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 by Howard Coster, 1939, National Portrait Gallery
There were many appreciative messages from people who couldn’t be there, including Antonia Byatt and Nigella Lawson.
I also met Professor Mark Noble from Aberdeen University (an authority on the science of the cardiovascular system), who’d come down from Scotland especially for the ceremony. He’d been given a Georgette Heyer to read when recovering from flu as a teenager, and has been a fan ever since. He looked very dapper, as befitted the occasion – I’m sure Georgette Heyer, very stylish herself, would have approved.
Professor Mark Noble awaiting the ceremony
So why am I having a problem with April Lady when so many eminent people love her books? It has more or less the same plot as The Convenient Marriage (1934); and the heroine, Nell, is rather too quiet and subdued. Her personal problems (debt, her husband’s supposed mistress, thinking he doesn’t love her, and so on) make it difficult for her to be proactive. As a novelist myself, I can see the technical problems here.
I can accept all this. What I find difficult, though, is that, in the last few pages of the book, the hero Giles, Nell’s estranged husband, allows his very young and flighty half-sister, Letty, to marry the proper but ineligible Jeremy, and go with him to Brazil, of all places. Letty is headstrong, self-centred, spends money like water (fortunately, she’s an heiress) and frankly, is a pain.
Stephen Fry speaks before pulling the cord to reveal the blue plaque
Jeremy Allandale is a very proper young man of good, but impecunious, family. He has a mother and sisters to support, and must make his own way in the world. When he’s offered a position (he’s in the Foreign Office) as a secretary in Rio de Janiero, he accepts it. It’s a step up for him but it means he will be in Brazil for a couple of years.
Very sensibly, Giles has hitherto refused to allow an engagement between Letty and Jeremy. She, after all, is only seventeen when the story opens. So why does he backtrack in the last few pages and allow them to marry and Letty to sail to Brazil with Jeremy?
Cover for first edition of April Lady. My own copy is a first edition bought for 45p.
It’s bonkers! She doesn’t speak Portuguese, she’ll know nobody, she won’t have a clue how to go on in diplomatic circles (crucial if Jeremy is going to get on in his career), or how to run a house or organize servants, and she is completely ignorant about money. And what happens when she gets pregnant? Remember, Jeremy will be at work all day.
Yours truly in front of 103 Woodside. Georgette Heyer’ family on stairs behind.
When I was a teenager, none of this worried me; I just thought that Nell and Giles would be relieved to be free of the constant worry about what Letty was getting up to.
Nowadays, I think that Giles abandoning his responsibilities towards Letty is disgraceful. OK, she is tiresome, badly-brought up, etc. but she is very young, and, like it or not, he is responsible for her.
The blue plaque revealed
So, I invented a scene where Giles asks Jeremy’s sensible mother to have Letty to stay with her while Jeremy is away. Jeremy describes Mrs Allandale thus: ‘Her understanding is superior, her mind of an elevated order, and her firm yet tender command over my sisters encouraged me to hope that over my darling also her influence would prevail.’
This is exactly what Letty needs. And, in return, Giles and Nell will give Jeremy’s sisters a splendid Season. I offer this in some trepidation but I cannot be the only person to find Giles’ behaviour here worrying. And I doubt if I’m the only novelist to invent further scenes featuring characters from her inimitable novels.
Photos by author, apart from the first.
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