I’m a big fan of Heyer’s novels, both her crime novels with their (as it was then) contemporary settings, and her historical novels. I prefer her 18th and 19th century set novels best (though I did enjoy ‘Simon The Coldheart’), with their effortless period detail, delightful characters and witty writing.
This book is one of my favourite of Heyer’s novels, combining both adventure, romance, humour and period detail so beautifully, and tying everything up cleverly and satisfyingly at the end.
The Talisman Ring is set in the late 18th century (probably 1793, given references in the book to the execution of Louis XVI) in Sussex. Sir Tristram Shield has come to Lavenham Court to visit the deathbed of his great-uncle, Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, and to be betrothed to Sylvester’s ward, Eustacie de Vauban. Also present is Basil Lavenham, a cousin of Shield’s whom Sylvester dislikes, but who will inherit the Lavenham estates. At dinner, Eustacie (who does not view marriage to Tristram, who is more than ten years her senior, with much enthusiasm), asks what happened to Ludovic (Sylvester’s grandson and heir), and what he did “that was so entirely wicked”.
Shield relates the tale: Ludovic, who was a wild and headstrong young man, had been playing cards for money with a ‘Cit’ and pledged his talisman ring – a valuable heirloom – against Sir Matthew’s money. Having failed to get his ring back by fair means, Ludovic then attempted to waylay Sir Matthew, and then, presumably, shot the man, for Sir Matthew’s body was found the next morning. Feeling sure that Ludovic would inevitably be found guilty of the murder, due to strong circumstantial evidence, Sylvester promptly arranged for his heir to be shipped out of the country.
As things stand, no-one knows if Ludovic is still alive, and thus Basil’s position is still uncertain. Sylvester dies soon afterward, without having seen Shield and Eustacie married; as a result, and unable to bear the thought of marriage to such an unromantic man (one who lives in Berkshire and would not even ride ventre-à-terre to his wife’s deathbed!), she runs away.
While on the way to Hand Cross that evening to board the stagecoach, Eustacie recalls horrifying stories of the Headless Horseman, loses her bandboxes and falls in with a gang of smugglers. The leader proves to be her cousin Ludovic, who took to ‘free-trading’ after his disgrace! An exchange of shots with some Excise-men searching for the smugglers means Ludovic is shot, and Eustacie takes him to the inn at Hand Cross, where the landlord, Nye, is a friend (and customer) of the smugglers.
Also staying there is Sarah Thane and her brother Sir Hugh, putting up for the night due to Sir Hugh’s incipient cold in the head and the excellence of the brandy served at the inn. Sarah, happening upon the arrival of Eustacie and a now-swooning Ludovic, offers her assistance and determines to chaperone the younger woman.
Events unroll from here with fabulous and inventive inevitability: now realising that Ludovic does not have the ring, the conspirators (Ludovic, Eustacie, Sarah and Sir Tristram) determine that to prove Ludovic’s innocence (and so enable him to marry Eustacie) they must discover who has the talisman ring.
The book is funny and witty and adventurous, with a fast-moving plot and engaging characters: like a good Hollywood screwball comedy, there is great dialogue. The four main characters are well-contrasted – the younger, less practical Eustacie and Ludovic, and the older Sir Tristram and Sarah – and well-drawn: Sarah is not a lady in the first flush of youth (she is thirty!), but she enters into the game with verve and enthusiasm, and even Sir Tristram sheds his reserve to play his part with skill. Some of the scenes are wonderfully farcical, such as Ludovic pretending to be Eustacie’s maid to put a couple of Bow Street Runners off his scent; Sarah compounding the issue by pretending to be the maid; the Runners trying to shoot off the lock of a cupboard where they are convince Ludovic is hiding, and consequent damage; and where Ludovic and his fellow-smuggler Abel Bundy attempt to find the priest’s hole where Ludovic is sure the ring has been hidden. Some of the conversations between the four main characters are also hilarious, as is the comic relief provided by Sir Hugh and the Runners.
Eventually, all is discovered and the villain unmasked, and true love flourishes!