(Random House e-book 2005, originally published 1963)
This is one of my favourites of Georgette Heyer’s historical novels – unusually, it’s told predominantly from the viewpoint of the hero, a nice touch.
Christopher Fancot, working for the diplomatic service in Vienna, returns to England and his family house in London to find his mother distracted and his twin brother Evelyn, the Earl of Denville, missing. In the course of a late night conversation with Lady Denville, Kit discovers that his brother has determined to marry Miss Cressida Stavely, and to this end is due to attend a party at Lord Stavely’s house the next day. Since Evelyn’s main motivation for marrying is to break the trust and come into his inheritance as soon as possible, and thus be able to pay off the enormous debts their mother has incurred, Kit jokes that if Evelyn does not turn up by the next day, that he will impersonate his twin at the party!
To his horror, this is exactly what he ends up doing, and, aided by their extreme likeness and Evelyn’s notorious absent-mindedness, he muddles through the next few days. After cutting dead an acquaintance of Evelyn’s on the street, Kit decides he must rusticate, and travels down the Denville country seat near Brighton, Ravenhurst Park. He also hopes that he’ll be able to find out something of Evelyn’s whereabouts, since he was due to redeem a brooch, staked by Lady Denville durin a card game, from Lord Silverdale. Although his mother follows him to Ravenhurst, she brings unwelcome news that old Lady Stavely, Cressy’s grandmother, proposes to visit with Cressy, to allow her grand-daughter and the supposed Lord Denville to become better acquainted. As a result, Lady Denville also invites her penny-pinching brother Cosmo, his wife Emma, and son Ambrose; and her middle-aged paramour, Sir Bonamy Ripple.
This is a very amusing book, the the humour mostly in the dialogue, but also in the situations in which the conspirators find themselves – particularly when Evelyn finally appears. Everything is resolved beautifully at the end, as Kit exercises his diplomatic prowess. The characters are individual and well-drawn: old Lady Stavely is “a rare old griffin” but genuinely fond of Cressy; fluttery Lady Denville might be a spendthrift, recklessly extravagant and “a pretty widgeon”, but she is genuinely kind and attentive to her guests’ comfort, and she is very generous. The affection the twins have for their mother, and she for them, is clearly drawn and touching, without being sentimental.
“Observing these objects with an intelligent eye, Mr Fancot concluded that their noble owner had told his servants not to wait up for him. The subsequent discovery that the front-door was unbolted confirmed him in this belief. As he opened the door, to retrieve his belongings from the porch, he reflected, with an inward chuckle, that when his lordship did come home at last he would find his bed occupied by a most unlooked-for visitor, and would in all probability think that he was a good deal boskier than he had supposed.”
Heyer’s grasp of the Regency period is so complete that her fictional world appears entirely natural, without the touches which speak of researches shoe-horned into the plot. Most of the period-setting is done by dialogue and the use of slang, deft references to current events (such as Kit’s posting to Vienna), and fashions in dress, cuisine and occupations. For example, there’s a nice contrast between the less constricting clothes which Cressy and Lady Denville wear and the fashions of an earlier age which the Dowager Lady Stavely clings to, and amusing references to Sir Bonamy’s corpulence and his creaking Cumberland corset.
Kit and Cressy are delightful protagonists, intelligent and lively, though serious-minded beneath; there’s a lovely scene when she rescues him from Mrs Alperton, the mother of one of Evelyn’s ‘ladybirds’ whom he used to visit in Tunbridge, who has come to blackmail ‘Lord Denville’ by revealing the liaison to Cressy.
This is a charming and amusing book; the romance is natural and grows organically, and the secondary characters are well-drawn and entertaining. This is one of Heyer’s best.