Sunday, 23 April 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

23. Elinor Rochdale (The Reluctant Widow)

As the creator of the Bridekirk Behemoth, I might be expected to have some sympathy for Miss Rochdale, since one of her most prominent features (mentioned three times in the first two pages) is a trunk. Sadly it quickly transpires that hers is not that sort of trunk, and indeed the more we learn of Miss Rochdale, the less like an elephant she turns out to be.

Firstly there is the matter of her taste in food. While elephants are known for a predeliction for buns (and, if Dr Johnson's Dictionary is to be believed, for pulses of all sorts), Miss Rochdale seems to eat nothing but bread-and-butter. She has this for dinner on her first arrival at Highnoons, and again for breakfast next morning at the Hall. When trapped in the book-room the next day with Master Nicky's dog bouncer, what does she request from Mrs Barrow but bread-and-butter.

Then there is the worrying lack of feathers. Not only does she arrive in Billingshurst without one in her hat, but she then marries Eustace Cheviot. Now of course we know that the magic feather was just a prop, a device to build up confidence, but at this early stage Miss Rochdale would surely have been better off with a bit more confidence. It must therefore be an unwise move for anyone with asirations of an elephantine sort to join herself to a man like Mr Cheviot who, in contrast to Mr Timothy Q Mouse, is well known for not having a feather to fly with.

What about that well-documented pachydermatous personality trait, curiosity? Again Miss Rochdale, or, as we must now style her, Mrs Cheviot, disappoints. On her first night at Highnoons she encounters a Frenchman wandering around indoors, despite the fact that all the doors and windows are locked, and that the side door, which he claims gave him access, does not even exist. Is she curious? Does she wonder what is going on? No. She simply goes to bed. She doesn't even ask the man his name. Presented the next day with a genuine secret passage, she refuses to enter it. I fear that our heyeroine can hardly be described as insatiable.

There comes a brief moment of hope about halfway through our tale, when the scutter of a mouse across the floor makes Mrs Cheviot jump nearly out of her skin - for elephants are notoriously scared of mice. Shortly afterwards Mrs Cheviot visits Chichester and comes back with a dress of grey muslin - about as elephantine a gown as one could hope for, particularly with the treble flounce.

This proves, however, to be a false dawn. Mrs Cheviot's diet continues strictly bun-free despite Miss Beccles eating macaroons, Lord Bedlington tucking into cakes and Mrs Barrow cooking up drop-cakes for Ned Carlyon and his brothers. It is the possibility of French spies, rather than the certain presence of mice that carries most weight in Mrs Cheviot's thinking when she considers whether to move out of Highnoons. Even the choice of grey clothing loses some of its impact when it emerges that the Honourable Francis Cheviot sports the same colour without any indication that he aspires to the elephant set.

We are ultimately forced to pack away Mrs Cheviot's trunk as a cruel delusion after the incident with the linen list. Mrs Cheviot is found semi-conscious on the floor. The inventory of linens prepared by Miss Beccles is scattered near the fireplace. Assorted Carlyons have arrived upon the scene, as has Dr Greenlaw. Lord Carlyon then asks Mrs Cheviot a very simple question. Before she lost consciousness, was the window of the book-room open? Mrs Cheviot replies that she has no recollection that it was. No recollection. Her very words.

I suspect that you have seen where I am going with this. No amount of curiosity over what Francis Cheviot wanted with the clock can any longer be persuasive. Nor can Mrs Cheviot's sudden predeliction for macaroons. Her determination to wear grey while still in strict mourning cannot be more than custom and practice. Even her decision to throw her lot in with the three ring circus of the extended Carlyon menagerie is insufficient. Nothing that Mrs Cheviot could say or do would allow us to consider her remotely like an elephant.

She may have been stunned by a paperweight, confused by the strangeness of her circumstances, placed under considerable stress by the activities of those around her. There are all manner of reasons that she might not have been at the top of her game, but the simple truth is unavoidable. Mrs Cheviot was asked a straightforward question, and answered that she could not recollect. Yet we all know that an elephant never forgets.

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Jan Jones said...

Good, Stephen. You have managed an entire character assassination without actually maligning one of my favourite heroines. There's hope for you yet.

Melinda Hammond said...

What a masterly summing up - poor Elinor. Pity, too, because I do so like elephants.....

Mandy said...

It's unfortunate that Heyer didn't tell us whether Mrs Cheviot walked across the ice at the February 1814 Frost Fair as it might have helped establish her credentials, for as everyone knows, an elephant was led across the frozen Thames on this occasion.

If it was not Mrs Cheviot, however, perhaps it was the elephant from LACorTBB.

As the sequel is set in the summer of 1814, maybe the elephant could reappear and amuse the gentlemen with an account of its winter perambulations, when it joins them in a glass of after dinner port.

Nina said...

What do you expect? Cheviots are a breed of sheep.