“Theme handled with restraint, but not needed in small libraries.” – from a review in the Wisconsin Library Bulletin, May 1924 (ouch!)
Instead of the Thorn was Georgette Heyer’s first novel with a contemporary setting. Of course, she wrote it in 1922 or so, so that makes it a period piece for our purposes. In fact, it’s a year or two before the current season of Downton Abbey is set, though the characters are middle-class and the plot is darker in some ways. Not in the occasionally silly dramatic-death soap opera way of DA; this feels like real life.
“She had expected to feel a heroine’s exultation when Stephen slipped the ring on to her finger, but the ring was too big, and she had wanted sapphires.”
(Incidentally, I figure most people won’t seek this out, so this review is pretty spoilery. Apologies if that’s a problem.)
Our heroine, Elizabeth Arden (no, really), is not at all a modern kind of girl. As her mother died when she was a baby, Elizabeth is raised by her aunt with Victorian morals and manners, and kept very much in the family. She views friends with more modern sensibilities with great fascination and a little fear. As Carson would say to Mrs. Hughes, the times, they are a-changing.
When Elizabeth is around 18 years old, her rather silly father, who reminds one forcibly of Mrs. Bennet (not a typo: I mean Mrs., not Mr.) notices she’s grown up and thinks it would be fun to take her to dances and show her off and get her a good husband. (See? Totally Mrs. Bennet.) Her father’s friend, Mr. Hengist, warns the father that Elizabeth has not been prepared to deal with marriage, but Mrs. Bennet laughs it off. For her part, Elizabeth goes to the dances but doesn’t really like dancing. She doesn’t like it when men touch her.
At a dance, Elizabeth meets novelist Stephen Ramsay, who is tall and handsome and heroic, and quickly falls for Elizabeth’s petite prettiness and innocence. Stephen wants to protect her. He also wants to own her. Aunt Anne thinks she is still a little young to be married (and by “young” she means “clueless”), but Mr. Arden is thrilled that his little girl has landed a Famous Author, and a member of a County family, to be his son-in-law. Elizabeth is swept off by romantic notions of marriage, and has no clue about the realities. She and her aunt have A Talk before the wedding, which is not described but is hinted to be upon the lines of Lie Back And Think Of England. Elizabeth does not like to be touched, remember? It follows she won’t like sex. She is also appalled by her husband’s clothes left lying about and grossed out by his morning razor stubble.
“Surely no such fragile, rose-tinted creature could long survive the morals of this sophisticated age with their exploitation of youthful sex clamorings.” – Review in The Springfield Republican, July 1924
Stephen’s “mater” is a rather hilarious character, a bit scatter-brained but really warm and caring. Both she and Stephen’s sister Cynthia have Elizabeth figured out pretty quickly, which is more than one can say for Stephen. Mater is kind, but Cynthia–well, I heard all her dialogue in my head in Lady Mary Crawley’s voice. Enough said.
Stephen is a writer. Not an author: a writer. He suffers over his art, spending hours every day on his book, being late for meals and not worried much over how his immature wife is occupying herself. He takes her to his ancestral country home, Queen’s Halt. His old nurse is now housekeeper there. Elizabeth is intimidated and leaves everything to her, so she has little to do with her days. She sits around while Stephen writes–in the same room. She doesn’t really get his novels (which in Elizabeth’s opinion are a bit “broad”), so they can’t talk about the thing most important to him. Worse yet, a neighbor, Nina–whom Mater and Cynthia once designed for Stephen’s wife–feels free to drop in and interrupt Stephen’s writing, and he not only doesn’t mind, he is able to discuss the progress of the book with her. Also, he takes to sleeping in his dressing room so that he doesn’t disturb Elizabeth when he sits up writing late at night.
“It was strange how often she seemed to do the wrong thing; strange and sad.”
An encounter with one of Stephen’s army friends, Charles Wendell, gives Elizabeth a friend. Charles is always ready to hang out; and Stephen, busy with his book, is fine with it. Wendell is sort of a cross between Bertie Wooster and Ferdy Fakenham, though with much less personality than either of those gentlemen, and naturally Elizabeth thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas.
Stephen finishes his book, and expects to pick up where they left off honeymoon-wise. Elizabeth still wants no part of That Stuff. Stephen, having married a rather stupid girl, is horrible to her when she acts stupidly. He grabs her, and kisses her forcibly, and threatens to take what is his by right. The modern (meaning 21st century, not 1920s) reader is thinking, “Oh no, Georgette Heyer, you’re not going to show us marital rape, are you?” which of course would have been perfectly legal then, but fortunately Stephen lets her go. The narrator tells us, “In anger he uttered threats which he would never have carried out.” That’s all very noble, but uttering them–threatening her–is enough. Then, a page later, he agrees to leave her alone for a while, and says, “But I want you to remember, Elizabeth, that if I chose to I could make you.” Because that’s not threatening at all, Rapey McRaperson! And he’ll let her go, but she’ll get her allowance, and he tells her where to stay, and to take a friend, and aren’t we still a controlling SOB?
But then Elizabeth does the first intelligent thing she has ever done: she leaves him. She lies to the servants about a phone call summoning her to London (though the servants, who are not that stupid, didn’t hear the phone ring, but still–Downton Abbey, can’t discuss these things with the help) and she goes–not to her father’s as one might expect, but to a hotel. Times are changing, Mrs. Hughes.
So we’re about halfway through the book and Elizabeth has stopped being quite so much of a simp (but not entirely). She takes lodgings. She learns to type and works doing typing for literary people–that is, writers who write stuff for magazines. She is still somewhat appallingly lame, but one still finds oneself humming Lesley Gore and Gloria Gaynor songs.
This idyllic single life doesn’t last long. Elizabeth lets Wendell squire her around, figuring him to be harmless, but he jumps to certain conclusions, and we have Almost Rape Scene, Redux, and Elizabeth realizes that marital rape > acquaintance rape, or something. She goes back to Stephen, and he agrees to not touch her until she is ready. She types his book and learns to discuss his work with him. By the end of the book, her body is ready.
It’s not a bad book, though the ending is disappointing. In fact, it’s quite good in its way, and involves an interesting subject, especially considering it was written by an unmarried (and we think one may safely assume virginal) 20-year-old, but it doesn’t have the lighthearted, romantic, swashbuckling fun of The Black Moth and The Transformation of Philip Jettan–the last one written almost as a vacation from writing Instead of the Thorn. Heyer must have suffered over Thorn in the same way that Stephen suffers over his clever novels–and he could afford to be as clever as he wanted, at least for a few more years, because he was from a County family, his main income was from stocks, and his country house inherited. Heyer did not have that luxury.
So why did she suppress this book some dozen years later? One sees Heyer–older, married, happy–shrinking from the raw emotion on display in this book rather like Elizabeth shrinks from her husband’s caress. Yet she gave Elizabeth and Stephen a happy ending, even if it took a while to get there, and the 21st-century reader is disappointed that the compromise was mostly on the woman’s side.
Next up, Simon the Coldheart. I’m going to take a short break first and read Wolf Hall, though.