Sunday, 12 February 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

18. Henrietta Silverdale (Charity Girl)

It is hardly an unusual position to be in. We saw it five years earlier with Sir Gareth Ludlow, and we shall see it again in a year or so with his Grace Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware. A heyero arrives with some unsuitably young girl in tow, drops her off with you and your family to look after, and then goes gallivanting off on his adventures. What can you do?

Well, if you are Miss Silverdale you can do a great deal better than meekly accepting the situation and leaving your reader to endure Ashley Carrington on the Road, a deeply unedifying travelogue involving High Harrowgate, Low Harrowgate and all that lies between (more than would be strictly necessary if only Carrington, or, as we should perhaps more properly style him, Viscount 'Des' Desford, could be bothered to go via the stile), and which takes in unduly frosty landladies and unduly cantankerous old men who have married their unduly plebeian housekeepers, or, as they apparently wish to be styled (as if it made a ha'porth of difference), 'Lady Housekeepers'.

It is not as if Miss Silverdale's circumstances are exactly unpropitious. A household containing an unmarried daughter and an ineffectual father (ineffectual as a result of having died some years earlier, but that is beside the point) discovers that a nearby house has been occupied by a single man in possession of a fortune. If the house is not called 'Nether-something' then at least the single gentleman is. This is surely something that a heyeroine with a ready intelligence and a good sense of humour could make something of - perhaps the new neighbour, who after all is bound to fall in love with somebody in the household, might have a good friend who is rich and handsome, but lacking in manners?

Or if not that, then what about the female servant whose loyalty to the woman she still considers as her mistress is threatened by a new arrival, an apparent interloper who has been swept off her feet and delivered to the house without anyone really having thought things through, and who, as a result, ends up in very real danger of her life. Could Miss Silverdale really not come up with the idea that somebody might, one night, have dreamed they went to Inglehurst?

But no. Miss Silverdale appears to believe that she should take as a role model Lady Hester Theale, and do the dutiful wet-goose thing. Such behaviour in one described by no less an authority than Simon Carrington as "sound as a trout" simply will not do. What if Fitzwilliam Darcy had decided that, rather than hanging out with Bingley and generally making things happen, he would prefer to be as dull an old stick as Henry Tilney? What if John Melmoth had stayed at home? What if Montoni had brought in an architect to remodel Udolpho along Palladian lines?

It is simply not to be thought of, and yet in Miss Henrietta Silverdale we have a heyeroine so lacking in romantic sensibility that instead of a cat fight between Miss Charity Steane and the frightful Mrs Danvers Hepzibah Cardle we have Wilfred Steane in a purple jacket being tedious with Simon Carrington; instead of wild happenings in the stormy woods around Otranto Inglehurst we have Desford's groom getting into a snit. This is not Byronic, this is not Gothic, this is not remotely horrid.

If this is what we must expect from our heyeroines, we might as well go back to the Brontës.

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1 comment:

Jan Jones said...

Well you've got to admit, as an expression of confidence an unsuitably young girl beats a red rose and a promise of undying affection any day. We women like a challenge in our men.