This was my first Georgette Heyer, to which I was irresistibly drawn by the fact that it's an audiobook read by Richard (Thornton Guisborne Thorin) Armitage. Also: Georgette Heyer. All I've ever heard about her is how wonderful her books are, the epitome of their genre, not to be missed.
I feel let down.
It's a cute idea. Horatia ("Horry") (note to parents everywhere: don't name your child Horatia, or that's what will happen) Winwood sees her older sister Elizabeth being drawn inexorably into a terrible situation: she loves someone else, but the Earl of Rule has asked for her hand. Given the family's financial situation – including a brother who enjoys the drink and the gambling – there is no choice: Elizabeth must marry the rich lord and not her penniless soldier boy. So Horatia – though very young by current standards – takes matters into her own hands. She tromps off to present herself to Rule and – calmly, coolly, and collectedly – offer herself as a substitute. Purely a business arrangement, you understand, and neither of them expected to interfere with the other; he can even keep seeing his mistress. (!) When her mother and sisters find out they all nearly conniption from the horror and embarrassment, but when it turns out that Rule rather liked the audacity of it all things look much brighter.
The problem is that the concentration of the story drifts from there into other waters. If it had held its focus on Horry being unconventionally audacious and ahead of her time, convinced that whatever she was starting to feel for him the marriage was one of convenience purely, and so on, I might have had fun. But her unconventionality transmutes into a penchant for gambling and the high life just like her brother's, and it was a little nauseating. She was presented as being a smart girl, and yet she immediately forgets what it was like not to have very much and begins spending money like one to the manner born. Then the whole thing deteriorates into a rather unpleasant farce involving an extremely unwise flirtation with another man leading to results so nearly tragic I was a little stunned; I had expected something light and clever, not this adventure, involving at least two episodes of faux-highway-robbery, near-ravishment, a missing brooch, disuises, and Horry's brother and his Wodehouse-esque goofy sidekick.
Armitage did a fine job of reading it – as well, that is, as any man could be expected to do with a book featuring a passel of women in the primary roles, one of whom has – wait for it – a stutter.
I have to ask – whoever chose this among all of Heyer's novels – what were they smoking? An audiobook of a novel whose main character stutters? It was painful to listen to – I can only imagine it was painful to narrate. I hope they paid Armitage well.
I understand that this is one of Georgette Heyer's early books, and not among the best; also, I just belatedly noticed that the audiobook was (horrors!) abridged. So this won't put me off the author's body of work.
Almost. But not quite.