Georgette Heyer, whose Sprig Muslin was one of the most delightful bits of flimflammery this side of P.G. Wodehouse in his early days, has done it again… In a melange of daffiness of this sort plotting doesn’t really matter. It’s the sheer fun of reading on a high entertainment level that’s the thing. For such an experience April Lady is tops. It’s sure-fire guaranteed to afford even the sourest of pusses a refreshing evening of kittenish enjoymentHenry Cavendish, “It’s Daffy, Dandy, and Downright Delicious”, Sunday Chicago Tribune, 1 September 1957.
“a fit of Brilliance”
Early in December 1955 Georgette Heyer began writing a short story. She had been asked by the editor of the English magazine, Everybody’s, for a Regency short and had spent ten days working on a story she called “Snowbound”. She had written 8,000 words of this before deciding, just before midnight on 12 December, that it “wouldn’t do”. She then “instantly succumbed to a fit of Brilliance, during which I evolved THE NECKLACE.” Though she told her friend Miss Wallace – in her now-habitual, self-deprecating way – that she didn’t think much of the story, she was pleased that it at least matched the synopsis given to her by the magazine’s editor. In the end, she was not overly impressed with the editor, however, which may have been one reason why the story was never was published in Everybody’s. Another, more compelling, reason is that very soon after beginning it, Georgette had developed “The Necklace” well beyond the short story into a full-blown novel. As she herself admitted:
“It incorporates every last one of the characters which are my stock-in-trade, and ends with the sort of absurd scene which (I hope) raises my novels slightly above the Utterly Bloody Standard.”Georgette Heyer to Patricia Wallace, letter, 13 December 1955
Her fifteenth Regency
The new novel was to be her forty-fourth book and her fifteenth Regency, so it is not surprising that Heyer had by now assembled a cast of characters – her “stock-in-trade” – several of whom were by now familiar to her many readers. Among these are the foolish young man; the perceptive, sharp-tongued dowager (Downton Abbey, anyone?); the romantic, innocent ingénue; the bored, wealthy man about town; the wordy, worthy suitor; and the manipulative, hypochondriac parent. Like any good writer of more than a handful of novels, Georgette Heyer knew what her readers wanted and she gave it to them. Like any great writer of more than a handful of novels, Georgette Heyer also made sure that she brought something new and different to each and every book she wrote. This in itself was no mean feat and it is a mark of her literary brilliance that even in the books about which she was not greatly enthused, she still managed to achieve this. While A.S. Byatt, in her lengthy tribute to Georgette Heyer, published in the UK Sunday Times to mark the publication of My Lord John in 1975, asserted that April Lady’s plot was “A rehash of the earlier Convenient Marriage” this is not entirely true. There are certainly some things common to both novels – a younger heroine married to an older hero; the heroine’s awareness of her husband’s mistress which prevents her from professing her real feelings to him; the ensuing misunderstanding between husband and wife; and the foolish, scapegrace brother and his inept friend, both of whom try to help the heroine manage her convoluted affairs without her husband’s knowledge. However, the details supporting these similarities are rather different in the two books. There are also several other important points of difference that ultimately give April Lady its own unique flavour and tone.
A delightful cast
One of these differences is the delightful cast of characters particular to April Lady. While the reader cannot help liking Giles, Earl of Cardross, and his misunderstood young wife, Nell, the real standouts in the book are Nell’s superbly-drawn scapegrace brother, Dysart, her impeccable cousin, Mr Felix Hethersett, her mischievous and headstrong young sister-in-law, Letty and Letty’s superbly-drawn friend, Miss Selina Thorne, whose penchant for romantic novels leads her thoroughly astray in aiding and abetting Letty in her outrageous plan to marry the love of her life, the serious-minded, Mr Jeremy Allandale. The sharp contrasts between Letty and Jeremy and between Dysart and Felix are a brilliant device for revealing character and personality. These secondary characters are also a source of constant humour throughout the novel. At first glance, Dysart may seem to be nothing more than a reckless, improvident young man, set on gaming away his blunt, drinking to excess, and enacting outrageous pranks with his foolish friend, Cornelius Fancot, but – though these dissipations reflect part of his character – he is also deeply loyal, determined, protective of his sister and honourable. Felix Hethersett, on the other hand, though a society darling, “precise to a pin, blessed with propriety of taste, an impeccable lineage, and a comfortable fortune” seems at first to be Dysart’s exact opposite. Yet, despite his many excellent qualities, it is Felix who jumps to all the wrong conclusions about his cousin Nell and he who almost causes her more harm than good in trying to help her out of her difficulties. In the end, it is wild Dysart and not proper Felix who best aids Nell in resolving all of the misunderstandings between herself and her husband.
A wonderfully humorous scene
Letty is another of Heyer’s high-spirited characters and she is everything Nell is not: impulsive, determined, spoilt and, at times, selfish. Letty is also determined to marry her beloved Jeremy, despite Cardross’s refusal to give his permission. In this endeavour she enlists the help of her friend, Selina, and in a wonderfully humorous scene, Heyer again demonstrates her understanding of the workings of the adolescent mind. It is a brilliant on-point description of the fantasies that have allowed Selina to assist Letty in eloping with her beloved Jeremy:
Selina “had several times rehearsed the elevating utterances she would make, if called upon to account for her actions; and in these scenes every effort made by Letty’s persecutors to drag from her the secret of her whereabouts failed. Sometimes she remained mute while the storm raged over her devoted head; but in general she was extremely eloquent, expressing herself with such moving sincerity that even such worldly persons as her father and Lord Cardross were often brought to see how false and mercenary were their ideas, and emerged from the encounter with changed hearts, and the highest opinion of her fearlessness, nobility, and good sense.
But in these scenes the other members of the cast spoke the lines laid down for them; in real life they said things so very different as to throw everything quite out of joint.”Georgette Heyer, April Lady, Pan, 1970, p.200.
A love unmatched
Jeremy, of course, knows nothing of Letty’s plans to elope with him and his character is such that, though he is shocked by her behaviour, he recognises her youth, her distress at the prospect of being parted from him, and her irrepressible romantic nature. He is the polar opposite of his betrothed, being stolid, sensible and full of hard common sense. And yet, for all this, he loves Letty to a degree almost unmatched in all of Heyerdom:
“Sir,” said Mr Allandale, very pale, but steadily meeting Cardross’s eyes, “I do not attempt to condone her faults, though I can perceive excuses for them, but I love her, and must always do so, whatever she is, or whatever she does.”
Letty looked up, her tears arrested, awe in her face. “Jeremy!” she said. “Oh, Jeremy!”Georgette Heyer, April Lady, Pan, 1970, p.236
Georgette Heyer may have referred to her characters as “stock-in-trade” but they are so much more than that. Each of them plays a vital role in April Lady and Heyer’s skill in depicting characters who leap off the page is very much to the fore throughout the novel.
Horry & Nell
In The Convenient Marriage it is the young heroine, Horatia – Horry – who sets things in motion by offering herself to the Earl of Rule in her older sister’s stead. This is no love match but a marriage of convenience; love will come later. In April Lady the young heroine, Helen – Nell – is already married to Giles, the Earl of Cardross, and has been in love with him from their first meeting. Unbeknownst to Nell, Giles is also in love with her but, thanks in part to her mother’s well-meant advice that she must never look for romance in marriage, Nell does not know how her husband really feels. Where Horry sets about living life to the full and enjoying all of the freedoms available to a married female, Nell is far more biddable and willing to comply with her husband’s requests. Both Horry’s and Nell’s behaviour and, in particular, their unwillingness to let their respective husbands know their true feelings (Horry’s love gradually evolves whereas Nell loves Cardross from the first), springs in large part from their awareness that their husband has a mistress. While this unwelcome information prompts Horry to pretend she does not care and to behave ever more outrageously, the revelation shocks Nell deeply and its immediate consequence is to cause her to hide her true feelings from her husband:
“She was thankful to have been made aware of the truth before she could render herself ridiculous by showing her heart to the world, or have become a tiresome bore to my lord by hanging on him in a doting way which one short season had taught her was considered by the modish not at all the thing.”Georgette Heyer, April Lady, Pan, 1970, p.9.
“the Rift in the Married Lute”
Unfortunately, Nell’s attempts to protect her heart from hurt merely widen the gap between her and Cardross until he begins to doubt that she has ever loved him. Instead, he begins to believe what the gossips have long said – that she married him for his money. April Lady offers readers a much deeper look at marital relations than does The Convenient Marriage and in many ways Nell is much more realistic as a young bride than Horry. Cardross, too, is less omniscient than Rule and he is a more truly emotional character: Cardross feels deeply; he is hurt by his wife’s apparent coolness; by her dutiful demeanour, her submissiveness and her endless good manners. He yearns for the “loving, vital creature he was so sure lived behind the nervous child”. The opening scene, where Cardross confronts Nell about her unpaid bills and warns her not to continue to overspend – she has secretly lent her brother three hundred pounds despite promising Cardross she would never do so – may seem a slight pretext for a misunderstanding that lasts for the duration of the novel, but such is Heyer’s skill that the plot and the characters convince us from beginning to end. Georgette, in a reference to Tennyson’s poem, “Idylls of the King” described Nell and Cardross’s situation as the “Rift in the Married Lute”. A few weeks after April Lady was published in January 1957, her publisher wrote to tell her of the novel’s large sales. Georgette wrote a characteristic reply:
“Oh yes, I can explain April Lady’s success! Almost the Top of the Popular appeal Stakes (amongst females) is the Rift in the Married Lute – provided it All Comes Right in the End, & was never serious in the first place.”Georgette Heyer to A.S. Frere, letter, 16 February 1957.
“This is, as usual, graceful and exciting with all problems solved so satisfactorily that the novel is the best kind of “escape” story–fine for adults and adolescents. The world knows, by this time, that any one seeking problems of the day and dissertations on the economy and social and cynical-sentimental affairs in the most serious way is not to be led by Georgette Heyer.” [To which I say, “Thank goodness!]Katherine Tappert Willis, Library Journal, July 1957.