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.
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.
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.
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.
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