Wednesday, 30 November 2005

I was saddened to learn this weekend that Pam Cleaver has died. Pam was a regular reader of Wenlock and a frequent commenter. A while ago she asked whether I would be prepared to take a look at her novel, The Reluctant Governess, and see whether or not its heroine was in need of a slap. I never got round to doing it before she died, but now I have.

Belinda Farrington (The Reluctant Governess by Pamela Cleaver)

Our first impression of Miss Farrington is that she is a very sensible young woman. Orphaned, and with the fiancé that she hardly knew killed in the war, all that she really wants to do is become a romantic novelist. However she recognises that this is a remarkably foolish ambition that nobody in their right mind would consider when other options, such as marrying for money, or even becoming a governess, are readily available. She therefore abandons this idea.

Unfortunately this seems to be her last sensible move.

Anyone who has read any Heyer would know that Harrogate would be the perfect place to find either a rich husband or a post as a governess. The town is dripping with cousins of peers and crawling with every type of mushroom. However for reasons that we never really understand, Belinda decides to leave Harrogate and try her luck in York, whose Regency credentials do not go much further than an association with Dick Turpin. It is hardly surprising that Belinda finds rich widowers and governorial vacancies few and far between. Before she takes the sensible step of giving up and going back to Harrogate, however, an opening appears, and Belinda dives right in.

What Belinda fails to spot is that the post that she has accepted is in Suffolk.

There are only a few places to be found in Regency England that have even the smallest amount of ton. London of course, and Brighton, Bath and Harrogate. Leicestershire contains nothing but hunting boxes, and Newark is no more than a place to change horses. Hampshire is the preserve of Captain Swing. That's about it. Suffolk certainly had no ton until it was brought into fashion some 130 years later, and even then it was basically just a place for children in boats. The only explanation I can come up with for Belinda's decision is that she was aiming to get a jump on Mr Ransome.

In the absence of ton, the people of Suffolk have to make their own entertainment, and it seems that they have gone in for an odd little game called "Who is the Master-smuggler?" The rules are complex, falling somewhere between Cluedo and Mornington Crescent, and involve china cats, windmills and the occasional lynching. The object of the game appears to be to collect various items - brandy for the Parson, tobacco for the Clerk, laces for a lady, and so on. The winner perhaps being the first person to collect a complete Kipling poem, providing that the Riding Officer doesn't catch them first. In most respects the Suffolk game is exactly as played in Cornwall, Devon, even Norfolk, but what Belinda seems not to have spotted is that in Suffolk thay have introduced an extra rule: if you accuse somebody of being the Master-smuggler without any evidence they can propose marriage to you, at which point they get another turn.

So poor Miss Carrington spends her time trying to turn the turbulent Sheldon family into Swallows and Amazons, while sending accusations flying and failing to understand why every eligible young man in the area is popping up and proposing marriage. With her charges unconvinced of the virtues of the Ransome oeuvre, this situation might have gone on for a considerable while, were it not for one of the Sheldons making a tactical error (possibly while attempting to get points for something torn with the lining wet and warm) and getting caught by the Riding Officer. At this point the game is declared officially over, and it is discovered that rather than real brandy and tobacco, everybody has just been smuggling pecadilloes after all.

It would spoil the story to give away the full details of the ending, but suffice it to say that if this is the behaviour of a reluctant governess, just think what an enthusiastic one might have gotten up to.

2 comments:

Mandy said...

An enthusiastic governess would have pointed out the horrible 'gotten' which, despite being in use in England in the past, still sounds American, and therefore out of place in a Regency piece.

She might also have taught the children to sing Do a deer, and she would almost certainly have attempted to do the same with the Simpson children, whose father only managed it as far as Doh.

Pam, I suspect, would have loved this. Alternatively, she might have told you you'd missed the point entirely, which is that The Reluctant Governess is not a precursor of Swallows and Amazons, but of 101 Dalmations, whose stars wanted to rescue their puppies from Wuffolk.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Hello Stephen

I've been dipping into your blog ever since you appeared with the RNA team on University Challenge. I'm intrigued to know why you're writing historical romance. What's the appeal for a man? Do you write mainly from a male point of view?

Re: your Heyeroines in Need of a Slap series. I wish you would extend that idea to other periods. I'm thinking for instance of the tiresome Atia in the BBC's "Rome" drama serial. In my opinion she needs a good slap with a wet fish, followed by a lengthy dip in the frigidarium.