The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer
Just the other day the Georgette Heyer listserv that I belong to was discussing which is the best book for a new Heyer reader to start with. This topic comes up frequently, in part I think because people want to share the joy that they find in her books, and they want the book they choose to make a good impression (and possibly a convert). Among my own favorites, I recommend The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and The Talisman Ring as perfect places to start, and the discussion reminded me that it's been too long since I've re-read them myself.
The Talisman Ring is one of Heyer's early works, published in 1937, and it is set in the Georgian period rather than the Regency. It opens in the winter of 1793, as Sir Tristram Shield arrives at the home of his great-uncle Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, who is dying. Sylvester has a granddaughter, Eustacie, an orphan whom he brought back from France just before the Revolution. He also has a grandson, Ludovic, who fled the country amid accusations that he murdered a local man in a dispute over an heirloom, the ring of the title, which he pledged in gaming. Sylvester wants to see Eustacie married before he dies, and he has chosen Tristram to be her husband. He ruthlessly rejects another cousin, Basil Lavenham, the next heir after the absent Ludovic, because he is a beau "who wears a green coat and yellow pantaloons, and a damned absurd sugar-loaf on his head!"
Tristram and Eustacie both accept the match, only to realize quickly that they are not well-suited for each other. A romantic young girl, who dreams of adventure, not marriage to an older country gentleman, Eustacie develops an interest in her outlaw cousin Ludovic. When she decides to run away to London to be a governess, rather than marry Tristram, she falls in with a gang of free-traders, and almost more adventure than she could have hoped for. A handsome young smuggler takes her with him as they try to evade the Excisemen. He is shot, and they end up at a nearby inn, The Red Lion. Staying there are Sarah Thane and her brother Sir Hugh. Sarah is quickly drawn into their adventure, appointing herself Eustacie's chaperone and helping to fend off Excisemen and Bow Street Runners, not to mention the Beau, pursuing Eustacie and curious about the identity of her smuggler. When Sir Tristram arrives in search of his lost fiancée, much against his will he finds himself embroiled as well, protecting the young smuggler and searching for the lost talisman ring, the discovery of which could prove Ludovic's innocence.
He also finds himself drawn to Sarah, one of Heyer's most delightful heroines. Not a young chit but a woman of twenty-eight, she has kept house for Sir Hugh when not jaunting around Europe with him. She has wit and charm and a lovely sense of humor, and while Eustacie thinks her as romantic as herself, we know that Sarah also has a foundation of solid commonsense, which stands her in good stead in coping with the adventures she finds herself in. Her brother Hugh is one of Heyer's great minor characters, a large man who reminds me of The Unknown Ajax's Hugo, though he is far more indolent. A Justice of the Peace, he has strong views on smuggling, as strong as his taste for the brandy and other untaxed liquors in the Red Lion's cellars. He ambles through the story, never quite sure what is going on but adding greatly to the fun of one of Heyer's best books.