Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

27. Léonie de Saint-Vire (These Old Shades)

The Long Eighteenth Century, that gilded period during which the world as we know it was transformed irrevocably. Wordsworth wrote, of a day in 1789:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
And some few decades earlier, when our tale unfolds, Mademoiselle Léonie de Saint-Vire was indeed young, and thus well-placed to bask in the changing of the order of the Universe.

The very year in which she came to Paris, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre uncovered the ruins of Pompeii, and our ideas of Classical Rome were never the same again. And how did this momentous discovery affect young Léonie? She attempts to murder her sister-in-law "with the big carving-knife."

Seven years later the great Scottish physician and scientist, Joseph Black, discovers both carbon dioxide and magnesium, while Leonhard Euler publishes his magisterial Institutiones calculi differentialis, placing Leibniz and Newton's work on calculus onto a sound footing for the first time. Léonie's reaction? She runs away from home and says "bah". Frequently.

Of course a tavern in the Rue Sainte-Marie is hardly the best place from which to observe the world, but from the day she enters the Duke of Avon's household she has access to a fine library and the newspapers. Surely now she will take advantage of those times in which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute, are taking at once the attraction of a country in romance? Within a week of her arrival at that fine hôtel in the Rue Saint-Honoré, Lisbon is destroyed in an earthquake that kills 60,000 to 90,000 people. Yet Léonie pays no real heed, pausing merely to threaten her fellow servants with a dagger. The loss of the second Eddystone Lighthouse, an event that set all England a-buzz also passes without comment from Léonie, other than that the King looks in real life as he does on his coinage.

Perhaps the Duke's decision to transfer Mademoiselle de Saint-Vire to Avon Court was triggered as much by his growing realisation that she was failing to observe what was going on around her as it was by any consideration of babies swapped at birth or girls dressing as boys or longstanding enmities between noble families. Alas, despite her presence in London for the signing of the Treaty of Westminster, Léonie prefers to opine dismissively on the Duke's family and to say "bah" some more.

And then, when the French invade Minorca, triggering the Seven Years War, the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Last of the Mohicans, Léonie returns to Paris for her triumph. Ill-timed to say the least.

Is a slap sufficient when dealing with what starts to look like willful High Treason?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

26. Harriet Presteigne (The Foundling)

Poor Harry. It is a poor enough show for a Heyeroine that she does not appear until Chapter Four of her novel, but for Lady Harriet Presteigne the indignity is heightened by the detailed anatomising of her character by Lord Lionel some two chapters earlier. Any hope she may have cherished that she might bring an air of mystery into The Foundling is put to flight by our knowledge that she is a Very Well Brought-Up Girl, albeit one with a Want Of Spirits in her. But above all else she stands condemned by his lordship as Amiable. Is it any wonder that, after her brief appearance in Chapter Four, she disappears off to Bath, playing no further part in our story until Chapter Twenty, by when she has been additionally characterised in absentia as a Squab Little Figure Of A Girl, and indeed Nothing Out Of The Ordinary, by the delightful Lady Boscastle?

None of this would be a problem if Lady Harriet could lay claim, like Miss Lanyon, Miss Stanton-Lacy, Miss Grantham or dear, sweet Miss Wantage, to being the title character of her tale. But, while Harriet is lying low with the Dowager Countess of Ampleforth, this role is snatched by the bewitching Belinda. Indeed it would not surprise me to learn that at least one writer of my acquaintance had put forward the view that Belinda should be seen as the true Heyeroine here. We have, of course, trodden this ground before with both Miss Wychwood and Miss Theale, in competition with Miss Carleton and Miss Summercourt respectively. Needless to say, Wenlock’s position remains the definitive one. Lady Harriet is our Heyeroine. But how can a Heyeroine, indeed a Heyeroine who has, we are told (albeit told by a man whose only positive virtue is the possession of whiskers during the Regency), a Superior Understanding, For A Female, have made such a poor fist of the role she was written to fulfil?

The answer, I suggest, can be summed up in a word: cant. The briefest perusal of The Foundling will demonstrate that the key to success in its pages is not breeding, still less money, but a mastery of low speech. And when it comes to speaking cant, it appears that Lady Harriet simply can’t.

The Duke of Sale’s cousins merely talk in cant, Matthew accusing his brother of Bamming and his father of Nabbling Thirsk with Gideon merely referring to Matthew as a Rasher-Of-Wind. His servants meanwhile go as far as thinking in cant, A-Worriting, for instance, that the Duke is being treated to enough Cross-And-Jostle Work to drive him to Bedlam. It is fair to say that these characters do well enough for themselves by the end of the book.

But the real successes of the story are those whose mastery of cant is complete. Tom Mamble turns up in Chapter Nine without a Meg, but with a mouth full of Ruff Peck and by Chapter Twenty-Six is out shooting across Cheyney bagging every stray woodcock, pheasant, partridge, badger or Cotswold Lion he can point a Purdey at. This achievement would scarcely be conceivable had not Tom had a command of cant that would make a Kettering Ironmaster blush.

Beyond even Tom’s grasp of the tongue is Samuel Mimms, or as he prefers to be called, Swithin Liversedge. Oh, he can negotiate a pretty turn of phrase when it is needful, but when it comes to managing a Rare Bleached Mort, with or without any sense in her Cock-Loft, or drinking a Flash-Cull into a fit state for Plucking, you won’t find another Dimber Damber. And in The Foundling, that’s what gets results, starting with the means to establish a gaming hell in Strasbourg.

Against such odds what chance does a girl stand, when her family motto appears to be “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his heart from troubles”? Had she but turned her Daddles to the Prinking Lay, and not just played the Tender Parnell, she might have been Thick with Sale and his Smirks right from the Ale-Post to the Yoke.

In need of a slap? More like a Wisty Castor.