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Book Review: Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

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Georgette Heyer was a midcentury novelist, English by birth, fiercely private by nature. She married, moved abroad with her husband to exotic locales like Tanganyika and Macedonia, and seems to have never spent long without moving her pen over paper. Her works of fiction are now gaining in popularity, word spreading over the internet about this little-known gem. Her fans speak of her with the same hushed wonder the public must have expressed when Van Gogh’s paintings were first recognised, or Emily Dickinson’s poems were first gaining proper homage.

Ms. Heyer wrote many romance novels, but she also wrote detective fiction – two books a year, one of each sort, beginning in 1932. As one who never read, or even wished to read, romantic fiction personally (does Wuthering Heights count?) perhaps I’m the wrong one to judge Ms. Heyer’s novel Friday’s Child. Then again, since I have no bias toward the author or the genre perhaps I can look at it quite objectively. And, as objectively as I can possibly view the work, I regret to say I found little to like in it.

I wanted to; honestly, I wanted to. As I read, I kept thinking, maybe in the next page, the next chapter, the next event in this book, something will happen that will make it all click. Unfortunately – for me, at least – that moment was elusive. Friday’s Child concerns a teenage bride who can’t stop getting into trouble. She was not raised for high society, and has no idea how to properly behave in it. Of course there are many rules within said society, mostly unspoken.

The improbably named Hero Wantage, our heroine and the title character, has zero instinct for that privileged world. Nor is her new husband, Lord Sherington, inclined to take the time to teach her. You see, he married Hero on a childish whim. When the object of his desire, a beauty nicknamed ‘The Incomparable’, turned his marriage proposal down flat, the peevish bachelor vowed to marry the next woman he saw. In a classic ‘meet cute’ that turns out to be Hero Wantage. Cherubic Hero is crying into her sleeves; her mean stepmother is about to send her to Bath, of all places, to be a governess. It’s that, or marry an older gentleman she’s none too fond of. “Sherry”, however, as everyone seems to call Lord Sherington, is different – she’s had a crush on him all her life. Sherry takes the time to ask her what the sniveling is about (one can almost hear Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in his early lines of dialogue), realises he could do worse to keep his vow to himself, and proposes to the young maiden. She is thrilled to accept, and the journey begins.

Georgette Heyer’s fiction is G rated. So we never even learn if this marriage has been consummated. After a perfunctory wedding ceremony, Sherry expects his bachelor life to continue as usual. He even tells Hero she can ‘discreetly’ carry on as she wishes as well. You see this marriage is truly one of convenience, a fact Lord Sherington makes plain to his new bride. He simply wanted his independence. Ironically he had to marry to get it. Taking a wife means he is now in charge of his own inheritance, not his annoying uncles; it also means his mother can be kept at arm’s length. This pleases the newlywed Lord no end. Of course, Lady Sherington senior is horrified he’s married a young thing with no background or fortune. Sherington only seems to take more delight in his family’s reaction, and his life continues as before – partying without responsibility. His new wife, however is at a loss. Seems she wants badly to please her new husband, but he spends too much time at the gaming tables to school her in the ways of society.

If Sherington was expecting a meek wallflower, he chose the wrong bride. Hero is no shrinking violet, nor does she worry much what others think. (I could not help but think of the young Princess Di, but the comparison stopped there. In Hero’s case, it isn’t willfulness or backbone so much as twittery.) Most of the book is taken up by Hero’s attempts to please her husband – by mimicking his public behavior. He takes a coach to a less than desirable person’s home? So does she. He gambles publicly? So does she. He goes with unsavory characters to public halls? So does she; and on, and on. She claims innocent mimicry each time. The problem is, of course, that these people live in the Regency era. Women were to stay at home with their needlepoint, not gallavant all over town kicking up their fashionable heels. Married ladies of society were not to take their own carriages (a hired one might do) to a bachelor’s home, etc. Women of society were expected to be above reproach. The new Lady Sherington instead fast becomes an item of gossip.

It’s a cute story idea – story idea. The problem is, this is a novel. The edition I read was a 423 page novel. My main dislike in reading this was its repetitive nature. Form and content did not fit together amiably. Bluntly put – Hero’s missteps are possibly amusing the first or second time. The third time is stretching the reader’s good graces. By the end of the novel, it was plain annoying. At any point did it occur to her to consult someone about what she was doing wrong, since her own instincts kept running her off the road? At any point did it occur to her to ask her husband plainly what he expected of her? At any point did it occur to her to just plain stay home a while?

One can excuse some of this due to the woman’s age, but in those days seventeen was considered an adult. And there are many mature, sensible teens, then as now. I’m afraid I wound up judging “Hero Wantage Sherington” as a bit of a nitwit. The book would have been much more intriguing had she done all this as some sort of plan – the only action available to her as recourse. But no, she was simply a ninny who blundered her way through life. She was no wily wabbit catching the hunter; she was a ‘kitten’ (her nickname in the novel) nabbed by the same societal trap incessantly.

And there was my second reservation in reading this book. I could not find one likable character. I could not find one person to root for. Either the characters were codependent hangers-on (Sherry’s bachelor buddies), or they were shallow and selfish nitwits. In some cases, both. I wasn’t expecting Tolstoy; but I was expecting characters that varied from page to page even a bit, who had more than two dimensions. Reading Friday’s Child was like watching a parade of paper dolls. The scenery and costuming might be pretty but not enough to bolster the novel. This would’ve made a much better short story, possibly a novella, in my opinion. The plot seems contrived, but what’s worse, I really didn’t care whether Lord and Lady Sherington resolved their differences by the final page. I also didn’t care whether the villain got his comeuppance, (he’s so cliched anyway I could practically see him twirling his handlebar mustache) or whether lovesick suitor George finally got his ideal woman (the much sought-after “Incomparable”).

Some readers love this type of meringue; and I’ve heard Heyer does meringue, especially Regency-era meringue, incomparably well. All I can say is, I don’t see it in this sample. A meringue also needs structure or it falls flat. Here, even the language – the syntax, the slang – is repetitive. By the last page, if I read “bad ton” one more time I felt like shrieking. It’s a pet peeve of mine when every character in a book or film uses the same slang “pet phrases.” Heyer is especially egregious with this indulgence. It seems sloppy form for an author who had a reputation for impeccable historical research. I’d prefer impeccable dialogue standards. It’s amusing that she often made up her own slang, but perhaps she was so thrilled with her creations she overused them. In my experience people do not all speak with the same exact pet phrases daily. Their speech does not all have the same cadence; in this novel they do. I wish I could have told one character apart from the other. All the men and women sounded the same, to me. The men spoke in overwrought ways and tended to use tame “curses” and then correct themselves. The women were mostly blushing and timid. It did occur to me that Heyer was overemphasizing at times as a type of parody. But even on that level, I didn’t find it entertaining – just self congratulatory.

Heyer’s volume of work is to be commended; she certainly has her fan base; there is even a critical retrospective of her work in print. Her books are “family friendly” even if there is an occasional “damme” (she spells it that way) and a chapter where an unwed mother shows up, babe in arms. That character, and a reticent world weary friend of “Sherry’s” were the only two I had a passing interest in. At least they had experienced something coming close to recognisable human emotion.

However, their appearance in the book was only passing as well. The unfortunate mother and child are a mere plot device and quickly disappear, and the older friend of Sherry’s is relegated to the sidelines. It’s the self obsessed, self indulgent fops and beauties which people the pages of this novel instead, to its detriment, I think. It’s almost as if People magazine were reshaped in the form of a 423 page Regency novel. There’s nothing wrong with meringue, or with People magazine for that matter. But it’s good to know what one’s getting. And either of those lightweight diversions become sickening in large amounts. Who wants to read in glossy print for over 400 continuous pages, or eat a bucket full of egg whites? Perhaps others of Heyer’s books bear evidence of her popularity. I can’t think this novel is a good witness. For me, Friday’s Child was neither loving nor giving, unless you count how much I loved finally putting the book down, and the headache it gave me while reading it.

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