Last week, Joanna Maitland in Libertà Books gave us a most interesting blog on boys’ behaviour in Georgette Heyer’s novels and argued that the way they behaved did not always – to her mind – match their ages.
Young boy in a skeleton suit. 1800 (Charles Dickens was forced to wear such a suit and hated it!) It can’t have been easy to put on, either.
For example, Edmund in Sylvester is supposed to be six, but he can’t even dress himself. When he runs to Sylvester, he hugs his uncle’s legs before being tossed into the air. I have to say that I agree with Joanna here; the way he talks and behaves is too babyish for a six-year-old. “I want to go home!” announced Edmund fretfully. “I want my Button! I’m not happy!” (Button is the name of his nurse.)
Edmund’s behaviour and use of language makes him sound more like a four-year-old than a six-year-old, and surely a six-year-old would be tall enough to hug a bit higher!
The cover for Frederica by Barbosa is based on a print of James Sadler’s ascent at Oxford in 1810
Then we have Felix, a 12-year-old schoolboy in Frederica, who is passionately interested in steam-power – and air balloons. Joanna suggests that his obsession with steam power is more of typical of an 8-year-old. I cannot agree with her here. I’m thinking of people like Gerald Durrell, whose passion for animals started very young – and continued for the rest of his life. Many children know what they want to do when they grow up – I certainly did. Personally, I find Felix’s childhood enthusiasms very believable.
Cover for ‘Venetia’
Aubrey, in Venetia, is the heroine’s brother and just 17 when the story begins. He was born with a diseased hip joint; as Venetia explains, ‘It is better now but suffered a great deal when he was younger, and he will always limp.’ Aubrey has grown up to be ‘a brilliant scholar’ , entirely wrapped up in the Classics. He aims to go to Oxford University where, we assume, he will eventually get a Fellowship. Aubrey will be just seventeen when he goes to Oxford, but that was not unusual at the time.
Aubrey resents Mrs Scorrier’s rudeness to his sister and sets out to beat her at her own game. He is much cleverer than she is, and has a better way with words. They end up being at daggers drawn – but that makes life very uncomfortable for Venetia.
Joanna’s query about Aubrey is that he calls Venetia ‘m’dear.’ It seems an extraordinarily old-fashioned way to address her. So why does he do it? Is he actually 17 going on 60? I’ll return to this later.
This is where I’m going to change tack for a moment, and talk a bit about my own childhood and the idiosyncrasies of being brought up by nannies and nursery maids, because, as I was absorbed in Joanna’s blog, I could see a number of echoes of what happened to myself and my three brothers when we were children with Georgette Heyer’s boys’ behaviour. And they, of course, would have been brought up in a very similar way to my own upbringing.
Let me start with a typical day. The nursery wing in my family home comprised a day nursery, a night nursery, Nanny’s bedroom, a bathroom and a separate lavatory, connected by various small landings and staircases. There were four of us children (me and my three brothers) and, when I was small, we all slept in the night nursery, with the nursery-maid who had a curtain screen round her bed to give her some privacy. (My brothers enjoyed suddenly flinging back her curtains. No wonder we went through so many nursery-maids.) My youngest brother slept in a cot in Nanny’s bedroom until he was old enough to join the rest of us in the Night Nursery.
During the day, we were either outdoors, or playing in the day nursery. It was a big room with enough space for a large table – we all ate up here – (we didn’t eat in the adult dining-room with our parents until we were 12.) The day nursery had a floor to ceiling linen cupboard along one wall; two large windows with window seats; a door leading out onto a landing which connected with a stair-case going up to the servants quarters, to the left was the linen room and other bedrooms, and you went downstairs to the adult part of the house.
There were armchairs you could upend to crawl under, or they could form a castle which we could stand and fight on; a chest of drawers for toys, dining chairs, a high chair, and a red patterned carpet with what looked like blue railways lines round the edge for toy trains. We had lots of building bricks – there had been several generations of children in the house, a rocking horse, and, naturally, bookcases.
At five o’clock, we were tidied up and taken downstairs by Nanny to the morning room and an hour with Mother. The butler would knock on the door and say, ‘The children, Madam,’ and we were ushered in – on our best behaviour. At six o’clock Nanny would come down to collect us and we would kiss our mother goodnight and go upstairs to bed.
The cover for ‘The Grand Sophy’
What struck me very forcibly when thinking about the various groups of children in Georgette Heyer’s novels, is that those in the nursery formed a sort of clique – as we did. Take the eight Rivenhall children in The Grand Sophy. We gradually discover various alliances amongst them: Hubert is very attached to his sister, Cecilia; he resents the prudish Eugenia Wraxham’s disapproval of his sister – so he locks Eugenia in a bluebell wood with a young man – to mortify her (ladies should not be locked in woods with young men). Charles, the eldest brother, has a special nursery name for Cecilia: Cilly, which he still occasionally uses affectionately. All of the Rivenhall children still in the nursery enjoy poking fun at the prosy Lord Bromford. And we note how upset Charles is to learn that his younger brother, Hubert, was too afraid to confide in him about his debts.
In other words, bonds forged in childhood are not easily broken.
Barbosa’s cover for ‘False Colours’
I think that the children in Heyer’s novels have more instinctive loyalty to their sibs and Nurses than they do to their parents – as I did. In False Colours both Fancot brothers love their mother rather more than she deserves but, we note that, when Evelyn comes home after his accident, the first person he goes to is Pinny, his old nurse, rather than his mother. He knows that Pinny won’t betray him.
So, returning to Edmund in Sylvester; Edmund doesn’t have any sibs but he is devoted to his nurse, Button; in fact she’s far more of a mother to him than the spoilt Lady Ianthe. But Button has her own future to think about. Perhaps, keeping Edmund a bit of a baby by not teaching him how to dress himself, reassures her that she won’t be out of a job. It can’t have been easy for a woman in her position to think about what the future held for her; the quicker Edmund grew up, the sooner she’d be looking for another job.
In Frederica, Harry shows himself to be 100% on his sister Charis’s side; he will go to great lengths to facilitate her marriage to her cousin Endymion. And his stratagem succeeds – though not quite in the way he expected.
And, with regard to Aubrey calling Venetia ‘m’dear’, when my sibs and I were young, we would talk to each other using thee’s and thou’s and the old third person singular ending, ‘eth’. For example: ‘Dost thou want to come blackberrying?’ ‘No, it raineth.’ I can’t remember how it started, but I do remember that, later on, it made Shakespeare a lot easier at school!
To sum up, I suggest that the various boys (or girls) in Georgette Heyer’s novels who behave either older or younger than their real ages are doing so for a good reason – and that reason is to do with resentment at the way that one of their sibs is being treated and also, perhaps, to reinforce the bonds between them.
Link to Joanna’s blog:
I am delighted that my ‘Tempting Fortune‘ is now out in e-books.
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