But there is another problem he needs to address – and I’ll come back to that.
Hester Theale, our heroine, is twenty-eight. Although pretty and ‘with a sweet face’, she never ‘took’ when she came out, possibly because of shyness. Now, she’s the unmarried daughter, living at home, bullied and ignored by her self-important and prudish brother, Widmore, and his vulgar wife. Her three younger sisters have all married and Hester is at their beck and call whenever they want her help. Her father, the Earl of Brancaster, is addicted to gambling. He sees Hester more of an encumbrance than a comfort.
Hester has no life of her own. She copes in the only way she can by detaching herself emotionally and developing a sort of vagueness. She’s also slightly myopic; although whether she really is short-sighted of whether it’s part of her defence mechanism, isn’t clear. She comes across as mildly dotty.
When Lord Brancaster announces that Sir Gareth has made her an offer, Hester drops her shawl in shock. ‘If you are funning, it is not a kind jest. … I do not wish for this splendid match, Papa.’
The earl is horrified: ‘You must be out of your senses!’
‘Perhaps I am.’ The ghostly smile that was at once nervous and mischievous again flitted across her face.’ Plainly, something is going on, something which her family can’t see. But the readers can see and, by the end of the chapter, when Hester ‘cried herself quietly to sleep’ we realize that she has always loved Sir Gareth and she cannot bear the pain of marrying the man she loves when she knows that he doesn’t love her.
Her face was very white, she pulled her hand away, saying in a stifled voice, ‘No – anguish!’
And we feel for her. Gareth has tried to be reassuring but he’s got it terribly wrong. He would not make 'unreasonable demands' of her; does he mean that he won't be visiting her bedroom too often? His calm assessment of her situation and what he’s prepared to offer is, unintentionally, surely very hurtful.
There is, as I said earlier, another emotional problem Gareth needs to sort out. Warren, Gareth’s brother-in-law, tells his wife, Beatrix, that, in his view, Gareth was well out of it, when Clarissa was killed: ‘She was devilish headstrong and would have led Gary a pretty dance.’ When Beatrix protests that, ‘I know she was often a little wild, but she was so very sweet! ... She would have learnt to mind Gary, for she did most sincerely love him,’ Warren says, ‘She didn’t love him enough to mind him when he forbade her to drive those greys of his… Flouted him the instant his back was turned and broke her neck into the bargain.’
Gareth was twenty-eight when Clarissa died; I think we are allowed to ask just how emotionally grown-up he was. If the sensible Warren could see through Clarissa’s beauty and pretty ways, why couldn’t Gareth? And since then, we know that he hasn’t looked at another woman. Emotionally, he’s not only frozen, he also needs to learn about women.
The last third of Sprig Muslin is mainly set in The Bull, a small inn in the obscure village of Little Staughton, where the wounded Gareth is lying. He has been shot by mistake by Hildebrand Ross, a young undergraduate with a penchant for writing stirring dramas. With him is Amanda, a typical Heyer younger ‘heroine’, a spirited and very pretty girl, something like Clarissa, but much more practical and down to earth. Hildebrand has brought Hester to nurse Gareth – and she has had to escape from her home to get to the inn. They pretend she is Gareth’s sister.
This is the part of the story I just love. I love the way that, whereas at Brancaster Park, Hester was ignored by all, here, she is central, important, and heeded. She knows how to nurse Gareth and what will make him comfortable; she’s pragmatic about the runaway Amanda, feeling that she should marry her Captain and go to Spain with him; and she helps Hildebrand come to terms with the nearly fatal accident with the pistol, and his squeamishness about blood.
Gradually, she sheds her vagueness and shyness and becomes the calm hub at the centre of their little world. She soothes the angry landlady who wants to throw them out; she tells Hildebrand that she does not know how she would have got on without him; she accepts Amanda’s determination to marry her Captain as perfectly reasonable; and petal by petal she opens up and allows Gareth to see her as she really is.
‘Gareth!’ said Hester in an awed voice. ‘You must own that Amanda is wonderful! I should never have thought of saying that I was your natural sister!’He was shaking with laughter, his hand pressed instinctively to his hurt shoulder. ‘No? Nor I, my dear!’
Suddenly she began to laugh, too. ‘Oh, dear, of all the absurd situations - ! I was just thinking how W-Widmore would l-look if he knew!’
The thought was too much for her. She sat down in the Windsor chair and laughed till she cried.’
Gareth looks at her, ‘a glimmer in his eyes, and a smile quivering on his lips. ‘Do you know, Hester, in all these years I have held you in affection and esteem, yet I never knew you until we were pitchforked into this fantastic imbroglio! Certainly Amanda is wonderful! I must be eternally grateful to her.’
Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster, 1939
Heyer doesn’t tell the reader what Gareth is thinking but lets us know that, ‘Sir Gareth had his own reasons for not wanting to bring his visit to an end.’
Hester, we learn, is putting on a new bloom as she sits ‘in comfortable companionship’ with Gareth in the orchard ‘valued as she had never been before.’ And we sense that this is true; up to now, no-one has ever truly valued Hester.
We don’t see inside Hester’s head, instead Heyer shows us, and we can see for ourselves that Gareth and Hester are both falling quietly and deeply in love. This time, Gareth has chosen well, and he's learnt how to tell her what she needs to hear. We feel sure that it will be a happy marriage.
I find Sprig Muslin a very satisfying book and it is one of my favourites.