Heyer, Georgette. The Corinthian.

NY: Dutton, 1966. (Originally published as Beau Wyndham, 1941.)

Though she has since had many copiers, Heyer was the inventor of the “Regency romance” and over a long career she rang all the changes on the theme. Some of her novels set in England in the very early 19th century were sweetly romantic, some were coming-of-age mini-epics, some were even more or less serious explorations of the lack of freedom, to say nothing of life options, facing a young woman of good breeding in those days. This one, though, is a flat-out romp, the sort of thing that would have made a terrific Hollywood script back in the 1930s.

Sir Richard “Beau” Wyndham is a dandy (they preferred the term “Corinthian”), a very wealthy man, facing his thirtieth birthday, and he’s also the last of his line. To preserve the family name, his rather bullying older sister is insisting he get himself married. In fact, their late father had arranged a match years before with Melissa Brandon, who is now a young woman with the personality of an iceberg and the pride of an ancient name. Since he has no other preferences, Richard should make an offer there, and immediately. Everyone knows he hasn’t a romantic bone in him, and it will be only a marriage of convenience anyway, with no effect on his other interests, so what’s stopping him? Moreover, Melissa’s father and brothers are unsuccessful gamblers and the Brandons are nearly broke, so Sir Richard’s own deep pockets will be very welcome. He knows his sister is right, that he’ll have to face the music, and the prospect leads him to get thoroughly plastered one night. And while making his way unsteadily home in the wee hours, he chances upon what appears to be a boy escaping from a bedroom window via a too-short knotted sheet, whom he catches when the kid lets go — and then discovers the escapee is really a seventeen-year-old girl wearing her cousin’s clothing. Her situation is not unlike his own: She’s an orphaned heiress whose guardian aunt is trying to bully her into marrying her own son, for the sake of her money. But Penelope Creed — known as “Pen” — made a pact of eventual marriage with Piers, her best friend back when she was twelve, and she’s determined to run away to her family home near Bristol, find Piers, and marry him instead. Richard, being a gentleman (and not thinking very clearly under the influence), insists she can’t travel all that way alone — boy’s clothes or not — and insists on accompanying her. And that’s only the beginning! Pen, an engaging tomboy, is innocent and naïve, but she’s not stupid or slow and she certainly doesn’t lack nerve or courage. On their journey by public stage (a socially leveling experience that horrifies Sir Richard), they become involved with a personable thief who, it turns out, has acquired possession of the extremely valuable Brandon Necklace. One of Melissa’s brothers is involved. So are the Bow Street Runners. So is the apologetic Piers, whose own interests have shifted somewhat since his adolescent agreement with Pen so many years before.

Heyer’s leading men are sometimes unpleasantly sarcastic brutes, but not the highly sympathetic Sir Richard. And Pen is the sort of solemnly well-meaning heroine one would have no trouble wanting to take care of. It’s a complicated plot (with multiple elopements) but Heyer never loses control of the action or the actors. My advice is to sit back, read, and enjoy, and try not to laugh too loudly.

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