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REVIEW: The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Dear Readers,

When an author has published over fifty books, where do you start? I want to make the case for one of Georgette Heyer’s less frequently discussed novels. It features an on-the-shelf but still attractive spinster, a paragon of a hero, a brilliantly drawn cast of supporting characters, a country setting, and sparkling dialogue. There is a satisfying romance at its core, but that romance sometimes takes a back seat to her richly depicted social world.

Our heroine, Miss Ancilla Trent, is a 28-year-old spinster from a good family fallen on hard times. Rather than become a burden to her male relatives, she makes a living as a governess to The Beautiful Miss Wield, an heiress from a bourgeois background who is living with her somewhat vulgar but loving aunt and cousin, who in turn are part of rural gentry society in Yorkshire. Into this pastoral landscape ride Sir Waldo Hawkridge and his young relative, Lord Linden. The arrival of these London sophisticates throws almost everyone into paroxysms of excitement: the young ladies want to marry them, the young men want to be them, and the matrons compete to wine and dine them at social events. Miss Trent initially views Sir Waldo with skepticism, because she is all too aware of the unappealing aspects of the Corinthian lifestyle, but he breaches her defenses with charm and kindness. Sir Waldo, in turn, is intrigued by this quiet, well-bred lady who is the only unmarried woman not throwing herself at him.

Why could this book have never been written today (even apart from the barely-there level of sensuality)? Let me count the ways:

(1) The hero and heroine’s names. Ancilla? Waldo? Really? Era-appropriate perhaps, but so very unromantic.

(2) Not a Duke to be found. Not only that, but Lord Linden is less of a catch than Sir Waldo. This clearly violates every tenet of today’s Regency canon.

(3) No spies. Not a one. And even though it’s a country setting, there are no house parties.

(4) A large cast of characters but no sequel bait. The multiple storylines are all resolved, explicitly or implicitly, by the end of the novel.

Heyer’s biographer, Jane Aiken Hodge, is somewhat disparaging of The Nonesuch, noting that it “showed signs of strains” and quotes Heyer as telling her friend and publisher, “I think it stinks.” But while the external conflict that keeps our hero and heroine apart toward the end is frankly unbelievable, there is much to enjoy here.

The characters are sharply drawn, but they are not mere caricatures. Although Tiffany Wield is ambitious, vulgar, and self-absorbed, Heyer lets us see her charm as well:

She stared up at him incredulously. “But—don’t you think I’m beautiful?”

“Very!”

“Well, I know I am,” she said candidly. “Ancilla thinks I shouldn’t say so—and I meant not to, on account of losing some of my beauty when I do. At least, that’s what Ancilla said, but I don’t see how it could be so, do you?”

“No, indeed: quite absurd! You do very right to mention the matter.”

She thought this over, darkly suspicious, and finally demanded: “Why?”

“People are so unobservant!” he answered in dulcet accents.

She broke into a trill of delicious laughter. “Oh, abominable! You are the horridest creature! I’ll have no more to do with you!”

He waved a careless farewell as she flitted away, but he thought privately that when she forgot her affectations, and laughed out suddenly, acknowledging a hit, she was disastrously engaging.

For readers who enjoy context and setting, this novel has a lot to offer. There isn’t much in the way of plot: Ancilla and Sir Waldo slowly fall in love; Linden’s initial adoration of Tiffany dissipates and he moves on to a deep, long-lasting love for a more appropriate object of his affection; and Tiffany eventually gets her comeuppance, in a way that engenders some sympathy from the reader. The vignettes of country life, and the trivial but genuine pleasures of gentry life are fun to read as they advance the characterizations and plot. For readers accustomed to bed-hopping, house parties, and Almack’s, the pursuits of Yorkshire society may seem quaint, but they feel authentic, and they ring the changes as the novel progresses. For example, the excursion to the Dripping Well first reveals Tiffany’s unattractive qualities to the besotted Lord Linden:

“Miss Colebatch, don’t come out into the sun!” interposed Miss Trent, taking her hand. “I am going to ask the landlady to make some tea for us, so come and sit down again!”

“Yes, some tea will refresh you,” agreed Tiffany. “You’ll be as right as a trivet then!”

“Oh, yes! Only I don’t think—I’m afraid if I tried to ride—”

“But you’re not going to ride, Miss Colebatch,” said Julian. “Underhill is to fetch a carriage for you, and we are none of us going to Knaresborough. It’s far too hot!”

“Yes, that’s right, Lizzie,” corroborated Courtenay. “I’m just off—and I’ll tell you what! I’ll get an umbrella to shield you from the sun, even if I have to steal one! So just you stay quietly in the taproom with Miss Trent until I return! I shan’t be gone much above an hour, I hope.”

“An hour?” exclaimed Tiffany. “And what am I to do, pray? Do you imagine I’m going to sit in that odious, stuffy taproom for a whole hour? I won’t!”

“Oh, so it’s odious and stuffy now, is it?” said Courtenay. “I thought you said you wouldn’t care a rush if you were obliged to spend the rest of the day in it? Yes, you can look daggers at me if you choose, but I know what you are, and that’s a selfish little cat! You never did care a button for anyone but yourself, and it’s my belief you never will!”

Tiffany burst into tears; and Miss Colebatch, sympathetic tears starting to her own eyes, cried: “Oh, Courtenay, no! You mustn’t—It is all my fault for being so stupid! Oh, Tiffany, I beg your pardon!”

You beg her pardon?” ejaculated Courtenay.

Tiffany almost takes over the novel, but Ancilla and Sir Waldo hold their own, and their humorous and witty repartee is a pleasure to read. We see them fall in love and we can understand why Ancilla would appeal to Sir Waldo when he has been impervious to more beautiful and eligible prospects. And while it’s even easier to perceive why Ancilla would let her guard down for Sir Waldo, watching it happen is rewarding.

In the end, all ends happily. Tiffany is poised to go to London to catch her Marquis, Sir Waldo’s feckless young relative Laurie looks set to embark upon a career as a horse-dealer, and the older and younger couples are well on their way to their HEAs. The Nonesuch is not one of Heyer’s most memorable novels, but it still illustrates what made her such a compulsively readable author, and it showcases her skill with context and minor characters.

Grade: B-

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

30 Comments

  1. Pear
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 14:26:27

    If I recall my Latin correctly, “Ancilla” means “slave woman,” which would probably distract me for the whole book. Still, this might make my TBR pile. :-)

  2. Ros
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 14:36:32

    I love this one. Okay, I love most of Heyer’s books for one reason or another, but I really do love this one. Ancilla is just lovely and Sir Waldo’s courtship of her so realistic and sincere. And although the end is a little ridiculous, I did feel certain that they would have a very happy ever after indeed. I loved the secondary romance too.

  3. Ros
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 14:40:21

    Also, I think you mean to say that Lord Lindeth is *more* of a catch than Sir Waldo, not less!

  4. Sunita
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 14:47:10

    @Ros: No, I meant *more* *less*. Although Lindeth has a higher rank, Sir Waldo is the Paragon of Paragons. Even Lindeth looks up to him. Before he arrives, everyone is talking about *him*, not Lindeth.

  5. Liz Mc
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 14:48:33

    @Ros: I don’t think so. Waldo may have a less impressive title, but he’s richer and far more socially important than Lindeth.

    I also love this one, for the way Ancilla and Sir Waldo talk to each other, and for the way Ancilla shamelessly manipulates Tiffany because she can’t reason her into proper behavior (the quote above about how she looks less beautiful when she mentions her beauty is a good example).

  6. Ros
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 15:01:23

    Oh, I see! You mean that in contemporary Regencies the higher rank is always the bigger catch. Yes, absolutely that is different here.

  7. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 15:04:41

    Makes me want to go and read it all over again!
    I love this book, even though I don’t believe that anyone as clever as Ancilla would have fallen for the “brat” story! Interesting that she uses Tiffany as a pet version of Theodosia.

  8. Upfront_Reader
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 15:08:34

    I agree about The Nonesuch. It isn’t one of Heyer’s more memorable titles but there’s a quiet, satisfying quality to it that is most enjoyable. And like you said, it isn’t teeming with dukes and earls, but with real people facing real concerns…and of course, Heyer’s historical voice is impeccable.

  9. Lil
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 16:55:51

    I think one thing that makes Heyer’s novels so appealing is that almost all her characters are in one way or another likable, even the spoiled brats like Tiffany.

  10. pamelia
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 17:12:40

    Oh no!!! ANOTHER Heyer I will have to read! I think in the end if I buy a Kindle and buy ALL of them as E-books while they are on sale I MIGHT just wind up saving $$ (since the paperbacks are $11 a pop). I will have to do the math!! Thanks for the review. It sounds charming, witty and thoroughly enjoyable (as all her books seem to!)

  11. Sunita
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 18:12:21

    This wasn’t my first choice to review; I had planned to do Sprig Muslin, but it’s not on the sale list. So I chose this one because it’s close in spirit to SM. When I went back to the text as I was writing the review, I remembered how much fun it was to read and how well Heyer did comedies of manners.

  12. Sharon
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 18:18:47

    I loved this book.

  13. Moth
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 18:19:30

    I really liked this book all the way up until the Big Mis, and then the Big Mis was just SO incredibly stupid it killed the rest of the book for me. I ended up wishing she had just written a novella of this story and let it end with the first proposal instead of manufacturing the conflict for the second half.

  14. Amy Kathryn
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 19:02:49

    I enjoyed Sprig Muslin so if this is in the same spirit, there goes another $1.99. I am really enjoying hearing about everyone’s favorite Heyer’s and what makes them their favorite.

    I think it appropriate to have them loaded on my Kindle for a trip to England in a few weeks!

  15. Jayne
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 19:10:11

    It’s been years since I read this one but I remember liking it very much.

    Sunita, may we hope for a future review of “Sprig Muslin?” Like Amy Kathryn I’m enjoying seeing which books everyone else likes too.

  16. Andrea
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 19:52:21

    Another of my favourites.

    Quite a few of Heyer’s mysteries have a romantic current as well – my favourite of them is “A Blunt Instrument”, which hilariously inverts all expectations.

  17. Sunita
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 19:53:11

    Oh, go ahead and twist my arm, Jayne! I’ll happily review it. I think it comes out in November or thereabouts.

    I’m really enjoying these reviews as well. It’s so much fun to read each other’s takes on Heyer.

  18. Becca
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 21:12:06

    The free version of Cotillion and now this sale seems to have made Georgette Heyer fans out of my parents, who have long been scornful of my love of the genre!

  19. willaful
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 22:07:04

    This is one of my favorites because I think it’s wonderfully funny. ADE won’t let me cut and paste, but one of my favorite sections is Laurie mentioning the dreadful names Tiffany called him, and when Ancilla apologizes, Sir Waldo says, “Learned them from you, did she ma’am?”

    I never had any issues with the name Waldo and was very surprised when others did. And since I wasn’t a big romance reader (until I learned to enjoy sex scenes, everything else paled next to Heyer) I had no prejudices against a Big Mis.

  20. dri
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 22:14:21

    *lol* I’m inclined to agree with Heyer. It kinda stunk to me. :p At the time I believe I found it quite dreary and “far too respectable for my liking.” Heh. But then I didn’t like Sprig Muslin either.

    Gimme Devil’s Cub and Sylvester any day. :p

  21. Moth
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 22:55:46

    @dri: Amen.

  22. SonomaLass
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 02:38:05

    I bought this one, so yay! I’ve only read nine Heyer books, I think. So far, I like Venetia best — another country setting.

  23. Ann G
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 02:38:19

    I haven’t read Heyer yet, but I have COTILLION from when it was free. Now I bought SYLVESTER for free tonight. The last I checked, however, SYLVESTER is back to over 9 dollars. THE NONESUCH sounds interesting.

  24. CD
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 06:19:53

    It’s strange the difference in opinion because this is also one of my favourite Heyers. It is slow and undramatic but that’s part of its charm. It feels completely real and so sinks you into another world for few hours – the perfect reread on a lazy sunday afternoon with a hot cup of tea…

  25. Isobel Carr
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 14:41:33

    I’ve always really liked this one. It’s not in my top 5 Heyer novels, but it’s certainly in my top 10.

  26. Janet W
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 14:58:32

    Maybe my top 15. I really enjoyed it: it’s a Black Sheep* kind of book for me — two fully realized grown-ups, enjoying each other’s company. So clearly though, given the times, neither woman could “permit” (within the strictures of their society) their wit and humour to really shine forth — before marriage. One got the impression that Waldo and Ancilla would never stop talking. Loved the ending too, with Waldo giving his cousin the keys to the horse kingdom.

    Spring Muslin just never did it for me, nor did Bath Tangle. One too hot and the other too cool. Enjoyed Venetia but it’s a B*ish book for me — there are others that bump it down.

    I read my first Heyer around 12 or so — given that it always surprises me when I read comments like “would have liked more passion” … it’s all behind closed doors and fluttering curtains with Heyer altho anyone who can’t imagine Devil’s Cub being the very devil in the bedroom isn’t using their imagination :) All opinions mine, of course.

    * Black Sheep is a very amusing book. Some colourful characters and a underlying theme of the tyranny of those who love us.

  27. Solange Ayre
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 16:03:02

    I’ve always liked this one although it isn’t among my top 10 favorites. I wish they’d used the cover for “Regency Buck,” though, since a scene like the one pictured actually occurs in that book.

  28. Maura
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 10:05:30

    @Pear: I think a more usual translation these days is “handmaiden”- for instance, the Bible’s “Ecce, ancilla Domini” comes across as “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.” I could see a Christian-minded Regency-era parent naming a daughter that.

  29. Estara
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 10:26:04

    Yes, this! *points at review*

  30. REVIEW: Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer | Dear Author
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 11:14:18

    […] I reviewed The Nonesuch a few months ago during Sourcebooks’ summer Heyer sale, I mentioned in passing that I really wanted to review […]

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