Novel Readings

Hero as Kitten: Georgette Heyer, Friday’s Child

Early 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.