Friday, September 4, 2020

The Reluctant Widow - Georgette Heyer

I've been following the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong of The Quiet Gentleman on twitter for the last few weeks. I'm late to this series of readalongs but it's proved to be the gift that keeps on giving, not least because this week it reminded me that there us a film version of 'The Reluctant Widow'. I managed to track it down on you tube where I found a version to watch with Greek subtitles, and possibly a few minutes missing.

It's a fairly terrible film which doesn't always make a lot of sense, and even if there are minutes missing and I could find a guaranteed complete version I doubt it would make much difference. Despite it's problems, which are mostly caused by messing with Heyer's plot, it was still an entertaining hour and a half, and a frustrating glimpse of how good Heyer based films could have been. Or possibly still could be.

I hadn't read 'The Reluctant Widow' for years so I picked it up and raced through it in an afternoon after watching the film. I don't know if this is anybody's favourite Heyer, but assuming that it's probably not makes it even more ideal for dramatisation, and I'd really love it if someone like Sarah Phelps stop bothering Agatha Christie and have some fun with a book like this.

If  'The Reluctant Widow' isn't a particular favourite, it's definitely one of her titles that has grown on me. I had thought it was a fairly late work (like Cousin Kate) but it's actually from 1946. Having checked the publication date it was also really clearly a second world war spy thriller in fancy dress. I may be inclined to read to much into Heyer, but for me the mark of her genius is how well bits of her books age; there are characters that make more sense to me now against our current, less binary, concepts of gender and sexuality, than they ever have before.

The book opens with Elinor Rochdale, on her way to taking up a position as a governess, mistakenly getting into the wrong carriage after being dropped off by the stage coach. We learn that Elinor's family lost their money in a cloud of scandal 6 years before and that she has preferred to be paid to be a drudge by others rather than do it for free for a less than generous extended family. We can also gather that it's been a fairly grim 6 years.

Elinor's options are fairly grim and by the time the misunderstandings are cleared up a proper crisis is brewing, so she agrees to a deathbed marriage (it makes sense in the book) somewhat against her better judgement. By dawn her husband is dead and she's left in possession of a dilapidated mansion and a whole new set of problems - including the architect of her currant situation, Lord Carlyon, who keeps promising everything will be fine, and who she really wants to believe.

The romance element isn't really important though - there's an attraction sketched in between Elinor and Carlyon partly based on mutual sympathy and understanding which is more or less incidental to the plot. It turns out that Carlyon's one time ward and cousin, Elinor's late husband, has been involved in spying for the French. A very important memorandum has gone missing, if it gets to the French it could spell disaster for Wellington's coming campaign. With the only man who knew where it was dead there's a race to find it.

Elinor finds a mysterious Frenchman in the house, Carlyon's youngest brother gets shot the next night by the same Frenchman having another go, and after various upsets Francis Cheviot turns up. He's a cousin of the late Eustace, might be read as a parody of effeminate campness and is easily the most intriguing character in the book.

A 1950's romantic film clearly couldn't make the most of him so turns him into a womanising fop, I prefer to read him as gay, but in any reading his effete manners are an affectation designed to disguise a very dangerous individual. Towards the end of the book he's described as "Villainous, perhaps, but not, I think, the villain of this plot." It's a nice distinction. Francis gets a lot of the best lines and all the moral complexity. He's a great character; a leader of fashion, the very man to advise on tricky matters of interior decoration, the owner of an exquisite sensibility, a cold blooded plotter, and murderer. He seems perfect for the SOE, the drawing room, and contemporary television. Heyer's more manly young men may scoff at him, but the supposed hero of the book recognises him for the force he is.

So there you go, yet again I've found a Heyer with much more going on under the surface than I at first imagined, and generally fizzing with humour, tension, and somewhat unexpected takes. This book is tremendous fun as a light hearted thriller, and even the terrible film is worth a watch.


  1. I wasn't taken with this book when I last read it as a teenager, but now sounds interesting - perhaps time for a reread.

  2. My ideas about what Makes a good book have changed a lot from my teen years. This was never a favourite, but re reading it this time I loved it. Not for the romance which is almost non existent, and was probably what I was primarily interested in when I read it in my teens, but for all the details. I'm really convinced that Heyer is a deeply subversive writer, and here she has a heroine who's spent years looking after herself and has frankly had enough of it, distinctly fed up being in the middle of a spy drama - which seems like an honest end of war mood, and Francis is excellent in every scene either as a camp villain who hates dogs but loves cats, or as a Machiavellian mastermind.

  3. I actually have this book ranked in my Heyer favorites to re-read. Probably because I read Heyer largely for humor and I find this book VERY funny. I am not particularly a fan of the 'hero', but I love his brothers, especially Nicky! And Bouncer and Miss Beccles. What the movie did to her is unforgivable! Frances and his father are very interesting variations on a theme, and their visits to the house and Elinor's reactions are a delight. Not very realistic, possibly the most like her Georgian "romps" than her other Regency set novels. But a lot of fun.

    Jerri C

  4. You have more sense than I did, I really didn’t appreciate this as much as I should have before now. I love the humour and the spy part of the story now, and romp seems a fair description, but as ever with Heyer she provides a framework that gives a surprising amount to explore/play with if you’re inclined to do it - or in another mood she’s simply fun. She really is a remarkable writer.