Friday, June 6, 2014

GEORGETTE HEYER, Bath Tangle (1955)


I've been meaning to get around to sampling a Georgette Heyer novel for at least a couple of years, but it wasn't until I came across this quite lovely hardcover of Bath Tangle on our unexpected trip to San Diego a couple of months ago—and for only about $6 to boot—that I finally took the plunge.  (It's not a valuable edition or anything, just an American reprint from the 1970s, but it's still lovely.)  I recalled being told or reading somewhere that this was one of Heyer's best novels, and the book itself was so seductive (it just felt good in my hands, a concept my fellow book fetishists will surely understand) that I couldn't help jumping right in.  In the end, I had a totally unexpected but rollickingly fun weekend's reading out of it. 

(Although Heyer hardly qualifies as a "lesser-known" author, I can't resist writing a little about the book here.  But as it happens, I have a couple of quite obscure titles winging their way to me via Interlibrary Loan at this moment, so more obscurity will be coming along soon.)

I had expected that my first encounter with Heyer would be one of her mysteries, which have been recommended to me repeatedly.  This was because, somehow, I was never quite sure that a "Regency romance" would be exactly my cup of tea.  But happily it turned out to be exactly the right cup of tea for the moment.

One of Heyer's later novels, Bath Tangle begins intriguingly with two very different young women in mourning.  The younger, Fanny—still quite naïve, inexperienced, and socially insecure—is the widow of the elderly Earl of Spenborough, with whom she shared a short-lived, affectionate, but hardly passionate marriage.  The older is Serena, the Earl's daughter by his first marriage—sophisticated, sharp-witted, always at ease, and indifferent to the gossip she creates at every turn.  The women are close friends, and their situation is immediately interesting because Fanny—though younger and less knowledgeable—is anointed with the respectability of her position as a widow, and is free to act as chaperone or set up her own household, while Serena—far more knowledgeable and far better equipped to take care of herself—is expected to behave as a demure maiden.  Heyer cleverly creates a scenario where the ridiculousness of these social expectations can be frequently highlighted without a trace of heavy-handedness.

The two women set up housekeeping together at the dower house on the Earl's estate (the estate itself having been taken over by the Earl's cousin and his grasping wife), and then, bored, take a house in Bath for a few months.  (Wouldn't we all love to have the leisure to casually take a house in Bath for six months when we happen to be bored?)


The plot is thickened with various well-drawn and entertaining characters.  There's the swarthy (but not terribly attractive?) Marquis of Rotherham, a sharp-tongued, fabulously wealthy Heathcliff-ian figure who was once betrothed to Serena and who has now been made the trustee of her fortune until she marries.  There's Major Kirkby, Serena's love-interest of seven years earlier, whom she was forbidden to marry then due to his poverty, but who has now returned with an unexpectedly inherited estate and money of his own.  There's Serena's aunt, Lady Theresa, with whom she fights but who sounds like someone you'd invite to a cocktail party to keep things lively.  And there's the loathsome Lady Laleham, seeking to make a wealthy marriage for her dim-witted daughter Emily, and Lady Laleham's "dreadfully vulgar" mother, Mrs. Floore, who is hard not to love and who provides a good deal of the novel's comic entertainment.


The plot is as light and fluffy as you might imagine, and it unfolds with a great deal of charm and humor as the romantic winds now and then shift direction.  I'm not going to spoil any of the pleasure of it by going into it here. Suffice it to say that the central attraction is the frequent quarreling between Serena and Rotherham, which surely owes as much to Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing as to Jane Austen.  In fact, Bath Tangle is in itself a quite extensive and entertaining vocabulary lesson, with most of the terms very effective insults which (who knows?) could come in handy someday.  A few examples:

"Sir, you are offensive!" declared Mr. Eaglesham, glaring at him. "I do not hesitate to tell you so!"

"Why should you? I don't hesitate to tell you that you're a muttonhead!"

Or how about:

"I thought he was such a twiddle-poop there wasn't the least harm in letting him go with us to the Gala night."

I'm not even sure I understand what this one means, but I'm certain it's insulting:

"It will be just as well for you if you stop thinking me a bleater, whom you can gull by pitching me your damned gammon!"

In an early scene, a character is "muttering animadversions against pretentious and encroaching old popinjays."  And then there are the ninnyhammers, the pigeon-hearted imbeciles, the marplots, and—my personal favorite—the addle-brained cawkers! 

Apart from the wide array of insults Heyer's vocabulary offers, I had to make Andy look up "ton" and "tonnish" on his cell phone.  Who knew that "ton" can also mean a fashion or trend?!  I thought it was a typo at first.  And I can't wait until the first opportunity (preferably at work) to say that something is "enough to send me into strong convulsions!"

(You can tell I had some fun with this…)


Although the mainstream reviewers quoted on the book's back flap (see pic) were cheerful about Bath Tangle, as a general rule Georgette Heyer and other writers of her ilk—"cozy" writers of rainy day reads, however brilliantly executed their works often are—have never garnered much critical or scholarly attention, even from scholars of the middlebrow such as Nicola Humble.  But that's kind of a shame, because I found that reading this novel in the context of Humble's definitions of the middlebrow was quite a fascinating experience.

I haven't read a lot of historical fiction of any variety, romance or otherwise, but it was striking for me to be reading a work set in the 1810s but to find in it so many of the concerns of its own time period, the 1950s.  For readers facing economically-limited lives in the postwar years, Serena's elegant acceptance of her reduced means (relatively speaking: she can't keep a whole stable of horses, only one—quelle tragédie!) would have made her more relatable, and Fanny's practical ability to manage her household and servants might have been a kind of ideal in itself for women who struggled to do the same.  Even Rotherham, stinking rich though he is, is presented as eschewing the pretensions of the upper class:

"Papa always held to it that with that upbringing, and all the toad-eating and nonsense that surrounded him when he was by far too young to perceive the folly of it, it said a great deal for his  character that he grew up to care so little for pomp and dignity, and of all creatures to dislike most those that flatter him. You will never see Ivo in company with any of the odious hangers-on who fawn on great men, administering all the time to their vanity, you know. He holds such stuff in utter contempt."

And the delightfully "vulgar" Mrs. Floore is undoubtedly a comfortingly lowbrow figure, who even hilariously cuts the Marquis himself down to size when she finally meets him:

"It'll be more to the point if I don't mind him," observed Mrs. Floore, who was clearly in a belligerent mood. "You must excuse me staring at you, my lord, but I never did see such peculiar eyebrows! Now, I shouldn't wonder at it, Emma, my pet, if half the time you thought he was scowling at you it was nothing but the way his eyebrows grow, which he can't help, though, of course, it's a pity."

And if the middlebrow novel tends to flirt with bohemianism—walking the line between what was socially acceptable and what was deliciously outré—then here, too, is the wonderful scene in which Major Kirkby is shocked to come across Serena and Fanny discussing Caroline Lamb's scandalous novel about Lord Byron, Glenarvon (1816).  He is first horrified to learn that it was the Marquis who sent Serena a copy of the book, and they argue about that.  Then just a few minutes later a letter from her Aunt Theresa arrives:

Suddenly Serena uttered a little crow of laughter. "Oh, Hector, you are utterly confounded! No, no, don't look so stiff! It is the funniest thing! My aunt writes to tell me that she is sending me Glenarvon! She says I shall be aux anges over it!"

Not only is Serena sophisticated enough to delight in the scandalous book, but even her stodgier aunt is sharing her delight, and this might have lent Serena just the kind of bohemian glow that middlebrow readers seemed to wholeheartedly embrace.

But although Serena is the novel's ideal heroine—the one in whose shoes the novel's readers would probably most like to imagine themselves (well, I would anyway!)—Fanny is perhaps the more realistic, sympathetic character, a figure closer to the average reader's actual self.  She is a woman making the most of her limitations, and it's hard not to relate to her as well, particularly in the passage where she attempts to explain to the liberated, carefree Serena how a young girl might be forced into a marriage she doesn't want—an explanation that might shed a poignant light on her own marriage to Serena's elderly father:

She saw Fanny shake her head, and fold her lips, and said sharply: "This will not do! If there was any truth in these freakish notions of yours, she need not have accepted his offer!"

Fanny looked up quickly. "Ah, you cannot know—you don't understand, Serena!'"

"Oh, you mean that she dare not disobey her mother? Well, my love, however strictly Lady Laleham may rule her, it is not in her power to force her into a disagreeable marriage. And if she is in such dread of her, she must welcome any chance to escape from her tyranny!"

Fanny gazed at her wonderingly, and then bent over her embroidery again. "I don't think you would ever understand," she said mournfully. "You see, dearest, you grew up under such different circumstances! You never held my lord in awe. Indeed, I was used to think you were his companion rather than his daughter, and I am persuaded neither of you had the least notion of filial obedience! It quite astonished me to hear how he would consult you, and how boldly you maintained your own opinions—and went your own way! I should never have dared to have talked so to my parents, you know. Habits of strict obedience, I think, are not readily overcome. It seems impossible to you that Lady Laleham could force Emily into a distasteful marriage, but it is not impossible. To some girls—to most girls, indeed—the thought of setting up one's own will does not even occur."

First and foremost, however, Bath Tangle is a glorious lark.  If I don't feel compelled to immediately read all of Heyer's other 54 (!!) novels, I nevertheless have no doubt that I'll pick one up the next time I need to lose myself in a smart, funny, utterly entertaining frolic of a novel.  In fact, if I'm not mistaken, Cotillion, written around the same time, has been waiting patiently on my Kindle since the time a year or two ago when the publisher offered it up as a free ebook.  So no doubt the temptation will grow to dive into that one—also considered one of Heyer's best.

And I have promised Tom, a regular reader of the blog and fellow DES-sie, that this Christmas season I will not forget to finally read Heyer's mystery Envious Casca, set at Christmas time and a favorite re-read to get into the Christmas spirit.  (It's probably because of the dysfunctionality of my own family that Christmas and murder seem to go quite logically together!)

I also wonder if any of you brilliant readers have ever gotten your hands on one of Heyer's early, autobiographical novels—Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930)—which Heyer reportedly later tried to suppress.  If my information is correct, these are not historical or mysteries, but have contemporary settings and make use of events in Heyer's own life.  It appears that one or more of these may have been reprinted after Heyer's death, but they still aren't easy to track down.  I wonder if they're worth seeking out?


30 comments:

  1. We are two Heyer fans sitting having lunch in a pub in northern England. It's raining. We envy you for having just discovered Georgette. We adore her and think we have probably each read 53 of her novels, some many timrs. If you neec help with Regency cant and other vicab, we are happy to help. Bath Tangle is not a favourite of either of us. Our recommendations are: Arabella, Devil's Cub, Grand Sophy, Frederica, Friday's Child, Sylvester. We wish you hours of enjoyment.

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    1. Thank you, Grace. Oh, I wish I could have been having lunch with you in a pub in northern England, discussing your favorite Heyers! I'm making a note of your recommendations. If Bath Tangle isn't even a favorite, when I enjoyed it so much, then I must have lots to look forward to!

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  2. Scott, I've read her mysteries and enjoyed them but have yet to read a romance. I have picked up a couple this spring though at a charity shop and am looking forward to them. I think this book would be worth it just for the fun insults! I'll keep my eye opened for it. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Peggy Ann. I really liked this one a lot, but bear in mind the other comments here from Heyer connoisseurs who consider it not among her best work. That must mean I have even better things to look forward to!

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  3. I can't tell you how envious I am of anyone who has all of Heyer's oeuvre unread ahead of them! Like Grace and her companion my daughter and I have read pretty well all of them several times, mysteries included, and can quote verbatim from our favourite Regency ones. We often do the monthly quizzes on the Almacks group.

    I agree with Grace about Bath Tangle, it's a middle-ranking one for us. I would add to Grace's list Venetia, The Talisman Ring, The Unknown Ajax, and False Colours. For heaven's sake don't read Cousin Kate as a new Heyer reader. Maybe don't read it at all. Or Simon the Coldheart.

    Cotillion is set slightly earlier, as is These Old Shades which is one of my favourites though my daughter doesn't like it much.

    Heyer herself wanted those early books suppressed. Perhaps we should let them lie? Though I guess if I ever came across one I would have to read it.....

    PS Ivo is deeply attractive :-)

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    1. Hi Cestina. Hard copies of the early Heyers are availsble for loan from the Open Library. I confess to being very tempted. My Heyer fan friend and I like Venetia too. It almost made our list, and I have a fondness for False Colours and Old Shades. I agree about Cousin Kate and Simon (I wonder if Kate was written while GH was being harried by the Inland Revenue? And Simon is one of her medieval period, isnt it?)

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    2. Thanks, Cestina! I've made a note of your suggestions as well. I have lots to look forward to. I imagine I will have to track down one of her early novels eventually, just to see what it's like, but I imagine they're quite different from her later work.

      I wonder if your quoting of Heyer includes using her insults. I am picturing you muttering animadversions against twiddle-poops and popinjays!

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    3. Grace - Thanks for the tip about the Open Library. I think daughter and I would both have dropped Arabella in favour of Venetia but when we were discussing what should make the cut she said "Well really you might as well list all of them with just a few warnings about things like Cousin Kate!" I don't much like Charity Girl either actually....

      Yes Simon is medieval but then so is The Conqueror and I think that's much less turgid. I also have a fondness for the battle ones like The Spanish Bride and An Infamous Army, though they are somewhat different to the Regencies. I gather the latter has been used to train officers in tactics, it's so meticulously researched.

      Scott - of course it includes the insults! And my daughter is a Shakespeare specialist so we have some of them too :-)

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  4. Bah, I keep forgetting to tick the Notify me box.....

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  5. The only one of Heyer's Regency romances I have ever red is "The Reluctant Widow," and it was quite enjoyable. Not altogether plausible, but does that ever stop us? I started with her mystery novels, and like them very much, especially "Footsteps in the Dark," which ought to be filmed! I suggest one doesn't start with "Behold, here's Poison." Too slow. And, of course, the psychological one, "Penhallow," which is almost a separate oeuvre.
    Best wishes, from the now-famous, and highly flattered Tom

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    1. Maybe you should sample another of the romances, Tom? I note that Reluctant Widow is not one of the favorite titles of the other commenters. I'm certainly going to check out some of their faves for my next foray into Heyer. And of course I have to sample one or more of the mysteries soon (hopefully before Envious Casca at Christmastime!).

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    2. Just been rereading this post and comments and I hasten to say that The Reluctant Widow is actually one of my favourites that I seem to have overlooked mentioning before. But as many of us have said - so many good ones, so little time! And I am delighted to note how many people have reread more that once. We've lost count I think.....

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    3. Elizabeth BentleyAugust 7, 2014 at 1:46 PM

      I loved Behold, here's poison when I read it as a teenager, so not sure it is that slow. The other title that is much harder going than most of the rest is Penhallow, a contemporary mystery, but much harsher than the rest.

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    4. I have to admit that on some perverse level all the suggestions to avoid Penhallow is making me want to sample it! I'm going to try to resist at least until I've read a couple of others, but I may have to go for it before long just so see how different and hard to engage with it really is!

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  6. Oh joy, you've discovered Heyer. And I think you've picked a good example to start with. Although I'm not completely enamoured of her Alpha heroes.

    Now then, Arabella is, I think, the quintessential Heyer Regency romance, and an excellent one to go on with. All full of seasons, and the young miss up from the country, and mild adventures. A rare one in that the hero has no title, but is definitely a leader of society. Also, don't miss The Grand Sophy.

    For books more in the romance and suspense and danger field, we slip into an earlier time, late 18th century, where nothing can beat The Talisman Ring. Get it. Read it. The Tollbooth (ca 1815) is another good adventure.

    Her contemporary books: Helen, Barren Corn, etc. I found Helen many years ago at a thrift shop for about 50 cents, and was over the moon, since it was a Heyer I'd never heard of. It was, to me, lifeless and unmemorable. I tried reading it again some years later. Again, no spark. So I wasn't surprised to learn GH had suppressed those early contemporary novels. They will bring no joy to readers, I believe.

    The mysteries. They are pretty good, overall; I have three total favourites I reread constantly. Like Tom, I read Envious Casca at Christmas, and this past year treated myself to a new (to me) vintage hardcover, because my paperback edition has tiny tiny print and is falling apart. The same with Duplicate Death, which just arrived from England the other day (1952 copy, but with no jacket). The 3rd (or first) is They Found Him Dead, which must be read before Duplicate Death.

    Whew. It's hard to go wrong with GH, but there are, as others have said above, a few duds. Check with us, Scott, before spending lots of money on one if you're not sure.

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    1. Thank you, Susan! I'm adding your recommendations to my database too. I've practically become a Heyer expert just from reading all of these knowledgeable comments. I love it!

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    2. So glad you discovered Heyer. It doesn't matter if she's well-known since she's clearly considered middle brow by those in the "know". I agree with Susan and Tom about the mysteries and Envious Casca as one of the better ones. When I read Heyer I didn't see it as just a woman waiting for a man to "save" her, but enjoyed the inner resources the heroines had in all sorts of situations.

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  7. Yet another vote here for Arabella and The Grand Sophy.
    A very rare early book which GH wanted suppressed is The Great Roxhythe. I was once lucky enough to find a copy and thought it dreadful! It's the only one of her books I haven't kept.

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    1. Good to know. It looks like Great Roxhythe has been reprinted recently, so it's helpful to know that's one to stay away from. Thanks!

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    2. I agree about Roxhythe and am interested in Susan's opinion of the contemporary novels - but I still want to try them! I guess they are GH's practice pieces. On Civil Contract, also mentioned, I didn't like it much when I was younger but now I appreciate it much more. It is more real than many of her novels, for all the period touches.

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  8. I enjoy GH next to DES and have reread them inumerable times since first finding them in the '60s. She is so funny! Frederica and Sprig Muslin are favorites and A Civil Contract is my favorite of all. That's one that people either like a lot or not much at all. The Unknown Ajax and The Grand Sophy are high on my reread list, too....You'll enjoy getting to know her work.

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    1. Thank you, Kristi! My list is getting longer--I'll have my reading cut out for me!

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  9. P. S. When I was a teenager, my mother saw the paperback copy of Bath Tangle I was reading, the one with Serena and Ivo on the cover, looking like she's about to slap him and he's grabbing her arm.
    This one: http://www.tikit.net/PAN%202010%20M/PANM237.htm

    Mom's comment:
    Whose bathroom are they tangoing in?

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    1. That's funny, Susan. They certainly do look like they're doing the tango, but it looks like a fancier bathroom than anyone I know has!

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  10. Can I add my voice to the general excitement that you've discovered Heyer

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    1. Thanks so much--it's lovely to have support for my reading! I have at least two more Heyers on my TBR shelves, but have been distracted by girls' stories lately. I will certainly get around to more soon though.

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  11. I love her books having discovered them as a teenager, she's seen me through good times and bad ever since. I basically agree with everything said here, though having never gone across any of the suppressed titles am interested to hear they're probably best left alone.

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  12. I really think you should move over to WordPress - it took four goes to send my last comment.

    A really good review that romps as well as Heyer's novels - have you read any others since you posted?

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  13. Many people have spoken about how enjoyable Heyer's novels are so I am not going to add to the chorus but write about what she means to me. As a timid, sickly, 14 year old Indian boy who was in awe of his elder brother, what was needed was for someone to take me under their wing. My mother recommended that I read The Foundling, where the Duke of Sale learns through action and adventure, to transition from being an unsure stripling to a confident young nobleman. I fell in love with Heyer's brand of exquisite magic and never looked back after that. I shed my inhibitions and now, at 26 am a business analyst at the worlds oldest bank, am the President of my Lions's club, and am the Captain of the company volleyball team.

    Georgette Heyer literally changed my life. Happy Reading!

    PS: These Old Shades was excellent. It beautifully fleshed out the characters in Devil's Cub.

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  14. I discovered Heyer as a teen and I have read all her mysteries and all her Regencies (and the odd Georgian ... ). I would recommend as her best SYLVESTER, FREDERICA, A CIVIL CONTRACT, and SPRIG MUSLIN. Probably a couple I'm forgetting. And the gloriously fun and very early THESE OLD SHADES.

    As for the early contemporary novels, like BARREN CORN and HELEN, I've read, I think, 1.5. Which was where I gave up. They are truly dire, in my opinion. (And very sexist.)

    The mysteries are fine -- not great, but fine. Worth a read.

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