Romance reader and author, Lesli Lent, shares with us her views on Sprig Muslin, one of Georgette Heyer’s most amusing, if confusing, Regency romances. Though Lesli has no doubt who the hero of this story is, she does question the roles of the two most prominent female characters. Which one is the heroine? How does one classify the other prominent female? Would such a romance make it to press today? If it did, would you read it?
Have you read Sprig Muslin? Whether you agree or disagree with Lesli, you are welcome to post your views in comments to this article.
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Many years ago when I was first reading romances and writing a contemporary, I remarked at a chapter meeting that what I liked was sharp, intelligent dialogue. The type in the old Designing Women, St Elsewhere, Barney Miller TV shows. A fellow member stated, "Oh, you would love Regencies." I had never heard of them. But I picked up a few, and voilà, I was hooked.
Sprig Muslin was written by Georgette Heyer in 1956. It was her 38th novel.
This delightful romp is not written in the same structure as what we have become used to. It is difficult to know whether the now common character format is something that has evolved since Heyer’s time, or whether the different design is what helps to make so many of Heyer’s works such a delight.
In this book, we do not watch the hero and heroine meet or become reacquainted. The story begins with the hero’s, Sir Gareth, goal of making a particular woman, Lady Hester, his wife. We the readers, are not sure why, but because of the way Heyer presents him, we trust his judgment. He intends to travel to her home and present his offer. On the way he meets a very young woman named Amanda who has run away from home. She wants to force her own intended to marry her. She is tired of waiting.
Being a man of means and honor, Sir Gareth attaches himself to her and takes her with him to his intended’s home. It is an abduction of sorts. But once there, the intended has a short and unexceptional appearance and declines his offer. Still, Lady Hester is quite kind to young Amanda, and Amanda is grateful for the lady’s kindness. But Amanda "escapes," and Gareth then leaves to find his "ward," then hopes to discover her family and keep this innocent safe from harm and from herself.
While we are intrigued, at some point the story begs the question, "Who is the heroine?" Sir Gareth’s intended is shy, meek, and unheroine-like. Amanda is vivacious, smart, funny, and so single-minded, yet immature, no calm and thinking man would want her. She is aptly described as a "piece of baggage," and that is being kind.
Nevertheless, the book is titled after her. She is dressed in a sprig muslin gown. It would not be the first time a book is titled after the villain. Is she? Or is this eighteen-year-old child the heroine? And while in many Romances, we know we will come to see the wisdom of the hero’s eventual capitulation to a compelling young woman, the story is so brilliantly written we know there is no way this lovely man is going to go all stupid on us.
The hero, in his desire to see Amanda safely home with her family, saves her, then squelches several of her new attempts to escape. They eventually meet a young man named Hildebrand who is quite taken with Amanda and falls victim to her litany of lies, and there is a bigger whopper every few pages. In Amanda’s latest botched attempt to escape, Hildebrand shoots our hero, Sir Gareth.
Amanda takes over, saves Sir Gareth, and is the only one with any sense. Huh?
Amanda then sends the young man off to bring Sir Gareth’s ex-intended, Lady Hester, to help with his recovery. In fact, then if it is not for Lady Hester, Gareth would likely have perished. Again.
Lady Hester’s family goes looking for her. Amanda’s fiancé discovers her whereabouts, her grandfather goes after her, Gareth’s family wades into the mix. Was there ever a stranger bunch and it a more apt statement than that you can pick your friends but not your family? This was probably true hundreds of years ago, true when Heyer wrote this book nearly 60 years ago, and true today. It is one of the things that would keep the story fresh and relevant for new readers.
Amanda’s young fiancé is the only one who can manage this young woman. At some point, while weak and meek, Lady Hester manages to stick to her guns, over the objections of her family. It is about the only spunk she shows. Young Hildebrand has grown up a good deal in the chaos. The families are thwarted.
One wonders if fifty years later we would meet Amanda and listen to her memoirs to discover she has led a life of substance where she met every challenge with bravery and spirit and more than a few clankers. Did we just see her when she was a mere girl, but it was all there inside her? Perhaps.
Does the unusual structure of the story negate its value? Do we want every story to follow a well-defined format? Or can we appreciate something smart and witty and a timeless reflection of families and fools and foibles?
The dialogue is hilarious and brilliant and the antics of the characters totally absurd. The book is charming, relevant, memorable. It is more a story of the times than a romance. Sprig Muslin is one of my favorite Heyer novels. And it is an extraordinary example of exceptional writing and a reason we still read and admire Georgette Heyer.
Lesli Lent is a charter member of Heart of Denver Romance Writers, a long-time Beaumonde member, and the author of several Regency novels. She has a contemporary short story in her local chapter’s anthology, Sealed With Love, available Fall, 2015.