The year is 1815 – 1816. The story's heroine, Lady Serena Carlow, enjoys devouring the latest novels including Glenarvon, published anonymously, but immediately recognised as being the work of Lady Caroline Lamb. Glenarvon caused a sensation with its satirising of leading members of high society. Lady Caroline, already notorious for her affair with Byron, soon found herself exiled from polite society by the unhappy leaders of the ton she had lampooned.
Lady Serena also takes a great interest in politics and current events, which are dominated by the Battle of Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon.
One exciting current event is the rescue of the Comte de Lavallette from execution in France, aided by three British soldiers. The rescue was very Scarlet Pimpernel-ish, with Lavallette swapping clothes with his wife when she visited him in prison the eve of his execution.
Serena is also partial to current gossip, which includes on-dits about the Princess of Wales 'having now taken to driving about the Italian countryside' in a showy equipage. The estranged wife of the Prince Regent had escaped her husband's hostility by moving abroad where rumours of her infidelity abounded in gossip circles, but were never proven. She was popular with the British general public, who had no love for the profligate Prince of Wales.
Other royal news is that Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince and Princess of Wales, announces her engagement to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg having broken her engagement to the Prince of Orange. This Royal Jilting sets the tone for the story to unfold, as no less than three couples are to jilt one another before finding the right partners...
THE SET UP
Twenty-five-year-old Lady Serena has just lost her beloved father, her equally beloved family home, and her stable full of expensive hunters. There will be no hunting for her that year, as according to the conventions of polite society she must now submit to a year of mourning with limited social interaction and activity – a hard fate for 'a vital, passionate creature' such as Serena. Her last hunter cost a thousand guineas, and now she is reduced to a mere two-hundred and fifty pounds a year 'pin money'. Her father added two more difficult additions to her bleak change of circumstances – he has made her financially dependent on the man she jilted some years earlier, and left behind a beautiful, fragile, widowed countess – Lady Fanny – who is several years younger than Serena, and more like a dependant younger sister than a stepmother.
After a dreary winter in the Dower House suffering 'a dawdling way of living', Serena and Fanny conspire to spend a few months in the spa town of Bath. It is no longer a fashionable resort, but it is respectable, and in their sixth month of mourning they can relax the restrictions a little and enjoy the sociability of the Pump Room, the library, the public gardens, shops, and Assembly rooms. The beautiful fair widow and the striking red-haired stepdaughter are the most glamorous ladies in town, and when Serena unexpectedly bumps into a handsome old flame, it looks as though love might be in the air for her; perhaps things are looking up after all...
'When she came into a room, her personality seemed to fill it...'
'Headstrong and obstinate, sometimes dreadfully mannish, eccentric, quick-tempered, impulsive, impatient of restraint, and careless of appearances...' this litany of what in 1816 would be a damning list of traits for a young lady are the opinions of one of Serena's champions – the gentle Fanny. However, Fanny also considers that alongside these faults, of which Serena had 'a great many more', Serena also has 'a wealth of kindness and of generosity, and a chivalry which made her beloved among the servants.'
However, Serena is not above ordering servants about in a high-handed way: she addresses one maid as 'you idiot!', and orders a housekeeper to 'get up off the floor, woman'. She can be as autocratic as the hero, Lord Rotherham, whose servants, though loyal to him, live in fear of his black moods.
Little wonder that Serena broke off her engagement to the Marquis of Rotherham, for they are far too similar in temper and passion to do anything other than argue fiercely and annoy one another every time they meet, so when Rotherham's opposite appears in the form of the handsome, courteous Major Kirkby, she can hardly resist his abject adoration...
'He is a hard man, certainly. I shouldn't turn to him for sympathy, but I have known him to be kind.'
Lord Rotherham is a man with 'nerves of steel' and 'tireless strength' who 'had few graces, his manners being blunt to a fault, made as many enemies as friends, and, had he not been endowed with birth, rank, and fortune, would possibly have been ostracized from polite circles.' Not everyone fears or dislikes Rotherham, though most persons do – his young cousin Charles, thinks him 'a great gun' and wisely discerns that Rotherham likes people 'who square up to him,' and Serena has known him all her life and has an underlying respect for him, despite their never being 'for ten minutes together without quarrelling'.
It could be argued that Lord Rotherham is more the anti-hero of the story, while Major Kirkby is the real hero, but that is all part of the fun of the tangle...
THE ROMANCE FACTOR
'I'll open no gates for you, my girl! You'll take any fence I take, and we'll clear it neck and neck!'
Heyer has divided the romantic plot between three couples, multiplying,, love triangles to comic effect. Serena has entered into a secret engagement with Major Kirkby, who thinks her his 'angel' whom he shall whisk away to a quiet rural life on his modest estate in Kent. As the engagement progresses, Major Kirkby begins to have his doubts. His angel's halo keeps slipping. She has a strong will, a quick temper, and drives around in a high-perch phaeton – the Regency equivalent of a flashy sports car – earning herself the unladylike reputation of being 'very fast!'. It dawns on the good Major that a quiet life on a thousand a year with a woman used to an income of ten times that is a 'romantic vision' that is not quite aligning with reality. Meanwhile, Lady Fanny, gentle and sweet, longing for a sedate and simple life might really be the angel he has been looking for...
Lord Rotherham has inexplicably entangled himself with a seventeen-year-old girl and gotten himself engaged. He quickly repents of his hasty betrothal, but it is not for a gentleman to cry off – that privilege belongs to the lady, Thus he sets about trying to give his young fiancée a dislike of him, but the poor girl has a mother who is not going to let a fabulously rich marquis get away as easily as that!
FAVOURITE SECONDARY CHARACTER
'however vulgar Mrs Floore might be, she had a great deal of drollery, and was certainly no toad-eater...'
Favourite Secondary Character goes to Mrs Floore, an elderly, extremely wealthy, 'dreadfully vulgar' lady who speaks her mind, and is afraid of nobody. As such, it is not surprising that she and Serena get on famously, despite the social chasm between them. Fanny is a little shocked by this connection, but Serena revels in it.
Mrs Floore pays an important role in untangling the romantic messes – it is her granddaughter who has been pushed into an engagement with Lord Rotherham, and when her young granddaughter would sooner run away than marry the man who has gone to great lengths to make her wish to run away from him, Mrs Floore steps in to shelter the unwilling bride, thereby releasing Rotherham. She is the only character, other than Serena, who is not in awe of Rotherham or afraid to stand up to him.
FAVOURITE SLANG EXPRESSIONS
A rasher of wind = a weak person
A Jerry-sneak = a hen-pecked husband
Doing it too brown = talking rubbish
A clap on the shoulder = to be arrested for debt
The dibs in tune = flush with money
HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE HEROINE GURGLE AND TWINKLE?
Serena twinkles once and gurgles twice; she also has the uncommon distinction of having smiling eyelids on three occasions.
As Lady Serena and Fanny are in mourning during the course of the story they have not much to show for in the way of fashion, being dressed in black for the most part. Rotherham is no slave to fashion either, he doesn't even wear a cravat, preferring a more casual Belcher neckcloth with breeches and top boots instead of fashionable pantaloons. Best Outfit will have to go to Rotherham's ward, a university student 'dressed in the extreme of fashion with skin-tight pantaloons of bright yellow, and starched shirt-points so high that they obscured his cheek-bones.'
Yellow pantaloons seem to be the in-thing for youths of this era – Arabella, another Heyer heroine, has a brother with a pair that he kept hidden in a drawer so his father would not see them. I suppose today's equivalent would be skinny ripped jeans?
ANYTHING I DIDN'T LIKE?
I didn't much like the character of Rotherham, though, admittedly, he is the perfect partner for Serena. His attempts to wriggle out of his hasty engagement to seventeen year-old Miss Laleham are comical, but I think he goes too far in deliberately kissing her roughly and pretending to be angry when she repels him, putting her in terror of future sexual advances.
I also didn't like the practice of marrying teenage girls to rich men old enough to be their fathers, and I don't think Heyer intends the reader to. This was the fate of Fanny to Serena's late father, and now of Miss Laleham to Lord Rotherham.
Two opinions of this state of affairs are taken by the characters in the story – Serena considers that many a bride starts out 'with no more than liking', and that Miss Laleham should just get on with it. The respective mothers of both young brides see no problem with the matches – money and status far outweigh the emotional happiness of their daughters as far as they are concerned. While Serena does state that Miss Laleham shall not be forced into marrying Rotherham, she does everything within her power to keep Miss Laleham from breaking her engagement, primarily because she feels guilty about breaking off her own engagement to him and doesn't wish him to be subjected to the public humiliation of two rejections. Thankfully, there are many characters who don't share these mercenary views on marriage – Major Kirkby, Fanny, and Mr Goring (a clear contender for the role of future husband for Miss Laleham) all condemn the practice of marrying girls off too young. The delightfully outspoken Mrs Floore believes her granddaughter would 'be better off with a plain man she could like!' than a man worth fifty marquises.
Favourite scene is where Major Kirkby enters just in time to rescue Fanny from the bold advances of an amorous admirer. After forcibly ejecting the hapless suitor and wishing he had 'kicked him downstairs!' for insulting Fanny by daring to touch her and speak words of undying love, he then proceeds to do the same, 'dropping on one knee in precisely the spot vacated by Mr Ryder, and taking the widow's hand in a comforting clasp.' Mr Ryder dared to try to put an arm round Fanny, but Major Kirkby puts two arms round her, and they end up in a passionate embrace, which is highly problematic, as the Major is engaged to Fanny's stepdaughter. Oops...