Saturday, 18 January 2014

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer

published 1970










Young Mr Carrington, a very dashing blade, was indeed wearing a startling habit, and the fact that he had the height and the figure to adopt any extravagant mode without appearing grotesque did nothing to recommend the style he had chosen to adopt to his elder brother. He was a goodlooking young man, full of effervescent liveliness, and as ready to laugh at himself as his fellow-men. His eyes laughed now, as he said solemnly: ‘This, Des, is the highest kick of fashion, as you would know if you were as dapper-dog as you think you are!’ He thrust one foot forward as he spoke, and indicated with a sweep of his hand the voluminous garments which clothed his nether limbs. ‘The Petersham trousers, my boy!’




observations: So apparently they look like Cossack trousers, and are later described in the book as ‘preposterous’ garments. Lord Petersham was a fashion trend-setter of the time – which is the Regency, and perhaps around 1815. In the picture above, you need to look for the dandy who is standing on the chair - he is apparently wearing Petersham trousers.

This is one of Heyer’s later books, and perhaps not one of her best. The plot is wildly over-complicated, with all kinds of unnecessary characters who disappear unsatisfactorily, and a chain of information resolved into this kind of thing: Lord and Lady Wroxton call on Hetta to tell her that they have received a letter from Lady Emborough, which explains that she has had a call from Lady Bugle, who wants to know what has become of Cherry. It is exhausting to keep up with, and not really necessary. And there is a massive plot-hole: the gallant Desford goes careering round the country looking for someone to take in the charity girl, travelling for days to Harrogate, but it is mentioned several times that she has an uncle with family of his own living nearby – why on earth does he not take her there?

Heyer’s best books – and they really are good, light entertainment at its very finest – can be read over and over. But a lesser one like this shows up the problems: too many sentences like this one: 

‘Her eyes twinkled mischievously; she said, on a choke of laughter: ‘No, no!’
And the endless use of her research – Heyer seems to have swallowed whole the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue first published in 1811, and (for example) the hero and his father discuss which clubs the son does not go to, obviously solely for the purposes of showing off. It is also a truism that Jane Austen, writing roughly at the time Heyer writes about, has barely a word in her entire oeuvre that isn’t straightforward and comprehensible. Every page of Heyer is full of kennel-raking and knocker-faced and spoon to the wall and butter-prints and jobations and rhubarb in the port. In this particular book a young man says ‘Anyone would think I’d tried to rape the girl!’ which I think is fairly rare in Heyer – there is often an undercurrent of the dangers of seduction and the dark side of what can happen to an unprotected female, but rape isn’t often mentioned as such.

But – all is forgiven for the good ones, the books which have been amusing and entertaining many of us since we were in secondary school, and which work for the times when only something very light and easy will do. Everyone’s favourites probably differ, but Black Sheep, The Unknown Ajax ** and The Corinthian will do it for me. And These Old Shades for the most outrageous, un-PC romance of them all – ‘Oh Monseigneur!’

 
**corrected, thanks to a helpful comment below.

The picture of Dandies Dressing was created by George Cruikshank, who showed us Tom and Jerry in this entry on Trollope, and the engraving was produced by his brother Robert Isaac Cruikshank.

One of Georgette Heyer’s detective stories was the subject of this blog entry. Nick Hornby’s Rob in High Fidelity takes a dim view of a woman wearing very wide trousers.

20 comments:

  1. Thanks for the info about Petersham trousers - they do look ludicrous, don't they?
    One point to note...
    Hugh did keep fairly quite till the end, when he spoke and bossed around everyone a lot. BUT he appeared in the book The Unknown Ajax. Not "Unquiet."

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    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, and thanks for pointing that out - I have corrected the text now, don't know what I was thinking of! It is one of my favourites, as I said.

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  2. CHARITY GIRL is indeed one of Heyer's weakest -- the best are tremendous fun. (For me, SYLVESTER and FREDERICA are close to the top. And, yes, the very un-PC (and very early) THESE OLD SHADES.)

    You might like this long series of reviews of Heyer at Tor.com by Mari Ness. I'll link to the review of CHARITY GIRL, but she covers something like 80% of Heyer's books over time: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/12/a-wistful-look-back-charity-girl

    --
    Rich Horton

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    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting - I am definitely minded to re-read some others. It must be 30 years since I read Sylvester and Frederica! And thanks for the link - I did go and read that review. It was excellent, and now I must go and read some others there....

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    2. There are so many favourites, but for good writing and witty dialogue, I love 'Frederica' and 'The Grand Sophy'. For the sheer research and seriously good rendering of a real event, I can't go past 'An Infamous Army'

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    3. Thanks for visiting, June. I admire Infamous Army but prefer the lighter books. Another one I like is The Masqueraders.

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  3. I completely agree - both as to the value of Georgette Heyer's works as a comfort read and that Charity Girl is a long way from being the best of them. My favourites include Cotillion and the Grand Sophy besides the ones you have named. The dress descriptions are great fun in both. A number of them - including The Unknown Ajax and Cotillion end (or practically end in scenes that seem made for the stage. I'd love someone to do adaptations!

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    1. Yes exactly - the ending of Unknown Ajax is superb, wonderfully plotted, and incredibly theatrical. I now want to re-read all my favourites.

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  4. Moira - Interesting isn't it how we're willing to forgive the weaker efforts of our favourite authors. I do the same thing. And you got there before me about the complexity of the plot. It seems that far, far too much is happening and there are too many people to whom it happens. Little wonder you found it exhausting. Still, I do love that description of the trousers!

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    1. The trousers will live in my mind for a long time. And the book did remind me of other Heyer favourites, much better stories, which I may now re-read.

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  5. "Petersham" was a kind of waistband stiffening in my day...

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    1. ...and also that ribbon you had as a lining or facing for the buttonband of a cardigan, particularly the kind of cardigan in a twinset. Hard to see any connection...

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  6. Not for me......maybe dress down Sunday

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  7. Towards the end, Heyer seems to have been writing on auto-pilot - Charity Girl and Lady of Quality (which is pretty much a retread of Black Sheep) are the two I am thinking of. Not favourites, but there are always nice moments in them all. I have a particular soft spot for False Colours (which nobody ever seems to remember).

    You may get a kick out of the fact that my first Heyer was "Arabella" - recommended to me by a friend solely because of the scene early on where the heroine and her sisters go through Mamma's clothes and are somewhat taken aback by Caracos and Lustring Sacks! Gracious!

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    1. I sooo have to re-read Arabella - new entries ahoy! I remember really clearly the half dozen or so favourites, but then the rest I just have a warm feeling for.

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  8. I have only read some of the detective novels by Georgette Heyer, and have more to read. I may try one of the others sometime. And since you have mentioned High Fidelity, that is one I want to read. I have only read About a Boy by Hornby (and don't remember much about it).

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    1. The regency books are real comfort reads, if you like that kind of thing. I quite enjoyed the detective stories too. Nick Hornby I LOVE, thinking about his books makes me smile...

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  9. I agree that charity girl is not one of her better novels...pretty much just like sprig muslin, except not as good.
    But, regarding the plot hole you point out where Des doesn't bring Cherry to her uncle, it might be because he finds out that her uncle's family had gone to Scarborough, so they weren't close by. He probably could have taken a detour on his way back from Harrowgate, but it would have been more than 60 miles out of his way. He really was silly to think any of her family would be helpful, but I think Heyer took care of the issue with the Uncle by having him and his family on vacation in Scarborough.

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    1. Well that's a very fair comment, and explanation for what happened! Thanks for dropping by. And I always enjoy Georgette Heyer, even the lesser ones.

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