A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Sometimes, only Georgette Heyer will do, and if it’s one of those times, a huge favourite is The Convenient Marriage. Bookfoxes Kirsty and Hilary are agreed on that, though one has gone for the printed word and the other for a rather special audiobook version (rather special, that is, ahem, if you happen to be a fan of Richard Armitage). The novel is set in the 1770s. Marcus, Earl of Rule deigns to offer for the hand of the beautiful Elizabeth Winwood, a match that would save her family from penury. The marriage is necessary to salvage them all from the mountain of debt contracted by her scapegrace brother Pelham, Viscount Winwood, but Elizabeth has already given her heart away. Her youngest sister Horatia (Horry), just seventeen, saves the day by offering to marry the formidable Earl herself, a marriage of convenience with a man twice her age. Now read, or listen, on …..
HE: It’s an early Heyer (I’m quite a fan of the earlier ones). I’ve just realised that it is nearly 80 years ago that it was published! What I like about The Convenient Marriage (hereafter TCM) that it’s set towards the beginning of Heyer’s chosen period, what we might call the ‘Long Regency’, in the 1770s. We have different elements from the Regency proper. For instance, the chaps get to wear really flash outfits, untrammelled by the tyranny of Brummell and his perfectly plain, impeccably tailored blue cloth – we get evening toilettes in puce velvet, and falls of Dresden lace from the chin, and the delicious frisson of knowing them to be worn by the manliest of he-men. Women wear elaborate mantuas and shoes with heels studded with emeralds, their hair is dressed in powdered curls, and there can be and is wonderfully flirtatious play with patches on the face. The plot is outrageous and at times manic, with more banging doors than a Whitehall farce, and, oh bliss for Richard Armitage fans, a duel. It is a terrific, pacy read, filled with everything from farce to danger to romance, with gorgeous frocks, fiery steeds and flashing swords, and I’m here to reassure you, in due course, that it’s a terrific, pacy listen, too.
KJM: TCM was actually the first Heyer book I ever read, in October of last year. I honestly have no idea how I managed to avoid her all this time, since I’m a Regency kind of gal in many ways — how I cheered whenever my hero Fox was mentioned! — but strictly A. B. (Anno Brummelli). I found all that puce velvet quite offputting, to say nothing of the wigs and the gorgeous floral dressing gowns. I suspect that the average Heyer reader knows the costume of the time and could appreciate all those descriptions in their full splendour; being ignorant, I skimmed them, although I had tremendous fun trying to imagine Crosby Drelincourt.
HE: Ah yes – Crosby’s wonderful card player’s hat that sounds a bit Carmen Miranda, in a mid 18c sort of way. Now I find myself curious about that long neglected stretch in the mid-18th century, when it’s so easy to forget which George it was and who we were at war with – not that GH is the first person to turn to for geopolitical insights I suppose – just puce velvet … Mind you, when she does get geopolitical I gather she’s quite sound, isn’t she? As in the audiobook poor Captain Heron doesn’t get much of a look-in I need to turn to the book but he’s threatened with being sent to the American Colonies, isn’t he, or has he just come back?
I’m interested to learn that you’ve come to Heyer so recently. I’ve been reading her, off and on (mostly off, I have to confess) for so many years that I can’t remember the impact of reading her for the first time. What were your first impressions? And how did you feel about the sheer bonkers-ness of the plot?
KJM: The first thing that struck me was how very funny it was. It is an immensely funny book, and those first pages are a masterclass in quick-draw characterisation. And, because it IS immensely funny, I had absolutely nothing against the bonkers plot. I thought it was great, and I had to keep reading, at every opportunity, until I was done. Even if it did make me an antisocial houseguest (sorry). I’ve yet to find another Heyer that pulls me in like that, but I continue to find them and read them.
HE: Not antisocial at all – I looked on benevolently, murmuring ‘my work here is done’.
I’ve already reviewed one audiobook read by Richard Armitage, Bernard Cornwell’s The Lords of the North. It couldn’t be much more different from Georgette Heyer – or could it? Let’s see. In LOTN he succeeded in conveying in his voice his talent as a physical actor, managing to infuse the warrior’s tale with all the action and urgency it needed in scenes of adventure and battle. His skill in the quieter passages was as great, and he does the right thing with the voices of women characters by not raising the pitch of his voice (he does for one character in TCM, but more of that anon).
KJM: Not being much of an audiobook listener — ignorance, again, and sloth — I sometimes wonder how the readers manage this, and will certainly have to look out this one and find out. It must be a tremendously difficult thing to pull off, and I imagine that much of the skill lies in intonation rather than pitch; rather like Stanislavskii’s body language, a fairly subtle change could have disproportionate effect. That Armitage should do it well does not surprise me.
HE: Yes, you’re absolutely right about that – pitch would seem logically the obvious way to go, high for women, low for men, but it is actually a potential pitfall to strain it for no artistic reason – too much like caricature, hard on the listener as well – and it’s one that the best audiobook readers manage to avoid. Subtle intonation is all.
Richard Armitage has now read three Georgette Heyer novels for Naxos in its series of abridged audiobooks: Sylvester, Venetia and The Convenient Marriage. I felt that in Sylvester and Venetia as a reader he was striving too hard to find the right voices and pace for Heyer, paradoxically trying to make it too distinct from the action adventures he’d read before, and in places that felt uncomfortable for the reader and thus for the listener. But in TCM he really hit his stride. It is over three years since its publication, and though his fans wait for him to build on this by reading more novels, I now fear that Middle Earth’s gain is Heyer fans’ loss.
Something obviously clicked with Richard Armitage in TCM, and I advance the theory that it was the character of the heroine, Horry. She is a real challenge for a reader-out-loud, as she is a seventeen-year old aristocratic young lady who has a speech impediment. To rise to the challenge is to make her voice attractive and rather touching – this is no joke, for her or the listener. To go with it, she is bold beyond her years and no conventional beauty. The voice that Richard Armitage gives her is a contralto one, which feels just right, and he manages the hesitation and stammering perfectly to make her a rather moving as well as a loveable heroine. I think all hinges on this – she is loveable, so all must love her, or covet her place or her reputation, at any rate not discount her, if on the side of the villains. All the rest of the characterisation flows logically from this central performance.
KJM: I adored Horry — is that too Ticky of me? — and loved the way in which she manages thoroughly to subvert all kinds of conventions simply by meeting them head-on. She has this odd and absolutely brilliant mix of cock-eyed optimism and steely-eyed cynicism, and you just know she’ll win out in the end, even though she herself has no idea what she stands to gain. Her interactions with her Pious and Filial Sister Charlotte are particularly hilarious. And that she does all this with dark hair and untrainable eyebrows is deeply cheering.
HE: Gosh, yes – hope for those of us whose eyebrows won’t behave! The essence of enjoyment of an audiobook is the cast of characters, and what a huge achievement it is for a single actor to people a whole novel with distinctive and credible voices. The hero, Rule, he gets right again by remembering the adage that less is more. He is a man of few but potent words, and instead of giving him an exaggeratedly elite accent, Richard Armitage makes us feel that we have here a powerful warrior under the skin, the 18th century descendent of Gisborne the medieval hell-raiser, or Uhtred the Saxon warlord, with the flimsiest veneer of eighteenth century blue silk and gold lace (or, heaven help us, puce velvet). I’ve mentioned there is a duel – his performance there is absolutely spot on, one could almost call it vocal choreography, so brilliantly does he pace the fight moves.
KJM: The one thing I regret about reading TCM first is that, having met Rule, the various Heyer heroes I’ve encountered since (looking at you, Cardross) seem a bit like a shadow of the same man. Rule is an alpha of the highest degree; he’s so manly he doesn’t even need to get off the sofa (sorry, sopha), and he completely lacks the barely-restrained-psychopath gene shared by so many alpha romantic heroes. When he does actually break out and commit violence, in an extremely informal duel against Horry’s would-be rapist, the scene is a hundred times more powerful because of this. That Horry has already defended herself in the moment — and with an iron poker to the head — nicely removes any paternalistic element. This is not a man fighting to defend the integrity of the woman he possesses, but a man driven to rage by an assault on the woman he loves.
HE: Yes, how very unlike the home life of our own dear 21c alpha heroes. ‘I have always believed my wife to be a lady of infinite resource.’ *Swoon* I love the way he stands aside and give Horry her head, while taking care of her safety in unostentatious ways. One matter that doesn’t sit so well with us today is the extreme youth of Horry, compared to Rule’s Colonel Brandon-like decrepitude (though Heyer herself faces this head on). How does that play for you?
KJM: The age difference is necessarily unsettling, and I can never switch off my modern sensibilities when something like this crops up in historical fiction. But because Heyer does face it head-on, and because it is presented as problematic (rather than incidental or, worse, titillating) I could deal with it better here than I could in, say, April Lady. I found April Lady quite mindboggling, actually: another young heroine with another infamous older husband; another question of whether two people who are married actually love each other; but, unlike Rule, Cardross is already sleeping with his bride (as we are presumably to understand from the concern over her lack of pregnancy). I’m sure that’s the historically more likely scenario, but it’s definitely the more disturbing one. What do you think?
HE: Well, it’s not a situation that’s unique to Heyer, is it – I’ve already namechecked Col. Brandon, and we take it on the chin in Sense and Sensibility – well, sort of. I did wonder if in the odd passage where the age matter was on the tapis Heyer had Austen in mind. Horry at the outset thinks Rule is ancient (as Marianne thought Brandon), and leads a life wholly different from hers, so it won’t matter if as husband and wife they lead separate lives with different pleasures. But Horry is of marriageable age, alright, it’s just the difference in age that seems to have raised eyebrows when discussed by Heyer’s characters, as it would now – and as it would NOT so much when I was growing up, believe it or not.
In the audiobook, the rest of the cast of characters is uniformly excellent, women and men, subtly differentiated to let their character lodge in the listener’s ear. Particular praise from me for Lethbridge, the wicked rake with Horry’s ruin in mind, whose voice has a hard edge but does not go over the top in villainy (after all, desperate though he is, he still has some vestiges of honour); and the cheery young voice for Horry’s brother Pel, the profligate but good-hearted Viscount Winwood. And (as promised) the only point at which the voice swoops up into the realms of falsetto is for the feeble Crosby Drelincourt, the heir whose nose is out of joint and who is Horry’s failed nemesis.
But where the reader seems to be having an absolute ball is in the below-stairs and low-life characters. His friendly local highwayman Hawkins is an absolute joy, a voice pickled in rum and baccy and revelling in the robbers’ cant that Heyer so entertainingly serves up with the character. Even a smart footman has a voice of his own for his line or two, sounding like a young man on the make and trying to lose a Bankside accent. These characters have huge entertainment value in the audiobook – how did you feel about them on the page? Sometimes, seeing argot and cant rendered on the page slows me up as a reader – did you find that? Having someone voicing it with such total relish gets past that problem for me.
KJM: Coming up against unfamiliar terminology did pull me out of the story, although not catastrophically. But then, perhaps a reader more immersed than I am in the genre and in the historical background would find it added depth, and quite rightly. You couldn’t have a highwayman talk like, well, anything but a highwayman — could you? I loathe phonetic renditions of accents and dialects unless done very, very well and sparingly — and they always give away just a little bit of the author’s social assumptions, don’t you find? — but criminal cant is a language of its own and I can’t imagine erasing it. Hawkins in particular is great value and I should have been sad not to meet him. The scenes with him, Pom, Pel and Captain Heron were some of my very favourites, closely rivalling the Ranelagh pond incident.
HE: Oh, the Ranelagh pond incident is priceless! And I must remind myself of where Captain Heron fitted in, as he was airbrushed out of the audiobook. This is an abridged version, and naturally it is possible that what is left out includes some favourite passages and set-pieces for many readers, for Heyer does not waste a word on anything that is not designed for entertainment. However, for me the choices made add up to a pacy, coherent, romping tale which hangs together well (though I think the absence of Rule for quite a large chunk of CD3 means it falls just the tiniest bit flat, for all it’s full of action – a personal view, this). Sad losses for me from the book are more than a tiny amount of Charlotte (see above)and Captain Heron.
KJM: That is a great shame on both counts. I love Captain Heron! He is a gent, although not a gent, if you see what I mean.
HE: Yes, I do, I think, though precisely locating him on the social scale is rather above my pay grade. The trouble with abridgement is that Heyer is meticulous with her minor characters – all give good value, and it is hard for someone who knows the book to see favourites left out. But it’s a whole other skill to shape a narrative that keeps the listener engaged for five hours without flagging or sagging, and streamlining the cast has to be the way to go; whoever worked on this version certainly succeeded in doing that. Finally, being a Naxos production, the pauses between chapters and scenes are delightfully filled with chamber music – slightly out of period, but beautifully well chosen for mood. Ever heard of Louis Spohr (1784-1859)? I had, just about, but never paid him any mind until I heard his piano trios here – quite, quite charming.
KJM: I hadn’t, but I think we’ve established here that I’m a bit of a philistine. There’s another reason, apart from the excellent Richard, for me to look out this recording.
HE: Philistine? I’ll join you – the main reason I knew his name but not his music is because I thought someone with such an unattractive name couldn’t possibly … well, you get my drift. I freely admit, I was wrong to spurn him.
Georgette Heyer: The Convenient Marriage. London: Arrow Books, 2005. 288pp
ISBN 13: 9780099474425
Also available in Kindle and eBook formats.
Audiobook: Georgette Heyer: The Convenient Marriage. Read by Richard Armitage. Abridged. Welwyn: Naxos Audiobooks, 2010. 4 CDs, 5hr 6min.
ISBN 13: 9781843794417
Also available as a digital download