Sunday, 29 January 2006

I try not to do negative or grumpy posts on Wenlock, but some times things make me a bit cross. A case in point was today's Open Book on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to the programme from the BBC website for the next seven days (it needs Real Player).

A listener called the programme's Readers' Clinic asking for to be recommended romantic comedy for an intelligent reader. I was so taken aback by what was suggested for her that I ended up e-mailing Open Book to complain. Since their automatic response says that they don't read or reply to all their e-mails I thought that I would post my message here.
I was very disappointed with the response on today's programme to your reader's query about romantic comedy for intelligent readers. The tone was set by Mariella's flippant remark about the term being an oxymoron, but it was Tim Lott's selection of books which was the biggest problem.

There is nothing wrong with any of the books per se. Two are already classics of modern American literature[John Updike's Rabbit Run and Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist], and the other two [Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Nick Hornby's About a Boy] will no doubt achieve similar status in time, but, with the possible exception of the Nick Hornby, none of them would strike an intelligent reader as being romantic comedy.

I am an intelligent reader who reads romantic fiction, and I can suggest a number of authors who would fit your listener's requirements somewhat better than Anne Tyler, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen.

I would start with Georgette Heyer, whose historical romances are stuffed with wit and humour. Frederica is one of her best.

Then there is Katie Fforde, whose books cannot easily be dismissed as light-weight "chick lit". The characters are engaging, the situations are plausible, the outcomes are just the thing to drive away midwinter blues. Try Paradise Fields.

I won't go on, but I will point out that romantic fiction is probably second only to crime in terms of its popularity. Surely Open Book can serve readers of romantic fiction better than it does?

Stephen Bowden
(a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association team that reached the final of University Challenge - the Professionals last year)
Unlike other BBC arts programmes (such as the always excellent Front Row), Open Book has a bit of a track record of sneering at romantic fiction, which is a great pity.
One of the changes that I am going to have to make to Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth is the title. It's not the length, nor the punctuation. It's just that, as my agent pointed out to me, it isn't really Lord Alexander's cipher at all. He didn't create it (that was the French), nor did he break it (that was his mathematical friend Piers Monkhopton).

The cipher is, of course, critical to the plot, and Lord Alexander Hawkshead is the hero, but combining them both into a snappy but meaningful title isn't quite that easy. On the other hand, my agent likes the Bridekirk Behemoth part, so that will stay for the time being.

Another change that I fear will be necessary is to Lord Alexander's surname. Having spent a year writing an exciting and vaguely romantic adventure story about French spies and English heroes in the early 19th Century, I have now discovered that I am not the only one.

I haven't read James McGee's Ratcatcher yet (and I won't do so until I have delivered my rewrites), but my agent read it in manuscript a while back. She doesn't think that it scuppers me in any way, although it has probably holed some of my ideas for the sequel (Lady Cardington's Folly; or, the Limehouse Leviathan) below the waterline.

However there is the small matter of our respective heroes. Mine is Lord Alexander Hawkshead; James McGee's is Matthew Hawkwood. You can see the problem. If I changed his name to Handsawhead, would anybody know the difference?

Saturday, 28 January 2006

My agent called me yesterday to say that the Agency has changed their mind.

Instead of waiting to see how I got on with the suggestions for rewrites, and then, if all has gone well, to sign me up, they have decided to take me on anyway, right now. The letter is in the post.

Originally the plan was for me not to send anything in before the middle of March, because my agent would be far too busy dealing with the London Book Fair. The new plan is, if I can manage it, for me to send at least the first couple of chapters by mid-February, ahead of the London Book Fair, so that my agent can tout Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth around editors at the ExCel Centre in London's happening Docklands.

I don't know what has triggered this latest development, but I am very happy about it.

Sunday, 22 January 2006

Today is the 219th birthday of George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron.
So, we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Thursday, 19 January 2006

Well, I had a meeting with my agent on Wednesday, and the fact that I am starting to say "my" agent should give you a clue about how things went. The fact that there are still no names should indicate there's still a long way to go.

We spent two hours going through Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth and discussing all its faults. We barely touched on anything good about it (except that the first scene of the final chapter must not be touched because it is just right). Despite this distinctly unbalanced analysis I came away feeling very positive. After all, unless there was quite a bit right, it wouldn't have been worth the two hours on what is wrong.

So what are the problems? It's too long, by about 10,000 words (it's a smidge over 100,000 at the moment). It's too wordy, and the pace is too even. I think that these all go together - by stripping down the prose in some scenes, particularly in the second half of the book, I should be able to up the pace and lose some length. I'll need to dig out my notes on Pace from Annie Burgh's workshops on the subject.

Some of the characterisation needs a bit of work. The eponymous hero, Lord Alexander, is OK, but the heroine needs a bit of warming up. Some of the secondary characters need a bit more fleshing out, and in one particular case where a character turns up near the end after bowing out of the plot at an early stage, I need to do something to remind the reader of his continuing existence in-between. My favourite character, a nine-year old girl who is intended to be the heroine of the third book of what I see as a linked set of stories, is fine. I just need to develop my mental images of the others to the extent that I have a picture of her.

I need to add more vitality and impetus to the opening few scenes, and in some other places. This is linked to the pace issue above, but it is particularly critical here. The scene at which my agent felt the story really got going was some 20 pages in. Many editors won't get that far if it isn't a bit more tense and urgent from the start. In some of the other scenes that need this tightening I know that there is detail that I can trim, but for the opening scenes I need something else.

I also need to put in more at an early stage that sets the political scene. Readers won't all know just what was happening in the Spring of 1809 (a low point in the Penninsula War, and something of a mess in terms of both British and French politics) and a bit of background helps explain what is going on among the villains. The trouble is that this is precisely the sort of thing that kills pace and tension. I am currently reading Dennis Wheatley's Roger Brook books and he has a really bad habit of having his characters stop everything to discuss the latest political and military developments, whether or not they have a strong bearing on the plot. The last thing I want is for Lord Alexander spending anytime telling his colleagues what they already know.

There are one or two plot implausibilities or even impossibilities that need to be worked through, but luckily none that drive a stake through the heart of the storyline.

In addition to these major issues I need to sort out some stylistic problems (too many "said"s in the dialogue tags, too many "that"s , especially in dialogue, too few commas, too many people saying "indeed" in response to remarks.

And then there are the detailed bits and pieces scattered across most pages - potential anachronisms to be double-checked, infelicitous turns of phrase (including some real clunkers that I should have spotted myself), slip-ups in surnames and relationships, eccentric capitalisation, all that good stuff.

Despite all of this, there wasn't a single moment when I felt that this agent wasn't on my side, or wanted me to write something that wasn't what I had in my head. This is going to be my book, but thanks to her it is going to be a much, much better version of it. And while the title may need a bit of tweaking (the first half more than the second), the elephant still gets to stay in the very final sentence.

So I have a great deal to think about, and a great deal to do. Can I do it? I think that I can. How long have I got? Well, there are no external deadlines, but my agent is expecting to hear from me before the end of April. My own target is the end of March at the latest. I started Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth from scratch - not a single word nor fragment of a plot aready in my head - in the first week of April last year. In her new column in the Telegraph, confusingly titled A novel in a year, Louise Doughty says
Your novel will take you as long as it takes you - but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that if you haven't written a book before and are really serious about it and have a job or a family or - heaven forbid - both, then you are looking at around three years from start to finish.
I'm aiming to shave two years off that. If I can produce a publishable novel in a year, while holding down a full-time office job, then I think that I will be able to hold my head up high.

Tuesday, 17 January 2006

The Long List for the Romantic Novelists' Association's Foster Grant Romantic Novel of the Year was published today, and it looks something like this:

Playing with Fire by Diana Appleyard (Black Swan)
Daughter of Mine by Anne Bennett (HarperCollins)
Winds of Honour by Ashleigh Bingham (Robert Hale)
The Other Woman by Iris Gower (Bantam)
An Eligible Bachelor by Veronica Henry (Penguin)
As the Night Ends by Audrey Howard (Hodder)
Laughing as They Chased Us by Sarah Jackman (Simon & Schuster)
Gardens of Delight by Erica James (Orion)
The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogridis (HarperCollins)
State of the Union by Douglas Kennedy (Random House)
Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Mary Kate Kerrigan (Pan Macmillan)
The September Girls by Maureen Lee (Orion)
All My Sisters by Judith Lennox (Pan Macmillan)
The Ship of Brides by JoJo Moyes (Hodder)
The Tea House on Mulberry Street by Sharon Owens (Penguin)
A Lesser Evil by Lesley Pearse (Penguin)
Look the World in the Eye by Alice Peterson (Black Swan)
Lie By Moonlight by Amanda Quick (Piatkus)
The Lost Art of Telling Secrets by Eva Rice (Headline Review)
Turning Point by Bowering Sivers (Transita)
True Believer by Nicholas Sparks (Time Warner)
Falling Into Place by Linda Taylor (Heinemann)
Pond Lane and Paris by Susie Vereker (Transita)

Congratulations to all the long-listed authors. The Short List will be announced, as ever, on Valentine's Day.

Only one of these could be described as a Regency - Ashleigh Bingham's Winds of Honour. I thought that Amanda Quick's Lie by Moonlight would be one too, but it seems to be set in the early Victorian period.

And as far as I can tell, not one of these books features an elephant in a significant role. Oh well, maybe next year.

Sunday, 15 January 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

17. Annis Wychwood (Lady of Quality)

Judging by the response to my animadversions upon Lady Hester Theale, I will now be deluged by suggestions to the effect that the true heyeroine of Lady of Quality is Miss Carleton-with-an-e. I expect this point to be made particularly by those of my readers who happen to be called Lucilla. They will, no doubt, be faced down by a battalion of Corisandes, promoting Miss Stinchcombe's claims to the title, only for these to be routed by a monstrous regiment of Marias acting on behalf of Miss Farlow. I will, however, remain deaf and blind to such entreaties. As far as I am concerned, our heyeroine is Miss Wychwood.

I am grateful to Mr Roger Burton West for pointing out that according to Nicholas Culpeper's excellent Complete Herbal,
Annis seeds, heat and dry, ease pain, expel wind, cause a sweet breath, help the dropsy, resist poison, breed milk, and stop the Fluor Albus in women, provoke venery, and ease the head-ache.
Venery is, of course, the practice or sport of hunting beasts of game. Fluor Albus, I should point out, especially to younger readers (and here I do include you, Miss Garrett), has nothing to do with headmasters at schools of witchcraft and wizardry, but is instead a form of mucus. Mucus is not something upon which Wenlock has any desire to dwell, leaving that to other journals especially set up for the purpose.

So is Mr Culpeper's description a fair assessment of Miss Wychwood's character, or is she in fact little more than a self-deluding fraud? Let us examine the evidence.

Miss Wychwood apparently treasures her independence. It is this that has caused her to leave the bosom of her family and set up a household by herself. But has she really achieved her aim? She has chosen Bath as her new home, and yet Bath is the one place in Regency England that is easily accessible from Twynham Park, where Sir Geoffrey and Lady Wychwood are on hand, 24 hours a day, to bail her out of any trouble that she might find herself in. Had she really wanted to establish her independence, why did Miss Wychwood not move to London - I understand that Hans Town is quite the coming location - or perhaps Harrogate? It is, I think, more likely that she merely wished to play at independence, afraid to venture far from the security of her family home.

Claims of independence are further undermined by her decision to have Miss Farlow within her household. Nicholas Culpeper has nothing to say of Maria Farlow, but such admirable reticence is hardly reciprocated. Miss Farlow makes it very plain that she is "not at all partial to herbs, except for a little parsley in a sauce." Indeed she goes on to add that she has "never been able to understand how anyone, even a Biblical person, could possibly live on herbs." For her, Annis and her ways must surely be a bitter pill to swallow.

Her alleged desire for freedom does nothing to prevent Miss Wychwood from sweeping up any passing waif or stray that she finds in her path and carrying them off to Camden Place to give her an occupation for her idle hours. Not even explicit advice from the parents, aunts, uncles or guardians of these abductees that she is simply not a fit person to cling on to them can persuade her that if she wishes to surround herself with young people, Miss Susan Wychwood and Master Tom Wychwood would be far more suitable accessories.

While the weather remains fine, Miss Wychwood can continue to fool the more susceptible, including perhaps herself, that she has acheived a measure of freedom, if only of the most solipsistic sort, but as soon as the weather takes a turn for the worse, we are presented witha very different picture.

A few days of rain, and Miss Wychwood takes to her bed, claiming that she has the influenza. Faced with a headache and a few snuffles, any gentleman would treat himself by the self-administration of a bruising ride with the local hunt followed by a couple of bottles of one of the better Ports from the cellar, without bothering the local doctor. This independent approach will not do for Miss Wychwood. She must instead take to her bed for several days, with a Doctor on call and her poor maid forced to keep watch over her day and night, and then, when finally persuaded that she is not really all that ill, she must throw herself at the first man that asks after her, careless of his reputation as a rake, and insist on nothing short of marriage. Independence? I think not.

The last word on Miss Wychwood I shall leave to Amabel, Lady Wychwood, who says of her sister-in-law,
If you don't stop talking such nonsense I shall be strongly tempted to slap you!
There are times, I believe, when temptation should not be resisted.

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Monday, 9 January 2006

This slapping business is catching on. The Romantic Novelists' Association have just launched a new questionnaire in the run up to Valentine's Day, and the question they are asking is
Which heroine would you most like to slap?
The options are:
  • Catherine Linton from Wuthering Heights;
  • Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With The Wind;
  • Bridget Jones from, er, Bridget Jones' Diary;
  • Arwen Evenstar (surely "Undomiel") from Lord of the Rings;
  • Fanny Price from Mansfield Park; and
  • the unnamed second Mrs de Winter from Rebecca.
It would be unethical for me to reveal where the Wenlock vote went, although I will say that one response to "tomorrow is another day" might be "for you, not necessarily".

Let's get voting.

Sunday, 8 January 2006

See Wenlock live on stage...

Well, sort of. I will be taking part in a special Valentine's Day debate at Upminster Public Library. Roger Sanderson and I will be proposing the motion that "Men are as Romantic as Women". Katie Fforde and Elizabeth Lord will be opposing it. Tickets are £4.00, and further details are available from Havering Live.

Saturday, 7 January 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

16. Hester Theale (Sprig Muslin)

Among the many reasons postulated for the peculiar nature of Regency society (making morning calls in the afternoon, watering one's dresses, eating turtles, high-perch phaetons, the whole reticule business, you know what I mean), one that has, I believe, received far too little attention is the fact that in the early Nineteenth Century there was no such thing as day-time television (or indeed any remotely close equivalent achievable through the technology available at the time - circulating libraries simply cannot be considered sufficient substitute).

Why should this be a problem? Because without day-time television Regency society cannot have supported a sufficient number of popular psychologists, and without popular psychologists there could be no pop psychology, and without pop psychology our heyeroes and heyeroines would have had no way of understanding their need for closure, say, or any real understanding that yes, they were worth it. Without that regular infusion of platitudes wrapped up in psychobabble they could never understand that all their problems stemmed from the fact that they genuinely were different from everybody else; that they simply had not met their soulmate; that they needed positive affirmations; or that they were, perhaps through no real fault of their own, dangerously and destructively passive-aggressive.

Which brings me neatly to Lady Hester Theale. I have no wish to dwell on the fact that she never took, that she had no countenance, nor the least degree of modishness. We should completely ignore any suggestion, however well founded, that she is stupidly shy and dowdy. Her slightly myopic gaze and her reputation for dullness need not detain us. All we are interested in is the inner Hester, the potentially worthwhile and possibly even genuinely "good" person underneath all those layers. The only question we should ask is "does she show signs of being passive-aggressive?" And the only answer we can entertain is "yes".

Let us consider the evidence. Since the death of her dear mama Lady Hester has remained quiet - perhaps too quiet. Her father's heir now lives at Brancaster, complete with a wife who is ideally placed to be the châtelaine of the family seat, and yet Hester has done nothing about moving out. She has just remained in place, quietly, resolutely, and, had her poor family only understood the concept - indeed if only the concept had been cooked up at the time - classically passively-aggressively.

And then Sir Gareth Ludlow turns up, the tragic death of Clarissa Lincombe still, after many years, haunting him. Of course Lady Hester does not recognise that what Sir Gareth needs is closure. She doesn't recognise this in part because that particular piece of psychocobblers had yet to be invented, but also because she is protected from such sensibility by the wall of passive aggression that she has constructed around herself.

When offered the opportunity to marry a handsome and, let us not beat about the bush, eligible young man such as Sir Gareth (even if he does happen to arrive with a regular out-and-outer in tow) a normal reaction might be to faint dead away, to rush from the room wearing an expression of shock, or else to say "yes." Lady Hester's reaction is to turn him down, not forcefully, not with any explanation, but simply with an otherwise unelaborated upon observation that marraige to Sir Gareth would be "anguish". Classic passive aggressivity, I am sure you would agree.

Lady Hester compounds her passive aggression with repeated attempts to force upon Sir Gareth some sort of cute and fluffy animal: perhaps one of Juno's puppies, or else a kitten saved from drowning. What could be a more sterotypically passive-aggressive act. The gift of the animal is almost an explicit declaration that the giver sees herself as unbiddable (albeit probably house-trained, unlike the puppy or kitten).

And it is not just the blanking of Sir Gareth's proposal. The unresponsive acquiescence to Sir Gareth's request that Lady Hester attend to Miss Summercourt; the silent treatment of the maid, Povey; the dismissive attitude towards Mrs Chicklade; all are further indications that Lady Hester has learned to get her way not by being a "joiner" or "team-player", or through reaffirmation of her own self-worth, or any other tool from the armory of the Positive Person, but by means of a prolonged and uncommunicative sulk.

Never mind that the delightfully unprepossessing Mr Whyteleaf has his future preferment to consider; never mind that Lord Widmore has his position in society and a seat in the House of Lords ahead of him; never mind that Sir Gareth could do a great deal better for himself by marrying Miss Stockwell; Lady Hester simply stands there, unmoved and unmoving, using the silent treatment to get her way. And in the end she succeeds. Just as the endless dripping of water will eventually erode a marble block, Lady Hester's oppressive meekness eventually wears away all resisitance and even Sir Gareth, weakened by an unfortunate bullet, and as a rsult subject to these wearyingly prolonged silences through all his waking hours, and no doubt some of his sleeping ones, while he recuperates at the Bull Inn, succumbs at the end.

With Lady Hester apparently shy and unexplaining to the last, her passive aggression, unrecognised for the sociopathic disorder that we now so clearly see it to be, claims another victim.

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Friday, 6 January 2006

I have been rooting around in Paterson's Roads some more. The 14th edition, from 1808, has a number of improvements over the 11th. Paterson particularly points out that it has been
arranged upon a new and more convenient Plan: so that the Routes and the Seats relating to them are brought under the Eye in the same page.
I am more taken by the fact that he now gives the names of the coaching inn or inns at the various post towns. I also welcome Paterson's collaboration with the Post Office, which has led to the inclusion of a table of principal towns, giving the time of arrival and departure of the mail.

Since the mail was the fastest service on the roads, by plotting the time of the mail along a route we can get some idea of the shortest possible journey times. Unfortunately the one detail that Paterson leaves out is the time the mails arrive and depart from London. No matter, revisiting the journey to Cheltenham we can get some idea of what went on. Here are the times given by Paterson:

Post Townarrivaldeparture
Southall10 p.m.4 a.m.
Uxbridge10-40 p.m.3-50 a.m.
WycombeMidnight1 a.m.
Stoken Church1-30 a.m.11-20 p.m.
Tetsworth2-20 a.m.11 p.m.
Oxford4 a.m.10 p.m.
Witney6 a.m.7 p.m.
Burford7 a.m.6 p.m.
Frogmill10 a.m.5 p.m.
Cheltenham11 a.m.4 p.m.

I would guess that the post left London an hour before it arrived in Southall, and arrived back an hour after leaving there on the inbound journey, giving a journey time of 14 hours out and 13 hours back. For that speed of service you would have paid 8d for a letter consisting of a single sheet of paper.

Paterson also provides a table which can be used to calculate the cost of a pair of post horses for any distance from 5 to 20 miles, at rates of from 12d to 18d per mile. Posting down to Cheltenham by the route given in my earlier post would cost between £4-12s-6d and £6-18s-9d for horses alone if one started at Tyburn Turnpike. Add to that the cost of refreshment along the way, and the various emoluments that you would need to furnish to postillions and inn servants, and long-distance travel starts looking an expensive proposition.

Thursday, 5 January 2006

I had an e-mail today from the Agency that is looking at Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth. It said:
[We have now] read the complete manuscript of LORD ALEXANDER'S CIPHER. We are in agreement that it has good potential, and has many of the right 'ingredients', but is still in need of work.

I suggest that, if you are willing, we meet soon to discuss things in detail.
I am not sure what Miss Snark would make of it, but I reckon that this is more of a "yes" than a "no". This is my first novel, after all. I would be suspicious if an agent suggested that it didn't need work.

With the post-Christmas backlog the meeting won't be for a couple of weeks. I am not counting chickens, but I am counting the days.

Wednesday, 4 January 2006

Following a suggestion from Jen Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer's Regency World, I have just laid my hands on a copy of Paterson's Roads, which is a wonderful little book.

Paterson's Roads describes itself as "a new and accurate description of all the direct and principal cross roads in England and Wales." It lists all the cities, towns and "remarkable villages" in the country, arranged by the roads a traveller must take to get to each of them. My copy is of the 11th edition, from 1796. It cost three shillings when new (sewn but unbound), but I had to pay a little more than that. However, as a research tool it will be, I think, invaluable.

Suppose we wished to post down to Cheltenham from London. What route should we take, and where would we change horses?

Looking up Cheltenham in the index, we establish that it is in Gloucestershire, that market day is Thursday, and that the route is given on page 93. Turning to page 93 we discover that the route is only given from Northlech (Northleach), but the route to Northlech is on page 82.

The route gives the various villages through which we pass, with mileage between each, and cumulative mileage. Post-towns or stages are given in italics, principal towns in capitals. Combining the details on the two pages, our route, which starts from the Tyburn Turnpike (now Marble Arch) looks like this:

To Bayswater, Mid.-1
Kensington Gravel-Pits12
Shepherd's Bush
Gerard's Cross, Bucks.520
Low Water427
High Wycombe229
West Wycombe231
Stoken Church, Oxf.536
Wheatley Bridge48
At 48¾ l, to Wheatley149
Shotover Hill352
Northlech, Glo.980
At ½ Mile from Frogmill turn to the r. to Dowdeswell88½

I'm not sure whether we would use the stage at Dowdeswell if we were finishing our journey at Cheltenham, but in any case this journey involves six changes, which would presumably have been at roughly two-hour intervals, making this more than a day's journey in all but the best conditions.

Paterson's Roads also gives an account of the "remarkable seats" that are near the road. On the way to Cheltenham we would pass two dozen such places including Bulstrode House and Park, owned by the Duke of Portland; Headington-House, home of W. Jackson Esq; and even West Wycombe Church, "on the tower of which is a Ball that will contain six People, and may be seen from a little beyond Beaconsfield".

A quick look at Abe suggests that there are a number of later editions available - particularly the 18th, from 1828. The 1808 edition is apparently available on CD-ROM from GenFair.

No traveller should be without a copy.

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

Heyeroines in need of a slap

15. Mary Challoner (Devil's Cub)

It is a sadly unavoidable outcome of being born of a mésalliance between a headstrong young gentleman and the sister of one Mr Henry Simpkins that one is condemned to be indisputably bourgeoise. Indisputably, yes, but not inescapably. There is more than one way for a young woman possessing the right qualities to scramble out of the miasmic mêlée of the middle classes and to take her place among the Quality. Indeed there are two.

The simplest route is that charted out by the Gunning sisters, and understandably considered by the former Miss Clara Simpkins worthy of emulation by her daughter Sophia. One simply has to achieve very great beauty: golden ringlets, perhaps; eyes of cornflower blue; smiles and dimples in all the right places. Combine this with a fanatical devotion to the pursuit of a title, and success can hardly be far away. Sadly for our heyeroine, even a delightfully straight nose and a short upper lip cannot compensate for curls of a mere chestnut hue, and eyes that will not be shifted from a disappointing grey.

For Miss Challoner, therefore, Route One is out of the question. There remains, however, Route Two: achieve impeccable ton.

Frankly, how hard can it be? This is 1780 after all, and it is considered good ton for a man to wear a jacket of yellow velvet with satin trousers, or indeed to dress himself in a velvet suit dyed to the colour of blood-engorged fleas. It is acceptable, even in mixed company, to say "Ecod", "La", or even "'Pon Rep". Macaroni means style, rather than comfort food. And Lady Mary Coke, whoever she may be, is still considered a figure of fun. Against such a background Miss Challoner, who, we are led to believe, is a determined and resourceful young woman, surely will not find it hard to keep her nose clean, her address demure, and her manners appropriate. Let us see.

We might start with her reaction to the letter from Vidal. Does Miss Challoner know who sent it? Yes. Does she know who the intended recipient is? Yes. Does she open it anyway? Yes. The argument that it was addressed to "Miss Challoner", and therefore to her, is special pleading of the most egregiously casuistical sort. It will not wash. Bad ton.

Next we must review Miss Challoner's decision to invite herself along on an abduction. She had her reasons, no doubt, but she was hardly open about them. It is bad enough to impose oneself on an unwitting abductor. It is still worse to do so in disguise. It is even worse when that disguise is a loo mask stolen from the very sister whose place in the abduction one is trying to usurp. Very bad ton.

Barely half-a-dozen chapters in, and already Miss Challoner's ideas of ton are showing a distinct peccability. However, all is not lost, and quick thinking, combined with resolute action, may still be enough to save the day.

Shooting unarmed noblemen might not however be quite the way to go. Particularly shooting them with one of their own pistols. A pistol that Miss Challoner helped herself to without asking any sort of permission. Bad, bad ton.

At this point the reader is forced to agree with Vidal that even a career in millinery is becoming out of the question. The market for hats that might well have been knocked together from stolen fancy dress accessories and deadly weaponry was decidely small in 1780 (although, ten years later, one might argue that they would have a certain attraction for some of Paris' more radical fashionistas. This does not, however, serve to help our heyeroine, but surely she has learned her lesson. Whatever else she does, she is not likely to arrange to be abducted once again, nor to assault her abductor in anyway.

Except that she does. Not content with the distinctly poor ton of having herself abducted to paris by a Marquis, she determines to have herself abducted from Paris by a mere commoner. And not just from Paris, but to Dijon. Dijon? Frightfully bad ton.

And once in Dijon we have the duel. Watching such an event, in France - even in Dijon - is possibly not, of itself, bad ton, provided one behaves with appropriate decorum. What one does not do is attempt to add to the frivolity of the occasion by tossing the combatants' coats into the fray. Quite apart from the danger - a flapping sleeve or a dragging coattail could cause one of the duellists to slip and twist a knee - there is the distinct likelihood of one or both of the coats being damaged, and trying to do invisible mending on yellow velvet is extraordinarily difficult. Appalling ton.

Somehow, despite all this, our beloved authoress deigns to forgive Miss Challoner, and to award her the hand of an admittedly deeply disfunctional Marquis. Normally this would be enough for me to forgive her too. However there is one feature of Miss Challoner's behaviour, one that I have hitherto allowed to pass unremarked, that makes this very, very hard.

I refer of course to what happened during the channel crossing. It is not the actual event on the boat. Not the most tonnish of behaviours I grant you, but not without a certain justification. No, it's not that. It is instead Miss Challoner's utter determination to tell anybody and everybody she meets all about it. Servants, gentlemen callers, complete strangers that she meets in remote coaching inns. No self-pitying account of Miss Challoner's woeful situation is complete without a blow by blow account of her tossing her cookies on a cross-channel yacht. She wants Comyn to abduct her - she tells him exactly what happened when she threw up. She is invited to dine with an unfamiliar Duke in the isolated settlement of Pont-de-Moine - she describes her recent emesis in excrutiating detail and wonders why he is not laughing along with her.

If Miss Challoner is ever to get to grips with what makes for good ton then the first thing that she must learn is that however natural, however life-enhancing, however pleasurable certain involuntary bodily functions may be, one simply doesn't talk about them. And even if one does, there are possibly better euphemisms than "throwing up into milord's basin".

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