Sunday, 26 March 2006

So, if Lord Alexander Harrow looks like Ingres' sketch of Lord Grantham, what does Miss Charlotte Hopesay look like? I have been particularly concerned about this since my agent (hereafter referred to as Anne-Marie, since repeatedly saying "my agent" sounds a bit pretentious) pointed out that I give no physical description of her at all, beyond what she wears.

Well, she's not one of Heyer's junoesque heroines, like Sophia Stanton-Lacy (let salone Nell Stornaway), but neither is she particularly petite. She is not an incomparable beauty like Miss Isabella Milbourne, but she is pretty - even striking - if she wants to be. Her hair is neither flaxen curls nor raven tresses, but a reddish brown, and her eyes are hazel. In other words she looks something like this. Heather Findlay from the progressive rock group Mostly Autumn, who, as it happens, are playing in Cirencester in a couple of week's time. If the concert hasn't sold out yet, I'll be there.

Since, during the course of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth, Miss Hopesay is drugged, jilted, goes into the wilds of Gloucestershire where she crawls around in attics, gets knocked on the head, tied up and then caught up in an explosion, she doesn't always look as calm as in that first photograph. But then again, neither does Miss Findlay.

Saturday, 25 March 2006

Today was supposed to be a good day for doing my rewrites, but that didn't seem to happen. I started the day haring around Cheltenham to get a vital part to fix my motorbike (large silver BMW two-cylinder thing - think of it as a pair of matched greys) not to mention securing a copy of the latest Harry Potter DVD in exchange for a chunk of the Wenlock heir's accumulated allowance.

But the main distraction was sorting out something to wear to a book launch next Friday. The invitation says "sparkly", but my wardrobe doesn't do sparkly, not even a little bit. Clearly it was time to break out the inner Martha Stewart, and create a sparkly T-shirt that was, at least vaguely, me.

I started with Ingres' sketch of Lord Grantham, which is as good an illustration of Lord Alexander Harrow as I can find. With a little messing about on the computer and a great deal more playing around with tracing paper, drafting pens, craft knives and acetate sheets I turned the head and shoulders into a simpler and more striking illustration, in stencil form.

The other design element that I needed was a suitable font for a caption. I went with the Jane Austen font that the nice people at Austenblog alerted me to a while back.

Putting it all together with some glittery fabric paint and a heavy-duty long-sleeved black T-shirt, I came up with this, which, although I say it myself, isn't too bad a result.

As Mrs Wenlock pointed out, if I can't make the novel-writing pay, I could always set up a stall at Camden Market selling glittery T-shirts to Goths with Regency tastes.

Thursday, 23 March 2006

OK, so it may not quite have the kudos of the list written in a book of gold by the angel encountered by Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase), but Ampersand have updated their client list, and Lo! My name leads all the rest.

Sunday, 19 March 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

21. Cressida Stavely (False Colours)

The discovery that a man has spent an entire evening at your home lying to you about almost every important aspect of himself might provoke a range of reactions in any young lady of gentle birth and finely-honed sensibility. Blithely forming a cladestine understanding with him would not usually fall within this range. That, however, is how Miss Stavely responds to the dishonourable behaviour of the Honourable Christopher Fancot.

Of course any woman might make a mistake, and had Miss Stavely resiled from her initial course of action once she had discovered a little more about the Fancot menage all might have been forgotten, but this is not to be.

Quizzed in the course of that first fateful evening by the Dowager Lady Stavely, not even Kit Fancot, in training to be sent abroad to lie for his country, could conceal the fact that he had an Uncle called Brumby. What Cressy soon learns, however, is that Brumby is not his only uncle. Indeed Brumby is not his most bizarrely-named uncle. That particular laurel falls to his uncle Cosmo Cliffe.

This should have been more than enough to send any sensible girl running from the Fancot family with all the speed she could muster, but Miss Stavely apparently thinks herself to be made of sterner stuff. This is, perhaps due to her belief that her first name is, if not as heroic as that of Miss Wantage in Friday's Child, at least somewhat epic and heroic.

There is a limit even to epic heroism, and the character of Lady Denville should have alerted her that she was over the limit. Much can be made of the relative contributions to a person's character from nature and nurture, but Kit Fancot must have been indebted to his mother for the overwhelming majority of each. Lady Denville's idea of frugality is, after all, to limit her supply of household necessities to forty eight pounds of wax lights and two casks of genuine spermaceti oil (allegedly from Barret, but originally from a genuine sperm whale), two Westphalian Hams, several pounds of tea, superfine vanilla, treble-refined sugar and a large quantity of wafers from Gunter's.

But the real danger does not come from Lady Denville, but from her constant companion, Sir Bonamy Ripple, to whom the above might serve as a late evening snack. Bonamy Ripple sounds like a large and unhealthy desert dish, but on closer examination he turns out to be a very large meal, with several removes involving quail, ducklings, and a green goose. He is also distinctly catching. Within a few pages of Sir Bonamy's appearance in the book (page 79 in the Arrow edition), Miss Stavely finds herself "in a little ripple of amusement" (page 123). By page 277 she has aquired "gravity" and is talking of widgeons. Whatever it is that Sir Bonamy spreads about him, while it may not be 'flu, it is quite definitely avian.

And yet still Miss Stavely appears to maintain the illusion that she can cope with all this, and that thanks to whatever she has taken from her great namesake, she can win through despite the hugely unfavourable odds.

I fear that she is mistaken. The original of her name was a tragic heroine who betrayed her lover with a greek warrior. The victory against overwhelming odds was spelled "Crécy".

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Heyeroines in need of a slap

20. Nell Cardross (April Lady)

Once again I suspect that there might be some debate over who the true heyeroine of April Lady might be. At no point is the expression used to describe Lady Cardross or (nor indeed Lady Letitia Merion). This must inevitably leave those who believe Miss Amanda Summercourt to be the heyeroine of Sprig Muslin at a bit of a loss. They might, of course, put forward the argument that a true heyeroine, even if she doesn't end up marrying the heyero, must appear in the first chapter. A careful review of the start of the book does indeed reveal a potential candidate on page 16 of the Arrow edition.

Unfortunately, despite this promising start, old Mother Wenlock makes no further appearance in the story, so I fear that, for all her magnificent and noble characteristics, we cannot count her as the heyeroine. That pretty much leaves us with no viable option other than the Countess of Cardross.

This immediately presents us with a problem. Read as a simple romance, April Lady has little to recommend it. The plot appears to be a simple rehash of The Convenient Marriage, but without a compelling villain, or perhaps Friday's Child without, well, without whatever it is that makes that worth reading. The "Nemesis" stuff, probably.

But it would be an error to treat April Lady as a romance. It is clearly a thriller. The relationship between Giles and Nell is well handled of course, but it is really a sideshow. The heart of the book concerns Madame Lavalle, and her partner, Mr Warren, the perfumier.

Note that we are never actually told why Madame Lavalle is making such spirited attempts to dun one of her more best clients. This is, of course, a great example of Miss Heyer expecting her readers to work it out for themselves. As you would expect from a mistress of whodunnits, the clues are all there, and it is in the first chapter that the key pointer can be found. It is Mr Warren's bill for Olympian Dew.

The Irvine family have something of a reputation for what we would nowadays refer to as addictive personalities. In the case of Lord Pevensey this expresses itself in a tendenct to gamble. In the case of his son, Viscount Dysart, it finds its expression in a compulsion to carve his initials in every tree in St James' Park, and to time himself doing so. In Nell's case it is substance abuse, and, primed by the reference to Nell's substance of choice, we can spot the tell-tale signs of addiction in much, if not all that she does.

Like LSD, Olympic Dew would appear to have effects that are much more interesting to the person taking the substance than to any observer. Where someone who drops acid sees marvellous visions that nobody else can see, the dabbler in Dew indulges in internal contemplation about her life and the state of her marriage at such tedious length that anyone caught up with her is likely to throw their copy of April Lady against the nearest wall and dig out the latest Bernard Cornwell.

That option is not, however, available to those caught up in the Dew trade. While the Countess of Cardross can ignore all the proprieties, and have improper discussions with strange men in Ryder Street, poor Mr Warren and Madame Lavalle must live in fear of the Dew barons, seeking payment for the stuff that they have provided. While Nell plays at highway robbery, the real villains pursue Madame Lavalle to the point where she feels that she is being forced to flee the country.

It is again a mark of Miss Heyer's writing skills that we are never explicitly told who the shadowy figures behind the Olympian Dew trade are, but the rules of this sort of fiction ensure that the smarter reader - and Miss Heyer knew that her readers would be smarter than the average - can work it out. Once again, the early chapters hold the key. Surely the prime candidate for the ringleader is none other than the mysterious and shadowy Lady Orsett? But she too shadowy and mysterious to be the only villain. She must have an accomplice.

This accomplice must be able to move freely between the haut ton, where Dew is dropped, and the source of this deadly substance, which is in Foreign Parts. What profession allows for this sort of behaviour? Obviously the Diplomatic Service. Is there a diplomat among the cast of characters? Indeed there is: Jeremy Allandale.

As soon as we understand where Mr Allandale stands, the book takes on a darker complexion. Letty's attempts to get Mr Allandale alone with her are suddenly chilling - he must be seeking to isolate her. Letty's choice of pink rather than cerise is not a fashion mistake, but a cry for help, and Mr Allandale's apparent abduction of Letty towards the end of the story is, in fact, an abduction.

And yet, happily doing the Dew, the Countess of Cardross is aware of none of this, nor does she apparently ever establish how her long suffering husband sorts it all out, through his involvement with that clandestine government agency only ever referred to as "Another Interest".

As with many great writers, the secret of Miss Heyer's storytelling lies in what she leaves unsaid. Nonetheless, I do feel that she might at least have been explicit about Nell's need for some sharp correction.

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My apologies for the long gap in posting. Normal service, or at least what passes for it on Wenlock, will resume very shortly.

Significant news over the last three weeks includes a decision by my agent that the latest draft of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth isn't quite ready to be shown to publishers. It did not therefore get an outing at the London Bookfair. We are meeting later this week to discuss what more needs doing.

While I have not been that active, the Wenlock heir has written an entire novel; nine chapters and an epilogue. It is action packed stuff involving rather more dinosaurs than dukes.

Watch out for a discussion of Nell Cardross later today, with Cressida Stavely not far behind.