I’m warning you now, this is going to be the most niche post ever on this blog. However, I need to get it off my chest, at least three people want to hear it, and I think it has some wider resonances for writing as well.
Today, my friends, I am discussing Georgette Heyer’s 1946 romance The Reluctant Widow. Bear with me. Extensive spoilers will follow; wider conclusions will be drawn at the end.
The Reluctant Secret Agent: or, why Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow
The Reluctant Widow is generally agreed to be one of Heyer’s less successful romances. It has a great premise—a woman married at midnight to a dying man she’s never met, a mouldering house, French spies—plus a great cast including the ingenuous teen Nicky, his comedy dog, and one of Heyer’s best effete-yet-deadly fops, the purring and catlike Francis Cheviot. Unfortunately, the hero and heroine don’t live up to their book. Eleanor, the heroine, is sadly disinclined to throw herself into the mystery—she is meant to be a sensible heroine like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring but she lacks Sarah’s gumption and has no enjoyment at all ofher situation. Ned, the hero, mostly stands around giving orders, and telling people to keep calm. Basically, Ned and Eleanor are boring, sensible people plunged into a completely bananas situation to which they react in a boring, sensible manner.
However, I think we can see why the central romance is such a dud if we look at what the plot of the book actually is.
Synopsis follows. I am going to put Eleanor and Ned’s plotline in bold for easy identification.
Backstory: Eustace is a wastrel drinking himself to death. His sensible cousin Ned (Lord Carlyon) is his heir. Eustace and Ned’s uncle Lord Bedlington has always accused Ned of hating Eustace and wanting his mostly ruined estate, Highnoons, even though Ned is rich. Ned intends to pay a random woman to marry Eustace so she will inherit the estate instead, just so he doesn’t have to deal with spiteful rumours. Lord Bedlington is selling secrets to a French spy, Louis de Castres, using Eustace as go between. Bedlington’s son Francis suspects him. Bedlington gives Eustace a vital memorandum that could alter the course of the war. However, before Eustace can pass it on, he is mortally wounded in a fight. The book starts here.
Ned pressures Eleanor, a passing governess, into marrying Eustace on his deathbed in order to avoid the unwanted inheritance. Eleanor goes to live in Highnoons.
Louis de Castres tries twice to search Highnoons for the memorandum, once as a break-in.
Ned and Eleanor search unsuccessfully for the thing that the intruder was looking for.
Bedlington invites himself to stay with Ned, and insists he will stay the night at Highnoons after Eustace’s funeral, in order to search for the memo. Francis realises he has to put a stop to this. He kills Louis de Castres, then comes down to the house, ostensibly for the funeral. He ruthlessly threatens his father with exposure and forces him to retire from his position in the Prince Regent’s court, putting an end to his access to information. He guesses where Eustace hid the memo and does his best to retrieve it despite interference from Eleanor and Nicky.
Ned finds the memorandum in a clock (but only because Francis knocks Eleanor out to stop her finding it, which gives Ned the clue). He gives it to Francis to put back in the War Office and leaves him to deal with any remaining issues.
I think you can see the problem. Once the brilliant setup of “married by midnight—widowed by morning!” is established, Ned and Eleanor don’t do anything. No, worse: they get in the way. Eleanor prevents Louis from getting the memo once, and purely by accident, after which her every intervention is an active nuisance to Francis—who, let us recall, knows where the memo is, and just needs them to stop impeding him. She achieves absolutely nothing herself.
And Ned? Well, Ned eventually works out that Francis is the hero. That’s it. That is Ned’s big I Am The Man moment: he realises that Francis has single-handedly foiled a French plot that could have damaged Britain, and decides not to be unhelpful any more. Go Ned.
They don’t even solve their own romantic conflict. Heyer sets up the rather flimsy premise that Ned cannot inherit Eustace’s estate because malicious tongues will wag. But the second Eleanor says “I do” to Ned, he gets Eustace’s estate via marriage. What’s happened to the wagging tongues which Ned is now ready to dismiss so casually? Well, Heyer doesn’t spell it out at the end, but the rumours were all set on by Bedlington. And who has drawn Bedlington’s fangs for good? Francis.
Let me now tell you the actual plot of The Reluctant Widow. It’s a story about a man who comes to realise his father and cousin are traitors. Who befriends a French emigre who he knows to be a daring spy in order to gather evidence; who needs to save his country, but is trying to save his family too. A man who plays a Scarlet Pimpernel-like role, maintaining his public image as an effete dandy despite the sneers, killing an enemy agent without compunction, and ruthlessly eliminating his treacherous father as a danger. (“I was obliged to point out to him that the state of his health demands that he should retire from public life. I really could not answer for his life if he were to continue in office.”) He finally retrieves the memo despite endless interference; he will put it back, prevent catastrophe, and save the family honour. He even stops his father from impeding his cousin’s marriage. He receives no credit and no thanks and doesn’t ask for them: he simply saves the day, without so much as disarranging his cravat.
Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow, and Heyer knows it. That’s why Ned’s big moment is when he acknowledges Francis is the hero. That’s why Ned and Eleanor are ciphers: they only exist in the plot to be obstacles to Francis. That’s why most of the crucial plot-resolving Chapter 19 is a barely-interrupted Francis monologue; that’s why the ending falls so flat, because Ned and Eleanor haven’t lifted a finger to solve their own external conflict. And that’s why, despite him first appearing in chapter 13 (of 20), Francis is far and away the most memorable character. Because he’s the hero, and the narrative eye of the book spends most of its time focused in entirely the wrong place.
This may sound pretty obvious as I’ve spelled it out. It isn’t obvious on the page because, as noted, we are two-thirds of the way through the book before Francis arrives to save us, and because his machinations only become clear in chapter 19. The main body of The Reluctant Widow is about Ned and Eleanor and their valiant supporting cast, including the wonderful dilapidated house which is conveyed with extraordinary vividness. Heyer wasn’t phoning this one in: she was throwing everything she could at the story to zizz it up. But she failed–because she was telling the wrong story.
And she knew it, I think. Francis lights the book up when he appears, and gets all the best dialogue and all the best description. Heyer plunges gleefully into portraying him as a villain with repeated scenes of Ned’s boring bumpkin brothers being appalled at Francis’s effeminacy, almost as if trying to show how stupid and judgemental they are. Francis is the point; Eleanor and Ned’s romance is merely the stage on which he performs.
Georgette Heyer knew how to structure a book. The plotting of Cotillion and the final scene of An Unknown Ajax are absolute masterpieces of craft, and I don’t say that lightly: Ajax leaves me slack-jawed every time. It’s staggering to see how well she can work a plot. But not this one: because she was trying to tell the wrong story, because she needed to write a Regency romance, and–possibly, maybe?–because there was no way in 1946 for Francis to have a mass market romance novel of his own.
So what can we learn? Well, for a start, if your characters are being pushed to the sides of the plot, notice and ask yourself why. Are they just reactive, like Ned and Eleanor, not taking a role in driving the plot? If you’re writing a romance with an important subplot, could the two story strands be taken apart without destroying either–and can you actually intertwine them? Are you more interested in writing a secondary character than your MCs? Any of that might indicate that your main characters, the ones taking up the page time, aren’t actually the centre of your story–and that is likely to be a serious problem.
Don’t feel bad, though. As Heyer shows, it happens to the best.
Yes, I am a Heyer fiend. My new book Band Sinister has been described as “Heyer but gayer,” which is something I’ll happily have on my gravestone.
Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)
Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.
Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.
In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?
“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today
“I loved that this couple was completely honest with each other about their feelings for each other, and their feelings for other characters who held important places in their lives. It made their HEA all the more delightful and believable. … this book is really, really good. Go one-click, you won’t be disappointed.”–Smexy Books
“A wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights. It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.”–Caz’s Reading Room