Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gateway drug

I think I've wittered on in this forum on more than one occasion about the virtues/pitfalls of re-reading from one's childhood. As I am still (three months and counting) without my own computer, I am still mostly listening from downloads (instead of copied CDs, my preferred method) and in a recent panicky search (omg ... there is nothing to listen to) I came across an author who loomed very large in that halcyon reading period of my youth where I wavered between ya and adult. An author I thought I had put firmly behind me.  But, in a panic, I thought, why not try her again?  Once I discovered Georgette Heyer (pronounced by the reader of this audiobook as GEORGE-jet HAIR) at the age of 11 or 12, I sucked up every one of her books I could get my romantically inclined adolescent hands on. Now I realize that Heyer set me on the path to one of my favorite authors ever, my beloved Jane Austen.

The Convenient Marriage was written by Heyer in 1934 and takes place not during the Regency period most of us associate with her and Austen, but in the 1770s (during the far-off war in America, which makes a cameo appearance).  Except for the fact that ladies are powdering their hair and wearing skirts with gigantic panniers, it might as well be taking place in the 1810s or so. All the familiar stuff is there. Arranged marriages that turn out to be true love, dissipated young heirs, lengthy descriptions of hair and clothing, dancing and parties, perhaps a highwayman or a duel.  And, oh yes, dialogue that sparkles and amuses and a generous dollop of satire.

It's best not to spend too much time in summary, since the story is so very silly.  Horatia (Horry [god help us]) is the youngest of the three impecunious Winwood sisters, and when she realizes that her eldest sister will have to marry the notorious bachelor, the Earl of Rule (in order to save the family fortunes), she steps in and offers herself as bride instead. She promises that he will be free to continue his bachelor lifestyle as he wishes. Horry, just 16, revels in the attention and freedom of being a wealthy countess and soon discovers the joys of gambling, while falling under the (non-sexual) spell of the wicked Lord Lethbridge, who has his own reasons for wanting revenge upon Lord Rule. Hi-jinks ensue, the couple finds that they have fallen in love and all ends with a kiss (which I think is what appealed to me as a tween reader).

Once I got over the creeps that arose when I thought about the May-December quality of the marriage (the Earl is 35), and the frustration at our heroine's occasional pigheadedness (which -- for some reason -- bugs me in that same way I am bugged by Inspector Rebus [see below]), it just became a romp. Horatia, I decided, was in fact, a perfect feminist example of what happens when you pen up smart women with nothing to do but gossip and sew. Given the freedom that marriage and money afforded her, she explored and became enamored of the wider world (even if she lacked the maturity to comprehend that not everyone in that world acted without self-interest). There were a couple of other interesting characters -- Horry's slightly dim brother and his even dimmer friend were rather hilarious as they attempt to help Horatia recover a piece of jewelry. The Earl himself was a bit of a cipher (handsome, of course) who doesn't do much until the end of the novel, but he has a young, Scots secretary who was quite entertaining as well.

I'd been thinking about listening to a Heyer novel for some time, but the only copies I could find on CD are all abridged (oh, the horror ... and by the way, WHY?).  I think that BBC Audiobooks hauled out some of its backlist when audio went digital because OverDrive has a whole load of unabridged versions.  Alas, none of these are read by the estimable and sexy Richard Armitage (who narrates the abridged ones), so I settled for Caroline Hunt. I think that Hunt is another one of those perfectly capable British actors (of whom we know little) who has a pleasant speaking voice, reads with clarity and pacing, ably portrays a multitude of characters from all classes and generally keeps things interesting over 10 hours or so. If her Horry's stutter doesn't sound completely natural and all her dialogue is somewhat baby-ish, so be it.  She manages to keep Lord Lethbridge from coming across too mustache-twirling, and the slightly drunken dialogue between Horry's brother and his friend was appropriately tipsy. All in all, a nice trip down memory lane.

Which brings me to the real gap in my listening. Where is Jane? I've listened to Jane pastiches and to Jane-alikes. Nearly ten years ago, I listened to a wonderful, but brief, biography of Jane by Carol Shields.  But never the original. Plus, it's been a really long time since I've actually read one (all those movies). Who is Flo Gibson and why should I listen to her?

[The novel's denouement occurs at Ranelagh Gardens, pictured in this 1754 print by Thomas Bowles. It was uploaded by Merchbow, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer
Narrated by Caroline Hunt
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 1999.  9:35

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