Aug 15 2011
Tuesday August 16th would be La Heyer’s 109 birthday and to celebrate Jane urged us to dust off our copies of her books and write reviews. I pondered and thought and recalled how much I’ve always enjoyed “Powder and Patch.” I know it’s not one of the best beloved of her books but it is one of mine. I first read it when I was about 14 and will readily admit that it made me a fan of Georgian era books. The silk coats, the small swords, powdered wigs and red heeled shoes! Ah, bliss.
In his day, Sir Maurice Jettan was a bon vivant and a darling of the ladies. Well known in Paris as well as London, he cut a fine figure before settling down with his lady love and fathering a son, Philip. But though Maurice loves his son dearly, he despairs of him as Philip is happy in the country, on their estate, and has no thoughts or desires to ever leave. Philip is, his father declares, rather dull. A neighborhood miss, the ravishing Cleone Charteris, also feels Philip could use some polish though deep in her heart, she loves him only.
When an older childhood acquaintance, Charles Bancroft, returns to Little Fittledean and flirts with Cleone while simultaneously mocking Philip, Philip has had enough. He challenges Charles to a duel but is quickly pinked. Deciding the only way to win Cleone and satisfy his father is to give in to what they want of him, he declares he’ll leave for Paris, acquire polish and, in a word, show them. Off to the City of Light he goes where as the son of Sir Maurice, doors are open to him and friends are quickly made.
But when word of his success reaches Little Fittledean, Cleone gets the mistaken impression that he’s fought a duel over a French lady love and decides to head to London for a Season of her own. Her triumph and the number of men swarming around her bring Philip back to England, determined to win his lady once and for all. But when Maurice and Cleone see what Philip has become, will they rethink getting what they wished for? Or has he really changed all that much?
I first read this book as a teenager and identified with Philip and Cleone. They love but their pride gets in their way and all sorts of (idiotic to me now though also funny) things ensue. Young love, strong passion, stupid actions. They both, at various times, need to be thumped over the head and made to see reason. Luckily for them they are surrounded by older and wiser heads who take almost delicious delight in said thumping.
But I get ahead of myself. The book does start slightly slowly as we get a few chapters setting the stage and the characters. Be patient. Keep going. Trust me. When Philip gets to Paris and we see his transformation, it’s all worth it. It’s also hilarious. He goes from a man who could care less about his three old, battered, coats to one who wears grey lace (A sweet conceit, hein?) and has pink hummingbirds on his clocked stockings. And his valet! Francois is a marvel. A man who throws tantrums over the almost loss of said bas aux oiseaux-mouches but who delights in making sure his master is well turned out. But though Francois seems resigned to shortly gaining a mistress of the household, I do wonder how he, Jacques – the groom – and the cousin of Francois who is now Philip’s chef, will fair in Little Fittledean. Watch for the account of the second meeting between Philip and Bancroft, this time in Paris and to the accompaniment of a fiddler and all of Philip’s French friends.
So, Philip returns to London determined to win Cleone once and for all but of course it couldn’t go that easily and Heyer has fun twisting the two of them around with the help of another old childhood friend and a roguish English gentleman as Cleone finds herself engaged to two men on the same night. Fear not though, her reputation will be saved by the earlier head thumping I mentioned which is delivered by Sir Maurice along with two other delightful characters – Maurice’s younger brother Tom and the lady Tom has secretly loved for many years, Lady Sally Malmerstoke. I want to be Lady Sally in a few years – she says her mind no matter to whom, wears outrageous wigs, tells it like she sees it – listen to her giving Philip a curt lesson in what young ladies say vs what they really think – and delights in the possibility of a little scandal. She also has Tom dangling on a string though she’s merciful to him in the end.
To me “Powder and Patch” is a charming little bonbon of a book. It helps to have a picture of gentlemen’s clothes of the day so as to fully appreciate how much Philip has changed on the surface though recall, if you will, that he has a masterful chin and as Sally Malmerstoke says, such men always get what they want. Cleone is a silly chit but what young woman hasn’t wanted to be admired and courted with sweet nothings whispered in her dainty ears. And as for Philip, is it so wrong that he wants to be loved for who and how he is? Here the young really can be ridiculous at times and in the intervening years, I’ve come to admire and appreciate their elders who steer les enfants away from their foolish pride and back to sensible actions. I loved the book 30 some years ago and it still stands the test of time for me today. B+