Instead of the Thorn was Georgette Heyer’s first attempt at writing a novel set in her own era. It was 1923, she was twenty years old, and as yet unmarried. Brought up by intelligent, educated parents, Georgette had been given free rein in her father’s library and by adulthood was familiar – in print at least – with love in its various guises. She was a natural observer of people and reading her early novels it is obvious that she had learned a great deal about male-female relationships. We do not know if she ever experienced a grand passion – though at sixteen she was said to have fallen in love with Harold Pullein-Thompson, sixteen years her senior and a friend and colleague of her father’s. Harold would later marry Joanna Cannan and she and Georgette would become close friends.
Elizabeth Arden, sex & marriage
Instead of the Thorn is the story of Elizabeth Arden, an intelligent but sheltered young woman, whose natural curiosity has been quashed from an early age by her narrow-minded and repressed Victorian maiden aunt. Elizabeth has no mother and her father is a self-absorbed, selfish man whose interest in his daughter only really begins when she grows up and begins to attract ‘the right sort’ of men. As a child Elizabeth has learned to suppress her true self in order to become the person she thinks others wish her to be. Only Mr Hendred, a kind friend of her father’s, sees through Elizabeth. He tries to help her see her self-deception but is unsuccessful for much of the novel. Elizabeth enters society and meets Stephen Ramsay, a brilliant author, handsome, debonair and, in the hierarchical world of 1920’s England, her social superior. Stephen finds Elizabeth’s innocence an allure he cannot resist and they are soon married. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, her aunt has ensured that she is not so much innocent as ignorant. Thrust into marriage without any understanding of sex, Elizabeth is horrified by the realities of intercourse. Although she tries to hide her revulsion, her true feelings gradually seep through, sullying the relationship until eventually her marriage fails. Elizabeth leaves Stephen to try and make a life of her own and thus begins her journey of self-discovery.
‘Dark and mysterious’
Instead of the Thorn is one of the rare Georgette Heyer novels in which sex is crucial to the story. Elizabeth’s ignorance of the physical act has a disastrous impact on her marriage. Her narrow and uninformed upbringing prevents her from asking about the “something in marriage that was dark and mysterious” though she
longed for the courage to confess ignorance and beg enlightenment. But years of training stood in her way, and the implanted belief that knowledge was wrong.Instead of the Thorn, p.64
So Elizabeth recoils from sex, avoids it, and finds herself growing ever more repulsed by her husband’s desire for her. She cannot speak of her anxieties to him or to anyone else and this only exacerbates her struggles with married life.
‘physical contact grew less revolting, but no less unpleasant.’
‘Only when she slept by herself did she realize to the full how she hated to have Stephen with her.’
‘For as long as she continued to shrink from crude facts, and honesty, there could be no real intimacy between them.’Georgette Heyer, Instead of the Thorn, Longman, 1929, pp 113, 143, 140
This ignorance of the realities of sexual intercourse was a very real experience for many woman (and some men) at the time and, although unmarried, Georgette Heyer was well aware of this. Shehad read Marie Stopes’s revolutionary (for the time) 1918 book, Married Love, but she also drew on the knowledge and experiences of her close friend, Joanna Cannan. Joanna – “J’anna” to Georgette – had married Harold Pullein-Thompson in 1918 and the couple had moved to a house in Marryat Road in WImbledon, not far from the Heyer’s. It was with Joanna that Georgette would discuss ‘the fortunes of Elizabeth Arden not once but many times’.
Joanna Cannan – a close friend
The long published dedication to Joanna Cannan is unique among Heyer’s novels for she never did it again. The sorts of heartfelt feelings which she expressed to her friend would later be confined to a few letters and the occasional hand-written dedication in one of her rare signed books. Joanna Cannan was one of Georgette’s few confidantes and perhaps the only person to whom Georgette could talk about sex and marriage – it being highly unlikely that she would have discussed such things with her usual confidante: her father. Heyer’s first biographer, Jane Aiken Hodge, was right when she described Instead of the Thorn as ‘a bold book for an unmarried girl of twenty-one, especially in those inhibited days.’
Georgette was in hospital recovering from surgery when the proofs for Instead of the Thorn arrived. She was enthusiastic about the novel and ‘delighted to hear that the Thorn is coming out fairly soon’. It is clear that she and her father had discussed her new book for Georgette confessed to her agent that, ‘Dad doesn’t think nearly as much of the book as you do’ and that she couldn’t ‘possibly puff off my own work.’ She did, however, have strong ideas about the book’s jacket:
‘As to the wrapper, I’m really not strong enough to have another quarrel with Hutchinson about their artist’s idiocy. I don’t know what I want, but I think they’d better have Elizabeth on the jacket, and leave Stephen out of it. Elizabeth is like Emma Hamilton, only, of course, darker, and not so roguish. If they want to go in for symbolism they’d better have Aunt Anne and Stephen dragging the poor girl different ways. How awful! Failing that – I do have original ideas, don’t I? – what about slicing Elizabeth in half, and making one half look Victorian, and the other modern? Don’t slay me! I can’t help it! Seriously, Hutchinson produced a book last autumn by Ethel Boileau, called the Box of Spikenard, and the wrapper design was most attractive. It was just a sketch of a girl’s head, uncoloured.’Georgette Heyer to L.P. Moore, letter dated 8 September 1923, Tulsa Archive.
Not your usual Heyer
Instead of the Thorn is not what most readers have come to expect from a ‘Georgette Heyer novel’, but it is a readable story which offers a window into upper middle-class life in 1920’s England. It is also an interesting reflection of the world in which Heyer herself lived. A thoughtful book, its subtle commentary on class, morality, marriage and sex offer a fascinating and often uncomfortable contrast with today’s world. Heyer writes tellingly of the kind of social scene in which she moved after the First World War. There is both discomfort and enjoyment in her protagonist’s experience of the afternoon teas, dances, theatre visits and other social events and one cannot help wondering about Heyer’s own experience of the social round. Again and again in the novel there are moments where the reader wonders: ‘is this Georgette Heyer speaking for herself?’ Certainly, Instead of the Thorn – like her three later contemporary novels – were one way for her to work through some of her ideas and reactions to her own experiences as a woman in 1920’s England. Here are a few telling moments:
‘The man takes and the woman gives. Leastways, I’ve always found it so.’
‘It’s a poor woman who’s got no man to manage’
‘The man that can’t be managed don’t exist’
‘You see, dearie, a man’s selfish. He can’t help it; he don’t have to bear what we bear. At the best he’s stupid when it comes to understanding how we women feel. We don’t really like him any the less for that.’
‘My dear, don’t you get thinking this is a fair world for women, because it isn’t.’Georgette Heyer, Instead of the Thorn, Hutchinson 1923.
Leaving aside the many objectionable (to modern sensibilities) aspects of Elizabeth’s life and experiences, Instead of the Thorn remains a novel about an individual’s self-deception, self-discovery and eventual transformation. Perhaps most tellingly of all is the Biblical quotation from which the book takes its title:
‘Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree and instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle tree’Isaiah 5:13