A late entry for the 1956 club here - I only decided to read this last night after thinking it might be interesting to compare another book in the light comic vein with 'Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders'. 'Sprig Muslin' had never been a particular favourite Heyer for me, but yet again I find reading her in my 40's gives me an entirely different perspective from when I first read these books in my teens. It's probably not unrelated to the fact that I'm not that much younger than Heyer was when she wrote this.
It did turn out to be an interesting book in relation to 'Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders' as neither are really concerned much with the plot - both are serviceable but call for a willingness to play along, but both are very interested in being funny.
'Sprig Muslin' is an odd Heyer in a lot of ways. It's a romance in the sense that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote romances, there is a love story but it's barely sketched in - and is maybe the better for it. It opens with the here - Sir Gareth Ludlow, 35, rich, handsome, charming, intelligent, and blessed with a good sense of humour seeking a suitable bride. Much to his sisters dismay he's settled on a shy 29 year old spinster with no particular fortune or pretensions to beauty.
The reason for his choice is that a very beautiful and spirited fiancée unfortunately broke her neck and died 7 years previously when she stole his horses. Sir Gareth, understandably, hasn't been quite the same since. He likes Lady Hester and thinks they'll get on well together but to everyone's surprise she turns him down. This, the reader quickly understands, is because she's in love with him and wants more than the cool arrangement he's suggesting.
Meanwhile Sir Gareth has met and rescued Miss Amanda Smith, 16, stunningly beautiful, running away from home and a massive pain. Heyer in a different mood might have tried t persuade us that Amanda and Gareth would fall in love, but she doesn't even bother doing that here. The majority of the book is about the increasingly unlikely adventures that befall everyone as Sir Gareth tries to work out who Amanda is and return her to her home. Heyer also spends a lot of time pointing out that most fictional romance conventions are dangerous nonsense - she has a point.
At no point does Amanda understand the very real risks she takes as she continues to run off with a series of random men, whilst recycling the plot of 'Pamela'. It is a funny book, one that feels a little bit like a drawing room farce - if such a thing is possible whilst a series of people chase around the countryside in a series of carriages, carts, and curricles.
The broken neck interlude is surprisingly grim to start an ostensibly light hearted book with, Amanda falls somewhere between being a heroine, villain, and victim. Her behaviour has real consequences for those around her, and Heyer makes it clear over and over that she's basically a child. She's a victim in that she's been spoilt by an indulgent grandparent, and uncritical reading of books that have given her a skewed idea of the world. Gareth and Hester's love story happens almost entirely off the page, which is fine because their characters are almost non existent.
There is a point about friendship and respect being key to a successful relationship along with shared humour, but mostly this is a satire on romantic conventions, which is perhaps why the Punch reviewer seemed to like it so much ("Altogether probbaly the best thing Miss Heyer has yet done"). Along with Miss Hogg these 2 books are giving me a sense of a society on the brink - caught somewhere between old traumas and new anxieties and dealing with both by making jokes - perhaps I'm projecting... But then this is always my thing with Heyer - every time I read her I find something new, and something that feels prescient.