Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The year is 1818. Nothing political is talked of much in this lighthearted story, but the society news is that the ailing queen is not expected to live long, which is a great inconvenience to the mothers who want to bring their daughters out at the queen's Drawing Room next season. The other important news is that Lady Melbourne, a leading society hostess, has just died. She moved among the glamorous echelons of British aristocracy, her close friends including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the Prince of Wales. One of Lady Melbourne's sons became Viscount Melbourne, Queen Victoria's Prime Minister. Viscount Melbourne's first wife was Caroline Lamb whose obsessive and doomed love affair with the poet Lord Byron caused an enormous scandal in the Regency era
1818 is a time of new technological inventions: gas lighting is appearing in parts of London, and steam power is advancing. The age of candlelight and horsepower is moving slowly but inevitably towards gas and coal-powered engines. The industrial revolution is not far away.
In Heyer's world, it is the same year that Venetia and Damerel are having their holiday romance up in Yorkshire. Perhaps Venetia and Frederica passed by one another when Venetia stayed in town with her aunt? They may have shopped at the same fashionable modiste in Bruton Street or at the Pantheon Bazaar; they could have walked past each other in Hyde or Green Park, or visited the same galleries and exhibitions.
THE SET UP
The bachelor Marquis of Alverstoke is beset by a pair of sisters clamouring for him to advance their sons and daughters into society at great expense to his own pocket. But Alverstoke has no interest in his nephews and nieces or sisters. They are all bores. In fact, his whole self-indulgent, hedonistic existence is a bore. He likes excellent clothes and excellent horses, and not much else interests him. His latest mistress is 'becoming an intolerable bore' with her demands for expensive gifts, all the women in Alverstoke's life seem only to want his money. And then comes another young woman into his life making a demand upon him. This lady claims distant kin, and asks for assistance in introducing her younger sister into the ton. What a ridiculous notion! Why would Alverstoke, who will not countenance giving a come-out ball for his own nieces, go to the trouble and expense of doing so for a stranger? But the young lady is not like any other in his circle. She does not bore him. In fact, her whole family of brothers and sisters are unusual and diverting with their 'frank, easy ways,' and the youngest sister is the most dazzling beauty he has ever seen. Young beauties are not in his style, but perhaps, for the sake of his own amusement, he will give a come-out ball for this young 'cousin' and her sister. His nieces can share the limelight with this 'ravishing diamond'. It will assuage his boredom for a time, and be the most perfect revenge on his badgering sisters to see their daughters upstaged by the most beautiful girl in London.
'She was unusual, and therefore diverting; she was not a beauty, but she had a good deal of countenance, and an air of breeding which pleased him...'
Frederica Merriville is the eldest sister of a family of orphans. She takes seriously the role of mother to her three younger siblings: the beautiful but vacuous Charis, whom Frederica is determined to see make 'a splendid marriage'; twelve-year-old Felix who wants to be an engineer, and bookish sixteen-year-old Jessamy who wants to be a clergyman. There is also an older brother, Harry, away at university, and heir to the family estate, but he has no sense of responsibility, and all is left to Frederica. And not forgetting Lufra, an enormous mongrel dog who has a place as a member of the family, and who gets into scrapes just as frequently as Frederica's young brothers.
Caught up in her responsibilites, Frederica thinks nothing of her own future happiness, or of a marriage for herself. She sees herself as having been 'on the shelf for years' at the grand old age of four-and-twenty. But she does not opine over this; in fact, as she tells Alverstoke, she finds it 'very agreeable to be an old maid, and rid of tiresome restrictions.' She naively considers that no one will think of her romantically, and even when she does receive a respectable offer from a new admirer she brushes it off with a matter-of-fact air. It is this lack of romantic ambition that causes Alverstoke to relax in her company. Here is a woman of humour and intelligence who is not after him for a husband. But here is a woman whom he is beginning to feel he cannot live without...
'There was no warmth in Alverstoke, and no softness. If he was kind it was for his own ends...'
At seven-and-thirty Alverstoke is a confirmed bachelor. Not that he doesn't like women, a 'notorious flirt' is how Alverstoke's faithful and morally sound secretary considers him. But Alverstoke thinks marriage would be a bore, and having been pursued as 'a matrimonial prize' since his youth, and being disillusioned on discovering that his first love only loved him for his money, he is a very cynical man where single women are concerned.
Alverstoke freely confesses to 'pure selfishness, coupled with a dislike of being bored,' but after only one interview with Miss Frederica Merriville he agrees to put himself to considerable trouble for her and her sister. What is it about her that the selfish marquis likes? She is not at all his idea of an ideal woman – she is unconventional, she is 'matter-of-fact, and managing'. But he admits that he likes her frankness, her smile, her sense of humour, and her courage. And he also likes her young brothers, and the family camaraderie. 'He had no experience of family life as it was enjoyed by the Merrivilles.' The whole family is a revelation to him.
THE ROMANCE FACTOR
'Had she been told that she was rapidly becoming an obsession with him, she would have been incredulous.'
While Alverstoke takes an instant liking to Frederica, she is not so quick to like him back. 'She had not, at the outset, been favourably impressed'. She thinks him 'distinguished', but not handsome, and she finds him cold and cynical, an 'aristocrat of haughty composure'. Now and then she glimpses a warmer, more charming side to him, and he is certainly tolerant and kind to her young brothers, and even their amiable but troublesome great hound of a dog. But she has no romantic notion of him whatsoever. She is decidedly not 'on the catch for him'.
Meanwhile, everyone close to Alverstoke is astonished by the attention he shows to this young family. He does his utmost not to give the gossips any cause to link his name with Frederica's, but something odd is happening to him – he can't stop thinking about her.
It is Frederica who puts her finger on the source of Alverstoke's besetting boredom with life: 'If you don't care for anybody or anything you can't be cast into dejection...I daresay that is why you are so bored,' she tells him. And it is Alverstoke who sees that Frederica is so bound up in her marital ambition for her sister and her responsibilities for her brothers that she never does anything to secure her own happiness, nor does she seem to consider what will be left to her in life once her sister is married off and her brothers grown up and gone. As in all good romances, this is a couple at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum – Alverstoke needs a good deal of Frederica's outgoing love, and Frederica needs a little of Alverstoke's self-interest. This is a couple with something each other needs.
FAVOURITE SECONDARY CHARACTER
'His happy knack of making friends wherever he went stood him in good stead.'
Favourite Secondary Character goes to Master Felix Merriville. Very aptly named, he is both felicitous and merry, 'the most delightful urchin', full of infectious (or tiresome, if you don't care for engineering) enthusiasm for new technologies. He has a passion for learning about steam engines, locomotives, pneumatic lifts, hot air balloons – passions that land him in a deal of scrapes, his ballooning scrape almost a deadly one. Would Alverstoke have fallen in love with Frederica so well without Felix? Most likely he would, but Felix plays an important role in bringing to life the marquis's 'cold heart' and drawing him into the family. Life with Felix is certainly never boring.
FAVOURITE SLANG EXPRESSIONS
As fine as fivepence = dressed very smartly
On the toodle = out on the town and drinking freely
A bumble-bath = a confused mess
As right as a trivet - in good order
A trifle cucumberish - to be in debt
HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE HEROINE GURGLE AND TWINKLE?
Frederica is the twinkliest Heyer heroine I've met so far. Her first 'engaging twinkle' is in chapter 3, and she goes on to twinkle 'gaily' and 'irrepressibly' seven times in total.
She is also the gurgliest of Heyer's heroines so far. She gurgles, usually 'with merriment', five times in all.
Best Outfit goes to Lord Alverstoke, who is a 'leader of fashion' and always 'the most elegant man in the room'. On a social call to the Merriviale house Alverstoke is dressed in his typical trademark style of 'a blue coat of exquisite cut, a waistcoat of striped toilinette, pale buff pantaloons which appeared to have been moulded to his legs, and tasselled Hessians.' As it is Frederica's drawing room he is walking into, I can only assume it is she who notes the tight moulding of the pantaloons – perhaps a hint of her awakening attraction to him? It is at this same visit that Alverstoke kisses her hand in parting – an old-fashioned gesture, and therefore out of character for the fashionable Alverstoke. Could this gallant gesture be a sign that he is trying to 'get up a flirtation' with her, she wonders? The idea crosses her mind for the first time, stirring up some interesting thoughts and feelings...
(In case you were wondering about the toilinette, as I did, I quote from Webster's Dictionary : n Toilinette - A cloth, the weft of which is of woollen yarn, and the warp of cotton and silk, -- used for waistcoats.)
ANYTHING I DIDN'T LIKE?
I cannot think of anything I didn't like in this sweet, sunny, romantic comedy. There is no cruelty, no violence (excepting the boys' self-inflicted scrapes), no despicable villain. There is a sensible, likeable, independent heroine, and a rakish, selfish hero who comes good, and who, I think, will make a faithful husband and a devoted father. Happy children, happy dogs, happy horses, and plenty of wealth to share around. The Merrivilles and future Alverstoke family have a bright future ahead of them.
The 'Lufra in the Green Park' scene is my favourite. Take a young, untrained, wolfhound-ish dog who has had a previous bad experience with a bull, and let him loose in a park with a herd of dairy cows, and what do you get? Absolute chaos. Lufra doesn't mean to be bad, and no cows are bitten, but stampedes, fainting old ladies, shrieking milk-maids, and wailing children are some of the outcomes of Frederica's morning walk. In this moment of crisis, with park-keepers and cowmen demanding Lufra be impounded and she be sued, she does the first thing she can thing of – she pulls rank, claiming kin with the Marquis of Alverstoke, and leads the whole troop to Alverstoke's door. The scene is highly comical, and Alverstoke has the first serious glimpse of how life will never be boring again with the Merrivilles around.