Lady Winwood being denied, the morning caller inquired with some anxiety for Miss Winwood, or, in fact, for any of the young ladies.For many, Heyer IS Regency, but this novel is set a little earlier, towards the end of the eighteenth century (1775 to be precise), when ladies of quality were wearing hooped skirts and hair was dressed elaborately high with padding. Mrs Maulfrey, seen arriving at the home of Lady Winwood in the opening sentence, is wearing paniers à coudes wide enough to brush the banisters as she climbs the stairs. We can immediately tell that Mrs Maulfrey only thinks she is the height of fashion, since by that time such large paniers would not be normal day dress. A further example of the way in which Heyer judges her writing to a nicety is that the actual heroine, Horatio Winwood, is the last of the Winwood daughters to be introduced to the reader, in keeping with her position as the youngest, and barely out of the schoolroom. Miss Winwood – Elizabeth – is a Beauty, Charlotte is a bit of a termagant and Horatia (named for Mr Walpole) is almost plain (think Viola Bonham-Carter in a polonaise).
The plot is as follows: the Earl of Rule, urged on by his sister, who thinks at thirty-five it is time he got married, has offered for the hand of Miss Winwood, who is greatly enamoured of the penniless (well, comparatively!) Mr Heron, a soldier. Turning him down is not to be thought of, however – the fortunes of the family are at stake, since the only son suffers from the Family Failing: his gambling debts are crippling, but a Good Marriage will save them. Miss Charlotte might do for a bride at a pinch, but she insists she will not leave Mama. No one would seriously consider Horatia, who is only seventeen. Nonetheless, she decides on the best course of action, and sets off (with her maid, you'll be relieved to hear, she isn't entirely reckless) to inform Lord Rule accordingly. She is candid about her failings – her lack of years, her eyebrows that won't arch (though she does have the family nose) and her stammer – but ventures that she is thought to be sensible, and she thinks they might get on if they don't interfere with each other.
It's unfortunate for Horry that Rule has a mistress, an old enemy, and an heir who would like to preserve his inheritance. Her brother Pelham, though well-meaning, has a knack of creating scandal rather than suppressing it, and Horry is soon enmeshed in a tangle which will bring her husband's disapproval down upon her head, and her attempts to extricate herself only seem to make matters worse. It is no help that Horry herself has rather succumbed to the family failing, and is an enthusiastic card player.
The Convenient Marriage dates from 1934, before Heyer had entirely got into her stride, I feel. Horry isn't such a rounded character, or quite as much fun as, say, Sophia Stanton-Lacy in The Grand Sophy, or my own joint favourites, Frederica and Arabella, and the story lacks the delicious mayhem of these later books. This is not to detract from a thoroughly amusing read, with particularly good period detail in the wardrobe department – there are some lovely descriptions of the macaroni, Mr Drelincourt, while Pelham's friend Sir Roland Pommeroy sets the mould for some splendid best friends in later novels (notably Gil, Ferdy and George in Friday's Child, for which it serves as something of a dry run). It's not Heyer at the height of her abilities but, if you already love her work and haven't read it, do!
Finally, this picture by Louis Rolland Trinquesse dates from 1776, and shows costume of the period, although my Arrow edition of The Convenient Marriage (above) has well-chosen cover artwork, a portrait of Penelope Lee Acton by George Romney, which nicely depicts the kind of dresses the Misses Winwood were wearing in the opening chapter: "morning toilets of worked muslin over slight hoops, with Tiffany sashes round their waists. Countrified, thought Mrs Maulfrey..."
Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.