Heyer, Georgette. The Reluctant Widow.

NY: Putnam, 1946.

It’s around 1812 and Elinor Rochdale is a young woman of good family but straitened circumstances. At twenty-six, she has spent six years earning her way as a governess and she’s now on her way to a new, not vey promising situation down in Sussex. At the stage stop, however, she somehow gets in the wrong carriage and finds herself carried out into the countryside to a sprawling and rather dilapidated residence where she is awaited by Lord Carlyon, who was expecting the arrival of a wife-by-mail for his dissipated cousin, Eustace Cheviot. (It’s all reminiscent of the plot of a musical comedy.)

The long and short of it is that Carlyon loathes Eustace (as does practically everyone else in the neighborhood), who has been accusing him for years of wanting to acquire his estates — and if Cousin Eustace dies unmarried, that’s exactly what will happen, so Carlyon — better known among his other eight siblings as “Ned” — is trying to subvert things. But then, this being the sort of story it is, word comes that Eustace has been accidentally stabbed in the gut with a bread knife in a fracas at an inn, and that the other party is Ned’s irrepressible youngest brother, Nicky (who’s been sent down from Oxford for hijacking a performing bear). The abominable, unloved cousin is on the point of death, so Ned — who, apparently, can talk anyone into anything — convinces Elinor to hurry to the inn and marry Eustace (who thinks he’s putting one over on Ned by excluding him from the inheritance) before he croaks. And that’s what happens; Elinor is both a bride and a widow within a few hours, and then the resident of the run-down estate.

So far, so good. I could see several ways in which the story could reasonably develop from here — though it was bound to end with Elinor and Lord Carlyon getting together, of course. Heyer, however, abruptly spins on her heel and heads off in an entirely new direction which actually makes very little use of the widow’s peculiar circumstances. Jack, one of Ned’s other brothers who works at the Foreign Office (I think), brings word that an important state document having to do with Wellington’s plans in the Peninsula campaign, has gone missing. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, the document probably was hidden by Cousin Eustace somewhere in the new young widow’s new home and several shady people are presumably hunting for it so they can pass it on to Bonaparte’s agents. There’s a secret passage, and a break-in, and a shooting, and an assault with a paperweight. Nicky (who generally seems far too juvenile for an Oxford undergrad, even in the Regency era) gets all excited by the adventure. Another cousin, Francis the fop, shows up with a case full of cravats and drives everyone crazy. And when Ned and Elinor do finally come to an understanding at the very end, it’s with very little in the way of convincing set-up. Actually, I think Bouncer, Nicky’s mastiff, has most of the best lines. It all rather seems as if Heyer had two separate plot ideas in her file, didn’t really know what to do with either of them, and finally just shrugged and glued them together, whether they fit or not. Not one of her best efforts.

Published in: on 17 September 2011 at 6:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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