Heyeroines in need of a slap
15. Mary Challoner (Devil's Cub)
It is a sadly unavoidable outcome of being born of a mésalliance between a headstrong young gentleman and the sister of one Mr Henry Simpkins that one is condemned to be indisputably bourgeoise. Indisputably, yes, but not inescapably. There is more than one way for a young woman possessing the right qualities to scramble out of the miasmic mêlée of the middle classes and to take her place among the Quality. Indeed there are two.
The simplest route is that charted out by the Gunning sisters, and understandably considered by the former Miss Clara Simpkins worthy of emulation by her daughter Sophia. One simply has to achieve very great beauty: golden ringlets, perhaps; eyes of cornflower blue; smiles and dimples in all the right places. Combine this with a fanatical devotion to the pursuit of a title, and success can hardly be far away. Sadly for our heyeroine, even a delightfully straight nose and a short upper lip cannot compensate for curls of a mere chestnut hue, and eyes that will not be shifted from a disappointing grey.
For Miss Challoner, therefore, Route One is out of the question. There remains, however, Route Two: achieve impeccable ton.
Frankly, how hard can it be? This is 1780 after all, and it is considered good ton for a man to wear a jacket of yellow velvet with satin trousers, or indeed to dress himself in a velvet suit dyed to the colour of blood-engorged fleas. It is acceptable, even in mixed company, to say "Ecod", "La", or even "'Pon Rep". Macaroni means style, rather than comfort food. And Lady Mary Coke, whoever she may be, is still considered a figure of fun. Against such a background Miss Challoner, who, we are led to believe, is a determined and resourceful young woman, surely will not find it hard to keep her nose clean, her address demure, and her manners appropriate. Let us see.
We might start with her reaction to the letter from Vidal. Does Miss Challoner know who sent it? Yes. Does she know who the intended recipient is? Yes. Does she open it anyway? Yes. The argument that it was addressed to "Miss Challoner", and therefore to her, is special pleading of the most egregiously casuistical sort. It will not wash. Bad ton.
Next we must review Miss Challoner's decision to invite herself along on an abduction. She had her reasons, no doubt, but she was hardly open about them. It is bad enough to impose oneself on an unwitting abductor. It is still worse to do so in disguise. It is even worse when that disguise is a loo mask stolen from the very sister whose place in the abduction one is trying to usurp. Very bad ton.
Barely half-a-dozen chapters in, and already Miss Challoner's ideas of ton are showing a distinct peccability. However, all is not lost, and quick thinking, combined with resolute action, may still be enough to save the day.
Shooting unarmed noblemen might not however be quite the way to go. Particularly shooting them with one of their own pistols. A pistol that Miss Challoner helped herself to without asking any sort of permission. Bad, bad ton.
At this point the reader is forced to agree with Vidal that even a career in millinery is becoming out of the question. The market for hats that might well have been knocked together from stolen fancy dress accessories and deadly weaponry was decidely small in 1780 (although, ten years later, one might argue that they would have a certain attraction for some of Paris' more radical fashionistas. This does not, however, serve to help our heyeroine, but surely she has learned her lesson. Whatever else she does, she is not likely to arrange to be abducted once again, nor to assault her abductor in anyway.
Except that she does. Not content with the distinctly poor ton of having herself abducted to paris by a Marquis, she determines to have herself abducted from Paris by a mere commoner. And not just from Paris, but to Dijon. Dijon? Frightfully bad ton.
And once in Dijon we have the duel. Watching such an event, in France - even in Dijon - is possibly not, of itself, bad ton, provided one behaves with appropriate decorum. What one does not do is attempt to add to the frivolity of the occasion by tossing the combatants' coats into the fray. Quite apart from the danger - a flapping sleeve or a dragging coattail could cause one of the duellists to slip and twist a knee - there is the distinct likelihood of one or both of the coats being damaged, and trying to do invisible mending on yellow velvet is extraordinarily difficult. Appalling ton.
Somehow, despite all this, our beloved authoress deigns to forgive Miss Challoner, and to award her the hand of an admittedly deeply disfunctional Marquis. Normally this would be enough for me to forgive her too. However there is one feature of Miss Challoner's behaviour, one that I have hitherto allowed to pass unremarked, that makes this very, very hard.
I refer of course to what happened during the channel crossing. It is not the actual event on the boat. Not the most tonnish of behaviours I grant you, but not without a certain justification. No, it's not that. It is instead Miss Challoner's utter determination to tell anybody and everybody she meets all about it. Servants, gentlemen callers, complete strangers that she meets in remote coaching inns. No self-pitying account of Miss Challoner's woeful situation is complete without a blow by blow account of her tossing her cookies on a cross-channel yacht. She wants Comyn to abduct her - she tells him exactly what happened when she threw up. She is invited to dine with an unfamiliar Duke in the isolated settlement of Pont-de-Moine - she describes her recent emesis in excrutiating detail and wonders why he is not laughing along with her.
If Miss Challoner is ever to get to grips with what makes for good ton then the first thing that she must learn is that however natural, however life-enhancing, however pleasurable certain involuntary bodily functions may be, one simply doesn't talk about them. And even if one does, there are possibly better euphemisms than "throwing up into milord's basin".
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