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.

1 comment:

Dave said...

The Foundling is a difficult book to pigeonhole. Its title character is a beautiful cipher who gets the one romance-book moment to be had, when her farmer appears in the twilight with his curled locks and taughtly muscled throat to claim her. Meanwhile old Harry gets respect, fondness and the Duke of Sale. But that's one thing I like about Heyer, unlike many readers who insist on bodice-ripping passion. Her world is too nuanced to be populated with only one or two archetypes.