Jul 062015

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

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.

*         *        *

Lady in a white, frilly dress sits at a table set in a flower garden.

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.

  15 Responses to “Regency Turns 80 — Sprig Muslin

  1. Wow, a coherent synopsis of ‘Sprig Muslin’, which takes some doing. I have to say I don’t count this amongst my favourites because I would have liked to have seen more of Hester, who I feel gets done down until the end section.

    • Thank you. I think most of us want more of Lady Hester. But I suppose if the story was intended as a comment on the times and those whom supposedly love us but are terribly interfering, then Hester has to give way to the greater good of the story.

  2. Yes this is another of Georgette Heyers succeses. I like how Hesters uncle gets his comeuppance and how Gareth turns the tables on Amanda at the farm by telling the truth as if it was a lie!!! I have all her books and just wish she had written more.

    • That is one of the great parts. Amanda’s metaphorical knickers are in such a knot because he is telling the truth. Says everything about tone and body language. How do you fight that? We almost feel sorry for her. Almost.

  3. This is one of Heyer’s romances in which the characters managed to accomplish role reversals between the time I read Sprig Muslin in high school and when I read it again in graduate school. The first time I read this book, my teenaged self was sure that Amanda and her young man were the heroine and hero of the tale, because I found their plight so romantic. Yet, when I re-read it in my twenties, it was very clear to me that Lady Hester and Sir Gareth, the grown-ups, were the heroine and hero. Amanda and her wildly romantic attitude simply served as the catalyst to bring the real lovers together.

    I guess it is all about perspective. But either way, this is a delightful romance which I still enjoy, every time I read it!

    • Agreed. As an adult, we recognize the adults in the story possible have the most to lose. I think we know Amanda will succeed, but we worry this may be a last chance for Hester and Gareth.

  4. I delight in Sprig Muslin and yes, as an older woman I now see Hester as the heroine (just as I find Persuasion the novel that contains, as Vergil puts it, “the tears of things” as well as the smile of life. I think it is clear why Hester refuses Gareth and why he offers for her. He offers for her because of her situation in which she is the typical older spinster at the mercy of her family (and though she is meek, what else was there for her to be? Again, reference to Austen and Jane Fairfax’s situation, which she calls “slavery” of a sort). Gareth has the affection of an old friend for Hester (he thinks–though I wonder whether there is a bit more than just affection that he is unaware of). She loves him deeply and 1. cannot think of being in so unequal an emotional situation, always compressing her love for him and those tender gestures because such would be more than he bargained for and his consequent embarrassment and unease to realize he does not return her affections; and 2. because as he is not in love with her, he may come to love someone else, and here is Amanda apparently very similar in volatility to Gareth’s late wife. So Hester is self-sacrificing (as in a sense was Anne Elliott). As Hester says at the end of the book, when Gareth proposes as second time, “this is quite different I think.” And he agrees. Nothing is more romantic than middle-age (or older) love, for by that time you realize how truly rare it is to find someone you love and who loves you and you both know something more of life and what those vows can entail: sickness and health, richer and poorer….

    I just reread Sprig Muslin and laughed hard at the scene where Gareth informs his father’s friend that Hester is his iIllegitimate half sister.

    • Yes, yes. Gareth’s long-standing pain at losing his fiancé (I don’t think he ever married her) has eased. Her high-spirited antics he once may have though splendid, he can now see were immaturity and perhaps arrogance. With his own maturity he recognizes the steadfastness of Hester. And I believe while he had reached a point where he could look back with fondness at his former love, Amanda’s capers highlight his reflections and put them in their proper perspective.
      The one scene I almost mentioned is the very one in your comment. I could not decide where to begin or where to end it. In introduction, he asks if he can make them known to his Natural sister. It is fall-off-your-chair brilliant.

  5. Wonderful blog, Lesli! This is one of Heyer’s that I’ve not yet read. I will definitely add it to my TBR list.

    • And my list is getting longer by the day. Well, by the week, as the postings continue. This could be an expensive hobby. Oh, wait, it is.

  6. Lesli

    I agree about those old TV programs and their sharp dialogue. Your great description of Sprig Muslin sent me straight to the internet to look for this book and a re-introduction to Regency romances.

    • And that is why we’re doing this. Well, that and to honor a very special writer. I am trying to get through Venetia again before we have the review of it.

      Thanks, Becky

  7. Lesli, when this article was published, I was on the cusp of a big trip, so I never commented. But, as I imagine you have noticed, I had written an article that mentions the twin “heroines” of Sprig Muslin. I agree that Amanda shows a practical bent, and is undoubtedly well suited for the life she planned and is so determined to carry out!

  8. I’m joining the conversation very late, I know! But my curricle went into a ditch, and I was assisted by a garrulous but wealthy lady who kept giving me tea and wouldn’t let me go. But now I am free! And overly caffeinated. But I digress…

    Lesli, what a great summary of “Sprig Muslin”! The first time I read it, I honestly didn’t know who the hero would end up with. I know that practice of leaving the reader in suspense about the identity of the final romantic partner fell into disfavor round about the 1980s (give or take), but I’ve always loved it — it leads to much more of a real consideration of character, and choices, and who suits whom, I think. In Heyer’s works, in addition to “Sprig Muslin,” I didn’t know who the protagonist would end up with in “Cotillion” or “The Foundling”…and speaking of Austen, I also didn’t know the final pairings the first time I read “Sense and Sensibility” or “Emma”… And for me, that adds to the fun!

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