Lady of Quality was Georgette Heyer’s last book before her death in July 1974. She suffered chronic ill-health in her later years and fractured her leg in a fall in January 1972. Despite this, she began work on another book and by April had sent the outline to her agent. Lady of Quality was published in October – an amazing achievement and a tribute to Georgette Heyer’s talent and dedication to her craft.
The heroine is Annis Wychwood and the title sums her up nicely. Annis is twenty-nine and unmarried (an old maid in Regency terms), but she’s no dowdy spinster. She’s intelligent, rich, beautiful, elegant and charming, with a sense of humour and an independent spirit. She lives in Bath with an impoverished cousin, Miss Maria Farlow, as her chaperone.
The book opens with Annis traveling home with Miss Farlow after a visit to her brother and his family. In spite of her comfortable lifestyle and independence, Annis is bored. Her future holds no promise of excitement and the well-meaning but prosy Maria only adds to her gloom. Unsurprisingly, then, when Annis encounters a young couple arguing beside an overturned gig, her curiosity is aroused. She alights from her carriage to investigate and discovers orphan and heiress Lucilla Carleton is running away from home in the company of her childhood friend Ninian Elmore. Ninian’s parents and Lucilla’s aunt have been urging them to marry, but it’s a match that neither wants.
Much to the jealous Miss Farlow’s dismay, Annis invites Lucilla to stay until her affairs can be sorted. Annis enjoys introducing her protégé to Bath society and things go smoothly until Lucilla’s uncle and guardian arrive. Rakish Oliver Carleton is the rudest man Annis has ever met and sparks fly from their first meeting. He’s blunt, sardonic and unheeding of society’s rules, but he’s also honest about his flaws, makes her laugh and is never, ever boring .
Lady of Quality is a truly delightful read. Annis is a Regency heroine that modern women can easily relate to and the way her ordered, independent life is thrown into confusion by the arrival of Oliver Carleton lies at the heart of this story. Oliver is less well-drawn than some Heyer heroes, but I love how he is honest with Annis from the outset and treats her as an adult, and his equal. Their sparkling exchanges are one of the highlights of the book and their mutual passion oozes off the page. In a contemporary review, journalist Phillipa Toomey coined Evelyn Waugh’s phrase ‘the bat’s squeak of sexuality,’ to describe the frisson of sexual attraction between Annis and Oliver.
The older secondary characters are unusually interesting too. Maria Farlow’s annoying traits are masterfully displayed (she’s up there with Mr. Collins as the most irritating secondary character ever!) and family relationships are examined with a knowing and critical eye. A vein of realism runs beneath the light-hearted surface of Heyer’s romances.
In many ways, Lady of Quality is strikingly similar to Black Sheep, but, as Toomey pointed out, ‘Did anyone ever complain of being given another pretty little present by Fabergé?’ A fitting analogy and I highly recommend Lady of Quality, the last literary gem that the inimitable Georgette bestowed on us. Her books have entertained generations of readers and will continue to do so. She always delivered on style, wit, and elegant prose, but above all, she was a consummate storyteller, one of the few able to recreate an entire world away from everyday life into which the reader could joyfully escape. So if you’ve never read Georgette Heyer, what are you waiting for? Read, enjoy, then spread the Heyer love – she’s too good not to share!
Lady of Quality, by Georgette Heyer
Trade paperback (304) pages
Elizabeth Hanbury lives in a village in the heart of England and writes historical romance whenever she can find time to sneak away to her shockingly cluttered desk. Her introduction to Georgette Heyer came in her teens when she discovered a battered paperback edition of Devil’s Cub in the bookcase. Reading it sparked an enduring affection for Heyer’s work as well as a wider interest in the Georgian and Regency periods. Elizabeth’s latest Regency romance is Ice Angel and her short story collection, Midsummer Eve at Rookery End is also available. You can follow her blog posts at Elizabeth Hanbury and For Romance Readers.
Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks © 2008; text Elizabeth Hanbury © 2010, Austenprose.com