Inquiring readers: This is my second review this year of a Georgette Heyer book to help you while away the winter doldrums. When SourceBooks sent Frederica my way I went into paroxysms of joy, for I recalled loving the book when I first read it just out of college. Years later I like it even better.
After reading Frederica I thanked my lucky stars that Georgette Heyer was such a prolific writer and that she lived a long life. She wrote over 50 books, most of them quite entertaining, and the knowledge that I still have so many to choose from leaves me quite content (At present I am reading The Convenient Marriage and I have just finished Black Sheep). When I first encountered Frederica I was the same age as the book’s heroine – 24 – and wished for myself a mate as dashing and capable as the Marquis of Alverstoke, the hero.
Frederica’s plot is rather simple. Frederica, a single woman who is raising her younger siblings in the country after their parents’ deaths, has brought her beautiful sister Charis to London so that the latter can attract a rich and eligible husband. Considering herself too old for the marriage mart, Frederica’s self-deprecating, no-nonsense attitude charms 37-year-old Lord Alverstoke, who has despaired of ever finding a woman he can both respect and love.
We meet Lord Alverstoke, a nonpareil and Corinthian of the first order, at a time when he is beset by his two sisters to help them introduce their daughters to Society in a proper and extravagant manner. Both sisters expect him to pay fully for the privilege of hosting their coming out at his mansion. Enter Frederica who, with the slimmest claims upon his purse and loyalty, asks him for a favor. The Marquis, seeing a possibility of riling his unloving sisters, agrees to sponsor the Incomparable Charis, a dimwitted but sweet-natured beauty, at his niece’s coming out ball. Frederica’s plans for her brothers and sister and their unpredictable antics overset the marquis’s self-centered life and manage to bestir him out of his perpetual boredom.
Then came Frederica, upsetting his cool calculations, thrusting responsibilities upon him, intruding more and more into the ordered pattern of his life, and casting him into a state of unwelcome doubt. And, try as he would, he could discover no reason for this uncomfortable change in himself. She had more countenance than beauty; she employed no arts to attract him; she was heedless of convention; she was matter-of-fact, and managing, and not at all the sort of female whom he had ever wished to encourage. Furthermore, (now he came to think of it), she had foisted two troublesome schoolboys on to him, which was the last thing in the world he wanted!
Heyer’s rich detail of life in London during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution sets this novel apart from the others. The book’s events occur after Beau Brummel’s gambling debts drove him to France in 1716-1817, the last year of Jane Austen’s life. This was a heady era of scientific discoveries and invention that changed the world forever. Through young Felix’s brilliant mind we see the wonders of the age unfold in the form of steam engines, scientific collections, and balloon travel. Sixteen-year-old Jessamy’s earnestness in studying to become a man of the cloth represents the burdens that befall a second son who knows he must make his own way in the world, but he is still boyish enough to get into trouble on occasion. And Harry, the eldest brother, set down from Oxford for his antics, is too frivolous to set a good example as heir. Under ordinary circumstances he is more than happy to leave the decision-making to Frederica. Under extraordinary circumstances he is more than likely to bungle events, including endorsing an ill-judged elopement.
Heyer introduces her usual panoply of comedic characters – the selfish sister whose demands on her brother are unreasonable and grating; the foppish dandies in their outrageous attire who flock around the new Incomparable – Charis (she of the dim mind but sweet, unspoiled disposition); the competent and capable male secretary who can be depended upon to take care of complex matters and smooth the way for the marquis, yet who is romantic enough to fall foolishly in love; and the sensible, loving sister who sees immediately which way the wind is blowing when it comes to her brother Alverstoke’s heart. Frederica might not be as beautiful as Charis, but she possesses such style and class that Lady Jersey promptly grants the two girls vouchers for that most exclusive of clubs: Almack’s.
Georgette’s description of the novel to her publisher is telling:
This book, written in Miss Heyer’s lightest vein, is the story of the adventures in Regency London of the Merriville family: Frederica, riding the whirlwind and directing the storm; Harry, rusticated from Oxford, and embarking with enthusiasm on the more perilous amusements pursued by young gentlemen of ton: the divine Charis, too tenderhearted to discourage the advances of her numerous suitors; Jessamy, destined for the Church and wavering, adolescent style, between excessive virtue and a natural exuberance of spirits; and Felix, a schoolboy with a passion for scientific experiment. In Frederica, Miss Heyer has created one of her most engaging heroines, and in the Marquis of Alverstoke, a bored cynic who becomes involved in all the imbroglios of a lively family, a hero whose sense of humour makes him an excellent foil for Frederica. (Jane Aiken Hodge, The Private World of Georgette Heyer)
The plot of this book is simply delightful. Frederica’s “Baluchistan” hound and her two youngest brothers manage to wrap the reader around their paws and grubby fingers with very little effort. More importantly, the trio charms the marquis, whose ennui is legendary.
Georgette is at her best writing about young boys and dogs. We chuckle when Frederica’s dog escapes its leash and runs amuck among the milk cows in Green Park, and laugh when a parade of incensed “victims” follow Frederica and the hound to the front steps of Alverstoke’s door. His aplomb in sizing the situation up in a tenth of a second is worth the book’s purchase. We hold our breath when Felix clings to a rising balloon for dear life as it loosens from its moorings. We feel sympathy for Jessamy – who acts his age for once – for all the damage he causes with his runaway velocipede. Frederica, so honest and serious and self effacing, is a breath of fresh air among the many heroines we encounter in an endless parade of romance novels. Her intelligence and earnestness are a perfect foil to Alverstoke’s light-hearted and self-deprecating banter. We love her all the more because she never quite sees the marquis in the negative light that he knows he deserves, and for her ability to make the best of any situation.
The novel ends on a most satisfying note, and I can think of no better way of spending a chilly winter evening – wrapped in a down comforter with my pooch sleeping by my side – than reading this gem of a book.
My Other Georgette Heyer Reviews Sit Below