Heyer, Georgette. The Quiet Gentleman.

NY: Putnam, 1951.

Light-hearted romances (“romance” in the original, literary sense) are sometimes sneered at because they aren’t Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but not every good, readable novel has to be — or even should aspire to be — great literature. Heyer was the master of the Regency-period historical (she basically invented the genre) and her books stay in print decade after decade.

She always did an excellent job not only in creating characters possessed of individuality but of setting them firmly in the milieu of middle-to-upper-class English society. I’ve seen complaints by some present-day readers that the early 19th century is just too strange or foreign, they don’t understand the slang, they can’t picture what people are wearing, and the mores are alien. But restricting oneself to reading only about the familiar and everyday is mentally limiting. And if you feel compelled to pause and look up “curricle” in your dictionary, that’s a good thing. Yes, Heyer’s view of history is socially selective — she isn’t Dickens — but the detail she presents is highly accurate.

In this one, Capt. Gervase Frant is serving in France when his father dies and he inherits the earldom of St. Erth. He sells out his commission and returns home to take up his responsibilities and estates — though he takes his time about it. His mother, unfortunately, had run off with a bounder shortly after Ger’s birth and when she died in poverty a few years later, the old man remarried, had another son, and pretty much ignored his proper heir. The younger half-brother, Martin, now in his early twenties, has been spoiled all his life and both he and the earl’s second wife hoped Gervase would do the proper thing and die in battle, thereby making Martin the heir, as he clearly felt he deserved to be. The new earl is something of a dandy, but a quiet, undemonstrative one. He’s also an excellent horseman and a patient master to his underlings — though dealing with the lazy, egotistical Dowager Countess who plainly resents his continued existence is certainly a trial. Martin is a pain in the neck, too, but at least there’s Theo, Gervase’s first cousin, who has managed the St. Erth estates for years and done an excellent job of it. There’s also the lovely young Miss Marianne Bolderwood on a neighboring estate, whom Martin considers his personal property; she’s a featherbrain but a nice one and the earl pays her close attention. And there’s Miss Drusilla Morville, the daughter of two intellectuals and authors; she’s not especially attractive and admits she doesn’t know how to be romantic, but she’s of a very practical turn of mind, pays attention to what’s going on around her, knows how to get things done, and even enjoys organizing the earl’s welcome-home ball. And she doesn’t faint at the sight of blood, which turns out to be useful when a series of accidents seem to zero in on Gervase. All in all, it’s a good story, though a bit predictable, and the resolution of the mystery is somewhat telegraphed. Still, there’s a reason Heyer’s novels have been continually popular for three generations.

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