Saturday, 7 January 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

16. Hester Theale (Sprig Muslin)

Among the many reasons postulated for the peculiar nature of Regency society (making morning calls in the afternoon, watering one's dresses, eating turtles, high-perch phaetons, the whole reticule business, you know what I mean), one that has, I believe, received far too little attention is the fact that in the early Nineteenth Century there was no such thing as day-time television (or indeed any remotely close equivalent achievable through the technology available at the time - circulating libraries simply cannot be considered sufficient substitute).

Why should this be a problem? Because without day-time television Regency society cannot have supported a sufficient number of popular psychologists, and without popular psychologists there could be no pop psychology, and without pop psychology our heyeroes and heyeroines would have had no way of understanding their need for closure, say, or any real understanding that yes, they were worth it. Without that regular infusion of platitudes wrapped up in psychobabble they could never understand that all their problems stemmed from the fact that they genuinely were different from everybody else; that they simply had not met their soulmate; that they needed positive affirmations; or that they were, perhaps through no real fault of their own, dangerously and destructively passive-aggressive.

Which brings me neatly to Lady Hester Theale. I have no wish to dwell on the fact that she never took, that she had no countenance, nor the least degree of modishness. We should completely ignore any suggestion, however well founded, that she is stupidly shy and dowdy. Her slightly myopic gaze and her reputation for dullness need not detain us. All we are interested in is the inner Hester, the potentially worthwhile and possibly even genuinely "good" person underneath all those layers. The only question we should ask is "does she show signs of being passive-aggressive?" And the only answer we can entertain is "yes".

Let us consider the evidence. Since the death of her dear mama Lady Hester has remained quiet - perhaps too quiet. Her father's heir now lives at Brancaster, complete with a wife who is ideally placed to be the châtelaine of the family seat, and yet Hester has done nothing about moving out. She has just remained in place, quietly, resolutely, and, had her poor family only understood the concept - indeed if only the concept had been cooked up at the time - classically passively-aggressively.

And then Sir Gareth Ludlow turns up, the tragic death of Clarissa Lincombe still, after many years, haunting him. Of course Lady Hester does not recognise that what Sir Gareth needs is closure. She doesn't recognise this in part because that particular piece of psychocobblers had yet to be invented, but also because she is protected from such sensibility by the wall of passive aggression that she has constructed around herself.

When offered the opportunity to marry a handsome and, let us not beat about the bush, eligible young man such as Sir Gareth (even if he does happen to arrive with a regular out-and-outer in tow) a normal reaction might be to faint dead away, to rush from the room wearing an expression of shock, or else to say "yes." Lady Hester's reaction is to turn him down, not forcefully, not with any explanation, but simply with an otherwise unelaborated upon observation that marraige to Sir Gareth would be "anguish". Classic passive aggressivity, I am sure you would agree.

Lady Hester compounds her passive aggression with repeated attempts to force upon Sir Gareth some sort of cute and fluffy animal: perhaps one of Juno's puppies, or else a kitten saved from drowning. What could be a more sterotypically passive-aggressive act. The gift of the animal is almost an explicit declaration that the giver sees herself as unbiddable (albeit probably house-trained, unlike the puppy or kitten).

And it is not just the blanking of Sir Gareth's proposal. The unresponsive acquiescence to Sir Gareth's request that Lady Hester attend to Miss Summercourt; the silent treatment of the maid, Povey; the dismissive attitude towards Mrs Chicklade; all are further indications that Lady Hester has learned to get her way not by being a "joiner" or "team-player", or through reaffirmation of her own self-worth, or any other tool from the armory of the Positive Person, but by means of a prolonged and uncommunicative sulk.

Never mind that the delightfully unprepossessing Mr Whyteleaf has his future preferment to consider; never mind that Lord Widmore has his position in society and a seat in the House of Lords ahead of him; never mind that Sir Gareth could do a great deal better for himself by marrying Miss Stockwell; Lady Hester simply stands there, unmoved and unmoving, using the silent treatment to get her way. And in the end she succeeds. Just as the endless dripping of water will eventually erode a marble block, Lady Hester's oppressive meekness eventually wears away all resisitance and even Sir Gareth, weakened by an unfortunate bullet, and as a rsult subject to these wearyingly prolonged silences through all his waking hours, and no doubt some of his sleeping ones, while he recuperates at the Bull Inn, succumbs at the end.

With Lady Hester apparently shy and unexplaining to the last, her passive aggression, unrecognised for the sociopathic disorder that we now so clearly see it to be, claims another victim.


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6 comments:

Jenny Haddon said...

I have to admit that I am with you on Lady Hester's "oppressive meakness", Stephen. A prize Gawd 'elp us, if ever I saw one.

Given her predilection for small furry domestic animals, she probably thinks the stars are God's daisy chain and a baby is born evey time time a fairy blows its wee nose.

Pah. I spit me of Lady Hester Theale.

Jenny

Liz Harris said...

Another highly entertaining character analysis, Stephen.

At times, methinks, the analysis proves to be more diverting than the original tome in which the heyeroine met the fictional light of day.

A Happy New Year to you.

Amanda said...

I'm sure I'd agree with you about Hester being passive aggressive if I had the slightest idea what it meant.

I'm loth to point out that this analysis of Sprig Muslin is a piece of tosh, but I am forced to do so - probably more aggressively than passively - because the heyeroine of this particular book is not Hester, but Amanda.

Consider the evidence: not only is she the Sprig Muslin wearer of the title, but she graces nearly every page, and - the final proof - she is called Amanda.

Stephen said...

Amanda - an ingenious thory, but one, I'm afraid, that simply doesn't stack up. Quite apart from the sheer impossibility of a heroine, let alone a heyeroine, being called Amanda, there is the added complication that if Miss Summercourt is the heroine, then Captain Kendal must be the hero, and he does not turn up until almost the very end.

Unless you are postulating that there is an Alternative Ending, in which Sir Gareth realises the big mistake he is making by marrying Lady Hester, and decides instead to abduct or at the very least elope with Miss Summercourt, who in return changes her name to something more heyeroinely...

Mandy said...

I am postulating that Heyer is not your run of the mill Regency novelist. Just as Agatha Christie rewrote the rule book with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, so too did Heyer rewrite the rule book with Cotillion - alpha males beware! - and with Sprig Muslin, in which the hero and heroine both end up marrying minor characters.

If Heyer had revisited the characters in ten years time, as she did with other characters in An Infamous Army, there might have been a possibility of Lady Hester running off with toy boy Cpt Kendal, which would leave Gareth and Amanda to console each other, in a book known as Sprig Tangle

louiseculmer said...

Hester doesn't want to marry gareth because she knows it would be too painful to marry the man she loves, knowing he does not love her. And of course she doesn't move out when her brother takes over, upper class single women weren't expected to luve on their own. Moving out would have been considered quite scandalous.