Hero as Kitten: Georgette Heyer, Friday’s Child

fridayschildEarly in my Heyer adventures I was advised to stay away from the ingénue heroines. I’ve read about a dozen of Heyer’s novels now, and by and large I have followed that wise advice, seeking out and greatly appreciating the more mature, sensible, or knowing heroines of Venetia, Frederica, Devil’s Cub, or Black Sheep, for instance. Friday’s Child, however, features a heroine who is not just an ingénue but very nearly a child bride, an uncomfortable set-up indeed. Hero Wantage is just 16 when she is carried off to be married by special license to Lord Sherington, who is himself a bit anxious that he’s out of line. “Damme,” he exclaims as they hatch their scheme, “you’re nothing but a baby! . . . I don’t mind people calling me a libertine, but I’m damned if I’ll have them saying I took advantage of a chit not out of the schoolroom.”

He does marry her, however, though what he proposes and then establishes appears to be a marriage in name only: “you needn’t fear I shall be forcing my attentions on you,” he tells her at the outset, and there are no signs of passion or intimacy between them for nearly the entire novel. I wrote once before that I was finding Heyer’s novels “romantic but not sexy.” This reserve is a bit of a relief in this case, since Hero is so very young, not just in age but in outlook. She adores “Sherry” but follows him around craving his attention and approval in a manner more like a pet than a person — which makes it all the more cute but also irksome that he nicknames her “Kitten.” It would be creepy if he did sleep with her, or at least if he did so before they both grew up a bit.

I found it interesting that this very un-sexy relationship is at the heart of a novel that is actually quite sexually frank. Sherry is something of a libertine, known for his “bits of muslin” and his opera dancer. His associates are not much better, and one of them is such an unrepentant rake that there’s a pivotal scene involving a confrontation with his abandoned mistress and child. Hero’s marriage propels her, quite unprepared and without proper chaperonage, into the midst of this wholly unsuitable milieu. She is protected by her perfect innocence, but eventually even Sherry realizes that he isn’t doing at all right by his wife by exposing her to such habits and people. His friends, quickly won over by Hero’s good humor and guilelessness, become her allies and attempt to correct Sherry’s bad judgment. At the same time, though, his marriage clearly strikes them as odd, and one reason seems to be that they realize it is not a full marriage. The most explicit suggestion that to them, Sherry is wronging his wife by not consummating their relationship, comes from the Byronically handsome George Wrotham, who enrages Sherry by kissing Hero at a ball. It’s all just friendly (“There was nothing passionate in this embrace, and Hero had no hesitation in receiving it in the spirit in which it was clearly meant”), but it sure looks bad, and Sherry calls Wrotham out. Urged by his cronies to apologize, George bridles:

‘Sherry’s a dog in the manger!’ said George, his eye kindling. ‘Why don’t he kiss her himself? Tell me that!’

‘Nothing to do with the case,’ replied Mr. Ringwood. ‘What’s more, not your affair, George. I don’t say you’re wrong, but it don’t alter facts: you ought not to kiss her!’

Why should it be that Wrotham and Ringwood can see their precious Kitten in this different light but not her husband? As the novel tells it, the fault lies entirely with Sherry, whose maturation is brought about by his dawning awareness that being a good husband to Kitten means living more responsibly and, eventually, loving her entirely. It’s not so much Kitten who’s not ready, that is, despite her youth; it’s Sherry, who sees Kitten as so entirely separate from his own world of self-indulgent pleasures that it doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might have desires of her own beyond fun and bonnets.

If Kitten were a lot more than he thinks — if we knew what he doesn’t, namely that she is not a “chit” or a child but has strengths and resources and some adult perspective on the world — all would be well. But Kitten never does show herself as an adult. She’s forever getting into scrapes and being rescued; even the dénouement, which shows all Heyer’s unbeatable talent for bringing her various story lines together into a great comic finale, turns on other people’s planning, with Kitten never rising to the level of her real name. Her feelings for Sherry seem like a school girl crush from beginning to end, and when they do finally fall into a “passionate embrace” it doesn’t deter him from calling her a “brat” with his usual air of superiority. Add to that his tendency to bully her and box her ears — behavior that, to their credit, Ringwood and Sherry’s other friends find offensive (“he’s got no right to behave like a curst brute”) — and he’s far from my favorite Heyer hero, even if (like all good romance rakes) he does repent and reform.

And yet Friday’s Child serves up a lot of fun and laughs. It’s especially rich with Regency slang: I didn’t understand half of what Sherry’s “Tiger” Jason says (“Lor, you must have had a shove in the mouth too many, and I never suspicioned you was so lushy, so help me bob! Werry well you carries it, guv’nor! werry well, indeed! Gammoning me wot knows you you was sober as a judge, and all the time as leaky as a sieve!”), and the repartee among Sherry’s friends, if not exactly witty, is endlessly amusing. Also, the one truly nasty fellow gets his comeuppance just as he should. It’s just that to really enjoy these things that Heyer does so well, I had to fight off the faint queasiness induced by the other aspects of the novel.

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10 Responses to Hero as Kitten: Georgette Heyer, Friday’s Child

  1. Boxes her ears, really? Ick. I haven’t read enough Georgette Heyer to know that there are ingenue heroines vs. I suppose I would say managing heroines, and I’ve only ever read about the managing ones. I assumed they were all like that! Hereafter I will take the advice you received, and avoid the ingenues. Sounds maddeningly Barbara Cartlandish.

    • Rohan says:

      He’s always terribly sorry — but yes, I found that (and her unhindered adoration in the face of it) difficult to take.

  2. When I first read this I was probably 14 or thereabouts so basically age appropriate and it didn’t strike me as in anyway odd. Now these heroines don’t appeal to me very much – there’s a handful of them throughout her books. At least in this case her husband is only a few years older, when the men are in their 30’s I find it far creepier. Otherwise these are the ones I’m unlikely to re read for exactly the reasons you outline.

  3. Lori says:

    I couldn’t equate even my very least favorite Heyer with Cartland. There is no comparison. Friday’s Child is one of my favorites, especially for the funny scenes with Ferdy. And Gil Ringwood should have had a book of his own. I can tolerate Sherry, and I do believe that he will grow up to be a very good landowner, husband, and father. But if you want to try another “ingenue” heroine cretaed by Heyer, try Cotillion. It is my very favorite Georgette Heyer. Kitty (yes, very similar in name to Hero (Kitten), but not in personality) is almost as young as Hero, but she has a lot more spunk and prescience. And the hero of the book is surprisingly absolutely wonderful. Read Cotillion — you’ll have a better appreciation for ingenues.

    Ick. I just can’t seem to get the idea of Friday’s Child being put on par with a Cartland novel out of my head. 🙂

  4. Lori says:

    P.S. This was a great review of a book I’ve read at least a half dozen times, by the way. I meant to say that in my comment above. Also, have you read The Talisman Ring by Heyer, or The Grand Sophy, or Venetia? Just curious what you think of them, if you have.

  5. Lori says:

    I love Venetia. It is such a gently developed romance. And I love the way Dameral and Venetia “quote” at one another. My favorite heroines (or Heyeroines) are the older ones as well, like Sarah Thane, and Annis Wychwood. There are about a dozen Heyers that I will re-read regularly, sometimes because I really appreciate the main characters, and sometimes because of the witty dialogue and the interaction between characters. I’d say Friday’s Child fits into the latter category, and Cotillion fits into the former — I think Freddie Standen is one of the best characters Heyer ever created (And his father isn’t far behind). I have a complete Heyer library, built up lovingly over many years, including the suppressed “moderns”, the detective fictions, and others, like The Great Roxhythe, that are hard to find. In each of them, even when the plot is thin, or when it is set in an era that Heyer didn’t do as well as she might have liked, there is something to be enjoyed.

  6. Asma says:

    I think you are judging the book or the characters by the times you live in and that would definitely limit your liking or enjoyment of the book. For my part, I first read Friday’s child when I was 12 yrs old in 1975. It was my first Georgette Heyer and still my favorite by far. I also read a lot of Mills and Boon and in those days the heroines were not any more sophisticated than Hero of Friday’s Child. They were also more laid back. The man was usually portrayed as the stronger and more macho. He took most of the decisions and he did most of the action. There was hardly any sexual content, which is very good. I feel today’s romances are soft to hardcore porn. There is hardly any plot of substance but the bedroom scenes can take up several pages per session.
    I entirely disagree with you that Hero is young at sixteen and cant be married. In the world she came from, that was an appropriate age. Likewise she was guileless because girls were not supposed to’ know’ so much about the birds and the bees. Everything was entirely in keeping with her times and even in the era of the 1940s.
    I find nothing disagreeable with the book or the characters. I like Sherry just as much as I like Hero because he also was a product of his time and by any standard he is very likeable. Sherry never initially regarded Hero as an object of his affection because she was like a pet puppy to him, they had been tomboyish together. His brotherly protection of her as a child led her to hero worship him and eventually as he was the only one who was very kind to her and saw her essentially as a person (apart from Mr Bagshot perhaps) this must have led to her crush on him. That crush did develop into a tangible love on her part despite the short timespan of the story I do believe that within the few months of their lives that was shared with us the readers, she grew to depend on Sherry to the extent of that it turned to need and love, even though she didn’t show it, since by nature she was selfless and she was abiding by their initial agreement to live separate lives.
    I want ppl to be less prejudiced about girl child marriage. This is because different societies have differing opinions on this issue. You are imposing your own cultural outlook on the book. A lot of ppl from other cultures would not find anything wrong with a girl of 16 marrying a man of 23 or thereabouts. I come from a culture which does not consider 16 an unsuitable age for marriage even though many girls of the present generation in my part of the world would not marry at that age as they would be at school. However back then in the early or mid 70s when I first read Friday’s Child, it was a norm, I remember how adamant my mum was that I should get married when I was only 11! My father was the one who overruled her and made sure that I continued school (in England for that matter!). My own daughter is 23 and at university. Circumstances of getting an education are actually what makes us marry late these days. I wont advocate marriage at 16 for a girl certainly, but I do not view it with the same lewd eyeglass that Westerners do, when they almost equate it with paedophilism.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      You raise a lot of interesting issues in your comment, Asma. I’m not sure it’s true that Hero’s marriage is simply a reflection of her times: for one thing, I think that if you were under 21 you needed your parents’ permission to marry, which already suggests norms somewhat more complicated than “marrying at 16 is just fine.” It’s not easy to find out what was a typical age for marriage (class was one of many factors that made a difference) but I’ve read some sources that say the average age of first marriage in the 19th century was around 22.

      It’s fair to point out that norms differ across cultures, but that doesn’t necessarily commit us to complete relativism about them, and the same is true of norms that differ across time — a lot of things about the past look bad to us from our current perspective because we have made moral progress in those areas, after all (I would point to women’s suffrage and the anti-slavery movement as just two of many possible examples), and they changed because people objected to them even though they were “normal” practices. When we call some “a product of their times,” we wrongly obscure the very real differences — the forces of both conservatism and change — that coexist in every time. UNICEF says that child marriage “can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation”: their data about its actual effects seem to me good reason not to be “less prejudiced” about it. But this is a discussion I would not pursue further here, because it takes us pretty far away from the questions I had about Friday’s Child and from topics I feel I have sufficient expertise of my own on.

      In this case, anyway, I’d say that what bothered me more than Hero’s chronological age is her childish manner: she is not presented as an adult, and that is the real problem. When David marries Dora in David Copperfield, he lovingly calls her his “child wife” but eventually realizes that although she was legally old enough for marriage, she was in no way ready for it or suited to it: there’s a 19th-century example, just to show that concerns of this kind are not simply a 21st-century imposition on earlier mores. Dickens can be seen as critiquing the tendency he saw in his own culture to infantilize grown women and idealize women who retain childlike qualities of ignorance and dependence. Heyer herself provides (as already discussed in this comment thread) a number of heroines who are much more mature, whether in years or in attitude and behavior.

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