! She doesn’t speak Portuguese, she’ll know nobody, she won’t have a clue how to go on in diplomatic circles (crucial if Jeremy is going to get on in his career), or how to run a house or organize servants, and she is completely ignorant about money. What happens when she gets pregnant?  Remember, Jeremy will be at work all day.

 


Yours truly outside 103 Woodside. Georgette Heyer's family on stairs behind.
 
When I was a teenager, none of this worried me; I just thought that Nell and Giles would be relieved to be free of the constant worry about what Letty was getting up to.

Nowadays, I think that Giles abandoning his responsibilities towards Letty is disgraceful. OK, she is tiresome, badly-brought up, etc. but she is very young, and, like it or not, he is responsible for her.

 
Blue Plaque revealed
 
So, I've invented a scene where Giles asks Jeremy’s sensible mother to have Letty to stay with her while Jeremy is away. Jeremy describes Mrs Allandale thus: ‘Her understanding is superior, her mind of an elevated order, and her firm yet tender command over my sisters encouraged me to hope that over my darling also her influence would prevail.’ 

This is exactly what Letty needs. And, in return, Giles and Nell will give Jeremy’s sisters a splendid Season. I offer this in some trepidation but I cannot be the only person to find Giles’ behaviour here worrying. And I doubt if I’m the only novelist to invent further scenes featuring characters from her inimitable novels.

Photos by Elizabeth Hawksley apart from the first. 

Elizabeth Hawksley
 

13 comments:

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Interesting, Elizabeth. I have never enjoyed April Lady as much as the other Heyers, therefore I haven 't read it as much, nor have I given much thought to Letty's fate, but you are right, so send a very young and inexperienced girl into the unknown does not sound like the actions of a caring brother. I think Brazil was a device to solve the problem of what to do with her.

Like you, I think Nell is far too "nice" and needs a bit of backbone and the story is much gentler than Convenient Marriage. However, I will have to read it again now just to find out!

A fascinating and thought-provoking post!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Melinda, which made me smile. I know just what you mean about reading it again, just to find out. I actually thought about sending my copy to Oxfam but I decided that I wouldn't for exactly the same reason.

Amanda Grange said...

An interesting post, Elizabeth. I'm not troubled by it because this is fiction, after all. But I was interested in your comment about authors inventing scenes to go into much-loved books. I think that's one of the ways in which we know, from an early age, that we're authors. We can't read a book without also wanting to write it! And of course I'm well known for adding my own scenes to certain well-known Regency novels!

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Oh, dear me, you are talking to a die-hard April Lady fan here! I absolutely LOVE that book. I love Convenient Marriage too, and though the plots are in many ways similar, both sets of hero/heroine are very different. I find April Lady so poignant and moving. I think Nell's naivete is charming and the battle between that and her common sense perfectly believable. Giles is portrayed as highly conventional and the only mad thing he's done in his life is to marry this impecunious girl from a family of gamesters, and marry her for love. To my mind, Letty is actually far more worldly-wise than Nell, much more outgoing and I think she'll do very well in Brazil. Yes, this is the second crazy thing Giles has done in his life, agreeing to the marriage, but it's made clear (to me anyway) that in handing her over to Jeremy he's ensuring she's got a sensible man who will sort out her less endearing traits. I think he's motivated by the fact that Letty and Jeremy clearly do love each other and, in the euphoria of realising his own Nell actually does love him after all, he allows his better judgement to lapse. My bet is Letty will be the leading light of such society as there is in Brazil in no time! She'll make mistakes, but she'll revel in it.

And as a clincher, Giles has THE most romantic line in the entire canon: "No, come back! I didn't mean it, Nell! I didn't mean it!" Oh, be still my beating heart....

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

You are so right, Amanda. And you certainly have the knack of creating your own stories from other well- beloved novels to perfection. And give the rest of us a lot of pleasure thereby.

I'm not worried by the fact that I create my own scenes from 'April Lady' and change things if I don't find them satisfactory, just that I'm disappointed that Georgette Heyer didn't see what is so obvious to me!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. You have given me exactly what I wanted - a reason to go back and read 'April Lady' again - and this time to think of Letty as growing up, finding her feet in no time, and even, perhaps, being a help to Jeremy in his career. Hm.

I hadn't thought about Giles' character in quite the way you have, but I shall think of your comments as I read.

What I love is your enthusiasm for Heyer and her books, which I share.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Liz B - I am so glad you have put your point of view. I think perhaps you are right that it is because he is head over heels in love himself that Giles at last consents to Letty's marriage. I shall now definitely have to read April Lady again to work out finer nuances of the story!

Oh dear, what a chore, to be obliged to read a Heyer historical romance again (sigh).

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Oh, I'm so sorry, Linda! What a terrible thing to force you into. Yes, it's such a pain to be obliged to reread Heyers, I know. I get these dreadful attacks every so often too, worse because people on the Georgette Heyer Appreciation Group on FB are always pricking me into doing it. Just awful! :)

Elizabeth, I'm delighted to think you might read it with a more open mind. But I'm exercised by that dubious "Hm" at the end...

Yes, I do indeed share your enthusiasm. I've been a fan since I was 11 and know whole scenes by heart. Yes, I need to get a life, I know.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I think I'm allowed a 'Hm', Elizabeth, while I readjust my thinking.

Lori said...

After almost 40 years of reading ALL of Heyer's canon, April Lady remains in the bottom 20 on list and my least favorite of her Regencies. I can't say that it ever really bothered me that Giles let Letty marry Jeremy and go to Brazil. I could never have the proper sympathy for Nell that I thought I should have. I don't dislike it as much as I used to, but even as a teenager I found the plot frustrating and dry. I hated the misunderstanding between Giles and Nell. I think I would have wanted to get rid of Letty too after that misunderstanding was cleared up so that I could enjoy having my wife to myself and making up for lost time. But Letty as a soldier's wife in Brazil is something new for me to think about. I do believe, though, that Letty is the type to fall on her feet, learn what she needs to learn, and eventually have everything her way.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for joining the conversation, Lori. I have some sympathy with your dislike of Giles and Nell's long misunderstanding. Their relationship opens at a low point and goes even lower as the book goes on. I, too, find that very dispiriting.

But Jeremy is not a soldier, he's in the Foreign Office, not the Foreign Legion!

I'm sure that Elizabeth B is right - that Letty will learn fast. Maybe some nice diplomat's wife will take her under her wing and show her the ropes. Perhaps she'll meet Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy - he spent some time in Brazil as a diplomat!

Georgie Wickham said...

Yes, all your points about April Lady, and Giles's approach to Letty are absolutely right. But the reason I almost never go back to it is because of the real problem with the book - Nell and Giles spend almost no time together at all. Most frustrating.

The Heyer I constantly rewrite in my mind (the last few chapters, anyway) is Spring Muslin, where Heyer buries the love story. Such potential, Heyer baby, such potential! And all wasted!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you joining in, Georgie, and welcome. I'm really interested in what you say about 'Sprig Muslin' because I love that book. I find the way that Hester gradually comes out of her shell as she and Gareth come together very moving. I'd love another chapter, though, just to see Hester's prissy brother's reaction to the announcement of her engagement.

When Hester says: 'I must say, Widmore, that it is very lowering to be so closely related to anyone with such a dreadfully commonplace mind as you have!' I always want to cheer! That whole scene in the orchard in terrific!