Heyer, Georgette. The Foundling.

NY: Putnam, 1948.

Heyer’s Regency romances nearly always draw their protagonists, male and female, from the aristocracy, with occasional forays down into the well-off gentry. The lesser supporting characters, not to mention the servants, may hale from the lower orders, but the principal players are going to be gentlemen and ladies, usually with titles. In fact, the titles they carry are practically interchangeable; Lord Somebody may be a baron or an earl or a marquis, but that doesn’t usually affect the plot and it seems to make no difference to the fundamental personalities of the characters. But this one is a bit different, giving us a much more in-depth look at the situation of one of the highest-ranking among Britain’s peerage.

Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware — known as “Gilly” to all his family but one — is the seventh Duke of Sale, plus a string of other titles, and has been since the instant he was born. His father died while he was in the womb and his mother died very soon after his birth, so he has been raised by his Uncle Lionel and a clutch of devoted family retainers. They all mean well, they all absolutely have his best interests at heart, and after twenty-four years, they’re all driving him crazy. As a boy, he was rather sickly, so he was educated at home instead of being sent off to school, and was cosseted and clucked over even more smotheringly. He’s still somewhat undersized, but he’s done the Grand Tour, and has learned how to defend himself, and clean his own guns, and even shoe his own horses. And in a few months, he’ll be able to take personal control of his own affairs, including numerous estates and a very great deal of money. If only they’ll let him. If only he could get out into the world for awhile and discover what it’s like to be “a man and not just a duke.”

Providentially, his cousin Matthew, down from Oxford, has a problem. He became smitten with a girl and wrote her a number of ill-considered letters, and now her supposed guardian is threatening him with a suit for breach of promise. The guardian is willing to be bought off, naturally, but his intended victim hasn’t the money. So off Matthew goes to Gilly, the head of his family, for advice and the Duke decides this is his chance. He’ll travel incognito to Herefordshire, confront the supposed guardian, and try to retrieve the letters without having to buy them. And that’s where his adventure begins, with trying to figure out how to slip away from his keepers. And how to engage a seat on the mail coach. And how to buy his own shirts. The thing is, in the British system of titles, a duke ranks very high indeed — far, far higher above marquesses (the second level) than marquesses are above earls and the rest of the hierarchy. Heyer understands this and she gives the reader a very well-thought-out view into the natural world of such a rare being. Gilly’s life as she portrays it probably is pretty typical of that of a young duke, even today.

Just before he disappears, Gilly makes a call on Lady Harriet Presteigne, with whom a marriage has been arranged for years. He doesn’t like it much, but he’s dutiful that way. And he actually quite likes Harriet. And she’s been quietly in love with him for years, so there you are. But just now, the Duke has to go on his self-appointed quest. And when he meets the girl Cousin Matthew fell for, he can understand how it happened, for Belinda, the foundling, and not yet seventeen, is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and charming, and biddable. She also barely has two brain cells to rub together, her attention being taken with acquiring a purple silk dress and a nice gold ring for her finger. And she’s perfectly willing to go off with anyone who offers to buy her these things — and that includes the “guardian” who holds the letters. Will Gilly succeed in his mission? You know he will, but it’s how he manages it that makes this an engrossing and very entertaining story. His soft heart and reluctance to say “No” to people ends up making him responsible not only for Belinda but for a runaway teenage boy with a thoroughly delinquent notion of what constitutes “fun.” And then he’s kidnapped, and his other cousin, Gideon — a very large and forthright captain in the Life Guards who encouraged Gilly to kick over the traces for his own good (and who annoys Lord Lionel by persisting in calling the Duke “Adolphus”) — is approached with an offer to move him up in the line of succession by whacking the Duke. So Gideon, who holds his young cousin and head of his family in great affection and wants no part of the title anyway, goes off on a rescue mission himself. Unnecessarily, as it turns out.

This is both one of Heyer’s longer books and one of her more carefully plotted ones (more even than usual, that is), with a cast of very nice realized and convincing characters. I can’t recommend it too highly.

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