Sometimes, Miss Bates’ reading is desultory. Sometimes, “the world is too much with us” and our ability to immerse ourselves in a book is distracted and restless, no matter how willing we are, no matter how much we desire to lose ourselves in story. Miss Bates read Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage in fits and starts, dribs and drabs: picking it up for only minutes at a time; then, dropping it to follow the latest debacle on Twitter. She read trusted points of view on the Kathleen Hale/Guardian disappointment and wrestled with her redefinition of Miss Bates Reads Romance and a return to her original purpose. The blogger black-out was a blessing in disguise: for the first time in over a year, Miss Bates had to put the blogging aside and think about the blogging. With so many voices raised in protest, she re-acquainted herself with other blogs, ones she’d visited daily before MBRR, always anticipating a post, places where she typed her first comments, places of welcome and delight. Throughout, she read without any great concentration, but with commitment to get through the darn thing, Heyer’s Convenient Marriage proving inconvenient.
Miss Bates was bored, bothered, and preoccupied … and then, Horry took a poker to Lethbridge and she was captivated. That’s what it takes, dear readers, one delightful, or profound moment and the book can take us away, out of the daily into the “other” place … the paradox of the fictional world which, in a moment, becomes more real than waking reality. Horry emerged: impetuous, immature, and heavy-browed; Lethbridge, vindictive, unhappy, and strangely sympathetic; and then, Rule, he who ruled over all, urbane, powerful, wise, utterly charming and loveable. BUT … Miss Bates had to contend with the breaking point of the novel: Rule, wonderful as he may be, is 35 and his wife is 17. This never left Miss Bates’ mind and she never quite made her peace with it. But she loved the novel and will have to live with her conflicted feelings. Because, sometimes, that’s what fiction leaves us, a sublime discord that we can pull out and think about for distraction, delight, and discussion 😉
Rule rules over all: he dominates with languid ease. He remains one step ahead of every character in the novel. His power and ability are not immediately apparent. The Convenient Marriage has an innocuously entertaining opening: Miss Horatia Winwood, 17, precocious and not of conventional beauty, with an endearing stammer, proposes marriage to the Earl of Rule to save her older sister, Lizzie, from marrying him. At 35, handsome, powerful, rich, and titled, he’s a catch. His dominance is established early through tiny, but significant details focused on his physicality: “his lordship’s laced and scented coats concealed an extremely powerful frame, so his weary eyelids drooped over eyes [‘bored grey eyes’] that could become as keen as the brain behind.” Even more than the reckless “Devil’s Cub,” as Miss Bates has written before, the appearance of sybaritic languor belies the power of mind, body and spirit in Heyer’s hero. Lizzie Winwood is in love with Mr. Edward Heron, a military man recently returned from the war in America. It’s 1776. Miss Bates loved Horry’s proposal scene. Rule’s magnanimous superiority is apparent: Horry is naïve; Rule is all worldly kindness and indulgence and that pretty much sets the tone of the relationship for the duration. Except there’s A LOT of plot and MANY secondary characters.
What attracted Miss Bates to The Convenient Marriage was the marriage-of-convenience trope. She loves this working out of a relationship in the confines of commitment between two people who barely know one another. Rule and Horry’s marriage is particularly problematic because of their age difference, but it works, despite many complications, because of the tack Rule takes with Horry: he lovingly releases her into a precarious social whirl with temptations and pitfalls. Miss Bates likes to think he does so because, unlike Horry, he realizes their age difference is an issue. Miss Bates likes to think that he lets Horry grow up before they embark on/consummate their marriage. (There’s a final scene to which Miss Bates will refer later to bolster her present speculation.) Most importantly, Rule allows Horry to sow her wild oats: to be young and reckless and free … though he never lifts his protective mantle from her. He watches over her discreetly, subtly, and lovingly. He lets her make mistakes, but never irreparable ones.
Rule rules supreme, a master puppeteer who pulls the strings of kindness where it’s merited and those of justice where it’s deserved. Rule can be measured against the other characters in the context of the convoluted plot that ensues. To start, Horry’s family are not appealing, thought they fade into benign indifference after Horry and Rule’s marriage, except for her hot-headed brother, Pel. He is Vidal without the charm, or the sharpness of mind: a reckless freeloader puffed up with self-importance. There’s a villain, Robert, Baron Lethbridge, a more interesting one than usual, nuanced and almost sympathetic. He’s resented Rule since Rule stopped him from marrying Rule’s sister, Louisa. He doesn’t carry a torch, but he’s resented the slight to his amour-propre and uses Horry’s penchant for extravagance and weakness for gambling and partying to near-exact that revenge. Rule’s heir, Mr. Crosby Drelincourt, is a nasty little worm, a coward and buffoon, who also tries to take advantage of Horry’s social bustle and bother. Sir Roland Pommeroy, not the brightest button on the waistcoat, is Pel’s side-kick, good-natured and honourable. Not one of them matches Rule in mind, spirit, finesse, charm, physical prowess, or virtue. (Horry comes close, but she has to do some growing up first.) Rule is elevated; Horry is immature; everyone else is a caricature … except Lethbridge. No twirling moustache villain, he harbors a deep-seated hatred of Rule. There’s a wonderful scene when Rule confronts him over his machinations involving Horry, when the game is up, and Lethbridge admits defeat, in which Rule is compassionate (is there no end to how we are compelled to admire him?):
‘Experience – leads me to admit – you may have been right to stop Louisa marrying me. I have none of the husbandly virtues. Is she happy with her country squire? I am sure she is; at best women are – dull creatures.’ His face contracted with pain. [Preceding is one of the best sword fight scenes Miss B. has read.] He said irritably: ‘Wipe my sword and sheath it. I shall use it again, believe me.’ He watched Rule in silence for a moment, and as the sword slid back into the scabbard, he sighed. ‘Do you remember fencing with me at Angelo’s?’
‘I remember,’ Rule answered, half smiling. ‘We were always very even-matched.’
‘You have improved. Where’s that damned leech? I’ve not the slightest desire to oblige you by dying.’
‘Do you know, Robert, it would really not oblige me?’ …
… Lethridge gave a wry smile. ‘I could not wish you a deadlier fate than to be in my shoes now, Marcus.’ He held out his left hand. ‘I’ve done with you. You arouse the worst in me, you know. Your cut will heal quicker than mine, for which I am sorry. It was a good fight – I don’t remember a better. Hatred lends a spice, doesn’t it? If you want to add to your damned goodness, send word to my fool of a valet to join me here.’
“If you want to add to your damned goodness … ” is the key to Rule. In this elliptical man-talk (one of Miss B.’s favourite scenes), even more so than Rule’s indulgence of Horry’s shenanigans, we see his worth through his rueful compassion. After Rule defeats Lethbridge, he cares for him, he serves him: he doesn’t diminish, or humiliate him. He allows Lethbridge and he to part as equals. Miss Bates particularly loves the subtle use of first names to establish this familiarity and point to a long-standing not just rivalry, but peculiar friendship.
To conclude Miss B’s discussion of The Convenient Marriage is the inconvenience of falling in love. This is Miss B’s favourite aspect of the MoC trope: how the heroine and hero assume they’ve arranged for a comfortable solution to whatever reasons underlie the marriage, only to be foiled by the unfamiliar need and desire for the other. Certainly Heyer’s novel sets this up marvelously: Rule must marry and provide an heir and Horry is destined to marry and saving her sister is an excellent reason to do so. Horry, in particular, doesn’t expect anything more than a conventional, convenient arrangement of her marriage. Miss B. thinks that is not exactly so for Rule: he marries Horry because he likes her and he shows his honourable hand immediately by putting his mistress aside. Horry, on the other hand, expects Rule to behave in a conventional manner: by keeping a mistress, she doesn’t expect love, or respect from Rule. Once Horry exhausts the possibilities of extravagance and social diversion, she slowly realizes how much Rule means to her. And Rule waits for her: there are so many lovely scenes where he exhibits patience and kindness towards her. And to return to the age difference, Miss B. quotes the final … sigh … so lovely scene between them:
Left alone with her husband, Horatia stole a glance at him under her lashes. He was looking gravely down at her. She said, the stammer very pronounced: ‘Rule, I truly w-will try to be the s-sort of wife you w-wanted, and not m-make any m-more scandals or get into any scrapes.’
‘You are the sort of wife I wanted,’ he answered.
‘Am-am I?’ faltered Horatia, lifting her eyes to his face.
He came up to her. ‘Horry,’ he said, ‘once you told me that I was rather old, but in spite of that we married one another. Will you tell me now, my dearest – was I too old?’
‘You’re not old at all,’ said Horatia, her face puckering. ‘You are j-just the right age for – for a husband, only I was young and stupid and I thought – I thought – ‘
He raised her hand to his lips. ‘I know, Horry,’ he said. ‘When I married you there was another woman in my life. She is not there now, my darling, and in my heart she never had a place.’
‘Oh, M-Marcus, put m-me there!’ Horatia said on a sob.
‘You are there,’ he answered, and caught her up in his arms and kissed her, not gently at all, but ruthlessly, crushing all the breath out of her body.
‘Oh!’ gasped Horatia. ‘Oh, I n-never knew you could k-kiss like that!’
‘But I can, you see,’ said his lordship. ‘And – I am sorry if you do not like it, Horry – I am going to do it again.’
‘But I d-do like it!’ said Horatia. ‘I like it very m-much!’
Miss Bates loved that Marcus asks Horatia about the very issue at the heart of their marriage, their age difference. She asks her how she feels about it, what she thinks, what she wants. And Miss Bates also likes to think that this is the beginning of their full marriage, as delightfully indicated by a kiss such as Horry hasn’t experienced before, Heyer’s subtlety in pointing to not only the omnipotent hero, but the potent one. There’s a lot to be said for subtlety in passion in an age where romance novels are too often comprised of tedious, standardized de rigeur sex scenes. Nothing equals the power of suggestion.
Miss Bates is indebted to a Twitter convo with Ros about Rule’s kindness, in Miss B.’s humble opinion, a romance hero’s greatest quality.
Have you read Heyer’s Convenient Marriage, dear reader? If so, how did you come to terms with the heroine and hero’s age difference? And what did you like best about it? What criticisms do you have?