This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comments on The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

I closed this book with a sigh. It was a heartily sighed sigh. It was a swoony sigh. Well, I had just finished a Georgette Heyer novel, so I suppose it was the appropriate sigh.

This is not a book you tell an Oxford don you're reading. It's not one they'd understand. You wouldn't tell your intellectually snobby friends either. They'd tease you.

But do not make the mistake of thinking this is a badly written book. No, no, dear reader; this is a picture painted with skill and clarity. I recognize these characters. Some might say they're recycled from other works of fiction on screen or even the page. They might be right. They probably are. But it's not easy to reconstruct in print a celluloid character. And even if other writers' pens have created such personalities, the subsequent author can't just say, "You know, this character is a fop. Think Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde." The author has to apply the dyed oils to the canvas with dexterity. And Heyer does this well. Take the character Nicky, an endearing upper-crust university student more interested in fun than scholarship. He's a cousin, of sorts, to the title character and, here, gives her a compliment.

"By Jove, Cousin Elinor, if that gown is not the most bang-up thing I ever saw! You look all the crack!"

Now, c'mon. Don't you know just by this utterance what sort of character, or caricature, we're dealing with? Yeah, it's over the top. And I certainly don't know if anyone ever spoke like that, but it does paint that picture, does it not?

The Reluctant Widow is a Regency mystery with a touch of romance about a woman who becomes entangled with a likeable upperclass family when she gets into the wrong carriage at the inn where her stage-coach has dropped her off. Thus begins a story of humor and intrigue and some ineptitude (Nicky has a big role.)

The book, written in the 1940s, may or may not be accurate when it comes to language, but the author does seem to know a couple of things about the Regency period, dropping phrases like phaeton and nuncheon, and sometimes using the singular form of the verb 'do' in constructions where today we would use 'does.'

There are copious descriptions of meals and one does not mind spending a day with the personages populating the book. They are ensconced in the cozy estate of Highnoons and seem to enjoy each other's company. I did want, however, more chemistry between the two who are meant for each other, and some romance sooner, too. That, in my opinion was desperately wanting.

Why then did I sigh so swooningly at its conclusion? Well, because that's when Heyer unveiled the real romantic parts. Don't get excited; it's just a proposal. But it's lovely. I would have liked more adventure, too, than the brief bit we get, similarly, toward the end of the book. (The widow can drive a phaeton like Danica Patrick drives a race car.) And I have some scruples about the ethics of the main characters after the resolution of the mystery but, remember, they're likeable.

It's not surprising that Heyer has a reputation of being a bodice-ripping writer. The heroine's "bosom" had already "swelled" twice by page 75. But this was to show her indignation and nothing else. An odd way to express it, but whatever. If you like this brand of word play, you might well, indeed, enjoy The Reluctant Widow.

You just might find it's a bang-up thing.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for this complementary review copy.


Angie said...

1) If I ever met an Oxford don, I hope I would ask, boldly, if he or she read Dorothy L. Sayers and Georgette Heyer. I think Heyer is the next best thing to Jane Austen.

2) You can whistle for chemistry in Heyer as a general rule, and in this one, the heroine is completely surprised when the hero speaks up; so evidently she didn't notice any herself! Remember when he says, 'You must know that I have taken no common delight in your company,' and she thnks, um, NO, I don't (or whatever, the book is on a high shelf).

3) It is legendary that when Heyer uses an expression, such as 'all the crack,' you can count on that expression's having been used exactly at the time the book is set. Heyer did lots of research and used primary sources like letters. You can see this in 'An Infamous Army,' where she lists her sources, one of whom figures in the story as a notorious gossip.

Thanks for the review, it delights me when people read Georgette Heyer.

Jemima said...

Hi Angie,

Thanks for visiting and commenting!
I've been looking into Heyer's bio and will have to find a good book on her life.

Anonymous said...

Ha, Nicky is priceless! I finished this book just a couple of days ago while flying from one city to another; I had to work really hard to stifle my laughter! (Bouncer is another of my favourtie characters from the book.) Thanks for the lovely review, it's wonderful to see others enjoying Heyer's works!

Shimona said...

Hi, Jemima! As an avid Georgette Heyer fan, I really feel it incumbent upon me to point out that Ms. Heyer is by no means considered to be a writer of "bodice-rippers". Heyer wrote, in the main, the sort of Comedy of Manners that Jane Austen wrote, although she did sometimes venture into the realms of mystery, even in her Regency romances ("The Quiet Gentleman" for example). The genre of romantic fiction known as "bodice-rippers" is exactly what you would expect from such a name. In Heyer's Regency romances, on the other hand, there is no hint of anything sexual (other than a kiss or two between the hero and heroine at the end of the book).
If you're interested in finding out more about her, I recommend There are synopses of all her books and fairly lengthy excerpts from several of them.

Jemima said...

Hi Shimona!

Quite right! Sometimes I don't know what I was thinking when I was writing. There's nothing truly bodice-ripping in The Reluctant Widow. Goes to show you how little I know about that genre.

I think GH is quite a good writer. Next I'm reading Charity Girl.

Thanks for the info!

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