Sunday, 15 January 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

17. Annis Wychwood (Lady of Quality)

Judging by the response to my animadversions upon Lady Hester Theale, I will now be deluged by suggestions to the effect that the true heyeroine of Lady of Quality is Miss Carleton-with-an-e. I expect this point to be made particularly by those of my readers who happen to be called Lucilla. They will, no doubt, be faced down by a battalion of Corisandes, promoting Miss Stinchcombe's claims to the title, only for these to be routed by a monstrous regiment of Marias acting on behalf of Miss Farlow. I will, however, remain deaf and blind to such entreaties. As far as I am concerned, our heyeroine is Miss Wychwood.

I am grateful to Mr Roger Burton West for pointing out that according to Nicholas Culpeper's excellent Complete Herbal,
Annis seeds, heat and dry, ease pain, expel wind, cause a sweet breath, help the dropsy, resist poison, breed milk, and stop the Fluor Albus in women, provoke venery, and ease the head-ache.
Venery is, of course, the practice or sport of hunting beasts of game. Fluor Albus, I should point out, especially to younger readers (and here I do include you, Miss Garrett), has nothing to do with headmasters at schools of witchcraft and wizardry, but is instead a form of mucus. Mucus is not something upon which Wenlock has any desire to dwell, leaving that to other journals especially set up for the purpose.

So is Mr Culpeper's description a fair assessment of Miss Wychwood's character, or is she in fact little more than a self-deluding fraud? Let us examine the evidence.

Miss Wychwood apparently treasures her independence. It is this that has caused her to leave the bosom of her family and set up a household by herself. But has she really achieved her aim? She has chosen Bath as her new home, and yet Bath is the one place in Regency England that is easily accessible from Twynham Park, where Sir Geoffrey and Lady Wychwood are on hand, 24 hours a day, to bail her out of any trouble that she might find herself in. Had she really wanted to establish her independence, why did Miss Wychwood not move to London - I understand that Hans Town is quite the coming location - or perhaps Harrogate? It is, I think, more likely that she merely wished to play at independence, afraid to venture far from the security of her family home.

Claims of independence are further undermined by her decision to have Miss Farlow within her household. Nicholas Culpeper has nothing to say of Maria Farlow, but such admirable reticence is hardly reciprocated. Miss Farlow makes it very plain that she is "not at all partial to herbs, except for a little parsley in a sauce." Indeed she goes on to add that she has "never been able to understand how anyone, even a Biblical person, could possibly live on herbs." For her, Annis and her ways must surely be a bitter pill to swallow.

Her alleged desire for freedom does nothing to prevent Miss Wychwood from sweeping up any passing waif or stray that she finds in her path and carrying them off to Camden Place to give her an occupation for her idle hours. Not even explicit advice from the parents, aunts, uncles or guardians of these abductees that she is simply not a fit person to cling on to them can persuade her that if she wishes to surround herself with young people, Miss Susan Wychwood and Master Tom Wychwood would be far more suitable accessories.

While the weather remains fine, Miss Wychwood can continue to fool the more susceptible, including perhaps herself, that she has acheived a measure of freedom, if only of the most solipsistic sort, but as soon as the weather takes a turn for the worse, we are presented witha very different picture.

A few days of rain, and Miss Wychwood takes to her bed, claiming that she has the influenza. Faced with a headache and a few snuffles, any gentleman would treat himself by the self-administration of a bruising ride with the local hunt followed by a couple of bottles of one of the better Ports from the cellar, without bothering the local doctor. This independent approach will not do for Miss Wychwood. She must instead take to her bed for several days, with a Doctor on call and her poor maid forced to keep watch over her day and night, and then, when finally persuaded that she is not really all that ill, she must throw herself at the first man that asks after her, careless of his reputation as a rake, and insist on nothing short of marriage. Independence? I think not.

The last word on Miss Wychwood I shall leave to Amabel, Lady Wychwood, who says of her sister-in-law,
If you don't stop talking such nonsense I shall be strongly tempted to slap you!
There are times, I believe, when temptation should not be resisted.

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