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Georgette Heyer is, to my mind, without equal when it comes to her Regency novels. They are meticulously researched and transport the reader to a bygone age of elegance and aristocracy; a world at the very beginning of industrialisation and on the cusp of change. In The Nonesuch, she provides readers with everything they could wish for in a novel; a darn good story well laced with humour, great characters and above all, a wonderful romance between the heroine, a governess/companion and her trademark, somewhat world-weary aristocratic hero.
Sir Waldo Hawkridge is handsome, wealthy and a very eligible bachelor. He's known as the Nonesuch because of his athleticism as it seems there isn't a sport at which he doesn't excel. When he travels to Yorkshire to view a property he's recently inherited, with a view to converting it into an orphanage, he finds himself a target for the local matchmaking mamas, an object of admiration amongst the young men of the area and the object of some scorn to Miss Ancilla Trent. But sometimes, first impressions can be very misleading.
Like Ancilla Trent, the heroine of this novel, I'm not overly impressed by sporty types who I find very frequently possess far more brawn than brain. Sir Waldo Hawkridge, however, is an exception fully deserving his nickname of the Nonesuch. He is a paragon. He may be a great sportsman but he's also witty, charming, intelligent and Ancilla can't resist his allure and in her secret moments acknowledges her attraction.
'From the moment of first setting eyes on him she had felt so strong an attraction that it had shocked her, because he was clearly the exemplar of a set of persons whom she held in abhorrence'
Sir Waldo doesn't go to Yorkshire alone, however, as he's accompanied by his younger cousin, Julian, Lord Lindeth and it isn't long after their arrival that Julian meets and is instantly smitten by the beautiful Miss Tiffany Wield. Tiffany who lives with her aunt, Mrs Underhill and her governess, Ancilla Trent is very aware of her looks and her financial worth and consequently expects every man to fall at her feet. Unfortunately, though Tiffany may be stunningly beautiful she doesn't have a personality to match She is selfish, spiteful and manipulative, though she manages to hoodwink most of her male admirers who don't seem to see beyond her lovely face. Sir Waldo, being considerably older than his cousin Julian, sees Tiffany for the termagant that she is and besides, he's far more interested in the scornful Miss Trent who, despite her lowly position, is obviously a young woman of high intelligence and good breeding but it seems Miss Trent isn't having any of it.
Miss Trent, like so many governess/companions in Regency romances, is of impeccable breeding but her family have fallen on hard times so she's had to find employment. She is working for the Underhills, a family with lots of money but little social consequence or breeding which is why they look to Ancilla to help them find their way through polite society.
The path of true love, as ever, doesn't run smoothly and there are many twists and turns in the tale before all is resolved to everyone's satisfaction, and all delivered with Miss Heyer's first class writing style, full of sparkling wit and repartee which has frequently had her likened to a modern day Jane Austen. Personally, I think that's an insult to Georgette Heyer as there is far more action, wit and plot to her novels than in any of Miss Austen's rather more sedate works.
Ancilla makes a wonderful heroine. She's older than the average Regency miss, being twenty-six and considered on the shelf, but with age comes wisdom and she's nobody's fool. It doesn't take her long to realise that her initial opinion of Sir Waldo is completely wrong but at the same time she realises than she's not in the same social league. This doesn't bother our hero though and the courtship that follows is entertaining, realistic and romantic.
Georgette Heyer's protagonists don't immediately fall into bed with each a la Mills & Boon but conduct themselves exactly as the well bred did in the early nineteenth century. Far from making this a boring read, it gives the whole story much more sexual tension as we watch these two very likeable characters get to know each other and realise that their feelings are more than simply liking. It's a measure of Miss Heyer's writing talent that even to modern readers her books come across as fresh and modern as the day when they were written.
I suppose in many ways, the characters in this novel, as with all her other Regency novels, are somewhat stereotypical. There's the sensible heroine, the dashing hero, the intimidating dowagers, the simpering misses and a coterie of young men, all in the first stare of fashion, but somehow Georgette Heyer manages to flesh out these characters so that despite their being stereotypical, they come across as very real and believable. One of the key elements of Heyer's writing which really lends it authenticity is the dialogue. It's the words she puts into the mouths of her characters, especially the cant used by her male characters, which puts this story way ahead of any of her rivals.
This story is more of a slow burner than many of Georgette Heyer's other Regency romances and also has slightly more social comment but this all gives the story depth and though it's delivered in the usual light and frothy manner, it lends the story more gravitas making this one more akin to a Jane Austen novel with its concentration of the manners and mores of Regency life. As with all her novels, this one is full of wit, charm and sparkling dialogue and it's brimful of historical detail all delivered in such a way that the reader is blissfully unaware that they're absorbing history at the same time as they're being so brilliantly entertained.
Of course, this is a romance so there are possibly not as many surprises in terms of plot as there would be with a different genre, but Georgette Heyer has such a gift for characterisation and manipulates her secondary characters in such a way that it's easy to overlook any shortcomings with regard to the ultimate outcome of the story.