Heyer, Georgette. Lady of Quality.

NY: Dutton, 1972.

The lady of the title is Miss Annis Wychwood, now approaching the age of thirty, still a spinster, and not displeased about it. She possesses considerable independent means and had moved out of her brother’s country estate some years before and into her own townhouse in Bath before strained sibling relations were pushed beyond the point of retrieval. She’s an excellent manager, has a wide circle of good friends, and is not encumbered by the fact that she’s also extremely beautiful.

While returning in her carriage one day from a visit to her brother’s family, she comes across a phaeton with a broken wheel by the side of the road and two somewhat forlorn young people, whom she rescues and temporarily takes home with her. (Heyer made frequent use of this sort of unexpected happenstance as a plot device to bring characters together who were unlikely to meet otherwise.) The newcomers are seventeen-year-old Lucilla Carleton, an orphaned heiress fleeing her oppressive aunt, and Ninian Elmore, whom Lucilla has known since nursery days, and between whom his equally repressive parents and her aunt wish to arrange a marriage — very much against the will of both of them. Being a very independent person herself, Annis sympathizes and attempts to provide Lucilla what shelter she can until her situation is able to sort itself out. But the girl’s primary guardian (also rather against his will) is Oliver Carleton, a rake by reputation, who cares nothing for the proprieties or for society’s expectations. He’s also sharp-tongued, rude, and contentious by nature, but when he shows up at Annis’s door demanding to know why she’s interfering, she gives as good as she gets. And Oliver, it develops, admires her for it.

The reader knows, of course, that everything will come right in the end, but there’s room to wonder until quite late in the book whether Annis will eventually accept his rather brusque proposal or not. Can she give up her cherished independence? What about Oliver’s disregard for the opinions of others? Will she and Oliver even be able to survive living together? This was Heyer’s last and in many ways most mature Regency romance. The personal and psychological relationships among the various pairs of characters — Annis and Oliver, Annis and Lucilla, Lucilla and Ninian, Annis and her brother, Sir Geoffrey, Geoffrey and his wife, and Annis’s cousin and companion, Miss Farlow vs. all of the above — seem sometimes to belong more to the late 20th century than to the very early 19th. Annis, for instance, is almost more of a hero than a heroine, and the proposed marriage owes as much to the promise of intellectual companionship as to not-so-youthful passion. At the same time, everyone’s concerns and behavior exactly suit the milieu, due largely to the careful research Heyer always engaged in and the huge amount of telling detail woven expertly into the background of the story. I would put this one solidly in the top quartile of Heyer’s oeuvre.

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