Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The year is 1818. It's been a summer of royal weddings. Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent, died in childbirth the previous year triggering a scramble among the three royal brothers: the Dukes Clarence, Kent, and Cambridge, to marry and produce a legitimate heir to the throne. The elderly Queen Charlotte has just recovered from a 'spasm' but will die before the year is out. The country has had a General Election, with the Prime Minister the Earl of Liverpool retaining a Tory government.
THE SET UP
Adolphus Gillespie, known by the affectionate if juvenile name of 'Gilly', is the fabulously rich Duke of Sale. He is only months away from coming into his majority at the age of twenty-five, when he will take full control of his vast fortune, his London residence, his castle in the Highlands, and his half a dozen or so estates dotted about the English countryside. He has an army of devoted servants, and a well-meaning but domineering uncle for a guardian. Gilly's life is one of absolute luxury and leisure ... and he is bored.
He is bored of being cosseted by his staff, fed up with his overbearing guardian, wearied with the burden of high expectations placed upon him as a Somebody, and is daydreaming about what it would be like to be an anonymous, ordinary, 'plain Mr Dash of Nowhere in Particular.'
When his young cousin confides that he's in a pickle, being blackmailed over some love letters, Gilly sees his chance: the chance for an adventure. The chance to slip his leash, plot a careful plan to evade his servants and watchdogs, and take off on top of a mail coach as 'plain Mr Dash' who will recover his cousin's love letters and free him from the threat of being sued for breach of promise. But before he sets off on his 'odyssey', first he must squeeze in a quick marriage proposal to the girl he has been told by his uncle he ought to marry...
'Well, if I do not know what is due to my position I am sure it is not for want of being told,' sighed the Duke.
As the only son and heir of the Sale family Gilly has been hedged about with the utmost care, continuously supervised, and waited on hand and foot. He could have grown up into an arrogant spoiled brat, but instead he has 'a naturally sweet disposition' and 'a thousand amiable qualities' He is self-effacing and hates to hurt anyone's feelings, even that of his servants. But as his uncle reminds him, he lacks 'decision of character.' By the end of the story, Gilly will have grown from boy to man, and will know his own mind, and his own heart. But there's plenty of discomfort, wicked villains and troublesome companions to encounter on the road trip ahead!
(A quick side note about Gilly's wealth that interested me: Gilly's butler says that Gilly's kitchen maids are paid 'not above six pounds a year'. By contrast, Gilly draws out a hundred pounds just for pocket money for his jaunt to London, and then asks for another 'two or three hundred' later on, after he's spent a hundred in a matter of days.)
'I entertain no fears that Harriet has been allowed to fill her head with romantical stuff and nonsense.'
Harriet doesn't have a large on-page presence; she has a short scene early on, and then doesn't appear again until the last quarter of the story when she plays an important part in extricating Gilly from some of the consequences of his adventures, including bailing him out of the Round house.
Harriet and Gilly have a lot in common. 'Gentle and shy' Harriet has spent her life 'zealously chaperoned', and in subjection to her ambitious, formidable mother. The young lovers have known each other since childhood, their marriage being arranged before they were 'out of the nursery'. Gilly proposes to her with the noble motive of not wanting to disappoint her, and he is fond of her, but is not sure that she is the 'damsel' of his dreams. Harriet is likewise uneasy about this arranged marriage, and the proposal scene where Gilly is allowed only minutes alone with Harriet to do the deed is more awkward than romantic. But Gilly's wild escapades conclude with him calling upon Harriet to assist him in the winding up of all his tangled exploits. Harriet rises to the occasion, and the couple begin to see how well they work as a team with a basis of genuine friendship between them. By the end of the novel they are more than just resigned to their marriage, but are actually looking forward to it and the new independence from their respective guardians that marriage will bring.
(Quick side note: Harriet mentions that she is invited to Lady Ombersley's party, and I wondered if this could be the same Lady Ombersley as in The Grand Sophy?)
THE ROMANCE FACTOR
'may not a lady of quality – love?'
The Foundling is chiefly a coming-of-age story, but the romance is very sweet, nonetheless. Gilly is advised by his guardian to think of marriage as having nothing to do with passion. If passion is what Gilly wants, his wife-to-be 'is a very well brought-up girl' who 'will know how to look the other way.' Meanwhile, Harriet has been counselled not to expect 'a love-match', and to take care not to wear her heart on her sleeve. 'A lady of quality must not behave as though she were 'Miss Smith of Heaven knows where!' Harriet's mother informs her, the context being that only nobodies show emotion or affection to their husbands. Little wonder that gentle natured Gilly and Harriet are apprehensive about entering into marriage where love and affection are considered only for 'parvenues'.
Gilly and Harriet's arranged marriage is common among the aristocracy, hence the reference early in the novel to the royal dukes. The fifty-two-year-old Duke of Clarence meets his bride young Princess Adelaide only days before his wedding, while the Duke of Kent abandons his mistress of twenty-eight years to marry Princess Victoria. It's interesting that Gilly's actual first name is Adolphus, also the first name of the Duke of Cambridge. Gilly's uncle dislikes this name, thinking it 'one of these newfangled German names'. The Duke of Cambridge was the only duke who was popular with the general public, not being wreathed about in scandal as his brothers were; he also made a rushed arranged marriage to a German princess less than half his age, though the marriage was said to be a happy one. Thus, compared to the other prominent dukes of England, Gilly has as least married someone he knows in advance, and who is of a similar age. I'm quite sure that out of all the dukes of England, Gilly's marriage was the happiest, despite them not being a mere Miss Smith of Heaven-knows-where and Mr Dash of Nowhere.
FAVOURITE SECONDARY CHARACTER
'I am sure that Gideon would fill my shoes far better than I could ever do.'
I was highly entertained by young Tom Mamble's incessant scrapes, but nevertheless, Favourite Secondary Character goes to Captain Gideon Ware, Gilly's older cousin. While Gilly is the inverse stereotype of the Regency romance protagonist, his cousin twenty-eight-year-old Gideon is the epitome of the romantic hero. Gilly is not dark, brooding and forceful, but Gideon is. Gilly is shorter than average while Gideon is long legged. muscular and tall. Gilly has 'a dislike of quarrelling, and of loud, angry voices', Gideon is a soldier, who has no hesitation in violently dealing with the man who claims to have kidnapped his young cousin.
It's not just Gideon's manliness that makes him a hero, it's his obvious affection for his little cousin that makes him an attractive character. 'He is quite my best friend, you know,' says Gilly of him. When the villain of the story offers to do away with Gilly, leaving Gideon as the heir to the magnificent Sale wealth, Gideon's prompt actions show that such wealth means nothing to him compared to his love for his cousin. And when suspicion does fall upon Gideon over the disappearance of Gilly, Gideon bears the brunt of all gossip and slander without any hesitation, choosing to ignore it rather than betray Gilly's confidence. But when he thinks Gilly might be in danger, he leaps to the rescue, and woe betide anyone who gets in his way.
Captain Gideon Ware, with 'his attractively crooked smile' is a secondary character badly in need of his own Regency romance novel, and he doesn't need a coming-of-age story, he's already man enough!
FAVOURITE SLANG EXPRESSIONS
Toad-eaters = obsequious / sycophantic persons
In a pucker = in a state of disorder, stress
Brought up to scratch = brought to the point of a marriage proposal
Die-away airs = feminine dramatics
Nip-cheese ways = stinginess
A couple of wisty castors = a couple of heavy blows in a fight
HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE HEROINE TINKLE AND GURGLE?
Harriet only gurgles once in chapter twenty, but then, she doesn't have many scenes.
She also only twinkles once – a shy twinkle in chapter twenty-one. Gilly is also a little twinkly, three times in all. He has a guilty twinkle and a mischievous twinkle, but he doesn't gurgle. Heyer men never gurgle.
Best outfit goes to Gilly's younger cousin, Matt, who wears a dandified outfit of an 'amazingly striped waistcoat, an Oriental tie of gigantic height, a starched frill, buckram-wadded shoulders to an extravagantly cut coat, buttons the size of crown pieces, and a pair of Inexpressibles of a virulent shade of yellow.
(Inexpressibles are very tight-fitting trousers, akin to modern leggings, that show every manly bulge – hence the name, I'm guessing...)
ANYTHING I DIDN'T LIKE?
1. There was a lot of head-hitting, which I didn't enjoy. It is in the vein of slapstick action, but I was taken aback at how callous the characters were in regards to violence. Young Tom Mamble knocks his tutor out with no remorse, and is later on beat up by thugs – what goes around comes around, perhaps. Mild-mannered Gilly knocks a man unconscious, albeit not quite meaning to, without showing any concern. The man later on knocks Gilly unconscious, what goes around comes around yet again, perhaps, but Gilly is a slightly-built fellow, and his assailant hits him hard enough to have killed him. And then there is Gideon throttling a man unconscious without any concern – though no one would dare throttle him in return.
2. I was uneasy about the character of sixteen-year-old orphan Belinda being essentially trafficked. We are assured that she is 'still innocent', but there are some lewd remarks made by a few characters that show that she is vulnerable to ending up a young prostitute. Happily, Gilly and Harriet save Belinda from such a fate, and once again there is a lot of comedy to keep the story from getting dark. But the darkness is there just below the surface, and all credit to Heyer for keeping it in balance.
3. Which brings me to the third thing I was not happy about: the villain who was quite ready to kill Gilly and sell Belinda to the highest bidder gets rewarded at the end of the novel – what! Gilly actually pays him off to go and set up a gambling club on the continent as a reward for compelling him 'to put off the boy and to assume the man.' Again, lots of humour surrounds this, and the villain, Liversedge, is a larger than life character, but I'm with Harriet on this one, she is appalled by Gilly's dealings with this unsavoury character, and so am I!
I've only mentioned fifteen-year-old Tom Mamble in passing, but his misadventures provide plenty of comedy. I laughed at the scene where Gilly comes back to his lodgings to find a crowd of people accusing Tom of being the ringleader of a gang guilty of 'obstructing the King's highway' smashing up a citizen's cart, and incommoding the Mail coach, which carries a penalty of five pounds. All this chaos has come about because Tom thought it would be a good idea to race a cow, two donkeys and an old horse backwards down the road. 'You told me I might amuse myself!' the aggrieved Tom tells Gilly. Sorting out this altercation is a good opportunity for Gilly to exercise his newfound leadership and diplomacy skills, and to have a good laugh in private afterwards.