Xmas Dress Down Sunday: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

published 1941


[A young playwright is reading his latest work to a family party at Christmas: here he is reading the opening stage directions, setting the scene]

'A pair of soiled pink corsets are flung across the only armchair.’ He looked round in a challenging kind of way as he enunciated this, and appeared to wait for comment.

‘Ah yes, I see!’ said Joseph, with a deprecating glance at the assembled company. ‘You wish to convey an atmosphere of sordidness.’

‘And let us admit freely that you have succeeded,’ said Stephen cordially.

‘I always think there’s something frightfully sordid about corsets, don’t you?’ said Valerie. ‘Those satin ones, I mean, with millions of bones and laces and things. Of course, nowadays one simply wears an elastic belt, if one wears anything at all, which generally one doesn’t.’

‘You’ll come to it, my girl,’ prophesied Mathilda.

‘When I was young,’ remarked Maud, ‘no one thought of not wearing corsets. It would have been quite unheard-of.’

‘You corseted your minds as well as your bodies,’ interpolated Paula scornfully. ‘Thank God I live in an untrammelled age!’

‘When I was young,’ exploded Nathaniel, ‘no decent woman would have mentioned such things in public!’

‘How quaint!’ said Valerie. ‘Stephen, darling, give me a cigarette!’

Roydon ignored this, and read aloud in an angry voice; ‘Lucetta May is discovered, seated before her dressing -table. She is wearing a shoddy pink négligée, which imperfectly conceals –’

‘Careful!’ Stephen warned him.

It is grimy round the edge, and the lace is torn!’ said Roydon defiantly.

‘I think that’s a marvellous touch!’ said Valerie.

‘It’s surprising what a lot of dirt you can pick up from carpets, even where there’s a vacuum-cleaner, which I don’t suppose there would be in a place like that,’ said Maud. ‘I know those cheap theatrical lodging-houses, none better!’

‘It is not a theatrical lodging-house!’ said Roydon, goaded to madness. ‘It is, as you will shortly perceive, a bawdy lodging-house!’

Maud’s placid voice broke the stunned silence. ‘I expect they’re just as dirty,’ she said.

observations: See earlier entry on this book for more about the plot and the Xmas setting.

The knockabout scene with the play-reading is completely hilarious: the playwright, Roydon, says:
‘If I’ve succeeded in making you think, I shall be satisfied.’

‘A noble ideal,’ commented Stephen. ‘But you shouldn’t say it as though you thought it unattainable. Not polite.’
Earlier two characters have been ‘drawn momentarily together by a bond of mutual misfortune’ just at the idea of a play-reading, and when Mathilda tries to explain that the old man doesn’t approve of his niece being on the stage at all, Roydon tells her of the big part:
‘She’s a prostitute’ said the author simply.

Mathilda spilt her tea.
After the murder, the Chief Constable makes his views clear:
There was a general sort of a row. Well, I’m a fair-minded man, and, after all, you can’t be surprised, can you? I mean, coming down to stay with a man, and then reading stuff aloud to him! Never heard of such a thing!
The general feeling is that play-reading is possibly worse than murder, and that the surprise is that the author wasn’t the victim.

A great achievement by Heyer is to make Maud – the lady who knows about dirt, above – completely thrilling. Everyone treats her as dim, and she is dull and lower class, (a great Heyer crime) – perhaps from the second line of the chorus. But we await her every entrance because she always gets great lines. She doesn’t think the murder should be investigated
‘as he is dead there is nothing to be done about it, and it will only create a great deal of unpleasantness to pry into the affair. Like Hamlet,’ she added. ‘Simply upsetting things.’

You want more of her: she is the best character in the book, and that is even more surprising when she is up against the wonderful Mrs Dean – see this entry - with her girlies and childies.

There’s a sudden venture into foreign affairs late in the book:
‘They do that kind of thing abroad,’ said the Sergeant. ‘Look at that King of Yugo-Slavia, for instance, at Marseilles ! Bad police-work.’
-- this is the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, and there are details of it in this blog entry on Matthew Sweet’s excellent book, The West End Front.

The corset adverts are from the NY Public Library.


  1. Moira - It's quite true that Heyer was very skilled at witty dialogue. I really enjoyed that bit about the way people thought about corsets, depending on their generation. And that discussion of how seedy the whole thing should be is priceless. I think that's part of what makes this a good 'un.

    1. Thanks Margot - the whole book was very clever and entertaining, but this scene was a standout, as funny as anything I've read this year.

  2. "She could sit on her hair! Fancy!" is forever etched into my mind whenever I see pictures or references to the Empress of Austria too.

    And you know - I've just only now realised that this whole scene is in itself a big clue towards the end of the book and the modus operandi, given the role played by corsets in the Empress's fate. That IS clever....

    1. Oh yes, of course, you're right. I was thinking that it was just a vehicle for being funny and having family rows, but yes indeed....

    2. The "hair line" made me laugh out out loud, I remember that.

      Loved Heyer's take on "sordid realism" on the thirties stage--hilarious!

    3. I know - everything about this scene is great.

    4. I think it was the "Fancy!" after "She could sit of her hair!" that really made me laugh out loud.

      You know you are really right about Maud, she is the best character, like Ermyntrude Carter in No Wind of Blame.

    5. Heyer was very good at women of a certain age - but then I also love Vicky, Ermyntrude's daughter, choosing her role before every occasion....

  3. Replies
    1. As you introduced me to Mrs Dillington-Black in Marsh's Singing in the Shrouds, it seems only fair that I return the compliment - 2 splendid women in this one.

  4. Moira, I don't think I've ever crossed paths with a corset in my life (or my reading life!)......I'm not going to jinx that run for this I'm afraid!

    1. It's also a very good detective story, but I can see we're not going to win you round....

  5. Corsets, my favorite subject. I will be reading this book. Maybe next Christmas, if I don't forget.

    1. Something we share, I do love a corset reference. I think you will like this book Tracy.

  6. I just finished reading it. Enjoyed it a lot, thought it was a very clever murder plot with some very good clues. That the reader gets to see the police reach their conclusions gradually is unusual in a golden age mystery but Heyer seems to prefer that approach.

    My favorite part is when the Chief Constable (I believe) after talking about how the victim made money in business assures us that he was not accusing him of being a self-made man, he came from a respectable family.

    1. Glad you liked it. Yes I know what you mean - the unspoken attitudes and assumptions are always revealing in a book like this.


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