The novel begins with a marriage proposal, of sorts. Lord Sheringham (known as Sherry) is proposing to Isabella Milborne (known as The Incomparable, for her beauty and desirability). My fear was that the novel would revolve around Isabella, a haughty upper class bitch who toys with men’s emotions. Fortunately, she becomes a secondary character. Sherry, upset at her rejection, vows to marry the first woman he sees on a trip to London. When he happens upon Hero Wantage, a young woman who lives nearby with her cousin, she reminds him of his vow. She is mad about him; and to him, she is a bit of a lark. Hero is a kind soul, but very naïve. Making Sherry happy becomes her mission in life.
What ensues is a comedy of manners, a comedy of errors and much miscommunication. Sherry’s friends, Gil and George (who has threatened to shoot himself in the head if Ms. Milborne doesn’t marry him) and his cousin Ferdy act as a combination between a Greek chorus and the Three Stooges. There is much plotting and manipulation, an evil interloper – Sir Montagu – and the foil who recognizes Hero’s beauty and worthiness before Sherry does.
All’s well that ends well, though I thought the end would never come. In some ways this was a very fun read, but it did go on and on. Heyer managed to keep a tone of suspense through most of the novel, but it wasn’t hard to guess how things would turn out. If the book were half its 423 pages, I would have rated it much higher. As it was, the silliness and manipulations wore thin with this reader.
I was curious about the crude grammar used by some of the upper class people – mostly the men. Since I know little about the Regency era (I confess I’ve only read one Jane Austen novel so far!), I did a bit of research on the “tongue” of the day. I found this interesting essay, "On Vulgarity and Affectation" by William Hazlitt, written in the era:
Nothing real, nothing original, can be vulgar; but I should think an imitator of Cobbett a vulgar man. Emery's Yorkshireman is vulgar, because he is a Yorkshireman. It is the cant and gibberish, the cunning and low life of a particular district; it has 'a stamp exclusive and provincial.' He might 'gabble most brutishly' and yet not fall under the letter of the definition; but 'his speech bewrayeth [sic] him,' his dialect (like the jargon of a Bond Street lounger) is the damning circumstance. If he were a mere blockhead, it would not signify; but he thinks himself a knowing hand, according to the notions and practices of those with whom he was brought up, and which he thinks the go everywhere. In a word, this character is not the offspring of untutored nature but of bad habits; it is made up of ignorance and conceit. It has a mixture of slang in it. All slang phrases are for the same reason vulgar; but there is nothing vulgar in the common English idiom. Simplicity is not vulgarity; but the looking to affectation of any sort for distinction is. ….If you choose to read this book (and, I suspect, other Heyer books of the era) I suggest having at hand a reference guide to some of the terms used. For instance, do you know what an abigail is? What about “a bit of muslin?” Good ton/bad ton? There’s a handy lexicon guide online at this site.
The upper are not wiser than the lower orders because they resolve to differ from them. The fashionable have the advantage of the unfashionable in nothing but the fashion. The true vulgar are the servum pecus imitatorum -- the herd of pretenders to what they do not feel and to what is not natural to them, whether in high or low life. To belong to any class, to move in any rank or sphere of life, is not a very exclusive distinction or test of refinement. Refinement will in all classes be the exception, not the rule; and the exception may fall out in one class as well as another….
I’m sure that Heyer was true to the culture, customs and language of the times. I’m not sure I would devote so much reading time to another of her romances. I would be interested to read her historical fiction, however.