Beautiful Plot Engines: The Spoilt Young Women of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances
In Regency England, two handsome, eligible bachelors move into a quiet country neighbourhood—but this isn’t Pride and Prejudice, and though the local families are buzzing, it isn’t with delighted hope. The village of Oversett in Georgette Heyer’s novel The Nonesuch already has its own matrimonial prize in the form of a beautiful heiress, and the addition of two potential new rivals causes consternation among Miss Tiffany Wield’s admirers, not to mention their ambitious mothers.
The reversal of a familiar plot is a charming, subtle pushback against the inevitable comparisons between Heyer and Jane Austen, but the novel also contains the perfect example of a character type to which Heyer —who, from the 1920s to 1960s, pioneered the genre of the Regency-era historical romance— had frequent recourse: a beautiful, wealthy, but essentially immature young woman, spoilt by over-indulgence, whose ill-judged escapades trigger the plot developments that eventually unite the book’s primary couple in their Happy Ending.
Heyer was both prolific—writing thirty-two romance novels, as well as lesser-known books in other genres—and hugely influential. I suspect that, were it not for her trail-blazing, the subsequent flood of published novels about disguised dukes, marriages of convenience, and penniless officers from the Peninsular War might never have been begun, still less continue unabated well into the twenty-first century. A key element of her books’ popularity is their fun, fast-paced plots, driven by character foibles. Readers may notice, however, that certain recurring types, in particular the ever-useful Spoilt Beauty exemplified by Tiffany Wield, cast light on women’s unequal position, not only in eighteenth and nineteenth-century society but also in Heyer’s own twentieth-century sensibility. These elements finally cohere in April Lady, a disquieting novel written in 1957, to tell us something interesting about how Heyer saw men and women coming together in the adult partnership of marriage.
Though the Spoilt Beauty was to become nearly ubiquitous, it took time for Heyer to refine this character. In her early adventures such as The Black Moth (1921) and These Old Shades (1926), set in the more swashbuckling Georgian period, the type is notably absent. The earliest prototype may be Juliana Marling, in The Devil’s Cub (1934), whose callousness (in refusing to help her friend Mary out of a dangerous predicament) and predisposition to hysterics are key hallmarks of a Spoilt Beauty. But what seals the identification is her role in catalysing the plot: Juliana breaks off her betrothal at just the right time for her dejected fiancé to try to run away with Mary, precipitating a runaway chain of incidents that ends with the spectacular reunion of Mary and her true love.
Herein lay the usefulness of Spoilt Beauties. As Heyer, writing in the 1930s and 40s, moved her setting from the Georgian to the more staid Regency period, the duels, abductions, and highwaymen were replaced by family relationships and financial woes. This was a change of pace, one that risked giving Heyer’s protagonists far too much time to spend brooding over their relationships in a claustrophobic “will they or won’t they” sort of way. Here the young female trouble-makers show their worth, shaking everyone up with their wilful disregard for propriety. Every one of the Spoilt Beauties is devoted to Gothic novels, whose sensational plots provide the fuel for their schemes, and if they aren’t driving their admirers into murderous jealousy in The Quiet Gentleman (1951), they are trying their hardest to run away with them in Sprig Muslin (1956).
The character may appear in different guises. In A Civil Contract (1961), the Spoilt Beauty is the hero’s former love, stirring up trouble between him and his new wife, while in Sylvester she appears as the hero’s widowed sister-in-law, engaged with him in a custody dispute. The characters run the gamut from entirely unsympathetic, like the unfortunate Tiffany, to warmhearted and engaging enough to upstage the romantic heroine, in the case of Amanda “Smith” of Sprig Muslin (not only does she adopt a false name in her stratagem to run off with the young officer whom she loves, she also teaches herself practical skills for an army wife, such as wringing a chicken’s neck). There is one constant, however: as soon as a Spoilt Beauty is in the neighbourhood, the primary couple, regardless of their age or situation, quickly have their hands too full with managing this youngster to spare a thought to pining over each other.
The Spoilt Beauty has a masculine equivalent, a youthful male character who similarly advances the plot by falling into childish “scrapes” and needing to be rescued. Aubrey in Venetia (1958) and Jessamy in Frederica (1965) stand out, among many other examples. The Young Scapegrace usually appears in the role of someone’s younger brother, whether the heroine’s or the Spoilt Beauty’s. There is a well-known story that Heyer wrote her first novel at age seventeen to amuse her sickly brother, which makes me think that the sibling relationship must have been particularly important to her.
Unlike the Spoilt Beauty, the Young Scapegrace is always sympathetic. He admires and emulates the much older romantic hero, and indeed his character arc often consists of shifting allegiance away from the heroine and toward the new male role model, signalled by a greater readiness to criticise his sister. Sylvester and April Lady are just two books that end with a heroine’s brother (or brother figure) calling her a “silly goose,” often for responding emotionally to something hurtful that the hero has done. The young man’s reaction to the Spoilt Beauty is more extreme: though he may start the book smitten by her (assuming that they aren’t related), by the end the hero has taught him to regard her with vigorous indignation or even disgust. Heyer was certainly aware of the way that young men learn how to treat women by watching their male elders.
When Heyer came to stitch together the plot of April Lady, she had recourse to both a Young Scapegrace and a Spoilt Beauty to set its gears in motion. Letty Cardross shares Amanda’s basic motivation from Sprig Muslin, including her cheerful disregard for rights and wrongs, while Letty’s priggish and long-winded love interest seems at first blush to be a copy of Juliana’s fiancé in The Devil’s Cub. But while Mr. Comyn had a secret addiction to romance that made his relationship to Juliana plausible, it’s hard to discover any chemistry between Mr. Allandale and the thoroughly unpleasant Letty. If there were ever a Spoilt Beauty who is no more than a transparently mechanical plot device, it is she. Despite these derivative elements, and some painful subject-matter relating to a foundering marriage, April Lady is one of Heyer’s most interesting novels. The plot ultimately turns on the question of what makes a heroine a heroine—and thus gives one of the sharpest illustrations of what Heyer considered to be the ideal relationship between a man and a woman.
The heroine of April Lady, Nell Cardross, has a lot in common with her sister-in-law Letty. She is only a year older, though married to Letty’s elder brother and thus considered an adult in a position of responsibility towards Letty. The age gap in Nell’s marriage, and the maturity gulf that goes with it, have caused problems that take most of the book to resolve. Significantly, Letty’s age and appearance are so similar to Nell’s that merely by donning a veil, Letty can be mistaken for her sister-in-law, who is then blamed for her misbehaviour. Nell’s loyal and principled conduct, not to mention her courage, only shine through when she helps the hero to solve the problems caused by the Spoilt Beauty. This is how she proves her worthiness to be a heroine.
Note that handling Spoilt Beauties effectively isn’t something that heroines can do on their own! Ancilla Trent, the heroine of The Nonesuch who has been hired as Tiffany Wield’s governess-companion, is described as the only person who can manage the difficult young heiress, but a reading of the text casts doubt on this characterisation. Ancilla is sometimes able to convince Tiffany that her outrageous behaviour will alienate her admirers, but more often than not we see her give in to the younger woman’s demands in order to prevent an ugly scene. The last chapter of The Nonesuch ends, not with any romantic interlude, but with the hero threatening physical retribution for Tiffany’s tantrums. A faint protest from Ancilla is ignored, while the young male character vocally applauds the hero’s actions, and the book’s abrupt ending gives the incident a troubling significance. Heyer certainly seems to have believed that some women need to be managed, but to be fair, I don’t think that she saw the ideal marriage as a relationship of domination. Her heroines are praised for their calm under pressure, resourcefulness and good sense—above all, they are like Nell Cardross when she helps to thwart Letty’s outbursts, a reliable partner for her husband.
Spoilt Beauties, who lack the self-control to be good partners, can never achieve this equality. Julia Oversley, in A Civil Contract, is finally married to an older man who knows how to curb her emotional outbursts without hurting her feelings. Amanda, in Sprig Muslin, may be more fortunate in getting the marriage that she wants, but she doesn’t get—or seem to desire—an equal partnership; when her beloved hears about her adventures, he assures the other characters forcefully that he will cure her of such tricks, and Amanda’s meek response suggests that he will succeed. Both of these matches are acclaimed by the other characters. Amanda, despite the sheer space that she takes up on the page, is not the romantic heroine. It’s the self-effacing Hester who, by helping to extricate herself and Sir Gareth Ludlow from the complications that Amanda has created, earns a marriage of equals with him.
Despite their best efforts, Heyer’s impetuous young women don’t succeed in toppling society’s conventions, but they do manage to lead the hero and heroine a merry dance before they are finally corralled into propriety. Their chaotic energy helps to raise these stories above the common run of romance novels by infusing them with fun and fast-paced action. These character-driven plots also deliver a vision of love whose wisdom is not restricted to either the Regency period or the mid-twentieth century: romantic relationships not as ends in themselves, but as a means whereby two people can support each other through life’s challenges and responsibilities—such as shepherding the younger generation, whether Spoilt Beauties or Young Scapegraces.--Mary Thaler