Monday, October 14, 2019

Powder and Patch - Georgette Heyer for the 1930 Book Club

'Powder and Patch' is a bit of a cheat - it was first published as 'The Transformation of Philip Jettan' in 1923 and then reissued as 'Powder in Patch' in 1930 with the new title and minus the last chapter. However I see Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs as the perfect opportunity to re read a Georgette Heyer so I'll take what I can get. The proper books from 1930 are the contemporary novels that she later suppressed.

'Powder and Patch' is short enough to read in a few hours, and amusing enough to make me want to do that. It's early Heyer and far from her best work, but it has all the elements that make her so good when she's at her best. It also has the bits that make her difficult for the modern reader.

Our hero, Philip Jettan, is a handsome young man of sober disposition. He likes to stay at home and run the family estate - much to the despair of his altogether more fashion conscious father and the local beauty who he is in love with. Cleone Charteris is 18, inclined to return Philips feelings, but disinclined to settle down before she's had some fun.

When the extremely fashionable Henry Bancroft turns up in the village and starts flirting with Cleone, Philip proposes to her and gets sent packing. He loses a duel with Henry, and gets a telling off from his father so heads off to London, and then Paris, to learn to be a fashionable gentleman. Six months later he reappears an apparently changed man - but what will happen next?

What I really like about this book, and about Heyer generally, is that she has Cleone say no because she's not prepared to marry someone who would expect to always 'bend before his will', and she wants to have some fun before she settles down. There's no suggestion that this is anything but a sensible decision from a very young woman. Philip in turn is a bit of a prig - both need to see more of the world to grow up, and that's just what Heyer has them do.

Philip finds that he enjoys society, Cleone gets to meet enough men to be sure that she's making the right choice. For a fluffy bit of romance that's not a bad message to take away.

The setting is sometime around 1740 so Heyer gets to have a lot of fun describing the most outrageously elaborate men's costume, but otherwise this reads like a 1920's drawing room comedy rather than the serious attempts to recreate an era that she became known for later. It's none the worse for that, and maybe even more fun for it.

What lets the book down is the description of various servants, particularly distasteful in relation to a black page, not much better when it comes to a French valet. At best it's snobby, at worst racist. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I adore Heyer, and wish that she'd had more progressive ideas about class and race. On the other hand the book is almost a hundred years old in its original form and I'm prepared to judge her more by the standards of her day than ours.

It turns out the original last chapter was fairly awful (you can find a transcript of it Here, so perhaps the most interesting thing about 'Powder and Patch' now is in being able to see how Heyer was evolving and improving as a writer.


  1. Oh, that is a very cunning way to find a Heyer to read for the 1930 club. I did look up her titles in preparation for this week but gave up when I saw it was only the redacted ones. Adding Heyer content to the week definitely improves it!

    This is one of the very few Heyers I haven't read. I find the very early books a little too over the top usually but this sounds like it may not involve her youthful penchant for cross-dressing scenarios (yes? Please say yes) so that is a promising sign.

    1. Honestly, it's not her best, but it's short and engaging enough to be worth reading. There's no cross dressing, but the focus is all on Philip and his new love of fashion... This is one of the things I find really interesting with Heyer though - Philp becomes thoroughly metro sexual (If that's still a thing) and I think generally a lot of her charactets, especially the men, now read as quite gender fluid. I don't know if that says more about our contemporary ideas about gender and masculinity, or those of Heyer's generation, but it makes me think she might have enjoyed the new romantics.

      The heroine here is fairly incidental, but her motivation for turning down the hero is spot on and again I really like that she gets to say no thank you in the way she does.

  2. Oh, I read this last week while I was at Mum's - there was a copy among the second-hand books in the local Co-op, so I thought I'd give it a whirl, but I didn't realise there was a 1930 connection. Your review is spot-on, and I loved the descriptions of the men's clothes, especially their stockings. Her portrayal of foreign servants is difficult to take by modern standards, but it is typical of its time, and I think you do have to put things in context.

    1. With Heyer I'm happy to put her in context, and after all - nobody's perfect. In some ways the reminder that those prejudices were such common currency is useful too. And regardless of it's faults and foibles this book is still fun.

  3. A sneaky way to get Heyer into the club! Well done. I STILL haven't read any Heyer, but I did buy my first one the other day - one of her detective novels rather than Regency.