Regency Turns 80 — The Quiet Gentleman

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

Georgette Heyer has often been compared to Jane Austen in general terms. Today, Regina Jeffers, author of a number of award-winning Regency romances, Austen tales and cozy mysteries, finds some one-to-one comparisons with several Austen characters in Heyer’s novel, The Quiet Gentleman. Based on your readings of Austen and Heyer, do you see those same comparisons?

Anyone with an opinion on this novel, or Regencies in general, is welcome to post them in comments to this article.

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A man in 18th century dress walks down a staircase, while a man and a woman whisper higher up the stairs behind him.

When I volunteered to review Georgette Heyer’s The Quiet Gentleman, I did not realize the irony of an Austenesque writer being asked to express opinions upon a Heyer novel with many Jane Austen overtones.

The Quiet Gentleman is one of Heyer’s "sort of" mysteries, although I will admit to knowing the culprit by the end of Chapter 1. In examining any of Heyer’s mysteries, one must keep in mind Heyer reportedly was not fond of the genre. We must recall that during time of this novel’s release (1951), mystery writing was not as well accepted in the publishing world as were other forms of fiction. Some suppose Heyer’s husband, who was a barrister, supplied the plot lines for some of her mysteries. I do not know whether that fact proves true or not for The Quiet Gentleman, but "inheritance law" does play a minor role in the plot line.

In The Quiet Gentleman, Gervase Frant, the Earl of St. Erth, returns to his childhood home of Stanyon Castle, a Tudor fortress. "… nowhere in England could have been found such massive doors of oak, such ponderous iron latches, so many pointed narrow windows, as at Stanyon." (2) St. Erth has not been at Stanyon for many years. The late earl sent Gervase away after Gervase’s mother ran off with another man. When the first Countess of St. Erth passes, Gervase’s father remarries, strengthening the ties of isolation. Later Gervase served in the military. In fact, news of his father’s passing arrives right before Gervase takes part at Waterloo, and to avoid the need to appear to mourn a man who deserted him, Gervase stays in Europe for a year before returning to England to claim his rightful place.

St. Erth has reason to avoid the home:   most pointedly, his father’s second wife, the Dowager Countess, and his half brother, the Honourable Martin Frant, both of whom wished for Gervase’s demise in service to the King so Martin might inherit instead.

‘Providence has decreed that he [St. Erth] should succeed to his dear father’s honour,’ pronounced the Dowager, thinking poorly of Providence. ‘One might have supposed that military service in the Peninsula – a very unhealthy locality, I understand, setting aside the chances of Violent Death in an engagement, which cannot be altogether precluded — might have rendered the present occasion unnecessary. But it was not to be! Had my advice been sought, I should have considered myself bound to state that a military career, for one whom I should have had no hesitation in declaring to be far from robust, could be little short of Fatal! (17)

When several attempts upon his life bring the issue of his inheritance to life, St. Erth must unravel a string of coincidences, which could spell doom for him.

Anyone reading The Quiet Gentleman cannot help but hear the voice of Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine De Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice in the form of the Dowager Countess. (Note! Before Gervase rises to the position of earl, he was known as "Captain Viscount Desborough" [possibly from De Bourgh]. Too much coincidence for me…)
Note the similarities in the passage below.

‘I hope,’ said the Dowager, ‘I am not to be blamed for that! If Lady Penistone chose to invite the boy to stay with her during his school vacations, and my lord to acquiesce in the arrangement, I take heaven to witness that it was by no expressed wish of mine that Desborough ceased to regard Stanyon as his natural home! On every head my conscience is easy; while he was a child I did my duty towards him; and I am determined now that as no word of censure for his conduct in absenting himself from a beloved parent’s obsequies shall be permitted to pass my lips, so also no make of the respect due to the Head of the Family shall be unobserved. I shall receive him in the Hall.’

There are even a mentions of the Frant family spending time at Ramsgate and of St. Erth requests the assistance of a groom named "Wickham." The Dowager’s constant companion is Mr. Clowne, who is the equivalent of Mr. Collins from P&P, but as irritating as Mr. Collins is to many Austen readers, at least, one has a sense of the man’s absurdity. Mr. Clowne does not live up to his name. He is simply a parrot, repeating the Dowager’s edicts. Truthfully, he serves no purpose to the plot line.

The Quiet Gentleman is unlike many of Heyer’s books for it is the hero’s story, rather than the heroine’s. St. Erth is definitely not your typical Alpha male; he is soft-spoken and almost effeminate in his manners, sporting Weston fashion, snuff boxes, polished Hessians, fancy cravats, and a quizzing glass. Martin refers to St. Erth as "nothing but a curst dandy." The reader is soon to learn St. Erth "was not easily to be intimidated." St. Erth proves the adage of still waters running deep. Now, this is where the Austen parts continue. To me, St. Erth is Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility:   kind, generous, responsible, and reasonable.

The heroine, for lack of another word to call her, is Miss Drusilla Morville, who is staying with the Dowager while her parents are away. Drusilla does not fit the Heyer heroine:   Although Drusilla possesses all those feminine accomplishments of the era (recall Caroline Bingley’s litany in Pride and Prejudice), she is lacking in "sensibility" and romantic imaginings. In fact, she is downright practical in all her actions. (Elinor Dashwood, perhaps?)

The pseudo-heroine is one Miss Marianne Bolderwood. As I read the story, I kept thinking of the word "Balderdash," the lack of sensibility and the Austen character of Marianne Dashwood. Heyer’s Marianne and Austen’s are both seventeen. They are beautiful, young, innocent, and very romantic. Like Austen’s character, Heyer’s Marianne even takes a fall (Miss Bolderwood from her horse. St. Erth places her on his horse and escorts Miss Bolderwood home, along with his half brother Martin and Mr. Warboys, more of the girl’s admirers.

We experience Heyer’s reputation for research with the inclusion of Drusilla’s parents:   Her father is a "Pantisocrat" cohort of Coleridge and Southey, and her mother writes novels in the vein of Wollstonecraft. Heyer provides the reader meticulous details on each of these real-life characters. Personally, I found these "whole story-type" passages almost intrusive in nature, and I imagined some editor saying, "They do not advance your story line." As Drusilla is not so "liberal" as her parents appear to be, I would agree with the editor.

The Quiet Gentleman gently satirizes the 18th Century horror genre, but Heyer’s story is more in the vein of the modern cozy mystery, with a country aristocratic seat and a pair of amateur sleuths. The "horror" of the crime is the crime itself:   Who would want St. Erth dead and what might be the reason for the attacks?

Now, to the plot issues. First, the romance between St. Erth and Drusilla is so downplayed, it is nearly nonexistent. There are never words of affection spoken between the two. In the beginning, St. Erth terms Drusilla as not having "a pleasing enough countenance or conversation." (Shades of Austen’s Darcy and Elizabeth ringing in your head? Mine, too.) St. Erth’s friend, Lucius Austell, Lord Ulverston, takes note of Gervase’s interest, but does not share his suspicions with others, and Drusilla’s mother does the same for her daughter, but that is LATE in the book. In fact, Gervase rushing to Drusilla’s side after the lady suffers a dangerous fall at Stanyon and his proposal (accompanied by a kiss) before all her family and his guests is from character for both. It is all quite awkward.

Marianne’s MANY flirtations nearly brings about her ruination, and we can only hope "Lucy," who wins the chit’s hand can bring a bit more introspection to Miss Bolderwood. In many ways, Lord Ulverson is the "Colonel Brandon" to Heyer’s Marianne. And as to the mystery/murder plot, it is quite unremarkable. The mystery, the general dislike of Gervase by his family, and the bringing together of two "quite boring" characters are resolved in a lackluster manner.

One thing I did enjoy was the colorful names supplied by Heyer for the supporting characters and the places within the plot. We find:   Minchinhamptons, Lady Wintringham, Whissenhurst Grange, Mr. Warboys, Jeremy Diddlers, General Hawkhurst, Mr. Henry Lamberhurst, Henry Poundsbridge, Lady Cinderford, Cheringham Spinney, Tom Scrooby, Mugginton, Caldbecks, Dr. Malpas, and Lord and Lady Grampound.

I read Heyer for the same reason I read Austen:   Heyer’s ability to highlight social hypocrisy, her use of parody and irony, and her fast-paced dialogue. Although there are glimmers of those characteristics in The Quiet Gentleman, a first time reader of Heyer might wonder what all the hype is about the lady when he/she finishes reading The Quiet Gentleman.

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Regina Jeffers is an award-winning author of cozy mysteries, Austenesque sequels and retellings, and Regency era romances. A teacher for thirty-nine years, Jeffers often serves as a consultant for Language Arts and Media Literacy programs. With multiple degrees, Regina has been a Time Warner Star Teacher, Columbus (OH) Teacher of the Year, and a Martha Holden Jennings Scholar. With 5 new releases coming out in 2015, Jeffers is considered one of publishing’s most prolific authors. Come check out some of her 19 novels: Darcy’s Passions, Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy, A Touch of Grace, A Touch of Honor, and The First Wives’ Club.

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  1. This is not one of my favourite GH books although I do have a copy and have read it many times. But I had never spotted the links with Jane Austens books before so I will now re-read it and see for myself. Thanks for the post.

    1. As I switch off between Austenesque books and Regency romances, Lady Catherine’s voice rings in my head. As early as chapter one of this book, I heard the similarities, but I first thought it was just me being an Austen fan. Yet, the more I read, the more it appeared true.

  2. This actually is one of my favorite Heyers, and it may be the Austen echoes that I hadn’t realized were there. But I do love St. Erth and Drusilla. There are echoes in the opposite direction too. For example, the hero of Joan Wolf’s Golden Girl always struck me as one of the many reincarnations of St. Erth.

  3. The Quiet Gentleman is one of my favorites too. St. Erth’s problem is that he is overly watched, by everyone, because his personality, character, and abilities are unknown. As soon as he suspects someone is really after his life, it is prudent for him NOT to court anyone, particularly Drusilla, as such courtship would lead to marriage to an heir, and even possibly put Drusilla’s life in danger. As for the similarity to Miss Austen’s characters, I am thinking about the limited number of character types a “basic” plot might require. Somewhere (and I hope someone somewhere can tell me where) in college I read that for fiction there are X number of plot types (I think it was 6 or 7, but certainly below 10). I have tried to think of what these might be, in the intervening years: the quest/search (Odysseus, Knights of the Round Table); mystery (which is a sort of quest, but not necessarily so geographically spread out); romance (i.e. love story); revenge (possibly?). But if it is true that there are a limited number of plot archetypes, can there also be a limited number of character archetypes? For example, in the “romance” archetype, hero and/or villain, and heroine (emotionally driven like Marianne or Juliet; more in control of her emotions, like Jane Bennett perhaps and certainly Anne Elliott (which isn’t to say such a one does not love deeply): the witty heroine, like Elizabeth; the clueless one, like Emma Woodhouse. Comments welcome!

    1. I enjoyed your comments, Judith. I had not considered that St. Erth could be protecting Drusilla, although I must admit I would like a bit more interaction between them.

      1. Privacy would be hard to find to do so, given that the mores required them to be chaperoned, but yes, Heyer could have contrived some meeting(s). Other books really focus on the man’s activities, viz. the Foundling. The Grand Sophy, Fredericka, and Arabella are exceptions. And I just can’t believe in Charles Audley being happy with Lady Barbara. Her change of manner at the end is not believable, nor is why he is so in love with her.

  4. Although it isn’t one of my top-tier Heyers, it’s worth reading just for the part where St. Erth gets rid of the epergne on the table, in spite of his stepmother’s objections!

  5. Thank you for an excellent review. As I think of Heyer’s works, I think what we fans love is the world she creates. The Quiet Gentleman is part of the world with Hugo Darracott, the hero in Sprig Muslin, and John Staple in The Toll Gate. They are men to admire and love — reason, loyalty, self-control, and clear perception guide these men through the follies presented in the novel. Their great good sense is also shown in loving the right woman and empowering her insofar as Regency times allowed such empowerment for women. I think there are too many tiresome people in The Quiet Gentleman, as there are in many of Austen’s books – Persuasion, Sense & Sensibility, and even Pride and Prejudice — remind us how much a person of good sense has to put up with human folly and selfishness, both of which are on full and constant display. Nevertheless, Heyer gives us our happy ending(s) with all being set to rights by the great good sense of the Hero, who seems to transcend human frailty. It’s a lovely world!

    1. As a school teacher for four decades, Melinda, I am more than a bit acquainted with people “of good sense” putting “up with human folly and selfishness,” and I am not necessarily thinking of the children. I was the public classroom long enough to see several “new ideas” that were old again.

    2. One correction here: the wonderful Hugo Darracott is the hero of The Unknown Ajax (one of my favorite Heyer re-reads!). Sir Gareth Ludlow is the hero of Sprig Muslin.

  6. Wonderful comparisons between Austen and Heyer, Regina! The Quiet Gentleman was not one of my favorite Heyer novels. I suppose I never felt I really knew the hero and heroine well enough to have an investment in either of them. Though, after your review, I am tempted to give it a re-read just to look for all the Jane Austen parallels!

    1. I read The Quiet Gentleman some 20 years prior, but I could not recall it until I re-read it for this post. I do not think I would have been so in tune to Austenesque ideas if I had not just written another cozy mystery based on Pride and Prejudice.

  7. I have to say that The Quiet Gentleman has been a favorite Heyer novel for me. As others have mentioned, I did not pick up the Austen in it, either. I never thought it too slow or underplotted. St Erth WAS a quiet gentleman and did not feel the need to display. Once he realized there was a plot, then keeping himself to himself was urgent: anyone could be the would-be murderer. I read it over again as I do most of Heyer’s works. Nice take on it, it will give me new eyes on my next reading.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Kathy. I do admit to coming to Heyer later than some other readers. I once read epics such as Shogun, Rich Man/Poor Man, the Thornbirds, etc. I did not start reading Regency until the late 1990s. By that time, much of what Heyer started transitioned.

  8. When I first happened upon “The Quiet Gentleman,” it was like a surprise party: I’d never even heard of the book! I read it, liked it, and it was my secret book for a long time after because even most Heyer fans I ran into hadn’t read it (or, often, even heard of it.)

    Now, though, I have to say it hasn’t remained one of my favorites. I really like both St Erth and Drusilla, and the humor that Heyer gets by placing them in various situations with various idiots — but it often feels to me like Heyer was somewhat tired when she wrote this book. She had a set-up for a cracking good read, but (for me) it ended up not living up to its potential. I do like it, still, and I do reread it, but I often wish it were even more…more itself, shall we say.

    And thanks for pointing out all the Austen influences, Regina! According to Jane Aiken Hodge, Heyer would sometimes get on Shakespeare kicks, leading to some very Shakespeare-touched novels; I expect this was an Austen-touched novel!

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