The year is 1817. Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent and second in line for the throne, dies in childbirth, but this happens some months after Arabella's Season, so doesn't get a mention. One of the most popular cultural events of the year is the new exhibition of the Elgin Marbles. The arrival of the ancient Greek artefacts into England caused quite a stir; Byron, Keats and Felicia Hemans wrote poems about them, the elite went to visit them at Lord Elgin's home and later at the British Museum. Lord Elgin spent the modern equivalent of around five million pounds to transport them into the country, only to be forced by an expensive divorce to sell them at a fraction of the cost to the British government who, as Arabella finds, has put them on display in 'a wooden shed'. Many criticised their removal from Greece, but Arabella is not terribly interested either way. She has tumultuous matters of the heart to occupy her on the day of her visit to the museum, and can only be found looking 'disinterestedly at a sculptured slab from the Temple of Nike Apteros.'
THE SET UP
Arabella Tallant is 'the reigning belle for twenty miles' in her local Yorkshire hometown, and the eldest daughter of the eight children of Reverend and Mrs Tallant. The good reverend is not poor, but the needs of his large family consumes his income, and there is no money for dowries. Despite this financial handicap to Arabella's marriage prospects he is too genteel and fastidious a man to allow her to marry her most pressing suitor – a young man considered in local society as 'a great catch' whom the vicar objects to on the basis that he 'smells of the shop.' Thus the vicar is forced to yield to the wisdom of his wife who points out that 'Eligible partis do not commonly appear as by magic in country villages: one must go out into the world to fnd them!' She proceeds to pack Arabella off to London to be launched in the first circles by her godmother, the wealthy Lady Bridlington. Arabella's mission, as her mother puts it, is to 'make an eligible connection', or as her sister says, 'make a Splendid Match'. Both of which translates to: find a rich husband in a very short space of time. Simple...
'What Arabella lacked in inches she more than made up for in spirit.'
Arabella has led a sheltered life, but enjoyed the advantage of loving parents and a close knit family, replete with all the usual sibling squabbles. She might be at times 'a sad romp' but her mother is confident in her sound principles as a 'well-behaved' girl. A bit of town polish is just what she needs to lose any trace of rompish youthfulness and curb her impulsive reactions. Arabella might be looking forward to the balls, routs, Assemblies, parties and fashions of London, but she is not ready to easily fall in love. She considers it her duty to make an advantageous match but is prosaically aware that her lack of fortune narrows the field.
The story's romantic hero, Mr Beaumaris, gives an early opinion of Arabella as 'adorable', and I quite agree; she is one of my favourite Heyer heroines. Truly kind and artless, with spirit and enough innate social grace to successfully make the transition from Belle of her hometown Assembly Hall to Belle of the ballrooms of London, without being spoilt. She is her mother's daughter in her charm and beauty, and her father's daughter in her morality and love of fellow man and beast. She might be conquering hearts in exalted circles, but she never fails to show compassion to those in the lower echelons, be it a homesick housemaid, an abused chimney sweep boy, or an ill-used horse or stray dog. She is fearless, if impulsive, in challenging injustice and cruelty whenever she sees it. Mr Beaumaris derives great amusement in being dragged into Arabella's impetuuous philanthropic schemes, falling a little more in love with this unusual girl each time.
'He was demonstrably indolent, a spoilt darling of society, with no thought for anything but his fleeting pleasure...'
Beau Brummell retrenched to the Continent to escape his debts the previous year, and now there's a new 'Nonpareil, that Go amongst the Goers' and leader of fashion: the impeccably turned out, thirty-year-old Robert Beaumaris. He has no title, but he does have a vast fortune. While Reverend Tallant has an income of little over three hundred a year, Mr Beaumaris has 'fifty thousand a year, if you've a penny,' as his Dowager Duchess grandmother reminds him – as if he might have forgotten.
Beaumaris shares similarities with another of Heyer's heroes: Lord Alverstoke; both are superlatively wealthy and leaders of the fashionable world who are rather bored with life. Alverstoke 'lacks warmth and softness', and Mr Beaumaris's 'habitual aspect was one of coldness, and reserve', though he does show a different side to his intimate friends. Both are confirmed bachelors, highly cynical of women, having been chased by too many of them for their money.
THE ROMANCE FACTOR
'She is the most enchanting little wretch I ever encountered.'
Mrs Tallant's conjecture that a girl must go out into the world to find eligible partis proves perfectly correct, and her daughter hasn't even reached London when she meets her first gentleman or two. When Arabella's travelling coach breaks down on a cold, wet evening, confident of the same Christian neighbourly aid her own father would give to a stranger in distress, she seeks shelter from a nearby house. Mr Beaumaris is the owner. He reluctantly offers shelter, but is overheard by Arabella remarking to his friend that doubtless she is yet another fortune hunter inveigling her way into his home. Inwardly outraged, Arabella lets it be known that she is a fabulously rich heiress, who is weary of fortune hunters. Mr Beaumaris is not fooled, but he is amused, and he doesn't check his friend from speading the news of the great heiress throughout London society.
Having 'a delight in the ridiculous' and a penchant for playing pranks on society, Mr Beaumaris decides to amuse himself by paying the newest debutante a deal of attention and bring an 'unknown provincial' into fashion when he meets Arabella again in town. His plan works; Arabella is the toast of the ton, but in spending time with the artless, 'adorable' Arabella who shows no interest in him, Mr Beaumaris's own interest is stirred; 'the hunter woke in him' and he is 'hunting now in earnest', pursuing a new quarry in this rare young lady who seems in no danger of losing her head over him.
Arabella utterly deserves her fabulously successful match, in my opinion. Not only is she marrying the man she loves, but a man who can afford to fund all her future charitable impulses and easily pay her favourite brother's sorry debts, purchase an expensive cornetcy in the army for him, and provide in due course all career and marital financial aid for the younger Tallants. I'm sure the first thing Arabella does as the rich Mrs Beaumaris is to buy her mother the new carpeting, Patent Kitchen Range, and one of the new indoor water closets that she has been quietly dreaming of for years.
FAVOURITE SECONDARY CHARACTER
'he affected a certain modishness that bordered on dandyism.'
Favourite Secondary Character almost goes to Ulysses, the stray mongrel that Arabella forces upon Mr Beaumaris, but is narrowly won by Bertram Tallant, Arabella's younger brother. Seventeen-year-old Bertram, a would-be Nonpareil, provides a good deal of humour with his dreadful scrapes as the greenest greenhorn in London. His speedy acquisition of debt is only matched by his acquisition of lowlife Cant and dreadful hangovers. He learns some harsh lessons by getting in with the wrong crowd on both sides of the tracks, but his heart is in the right place, and he serves a comic and useful part in bringing his sister and Mr Beaumaris together.
FAVOURITE SLANG EXPRESSIONS
Thrown her cap over the windmill = acting recklessly
A rare one for jackey = an excessive drinker of gin
Standing the huff = paying the expenses
Nonpareil = a paragon of the fashionable world
At home to a peg = right at home
HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE HEROINE GURGLE AND TWINKLE?
Arabella is the first Heyer heroine I've met so far who never twinkles. Mr Beaumaris twinkles at her on one occasion, as does the Reverend Tallant, but not Arabella herself. She does gurgle with laughter however, but only once.
Best Outfit goes to teenage dandy Bertram Tallant who hides away in his chest of drawers his pair of favourite yellow pantaloons which he dares not wear in front of his father. He spends a ridiculous amount of time blacking his top-boots to a shine, while 'the points of his shirt-collars, thanks to the loving hands of his sisters, were so stiffly starched that it was only with great difficulty that he could turn his head.'
ANYTHING I DIDN'T LIKE?
For all the lighthearted comedy of this sweet romance, I did feel that Arabella had an enormous burden placed upon her in the expectation of making a good marriage. 'If I can but contrive to establish you respectably,' says her mother, 'you may bring out your sisters, and perhaps, even, if you should be so fortunate as to marry a gentleman of position, you might be able to help Bertram to buy his commission.' Arabella assures her mother that she 'will try not to disappoint' her. Mr Beaumaris's cynicism regarding women being after his money is borne out by even the good Mrs Tallant sending her daughter hundreds of miles from home to do exactly that – hunt for a gentleman of position. Mrs Tallant says nothing to Arabella of love but only of the practical necessity of making a good match, which seems rather sad. Had Arabella not met Mr Beaumaris, would she have selected one of her court of admirers purely so as not to disappoint her mother, though she didn't love them? I suspect she may have.
Arabella and the young sweep who falls down her chimney is my favourite scene. The poor little half-starved urchin is a pitiful reminder of the appalling child labour in 19th-century England. The various reactions of Lady Bridlington's household to this abused child are interesting to watch. No one shows much pity for him, not even the servants, only Arabella is outraged over the boy's state of slavery. Mr Beaumaris's adoption of the boy at Arabella's pleading astounds everyone, including himself, and is the first act of selfless kindness that the 'spoilt darling of society' displays, marking his transformation under the influence of love.