Sunday, 19 March 2006

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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1 comment:

Huigh said...

Thank you for your exegesis of this somewhat less satisfying Heyer 'romance'. I doubt Dan Brown could come up with a more illuminating analysis of this text.
After just finishing thr book, your comments come like a most delicious sweet after finishing a less than delightful main course.