Georgette Heyer’s ‘Sprig Muslin’: Why I Love Hester Theale.

Sir Gareth Ludlow, is one of Heyer’s quiet heroes; he’s tall, good-looking, rich and has impeccable manners; but he is, perhaps, a touch dull when the story opens. Being an excellent uncle to his lively nephews and nieces is all very well, but that’s not, in itself,  going to make any female reader’s heart beat faster. He needs a problem which the reader longs for him to sort out. His presenting problem is that his beautiful and adored (but spoilt and wilful) betrothed, Clarissa, was killed in a carriage accident seven years previously, leaving him broken-hearted. His only brother was killed at the battle of Salamanca, and, if the baronetcy is not to die out, then Gareth must marry and father an heir. Thinking he’s past the age of falling in love, Gareth decides to offer for the dowdy Lady Hester Theale who has been on the shelf for years.

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, 1956

But he has another problem which he needs to address before he can become a proper hero; the (female) readers need to think, ‘I’d like one of those!’ Warren, Gareth’s brother-in-law, tells his wife, Beatrix, that, in his view, Gareth was well out of it, when Clarissa was killed: ‘She was devilish headstrong and would have led Gary a pretty dance.’  When Beatrix protests that, ‘I know she was often a little wild, but she was so very sweet! . . . She would have learnt to mind Gary, for she did most sincerely love him,’ Warren says, ‘She didn’t love him enough to mind him when he forbade her to drive those greys of his . . . Flouted him the instant his back was turned and broke her neck into the bargain.’      

Gareth was twenty-eight when Clarissa died; and we are allowed to ask just how emotionally grown-up he was. If the sensible Warren could see through Clarissa’s pretty face, why couldn’t Gareth? And we know that he hasn’t looked at another woman since Clarissa’s death. Emotionally, he’s not only frozen, he also needs to wise up about women – which is why I suggested that, when the book opens, Sir Gareth is a bit dull. He’s got stuck in the knight in shining armour role; his heart has died with Clarissa and he hasn’t moved on. It’s high time he did.

Pyramidal orchids

Lady Hester Theale, our heroine, is twenty-eight. Although pretty and ‘with a sweet face’, she never ‘took’ when she came out, possibly because of her shyness. Now, she’s the unmarried daughter, living at home, bullied and ignored by her self-important and prudish brother, Lord Widmore, and his vulgar wife. Her three younger sisters have all married and Hester is at their beck and call whenever they want help. Her father, the Earl of Brancaster, who is addicted to gambling, sees Hester as more of an encumbrance than a comfort.

Hester has no life of her own. She copes in the only way she can by detaching herself emotionally and developing a sort of vagueness. She’s also slightly myopic; although whether she really is short-sighted of whether it’s part of her defence mechanism, isn’t clear. She comes across as mildly dotty. She, too, needs to change.

Rosemary for remembrance

In spite of this, the reader swiftly learns that the servants, like the butler, Cliffe, who have been with the family for years, are all very fond of her and are on her side. ‘There is no one in this house, my lady, baring those it wouldn’t be seemly for me to name, who wouldn’t be happy to serve you,’  Cliffe tells her. There is, plainly, much more to Hester than meets the eye.

When Lord Brancaster announces that Sir Gareth is coming to Brancaster Park to make her an offer of marriage, Hester drops her shawl in shock. ‘If you are funning, it is not a kind jest . . . I do not wish for this splendid match, Papa.’

The earl is horrified: ‘You must be out of your senses!’

‘Perhaps I am.’ The ghostly smile that was at once nervous and mischievous again flitted across her face.’  Plainly, something is going on, something which her family, and the readers, can’t see.

Haws beginning to turn

The middle section of Sprig Muslin brings the seventeen-year-old Amanda into Gareth’s life. She is a typical Heyer younger heroine, a spirited and very pretty girl, somewhat like Clarissa, but more practical and down to earth. She has run away from home because her grandfather won’t let her marry her childhood sweetheart, a young army captain. She won’t give Gareth her real name and is determined to keep out of her grandfather’s way until he indicates, via The Morning Post, that he agrees to her marriage to her captain.

Amanda’s adventures, which are hilarious in places, follow her attempts to evade Gareth – not to mention Hester’s creepily lecherous uncle – and hide from the world, possibly as an inn servant, until her grandfather capitulates. However, in this post, I am following Gareth and Hester.

Gareth finds himself in the awkward position of having no option but to take Amanda with him on his visit to Brancaster Park to propose to Lady Hester. When they arrive at Brancaster Park, Hester is the only person to believe Gareth’s story; the rest of her obnoxious family believe that Amanda is Gareth’s chère-amie, which, if true, would be a serious insult.

When Gareth is eventually able to propose to Hester, he sets out the disadvantages of her present situation with a great deal of sympathy, ‘You are not valued as you should be; neither your comfort nor your sensibility is a matter of concern to any member of your family . . . He makes it very clear that he is not offering her romance. But he can offer her, ‘A position of the first consequence. You would be at no-one’s beck and call, you would be your own mistress – with a husband who, I promise you, would not make unreasonable demands upon you. You may be sure that I would always attend to your wishes, and hold you in respect as well as affection. Would that not mean a happier life for you than the one you now lead?’

Her face was very white, she pulled her hand away, saying in a stifled voice, ‘No – anguish!’


Hester refuses Gareth’s offer, and the readers realize by the end of the chapter when Hester ‘cried herself quietly to sleep’, that she has always loved Sir Gareth and she refused him because she couldn’t bear the pain of marrying the man she loves when she knows that he doesn’t love her.

And we feel for her. Gareth has tried to be reassuring but he’s got it terribly wrong. His calm assessment of her situation and what he’s prepared to offer is, unintentionally, very hurtful. Offering himself as a husband who ‘would not make unreasonable demands of you’ surely means that he won’t be tapping on her bedroom door much and, once she’s given him the ‘heir and a spare’ he needs, he will probably stop his marital visits altogether.

It’s a very bleak outlook for poor Hester. It’s hardly reassuring for a women who has been bullied and put down all her life and who probably rates her personal attractions very low, to know that her proposed husband doesn’t find her physically attractive.

Sheep’s Sorrel

The last third of Sprig Muslin is mainly set in The Bull, a small inn in the obscure village of Little Staughton, where the wounded Gareth is lying. He has been shot by mistake by Hildebrand Ross, a romantically-minded young man who wants to rescue Amanda. She has persuaded him to hold up Gareth’s coach and carry her off; the plan goes horribly wrong and Sir Gareth gets shot. At Amanda’s urging, Hildebrand fetches Hester to nurse Gareth – and Hester has to escape somehow from Brancaster Park; mislead poor Cliffe, and throw dust in the eyes of the over-eager chaplain, Mr Whyteleafe, to get away.

Will Hester allow herself to do what she wants to do for once? Fortunately, she does.

This is the part of the story I just love. Back home at Brancaster Park, Hester is thought of as a creature of no account, at The Bull she quietly becomes central, important, and heeded. And, at last, she learns that she must take her life into her own hands and be proactive.

She knows how to nurse Gareth and what will make him comfortable; she’s sensibly pragmatic about the runaway Amanda, and finds her things to do to keep her thoughts from running away again; she helps Hildebrand come to terms with the nearly fatal accident with the pistol, and his squeamishness about blood; and her nursing skills are exactly what Gareth needs. He begins to recover.

Gradually, Hester sheds her vagueness and shyness and becomes the calm hub at the centre of their little world. She soothes the angry landlady who wants to throw them out; she tells Hildebrand that she does not know how she would have got on without him; she accepts Amanda’s determination to marry her Captain as perfectly reasonable; and petal by petal she opens up and allows Gareth to see her as she really is.

Field convolvulus

As for Gareth, the reader can see that he, too, is reassessing his feelings. There is a wonderful episode where Hester hides behind a chintz curtain in Gareth’s room when an aged friend of his father’s comes to visit. Amanda has told him that Hester is Gareth’s ‘natural sister’. After the visitor leaves, Hester emerges from her hiding place.

‘Gareth!’ said Hester in an awed voice. ‘You must own that Amanda is wonderful! I should never have thought of saying that I was your natural sister!’

He was shaking with laughter, his hand pressed instinctively to his hurt shoulder. ‘No? Nor I, my dear!’

Suddenly she began to laugh, too. ‘Oh, dear, of all the absurd situations – ! I was just thinking how W-Widmore would l-look if he knew!’

The thought was too much for her. She sat down in the Windsor chair and laughed till she cried. 

A few moments later, Gareth looks at her, ‘a glimmer in his eyes, and a smile quivering on his lips. ‘Do you know, Hester, in all these years I have held you in affection and esteem, yet I never knew you until we were pitchforked into this fantastic imbroglio! Certainly Amanda is wonderful! I must be eternally grateful to her.’

Oak leaves and acorns

Hester puts on a new bloom as she sits ‘in comfortable companionship’ with Gareth in The Bull’s orchard, ‘valued as she had never been before.’  And we see for ourselves that this is true; with none of her unpleasant family to browbeat her, Hester shows herself to be perfectly capable of controlling the wilful Amanda without raising her hackles; she’s relaxed with Gareth and unselfconsciously responds to him. If he covers her hand with his occasionally, she may colour up, but she doesn’t pull her hand away.

Gareth, we realize, is gradually learning what makes Hester tick and that she isn’t as set against him as her original refusal of his offer suggested. But he’s been badly wounded and has to take things slowly and, this time, he puts two and two together and makes four. Heyer doesn’t tell the reader what Gareth is thinking but writes only, ‘Sir Gareth had his own reasons for not wanting to bring his visit to an end.’

We don’t see inside Hester’s head, either, instead Heyer shows us, and we can see for ourselves that Gareth and Hester are both falling quietly and deeply in love.

Georgette Heyer by Howard Costner, 1939

The last scene where Amanda’s grandfather, the martinet General Summercourt; her sweetheart, Captain Neil Kendal; Hester’s dreadful brother, Lord Widmore; and the twittering chaplain, Whyteleafe, all arrive together at The Bull, each with a different bee in their bonnet, all equally mistaken, is one of Heyer’s wonderful comic set scenes.

General Summercourt, spotting a brilliant marriage opportunity, is determined that Sir Gareth marries Amanda ‘to save her good name’. Captain Kendal, believing that Sir Gareth has abducted and seduced Amanda, wants to beat him to a pulp; Lord Widmore is equally determined that Hester should marry Sir Gareth ‘to save her good name’, and Mr Whyteleafe, who thinks of Sir Gareth as ‘a fashionable fribble’ also proposes to Hester – who declines politely. The unravelling of the various knots always makes me laugh.

Gareth, now a proper hero, refuses to marry either of the two ladies: he hasn’t damaged either of their reputations, and he won’t be coerced into marriage. Eventually, all his visitors leave, taking Amanda with them.

And, of course, all ends happily. Once they are alone, Gareth tells Hester that he loves her and asks her to marry him – and Hester accepts. This time, Gareth has chosen well. It will be a happy marriage.

When I first read Sprig Muslin, at about fourteen, I found the book disappointing. I wanted Gareth and Amanda to get together; and I couldn’t understand why the dowdy Hester, who didn’t interest me at all, was being set up as the heroine. Nowadays, I think quite differently. I love the slow burn of Gareth and Hester’s relationship, and I find Sprig Muslin a very funny, as well an emotionally satisfying book. It is one of my favourites.

Elizabeth Hawksley



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14 thoughts on “Georgette Heyer’s ‘Sprig Muslin’: Why I Love Hester Theale.”

  1. One of my favourites too. I have always adored Hester. She reminds me very much of Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring, the way she enters into the spirit of the deceptions and manages Amanda in the same way Sarah manages Eustacie.

    1. That’s an interesting thought, Jan. I hadn’t thought of it before, but you are quite right, Hester does manage Amanda in much the same way that Sarah manages Eustacie; but Sarah is far more self-confident than poor Hester is.

  2. Oh, that anguish line gets me every time! I love Hester. Like you, when I first read it I found it dissatisfying. I didn’t like Amanda and therefore didn’t want Gareth to end up with her, but she dominated so much of the book, I felt deprived of the proper romance. Of course in later years I grew to realise that Heyer’s books are not simply romances. They are studies in human relations as well as comedies of manners. Even the most serious of her books has humour in it somewhere, which of course is so right. We use laughter to leaven the slings and arrows of our lives.

    It’s a book that needs re-reading, just for the multitude of character studies as well as the charm of Gareth and Hester falling in love. Your comments made me realise that Hester’s original feelings for Gareth were not quite the enduring love she came to grow into when he is dependent upon her. Was it more of an infatuation? How well did she know him before, I wonder? Can you truly love someone if you haven’t spent time with them? Which begs the question – how well could they possibly have known each other before? I haven’t read it for a while, but wasn’t there somewhere a note that she used to listen to him talking about Clarissa? She was the only person who understood?

    1. Thank you for your heartfelt comment, Elizabeth. If Lady Hester is now 28, then she would have known Gareth for ten years or so, ever since she came out at 18. Yes, you are right, she used to talk to him about Clarissa – who she obviously knew quite well – when nobody else would mention her, after her tragic death. Gareth has obviously thought about marrying Hester quite carefully. He tells his sister, who disapproves strongly, ‘She is shy but I don’t think her insipid. Indeed, I have sometimes suspected that if she were not for ever being snubbed by her father and her odious sisters, she would show that she has a lively sense of the ridiculous.’

      Hester herself has taken care to hide her own feelings for Gareth right from the beginning. It must have been very painful for her to talk to him about Clarissa – but, she loved him and it was something she could do for him, and so she does it. She, too, thinks at first that Sir Gareth may have fallen in love with Amanda – who resembles Clarissa in a number of ways. She has a dreadful moment when Amanda sees Gareth for the first time since Hester’s arrival. Hester leaves them alone for a few minutes and then comes back into the room.

      ‘If it had lain in her power to have given Sir Gareth is heart’s desire, she would have done it; but she had not known how sharp a pain she would suffer when she saw Amanda’s face buried in his sound shoulder, and his arm about her.

      He looked up, and the short agony was at an end. Never did a man signal more clearly an appeal for help than Sir Gareth at that moment. He did not look at all like a man in love; he looked extremely harassed.’

      I rest my case.

      1. Oh, now you’ve made me want to read it again! Yes, I think you’re right. She was in love with him for years. She did have a chance to get to know him during those Clarissa sessions. You’ve reminded me of another heroine who loved and eventually got her heart’s desire but not before a lot of heartache. In A Civil Contract, Jenny says she married Adam because “…it was the only thing I could do for him.” Another aching moment.

        1. Thank you, Elizabeth, for reminding me in your first comment, that Georgette Heyer’s novels are far more than just romances, there’s a lot of deep feeling there, too, and what Hester goes through – and Jenny in ‘A Civil Contract’ – are good examples of that. Of course, being Heyer heroines, they don’t sit about and moan, but the unhappiness lurks underneath and must be coped with – think of Venetia.

    1. Thank you, Huon. When things are tough, we all need stories to cheer, enlighten and move us, and to take us, even if only for a short time, to another world where things are different.

  3. I’ve been reading my way through my GH collection for the duration. Hadn’t got to Sprig Muslin but I found it in the bookcase and I’ve got it lined uop for next. Currently reading Cotillion. I’ve been keeping a Lockdown Diary on my Novels Now blog and I posted your link to this post as GH has figuered in my series thorughout. Loved your pictures, too, Anne stenhouse

    1. Thank you, Anne. I’m delighted you enjoyed the post, and thank you for posting the link. The photos were a problem. I found myself thinking that what I really needed was an all-purpose Countryside file with apple blossom, rustic benches, picturesque old inns etc. for this sort of blog. In the end, I decided that wild flowers or berries would have to do – and they’ve come from everywhere: Ireland, England, Germany, Italy!

  4. So beautifully written. Sprig Muslin is a book that I read when I was in my teens I think and didn’t enjoy or figure out much. When I read it again a couple of decades later, I was absolutely charmed by it.

    The beautiful characterisation, the hidden depths to Hester is what caught my eye. I felt her pain when she said ‘anguish’. I felt her hitherto unknown inner strength when she was able to refuse the proposal to both her father and to Sir Gareth. I lived through her agony at my second reading and rejoiced when Sir Gareth learnt to value her and fell in love with her.

    My only gripe with Heyer is that her endings are too abrupt. I wish there’d been more conversation between Sir Gareth and Hester. Sir Gareth ideally should have admitted his mistake clearly in being unable to see her true self. It felt like this was Hester’s reward for having loved him for so long. A little more professing of love would have been good. (I feel)

    1. Thank you, Smriti, for joining the conversation and, especially, for your heartfelt and touching comments. Welcome to my blog. I agree with you about the too abrupt ending – I’d have liked a kiss, at least! The bit about admitting his mistake, though, is difficult. If he really admitted his mistake, then he would have to admit his foolishness in falling for the beautiful but wilful Clarissa in the first place. I think he’s too loyal to Clarissa’s memory to do that.

      Heyer does tend to cut her endings short – you are right. For example, I find the abrupt ending of ‘The Grand Sophy’ somewhat unsatisfactory; Charles needs to tell Sophy that he loves her and at least thank her for rescuing him!

      1. Well as for admitting his mistake, I don’t think so. Maybe he could have said that he wished he’d taken the time to know her earlier. That might be contrition enough, I’m wondering.

        And I’m with you on the endings. Completely agree on The Grand Sophy, and also I’d like to have seen more details in The Corinthian. And that leads me to suddenly wonder if there’s any fan fiction written on after-stories or stories focusing on side characters eg. Jessamy, Felix or Trevor in Frederica.

        1. I’m quite sure that those of us who are writers will have taken our favourite characters’s stories into the future – in our heads – at least. But there are copyright issues with regard to actually putting pen to paper and publishing a a book using GH’s characters and situations. We’d have to wait until 2049, 75 years after GH’s death.

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