The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer starts out anything but quietly. Gervase Frant, 7th Earl of St. Erth, had the bad judgment to survive the Battle of Waterloo by escaping a violent death. His half-brother, Martin, and step mama had half counted/half hoped on his not attaining the Earldom, for St. Erth had served in many a battle. Much to their annoyance, he emerged from military service to claim an inheritance that his younger brother had started to assume would be his. And so the fun begins. The novel celebrates its 60th year and its release by Sourcebooks marks the novelists’ 109th birthday on August 16th.
In Gervase we have a blondly handsome dandy with a mild-mannered facade. His physical appearance hides the fact that he does what he pleases in a most sensible and determined way, unsurprising given his military background. When the family first meets him, Gervase stood revealed in “all the fashionable elegane of dove-coloured pantaloons, and a silver-buttoned coat of blue superfine.”
A quizzing-glass hung on a black riband round his neck, and he raised this to one eye, seeming to observe, for the first time, the knee-breeches worn by his brother and his cousin, and the glory of his stepmother’s low-cut gown of purple satin.”
This description served to tell the reader that Gervase was still wearing his traveling clothes and was in no way prepared to dine as the others were. His appearance also dupes his stepmama and half-brother into thinking he can be manipulated and bamboozled.
The heroine, Drusilla Morville, is not the obvious sort, for she is neither encroaching nor flashy. She’s more like an Elinor Dashwood than a Marianne, possessing an unassuming self-assurance and an adherence to tasteful, restrained fashion that would make Katherine, the new Duchess of Cambridge proud.
Heyer gives us what Austen does not – detail upon detail of fashion and interiors, well researched facts, I might add, for Heyer’s descriptions are accurate. Her long passage regarding the building of Stanyon Castle is important, for it lays the groundwork for the mystery that is to come. One can depend on every historical tidbit and social custom to be spot on, for Heyer is, if anything, meticulous. And while her still waters do not run as deep as Jane Austen’s, they run satisfyingly long and provide the reader with the feeling of having dipped into Regency England.
In this scene, young Martin approaches the love of his life, Miss Marianne Bolderwood, in one of the succession-houses, where she is pursuing her hobby of the moment, potting spring bulbs:
He heard the sound of he voice uplifted in a gay ballad. It came from the potting-shed, and he strode up to it, and looked in, to find that she was alone there, engaged in transferring several white hyacinghs from their separate earthenware pots to a large Worcestershire bowl. She made a charming picture, with her pale golden curls uncovered, and confined only by a blue riband, a shawl pinned round her shoulders, and a small trowel in one hand.”
Hyacinths were quite popular during the Georgian era, and while this detail is not at first strikingly obvious, Heyer knew enough to mention them (as did Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey). In fact, hyacinth vases were first used in the Georgian period to force the bulbs into early bloom.
Heyer’s dialogue is matchless, and, dare I say it, Austen’s equal in wit and pointed observation. Drusilla Morville’s parents are rebellious Bluebloods and eccentric to the nth degree, but when push comes to shove, liberal-minded Mama Morville, who is also an authoress, knows exactly what she wants for her daughter – a good marriage – and she does not hesitate in telling her husband off when he starts to protest at her attraction to St. Erth:
“If the Earl – I say, if! – were to offer for dear Drusilla, and you were to refuse your permission, I should be strongly inclinded to clap you into Bedlam! I marvel, my love, that a man of your intellect should so foolishy confuse theory with practice!”
And there you have it – the evidence of Heyer’s abilities to keep the reader on her toes and insert humor into almost every scene. Throughout the book we have been assured that neither of the Morvilles can be persuaded to deviate from their eccentric convictions, but when confronted with reality, heaven forbid that they should confuse their priorities!
We are also introduced to the protocol of dueling in the most convoluted and humorous way. Even as she makes fun of the convention, Heyer manages to teach the reader about its rules . This conversation is between Martin and Mr Barny Warboys, who is afterwards driven to search his father’s library for the Code of Honour . Martin is asking his good friend to second his opponent :
“Dash it, Martin, it ain’t the part of a friend of yours to second your opponent! Told you I’d act for you, didn’t I? Stupid thing to do, but not the man to go back on my word.”
“Barny, if he applies to you, will you act for him?”
Mr. Waryboys scratched his chin. “Might have to,” he conceded. “But if I act for him, who’s to act for you? Tell me that!”
“Good God, anyone! Rockcliffe — Alston!”
“Ay, that will be a capital go!” said Mr Warboys scathingly … “Lord, Martin, dashed if I don’t think you must be queer in your attic!”
Jane Austen’s novels are classics, which goes without saying, and Georgette Heyer’s are not, but they are nevertheless amusing and worth reading. Austen experimented with character and sub-layered her plots, whereas Heyer’s novels are (excuse me for saying this) formulaic. While Austen introduced outrageous and unforgettable secondary characters, Heyer stacked them up to the ceiling with demanding Mamas, dull-as-post bachelors, wide-eyed and breath-takingly beautiful lasses, loyal friends, strong-willed heroes, and sensible heroines. Even after having read all of her 50+ books at least twice, I have trouble recalling which of Heyer’s secondary characters belong in which book.
Heyer also tends to have her secondary characters take over much of the plot. In The Quiet Gentleman, I would have rather read more about Drusilla (who was barely there) than the beautiful but empty-headed Miss Bolderwood. St. Erth’s younger half-brother, Martin Frant, is too cardboard cut-out and immature for my liking, but his mama reminded me most forceably of Lady Catherine deBourgh, and that was fun.
In this plot romance also takes a back seat to mystery. Who wants to off the Earl and why?
Overall, I would say that The Quiet Gentleman is one of Heyer’s more mature novels. The hero and heroine are sensible, the plot is set in the country, where life plods along slowly and the characters attend only a few parties and balls, and the mystery unfolds at a rather leisurely pace.
It has been at least twenty years since I last read The Quiet Gentleman. I am glad I had the opportunity to read it once again, and give this book four out of five Regency tea cups.
Georgette Heyer Reviews on this blog:
Here’s a bit of heresy for Georgette Heyer fans: Ten reasons why I can’t read Georgette Heyer