“To own the truth,” replied Miss Morville candidly, “I can perceive nothing romantic in a headless spectre. I should think it a very disagreeable sight, and if I did fancy I saw such a thing I should take one of Dr. James’s powders immediately!”
Thus Drusilla Morville sadly disappoints her more romantic-minded friend, Marianne Bolderwood, on the subject of potential hauntings in Stanyon Castle, where both young ladies are staying before a ball. Miss Morville has been staying at Stanyon rather longer than Miss Bolderwood: her parents are away, and the Dowager Countess of St. Erth, who has a kindness for her, invited her to stay with her while they are gone.
And so Miss Morville is present to witness the homecoming of the seventh Earl of St. Erth to take up his patrimony. He had been estranged from his father from the unfortunate elopement of his mother when he was a small boy; on her death, the sixth Earl had married again and produced two more children. But the elder son hardly ever visited his ancestral home, spending his school holidays with maternal relations, and later serving in the 7th Hussars at Waterloo— an event which happened shortly after his father’s death, and perhaps excused his failure to attend his obsequies, but he then chose to delay his return until the mourning year ended.
The other residents of Stanyon include the Honourable Martin Frant, half-brother to the seventh earl; Theodore Frant, who serves as an estate agent and is the son of the sixth Earl’s reprobate younger brother; and the Reverend Felix Clowne, the late Earl’s chaplain, who remains in that capacity for the Dowager Countess.
Having recently re-watched the 1995 production of Pride & Prejudice, the similarities between the Dowager Countess and her chaplain to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr. Collins were striking, and perhaps Heyer originally intended to develop the parallels more closely; but despite his rather unfortunate name, Mr. Clowne is not nearly so entertaining as Mr. Collins: instead he recedes into the background, while Lady St. Erth dominates all conversation with self-referential pronouncements. Among these is a tendency to deplore the ways of Providence, which unaccountably saw the seventh Earl safely through all of his military endeavors in the Peninsula and on the Continent, so that he, and not her own son, should succeed to the sixth Earl’s honours. Martin, indeed, has been brought up to think of himself as the heir, and thus is rather resentful of his half-brother’s survival, considering him almost in the light of a usurper.
To this collected company, Gervase Frant, seventh Earl of St. Erth, arrives at Stanyon Castle. He is exquisitely dressed, exquisitely mannered, and finds himself saved from dreadful tedium of sojourning in the country alone with these persons only by the discovery of the local beautiful heiress (Miss Bolderwood), to whom everyone—particularly Martin—is devoted, and by the arrival of his close friend, Lucius Austell, Viscount Ulverston.
Two things set this novel apart from the rest of the Heyer canon. One is the pragmatic nature of Miss Morville, whose quiet common sense seems rather dull to Lord St. Erth, and the second is the mystery element, which is in the gothic tradition, yet not gothic: someone appears to be trying to do away with Lord St. Erth. Unlike Cousin Kate, there are no histrionics, madness, or any gothic horrors. Without providing spoilers, it’s fair to say that the horror is provided by the crime itself, with all of the romantic trappings stripped away. The story gently satirizes the (eighteenth-century) horror genre by placing the perfect setting, an ancient country seat inhabited by the aristocracy, against the foils of a lack of the supernatural, a gently bred but unsqueamish lady who keeps her head in the face of danger, and a nobleman who appears to be a delicate fop but instead possesses extraordinary strength of mind, character, and body. Little is actually as it seems.
Georgette Heyer’s characterizations and sense of time and place are all, as usual, beautifully rendered, and fans of the era (and of good writing) will enjoy the details of its setting, manner, and speech. This edition was truly a pleasure to hold and to read, the occasional “scanno” notwithstanding. The cover art, while not Regency, is otherwise appropriate. If you can’t afford the 1951 first edition (as I cannot), be grateful (as I am) that these new editions by Sourcebooks now are available.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Quiet Gentleman, by Georgette Heyer
Trade paperback (368) pages
Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas. She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility: An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).
Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks © 2011; text Laura A. Wallace © 2011, Austenprose