The Nonesuch, Georgette Heyer
This has never been one of my top Heyer favorites, and not just because the hero's name is Waldo. But the other night at Half Price Books, when I found a first edition, with the original Barbosa dust-jacket, for only $7.50, there was no question of leaving it on the shelves. As I was gloating over it at home later, I started leafing through it, as you do, reading bits here and there, and of course I ended up turning to the first chapter to start it properly. It has been at least ten years since I last read this. As often happens with Heyer's books now, I found that I enjoyed it more than I remembered.
The story opens as the Nonesuch of the title, Sir Waldo Hawkridge, has just inherited a ramshackle estate in Yorkshire from a cousin. Already wealthy in his own right, he doesn't need the estate or its rents, but he plans to turn the house into an orphanage and school. The neighborhood around Broom Hall is electrified to learn that this rich, handsome sportsman and leader of fashion is coming into their midst, particularly since he is a bachelor. They are just as happy to welcome his young cousin Julian, Lord Lindeth, equally handsome and eligible. There is something here of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley arriving at Netherfield, except that unlike Darcy Sir Waldo is sociable and civil to everyone. (I think he might even be richer than Darcy.) Lindeth quickly falls under the spell of Tiffany Wield, a beautiful but spoiled girl of seventeen. She is the orphaned niece of Mrs Underhill, a kindly woman with wealth but no pretense to gentility. Sir Waldo, on the other hand, is drawn to Miss Wield's governess-companion, Ancilla Trent, a young woman of birth and breeding, who determined to earn her own living after her father's death left the family in straitened circumstances. However good her family, by becoming a governess she has lost her place in society. When Sir Waldo begins to single her out, the neighbors, even those without marriageable daughters, are not pleased.
Ancilla is one of Heyer's strong, competent female characters, like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring, not a chit just out of the schoolroom but a woman who has seen something of the world. She needs all her strength and her wits to keep her charge in line. Tiffany is one of the most annoying characters in all the Heyer canon, and she regularly tops the poll of "Which Heyer character is most in need of a good smack?" She has to be the center of attention, particularly the men's, and she has to have her way in everything, or she throws fits (and the occasional clock). She can't be controlled, she can only be manipulated or bribed, and I do find her tiresome.
My other objection to this book has been that the romantic plot involves a Big Misunderstanding, where the heroine hears something about the hero, which she misinterprets. What she thinks she has discovered makes him seem such a bad person that she has no choice but to reject him. We the readers know that it isn't true. Honestly, I have always had a hard time accepting that she could even believe it herself. And of course she doesn't ask him about it, she just stews in her misery and makes him unhappy in turn. This plot element loomed large in my memory of the story, but reading it this time I was surprised to find how late it came in the book, and how quickly it was resolved. I still think it's silly and unnecessary, not to mention a bit unworthy of Georgette Heyer, but it's a minor quibble now.
It's interesting to me how my opinions of Heyer's books change over time. Not for my top favorites - those stay pretty much the same (The Quiet Gentleman, Cotillion, The Talisman Ring, and The Unknown Ajax). But in re-reading what I think of as the second-rank books, like this one, I find myself enjoying and appreciating them more. I'm glad I found this on the shelves, and not just because it's such a lovely old book.