Tuesday, 22 November 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

12. Ancilla Trent (The Nonesuch)

Tempting as it is, I am not going to comment upon the fact that Miss Trent's parents appear to have blessed her with a name that makes her sound less like a romantic heroine, and more like a management consultancy partnership offering advisory services to the water and sewerage sector. Nor will I comment on the fact that she appears to live in a house named after one of the more humble classes of stationery consumables. After all, hard though it is to conceive, neither business consultants nor document binding solutions existed during the Regency, and Ancilla's parents must have had their reasons, much as her grandfather must have done when he named one of his sons after a chemical used in the dying process and still managed to spell it wrong. And if Ancilla can, as she makes quite clear, earn £150 a year as a Governess, her name cannot have been much of a hindrance.

Nor am I going to dwell much upon the bucolic delights of the village of Oversett, where our tale unfolds. It does not take much knowledge of the field of place name studies to conclude that a village bearing such a name must be a traditional home of badgers, but it rapidly becomes clear that this is no mere philological hangover. While the locals consisted merely of Shilbottles, Tumbys, Wrangles and Butterlaws one could imagine that this part of the country was no more than an outpost of Tolkien's Shire, but as soon as Mrs Underhill (an even more hobbity name than the rest), who, we should not forget, pays Ancilla £150 a year, contemplates sending a card to the Badgers we have an inkling that Yorkshire is not a lost corner of Middle Earth, but a hidden tendril of Narnia.

As this is a series of essays on heyeroines, it is not the place to dwell unduly upon our hero, except to note that in any civilised age a man with the outrageous name of Waldo Hawkridge, who combines a tendency to do a great deal for charidee with not liking to talk about it, could only be a disk jockey. Should we conclude from this that today's DJs are the spiritual descendents of the Corinthian set? Is there something about the precise control of the wheels of a phaeton that is transferable to the spinning of twin turntables? Would that other great Corinthian, Beau Wyndham, be happy doing the breakfast show or would he insist on the drive time slot? Alas, we shall never know.

But let us return to Miss Trent. I do not consider that she merits a slap simply for being tediously, relentlessly, unflappably nice. Nor can I condemn her for being the only woman in Oversett between the schoolroom and late matronhood (although I, and possibly the Bow Street Runners, would be interested to know what she did with all the other marriageable females of the village). Furthermore I will excuse her for having acquired a reputation for being able to manage the tantrums and hissy fits of the dreadful Miss Theophania Wield, despite showing no evidence that she has managed to achieve the slightest sustainable improvement in Tiffany's behaviour (and for which skill she pockets £150 a year).

No. Eminently censurable though these faults are, they pale into insignificance beside Miss Trent's greatest fault, which is this: she indulged in a Big Misunderstanding, and that is unforgiveable.

Here we have a woman whose analytical capabilities are such that from nothing but a crumpled riding habit, a hysterical maid and a missing bandbox she can determine that her charge has visited the vicarage, learned of an engagement that Ancilla herself did not know for sure had been entered into, returned home, and tricked a visitor to the area into carrying her to Leeds with the express intent of taking the stage to London to stay with an uncle. All entirely accurate. Yet at the same time we must suppose her so wet-goosish that, from an ambiguous passing remark by a man that she knows to be loose of tongue and far from steadfast in his views, she conjures up an inexplicably gothic image of a well-regarded and exceptionally mannered man of whom she has become fond as some devil-may-care rakehell capable of leaving a trail of by-blows across the country, and so devoid of sensibility that he can contemplate rounding them up and housing them in a country house in the Narnian Yorkshire countryside. And having conjured up this absurd fantasy Miss Trent, who claims to be able to quell Miss Wield with a glance, and disconcert her employer's neighbours with a few well chosen words (well worth £150 a year of anybody's money), is utterly unable to ask her beau just what he is actually up to.

I am afraid that it is all coming it a bit strong.


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3 comments:

Nettie said...

These are brilliant! Continue, please continue! Even though they are a little early, maybe you could dispose of that person in The Black Moth and everyone in Powder and Patch. Also, don't forget Nell, Horry, Eustacie, Eleanor, and Phoebe. Maybe you could also do a line in secondary characters in need of erasing? May I suggest Charis as a start??

Stephen said...

Thank you Nettie - I plan to keep them coming. Eleanor Rochdale and Phoebe Marlow are on their way. By Nell I assume that you mean Nell Cardross from April Lady rather than Nell Stornaway from The Toll Gate, who is a bit of a cipher. I haven't yet read The Convenient Marriage so Horry will have to wait, as will Powder & Patch. As for Eustacie - I would put her among the secondary characters; the heyeroine of The Talisman Ring is surely Miss Thane, who will be discussed fairly soon.

Alex Bordessa said...

At this rate, you will have me actually reading Georgette Heyer! The other day on the radio Phillipa Gregory picked Heyer out as one of her favourite authors. All this is beginning to make me err on the side of reading some of Heyer's books - but only when the current TBR pile has gone down a tad!