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

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Georgette Heyer: Lord Damerel

Georgette Heyer’s Venetia was first published in 1958 and it is one of the books I turn to when things are difficult. It was one of Georgette Heyer’s own favourites, she called it (and The Unknown Ajax) ‘the best of my later works’. Lord Damerel’s journey from a cynical rake, gambler, drinker and profligate to a man who is worthy of the heroine, Venetia, is a long, thorny path with many twists and turns. He had had a difficult childhood with cold, censorious, unloving parents which turned him into dissolute libertine and a man who allows himself to be cast as a villain by others. It takes him much of the book to realize that its a role he’s outgrown.

Cover by Arthur Barbosa for ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer, 1958

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Georgette Heyer: Re-reading ‘The Quiet Gentleman’

I have long loved the stylish and witty novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) and I know that I am not alone. The actor, playwright and composer, Noël Coward, also enjoyed her novels and admired her technique – especially her clever use of irony. The novelist A.S. Byatt itemized why Heyer’s Regency novels were so successful: ‘Paradise of ideal solutions, knowing it for what it is, comforted by its temporary actuality, nostalgically refreshed for coping with the quite different tangle of preconceptions, conventions and social emphases we have to live with. Which is what good escape literature is about.’  Heyer did her research properly; her Regency world may be limited in its social range but she undoubtedly had the gift of drawing her readers in, holding them spellbound, and making them laugh and feel better.

The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer 1951

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Deliciously Gothic Strawberry Hill

Recently, I saw the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill exhibition at that extraordinary Gothic extravaganza, Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of the author, letter writer, and passionate collector of the Fine Arts, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace was the son of the politician and statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, and rich enough to do what he wanted: travel in Italy, buy art and antiques, and live the life of a cultivated man of leisure. His tastes were unusual and original – and he had the money to indulge himself.

Strawberry Hill: note the Gothic windows, tower and chimneys

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Henry Wellcome’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Henry Wellcome was born in Philadelphia in the U.S.A. in 1853 and came to London in 1880. He made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and founded the Wellcome Trust in London which funds medical research. He was also an obsessive collector of things medical and his collection is wide-ranging, not to say eccentric, and includes a number of objects only tenuously connected with medicine.

Sir Henry Wellcome (1863-1936) by Hugh Goldwin Rivière. Born in America. Took British nationality in 1910. F.R.S. and knighted 1932.

Some early photographs of him in America show him with what looks like a travelling Cabinet of Curiosities and, certainly, this is impression one gets from the Wellcome Trust’s historical collection in London.

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Georgette Heyer: the problem with ‘April Lady’

I’ve always loved the novels of Georgette Heyer for their wit, well-researched period detail, terrific story-telling and escapist fun. And I am not alone. When, in June 2015, I attended the Blue Plaque ceremony at 103 Woodside, Wimbledon, where she was born, Stephen Fry, a great fan, did the honours, opened the red curtains to reveal the plaque and spoke enthusiastically of Georgette Heyer’s stylish and witty novels. He’d discovered them at school and has loved them ever since; he finds them great comfort reading if ever he’s under the weather.

Georgette Heyer Howard Coster 1939

Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster, 1939, National Portrait Gallery

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The Regency Buck – undressed.

A week or so ago, I was invited to the preview of the V & A’s terrific new exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Lucky me, I thought,  at last I shall be able to see exactly what a Regency Buck wore underneath his skin-tight pantaloons and superbly-tailored coat.

39 Brass bra & Harem pants 1970

Brass bra and harem pants, 1970

Fortunately, the hunky cameramen wielding tripods and cameras were more transfixed by the 1970s brass bra and harem pants, not to mention the sexy silk satin and lace negligée as worn by Bérénice Marlohe, the femme fatale Bond girl in Skyfall, than by the Regency male underwear on display. The woman standing next to me raised her eyes to the ceiling and muttered, ‘Typical!’ So I was able to study the Regency Buck undressed in peace.

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