Mar 262015

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

Romance author, Jane Ashford, shares her first experience with Georgette Heyer as a young woman, an experience with which many of us can relate. She goes on to discuss The Reluctant Widow, one of Heyer’s Regencies which include a bit of mystery and Heyer’s influence on her own work as a romance author.

Please feel free to share your views about this book in comments to this article.

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Dark-haired woman in a mauve dress and blue shawl seated in a chair

Stepping into the Wrong Carriage — The Reluctant Widow

One fateful day many years ago, I was grazing the shelves of my small town public library, back where there weren’t any book jackets. I scanned the rows of dun-colored spines looking for interesting titles. I pulled one down to investigate further. And I found Georgette Heyer.

I’m not sure which of her books it was that first time. I do know that as soon as I started reading, I fell in love — with her heros, her writing style, her humor, her rich casts of characters, the wit and sophistication of the Regency society she so wonderfully portrayed. My teenage self longed to make a dazzling debut at Almack’s.

I also found a source of inspiration and aspiration, because my not-so-secret ambition was to become a writer myself. And in Heyer I found storytelling approaches and techniques that I wanted to emulate.

First, her stories are fun. Most have a touch of screwball comedy, and any number of laugh aloud moments. In The Reluctant Widow, this begins with the premise itself. Distressed gentlewoman Elinor Rochdale, arriving from London, gets into the wrong carriage in a Sussex village. On arrival she finds, not the sour woman who hired her as a governess, but the attractive, persuasive Lord Carlyon. Somehow caught up in his outrageous plans, she finds herself married to a dying rake, about to inherit a pile of trouble. The stage is set for many humorous exchanges between the two of them. An irrepressible dog and a charmingly silly younger brother add to the antics.

Heyer’s tales also have an essential humanity. Many of her heroes win their brides, and our hearts, by showing kindness. Lord Carlyon treats Elinor’s impoverished former governess with the courtesy due a duchess. He foresees Elinor’s practical needs and makes sure they’re fulfilled. He cares deeply for his family and watches out for them. Conversely, villainy in a Heyer novel tends to stem from selfishness. The Reluctant Widow’s Lord Bedlington betrays his country out of greed. His son and nephew, the younger Cheviots, think only of themselves — the one ruinously indulgent, the other coldly ruthless.

Finally, I liked the way that true love is a process in Heyer’s books. Of course, we can all be rendered breathless by an incredibly handsome, gloriously built, fashionably dressed, extremely rich, insanely witty stranger. But, for Heyer and for me, physical attraction does not a true match make. Elinor is rather dazzled by the top-of-the-trees Carlyon, but she doesn’t just melt into a puddle of lust. Far from it, she challenges him at every turn. The pair has to learn about each other before they find their happy ending.

I still re-read Heyer for all the things she does so well, and I find new and different joys in her books as I grow older.

Drawing of a man leaning over a woman.

I’ll leave you with my discovery that there was a film adaptation of The Reluctant Widow in 1950. The reviews were NOT good. The poster may give some hints as to why.

You can find Jane Ashford at:

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  20 Responses to “Regency Turns 80 — The Reluctant Widow

  1. Yes the film was a shocker. The story was barely recognisable, there was little wit and the “Guy” who played the hero had skinny legs. If someone like Stewart Granger or James Mason had played Carlyon it might have been saved but he was plain straight ugly. I’ve always assumed that disaster was why none of her other books were ever filmed.

    • Skinny legs!! Practically a guarantee of non-hero in Heyer. : )

    • You are absolutely right on that assumption. I understand that she actually inserted a clause into her will that none of her other books was ever to be made into a film. And, to date, her family have honored her wishes. Rather a pity, since a good film-maker, with a good cast, could turn out a lovely film, or even a nice, lush mini-series or two. Oh, sigh!


      • Maybe down the track, money will win. Not that I would consider ruining a families finances just to get myself some Heyer miniseries. I wouldn’t consider it at all. Would not cross my mind…

      • Speaking of adaptations, there’s a theater in Chicago that has done multiple theatrical adaptations of Heyer novels and stories. I really wish I could have seen them!

    • It is worth noting that until the slew of films of Jane Austin novels in the last couple of decades only Pride and Prejudice had previously been filmed in the 1940s. Perhaps they were not seen as having enough appeal to a wider audience.

      • Gainsborough Films made a lot a B-grade costume dramas in the forties with James Mason, Stewart Granger and Margaret Lockwood so that suggests they were not attracting big money.

  2. That’s a lovely analysis of Heyer’s heroes and villains. As for those playful puppies of younger brothers, do you suppose any of them grow into responsible adults like Carlyon? Or do they turn into the gently comic uncles?

  3. Thank you for your lovely article. This is another of my favourites. She handles the mistake at the beginning with masterful aplomb and I love how Carlyon finagles the cousin into doing what he wants. I had never heard of the movie. It sounds as thought it is a good thing too.

  4. Great article! The Reluctant Widow is one of my favorites, especially the comical scene where Carlyon and Elinor first meet. She does not know yet that she entered the wrong carriage and when Carlyon references his degenerate cousin, she believes that he is speaking of the child for whom she is to be governess.

    ‘Good heavens, he is not – he surely cannot be – deranged, sir?’ she exclaimed.

    ‘No, he is quite sane,’ he answered. ‘It is brandy, not madness, to which the greater part of his propensity for evil is attributable.’

    ‘Brandy?’ she gasped.

    The scene is pages long and one of the funniest in the book. Definitely n example of the Heyer’s talent for screwball comedy!

  5. Like you, I like that love is a process in Heyer’s novels. By the time the couple get together in her stories, I really believe they are well-suited to one another and will have a rewarding happily ever after. Somehow, the stories are all the richer for that slow and intricate dance between hero and heroine.

    Thanks for a great post!



  6. I began this book by thinking there is no way a woman like Elinor – in possession of intelligence and upright morals – would agree to Carlyon’s marriage scheme. Yet a few chapters later, I am fully involved and totally believing the story. It reads to me like a gentle parody of the classic Gothic novel, with crumbly estate Highnoons and its rusty suits of armor, secret passages, and housebreakers. A friend of mine thinks there is no romance here between Elinor and Carlyon, but I think there is unassailable proof of his devotion: he trusts her with his horse.

    Fantastic review, Jane!

  7. The Reluctant Widow is one of my favourites largely because of the wonderful dialogue, especially between Carlyon and Elinor. I’m also very fond of Nicky, and Francis Cheviot is wonderful in his awful ruthlessness. Carlyon is very likeable (even if he is always right), and I agree that his actions show just how kind he is. Plus his brothers and sisters adore him, a very good sign since he brought them up. At times I found Elinor protested too much, but them I remembered just how alone she was, and how precarious her position and her future was. I think she was hiding fear with her bluster. Also, she would have felt that Carlyon couldn’t possibly marry her, and so she was protecting herself from being hurt.

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