I finished Georgette Heyer’s novel Lady of Quality last night, and it was such a pleasurable read! I don’t feel like doing a proper review, still suffering as I am from insomnia and general all-around crankiness, but I do want to say that I’ll have to find myself some more Georgette Heyer books because this was just so much fun.
It was a quiet book, about a 29-year-old woman named Annis living in Bath in the regency period, so, say, around 1810-1820 or so. She has recently left the home of her brother and his wife and family and has set up on her own, a mildly scandalous move for a woman people are beginning to call a spinster but who is still quite young. She is smart and beautiful with wit and a satirical sense of humor; she has received several offers of marriage, but none from any man who really impressed her.
Into her life come Lucilla and Ninian, two young people in their late teens; Lucilla has run away from home to avoid parental pressure to marry Ninian, and Ninian accompanies her to keep her safe. Chance brings Lucilla to Annis’s house, and the rest of the novel is about what to do with the girl, who decides she will not return home and who comes to love Bath and the pleasures it offers. She also brings her uncle on the scene, the rakish and rude but still mysteriously charming Oliver Carleton. Annis has never met a man quite like him before.
One of the interesting things about the book is the way Annis seems like an early example of the “excellent woman” phenomenon of which Barbara Pym wrote so well. Everyone wants to turn Annis into an “excellent woman,” one of those unmarried women who spend their lives taking care of others. They believe she should have stayed at home with her brother, enjoying his “protection” and helping to take care of his children. An independent woman who lives for herself is almost too much for people of the time to comprehend. Living on her own and according to her own wishes is acceptable only because Annis has some money and has the stubbornness and high spirits to insist upon it; otherwise, she would surely find herself drawn into other people’s lives and into their houses, away from her own. But she works very hard to keep her independence and to ward off the prying, meddling people who want to take up her time and attention.
In contrast to Annis is Miss Farlow, a single woman, considerably older than Annis and without any means to support herself — she’s an example of the Miss Bates type (from Emma), a genteel woman without much money who depends on the kindness of others to get by. Annis has kindly agreed to hire her as a companion, which earns Miss Farlow’s great gratitude, but unfortunately she repays her with irritating, never-ending chatter (also like Miss Bates) and vindictive jealousy when Lucilla appears on the scene. Miss Farlow is a figure of fun, but she also shows an alternative fate for women — without her money and without her beauty, Annis could easily be another Miss Farlow, alone and penniless.
The pace of the novel is slow and leisurely; there’s not a whole lot of narrative tension, but the sunniness of the mood and charm of the characters kept my interest. Now I’m off to see if Book Mooch has any more Heyer novels …