One of the things about Georgette Heyer is that the question “which of her books is your favorite?” tends to invoke a response corresponding to: “whichever one I am reading now.” Every time I reread one of her novels, I am always amazed at how fresh it is, even though I already know the plot; how exquisite the writing; how beautifully delineated the characters; and, perhaps most of all, the breadth and depth of understanding of the manners, customs, and language of the world she wrote about.
So it is with Bath Tangle. The plot is well crafted, sometimes with the intricacy of a country dance, but if one didn’t know that Heyer was writing a century and a half after Austen, one might be forgiven for mistaking them as contemporaries. She clearly drew from Austen, but her treatments always feel original.
To take just one example, from a scene early in the novel: a single nobleman of immense fortune (ten times the consequence of a mere Mr. Darcy) indulges his female relations by yielding to their persuasions to escort them to a country Assembly. He has done so with the ulterior motive of flirting a little with a naïve young miss he has recently met, but after standing up for the first two dances with her, and finding her conversation to have descended from artless confidences to monosyllables, he turns, bored, to the card room, and then slips away (hoping to avoid the notice of his sister) to go pay a duty call of leave-taking on an old friend, because he is going away the next day. But this friend takes him severely to task for his behavior:
“It would have been bad enough to have danced only with the ladies of your own party. That would have made everyone say merely that you were disagreeably haughty! But to single out one girl, and she not of your own party—Ivo, it is the height of insolence, and a great piece of unkindness to [her] besides! . . . Depend upon it, you have now raised the most absurd expectations in her [mother’s] breast, turned that unfortunate child into an object of envy and speculation, all for sport! . . . I could name you a dozen girls, all, I daresay, at the Assembly tonight, as worthy of your notice as [she]! But no! You have been playing the great man, condescending to grace a country Assembly. . . . I believe it to be a kind of unthinking arrogance. . . . If you went to a public Assembly, you had no choice but to behave with civility towards all! You might have danced with no one, since your excuse for going there was only to indulge your younger guests with a ball, but for a whim to single out one girl—and she the loveliest!—and then to stroll away, as though you thought yourself above the rest of the company—oh, no, Ivo, how could you? Every feeling is offended!”
Ivo’s old friend—herself a lady of consequence who has never considered attending this Assembly in the town near her own home—has known him all her life, and, when she is not quarreling with him, is usually his partisan. As she explains, when she finds out some days later that (after leaving her presence in a fury) he returned to the Assembly and danced not only with his young cousin but with “some girl who had no partner”:
“When he does such things it is not from any conscious idea of his own consequence, or a contempt for persons of inferior rank, but from a sort of heedless arrogance, as I told him. . . . He was never taught to think of anything but his own pleasure, but his disposition is not bad, nor does he mean to offend the sensibilities of others. It is all heedlessness! If he can but be made to see that he has behaved badly, he is sorry for it at once. . . . He knew what I said to be true, and that is what wounded his pride, and made him smart so. . . . Don’t imagine that he instantly set about mending the matter because his conduct had given me an ill opinion of him! He did it because it gave him that ill opinion.”
Now, to be fair, there is a lot of text missing in all of the ellipses in these two excerpts (including a description of Ivo’s upbringing where he was given good principles but left to follow them in pride and conceit), but it shows how Heyer can, in a few sentences, not only give a decided impression of a scene that takes place off-stage, so to speak, but still manage to illustrate perfectly the niceties of the code of behavior of the time to a degree not found in your average Regency romance novel. Naturally, it evokes the Meryton Assembly in Pride & Prejudice, where Mr. Darcy refuses to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men, but it does so with an elegance of language that adds substantially to our understanding of the characters and their relations with each other.
I love this novel. It seems to be deeper and richer than some of Heyer’s other novels, perhaps because it takes place over the course of a year rather than of a few days or weeks. Developing and unraveling the tangle that takes place when some of the main characters remove to Bath takes three-quarters of the novel, and every bit of it is a treat to be savored.
The Sourcebooks edition is, as usual, a pleasure to hold and read, but there seemed to be more “scannos” than usual in this one, mostly of punctuation. Missing italics added italics, and missing dashes are the most noticeable. My other copy of this novel is the Heinemann Uniform Edition, in which the type is only very slightly smaller, but heavier, and includes dashes three times as long as are currently fashionable, which I prefer as it makes for easier reading. But these are quibbles that are hardly new, and I only mention them for the benefit of those other pedants out there who, like me, care deeply about such details.
But for everyone else, if you love Austen, or even if you just love Austen film adaptations and you haven’t yet read Heyer, do yourself a favor and read this book.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Bath Tangle, 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).
© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose