I doubt that Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer will ever feature on a list of the world’s greatest novels, but it is the greatest fun – and I suspect the same could be said for most (if not all) her novels. Here we are in Georgian England and beautiful Cleone refuses Philip Jettan’s offer of marriage (despite the fact that she loves him) because he is a ‘country bumpkin’. So love-lorn Philip, dejected by rejection, takes himself off to Paris to learn the requisite social skills. He returns home fashionably dressed, able to fight a duel or write a poem with equal ease. But his new look fails to please Cleone, who discovers she prefers the old Philip after all…
‘Dazedly she stared at him, from the powdered curls of his wig to the diamond buckles on his shoes. Philip! Philip! Philip in stiff silks and laces! Philip patched and painted! Philip with jewels scattered about his person, and polished nails! Was she dreaming? This foppish gentleman her blunt Philip? It was incredible, impossible! What was he saying now?‘
And later we are told:
‘Scalding tears dropped on to Cleone’s pillow that night. Philip had returned, indifferent, blasé, even scornful! Philip who had once loved her so dearly, Philip who had once been so strong and masterful, was now a dainty, affected Court gallant.‘
But Philip has a determined set to his chin and a glint in his eye which belie his languid demeanour and witty (but meaningless) repartee, and we know he is determined to get his way… Needless to say, there is happy ending, just as I knew there would be – this is a romance after all!
I’ve read several Heyer novels now (this was the first) and they seem to follow a pattern – boy and girl meet, deny the attraction between them, but eventually overcome all obstacles and embark on what one hopes will be a happily married life. They are predictable, the characters are engaging without any great depth, and the writing may not be outstanding, but it’s not bad. The plots are tightly constructed, the action romps along at a tremendous pace, and she makes you care about her characters, so you want to keep reading and find out what happens to them. I think she has a lot of similarities with Mary Stewart, and I’m not sure with either of them what the secret of their success is, because when you analyse their work it would be easy to think they’re not really that good. I wouldn’t want to read them all the time – but they can both tell a rattling good story, and their work is enormously enjoyable.
One of Heyer’s great strengths is her attention to period detail – she was famed for her research and built up a collection of books, documents and letters from the Georgian era. Her portrayal of life would be appear to be as accurate as anything you’ll find in a ‘proper’ history book . Every now and again you come across something and think surely they never said (or did) that… And you look it up and find she;s absolutely right. And her descriptions of clothes are second to none, especially when it comes to the garments worn by fashionable men, who were prepared to undergo a little discomfort for the sake of their appearance. Here’s Philip being transformed into a fashionable dandy:
‘But the supreme torture was to come. He discovered that it required the united energies of the three men to coax him into his coat. When at last it was on he assured them it would split across the shoulders if he so much as moved a finger.’
Here he is again, reflecting on his appearance:
‘But Philip said never a word. He stared and stared again at his reflection. He could not believe that it was himself. He saw a tall, slight figure dressed in a pale blue satin coat, and white small-clothes, flowered waistcoat, and gold-clocked stockings. High red-heeled shoes, diamond-buckled, were on his feet, lace foamed over his hands and at his neck, while a white wig, marvellously curled and powdered, replaced his shorn locks.’
And there is another reference to his ‘startlingly clocked legs’ being clad in stockings with pink humming birds on. It turns out that a ‘clock’ was the highly decorative embroidery going up stockings on the ankle and side of the leg. Philip’s stockings would have been made of silk. If I knew more about historic costume, I could probably date the setting of the book. I’d always thought of Heyer as being the Queen of Regency romance, but as far as I can see from her description of Philip’s clothes and behaviour, and his clothes, it has to be early 18th century.
*The book, originally titled The Transformation of Philip Jettan, was published by Mills and Boon in 1923. Then William Heinemann republished it in 1930 as Powder and Patch.