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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