Sunday, 18 September 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

4. Frederica Merrivale (Frederica)

Miss Merrivale has, she announces confidently at an early stage, been the mistress of her household for years and years. One might expect such a boast to be accompanied by at least a trace of competence in this role, but the more we learn of Frederica, the more we discover that what she presumably considers to be initiative and independence is in fact pig-headed, thoughtless ego-tripping, verging on psychosis. Were she free of family obligations, such behaviour might be laughed off as eccentricity. There might even be those who might find her captivating. However she does have a family for which she is, faute de mieux, responsible. A reliable woman would at the very least see that her siblings were in safe hands before going off on her flights of fancy, but that is not Miss Merrivale's way. Instead she uses her family as weapons in a crazed campaign to climb the social ladder. Her sister Charis is paraded in front of hard-working bachelors such as Mr Trevor in a way that is today typical only of the lowest sort of tradesmen marketing "modifications" to horseless carriages. Her younger brother, Felix, is allowed to run wild, pestering anybody and everybody as if the concept that children should be seen and not heard had never been thought of. Her other brother, the ridiculously named Jessamy, is equipped with dangerous toys and let loose on the streets of London with inevitably costly results. She is prepared even to stoop to letting her mongrel dog loose amidst a herd of cattle simply to draw attention to herself and to publicise a link with one of her social betters that exists in nowhere but her fevered mind. The most active of today's professional publicists would have trouble matching Frederica's twisted ingenuity.

The series of assaults that she unleashes from her lair in deeply unfashionable Upper Wimpole Street would, if she were to attempt them in modern London, be more than sufficient to have her identified as a stalker. Alverstoke would be able to obtain a restraining order, and the Merrivale family might well be made the subject of an ASBO. Such civilised means of redress are unfortunately not available to the long suffering Marquis, who is forced to waste valuable time fending off an ever more ghastly sequence of outrages while trying to sort out the problems of his closer relatives, whose greater right to his attentions are so obvious to all except the solipsistic Frederica.

It is of course Miss Merrivale's last desperate throw of the dice which must earn her the greatest disapprobation. Careless of the risk to her brother's life she has him carried off in a Montgolfier in a manner which forces the long-suffering Marquis to leave town in pursuit. It is only when he finally tracks the errant balloon to earth near a remote farmhouse that he discovers that it has all ben a plot to compromise him. Not content with implying a liaison which Alverstoke might perfectly reasonably shrug off as the deluded ravings of a mad woman, Frederica has taken steps to ensure the presence of a number of witnesses, and has even made a point of insinuating to them the deviant behaviours that she claims the Marquis indulges in by her pointed proclamation of his use of a substance that she crudely refers to as pork jelly.

When the Marquis, surely by now no more than a haggard shell of the man he once was, finally submits to Frederica's demonic campaign we are left to the realisation that Georgette Heyer, like Ibsen, is capable of conjuring up bitter tragedy from the materials of domestic bliss.

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1 comment:

Melinda said...

Superb summing up, Stephen. However, don't forget that it is Restorative Pork Jelly, and that makes all the difference.