(Random House e-book 2005, originally published 1962)
In Heyer’s later years, she wrote a number of historical romances featuring slightly older heroines (in their late twenties rather than their late teens), and The Nonesuch is one of these. Ancilla Trent is the eldest daughter of a long but genteel family who is presently acting as companion to Mrs. Underhill, a wealthy widow, and governess to Mrs. Underhill’s daughter Charlotte and tempestuous and beautiful niece, Tiffany Wield. Ancilla is in her late twenties, and is content to be a governess (for the princely wage of £50!) until or if she falls in love, an event which she thinks unlikely to happen.
Sir Waldo Hawkridge – the ‘Nonesuch’ of the title, called this due to his sporting prowess – has been bequeathed a ramshackle estate in Yorkshire by his cousin Joseph Calver, and decides to visit the place to see whether the estate can be made to pay for the upkeep of the house. He intends to set up another home for orphans, for he’s a noted philanthropist, and very wealthy. His younger cousin Julian, Lord Lindeth, accompanies him. Once at Broom Hall, he finds that the wealthier inhabitants are thrown into great excitement by his and Lindeth’s arrival. Soon after arriving, Lindeth meets Tiffany, and is instantly smitten by her astonishing good looks. At the ball which follows, however, Sir Waldo is more attracted to Miss Trent – and she to him.
The course of true love doesn’t run smoothly, particularly for Sir Waldo and Ancilla, due to a misunderstanding on her part of what his intentions are with regard to Broom Hall.
This is one of Heyer’s quieter novels – there isn’t much adventure, hi-jinks or smuggling, for example – and the misunderstanding between Miss Trent and Sir Waldo is understandable (though of course the reader is let in on the secret, and this makes Ancilla’s misunderstanding much more painful to read). The characters are delightful, and are varied – Tiffany in particular and Sir Waldo’s cousin Laurence, lend a note of comedy to the proceedings, though there are some moving moments as well. There’s also more social realism, and comments on the treatment and condition of the poor, in this novel compared with most of Heyer’s other works, given Sir Waldo’s preoccupations, and the principles in which Patience, the vicar’s daughter, has been reared. This helps make the novel feel grounded in its time, despite the imaginary location of much of the action, but Heyer is very skilled at evoking the language, manners, mores and fashions of the day. There’s a lovely contrast, for example, between Patience’s unstudied and natural kindness with Tiffany’s self-interestedness, and when Ancilla recounts some of her family history to Sir Waldo, this reiterates this theme of support and help – in her case from their uncle, General Sir Mordaunt Trent, though he himself is encumbered by his son’s debts – which the richer are bound to give to the poorer.
“’… Sir Waldo hasn’t mentioned the matter, even to Papa, and we believe he would as lief it were not known, because he told Wedmore that Mr Calver had privately desired him, when the precise state of his affairs should have been ascertained, to make provision for his old servants. Even Papa doesn’t believe Mr Calver did anything of the sort! The Wedmores are to have a pension which will make them comfortable beyond anything they had hoped for: Mrs Wedmore came to tell Honeywick yesterday! You may imagine how much she was overcome – how thankful!’
‘Indeed! I am very glad to know that Sir Waldo has done what he should.’
‘Yes, and of course it was expected that he would. You may say that he is so wealthy that it means no more to him than it would mean to me to give a penny to a beggar, but what strikes one so particularly is the manner of it. It was done with a delicacy that shows Sir Waldo to be a man of sensibility, not above considering what must have been the feelings of two such faithful people when they discovered how little their service had been valued!’”
This isn’t one of my favourites of Heyer’s Regency-set novels, but I’m very fond of it, nevertheless.