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NA0184 - HEYER, G.: Faro's Daughter (Unabridged)
Georgette Heyer (1902–1974)
Though Georgette Heyer’s name is synonymous with the Regency romance, she also wrote numerous novels set somewhat earlier in the Georgian era, including Faro’s Daughter. The events of the novel take place during or shortly after the year 1795, while King George III was still on the throne. Though the historical context of the period does not play such a foreground rôle here as it does in much of her other work, like The Grand Sophy or Venetia, it provides an ever-present backcloth to the escapades of the characters. As is so often the case with Georgette Heyer’s work, historical references are woven so deftly into the fabric of the book that they pass almost unnoticed—although her knowledge of the Georgian period was extensive, she wore her erudition lightly.
Our first clue as to when the events take place appears early on in the book, when the old-fashioned Lady Mablethorpe reacts with horror to Max Ravenscar’s hair, observing that it is ‘cut into something perilously near a Bedford crop’. The Bedford Crop was a hairstyle devised and made popular by Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford (1765–1802) in 1795. Prior to this date, most men wore their hair powdered and tied back, but when the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806) passed a tax on hair powder on 23 February 1795, one of several emergency taxes brought in to mitigate the severe financial consequences of war with the French, Bedford organised a protest, the results of which were reported in the London Chronicle:
The short, cropped cut became symbolic not only of protest against the taxes, but of political allegiance to the Whigs. Lady Mablethorpe’s horror, then, is more than simple personal preference, and in this one throwaway reference Heyer is able to subtly impart a wealth of information about the two characters.
In general, dress is an important means of characterisation for Heyer. When Miss Grantham dresses herself up to look ‘like some dreadful creature from the stage’, she wears bright, clashing colours and heavy makeup, including patches. Patches—small pieces of black fabric that were attached to the face—and excessive rouge became unfashionable around 1790, and Miss Grantham deliberately uses them to suggest a lack of style and elegance.
The gaming house presided over by Deborah and her aunt plays a central rôle in the novel. The eighteenth century was seized by a passion for gambling, and such houses, often run by aristocratic women, were common—a 1796 estimate put the number of gambling clubs in London at forty-three, six of which were run by women. Faro was a popular game, as was E.O. (even/odd), a precursor of roulette. Lady Bellingham may have been modelled on such infamous real-life characters as Mrs. Albinia Hobart (1738–1816), who later became Lady Buckingham, and Lady Sarah Archer (d. 1801). An influx of French aristocrats after the Revolution saw an increase in the number of gaming houses, but there was an immediate backlash, and the 1790s saw the so-called ‘faro ladies’, or ‘faro’s daughters’, get an increasingly bad press. Lady Bellingham’s comments on the ‘absurd stuff written in the daily papers about the wickedness of gaming houses’ probably refer to the many articles written on the dangers of gambling. Women like Deb Grantham were routinely characterised in these moralistic screeds as lascivious, dissipated and predatory—precisely the qualities that Ravenscar assumes her to possess.
Born in London in 1902, Heyer inherited a love of books from her father, George Heyer, and two of her closest childhood friends, Carola Oman and Joanna Cannan, with whom she spent many hours discussing literature, both grew up to be authors. She showed promise from an early age, writing her first book, entitled The Black Moth, at the age of seventeen. It was published, with George Heyer’s help, in 1921, initiating a steady stream of novels. In 1926, Heyer had her first major success with These Old Shades. By this time, she had been married for a year to a young mining engineer named Ronald Rougier, and had already published five books.
From 1932 until her death in 1974, Heyer produced novels at the extraordinary rate of almost one a year, spawning a new literary genre—the Regency romance. Yet despite her undeniable success, she was frequently troubled by plagiarism and financial problems. Throughout the fifties and sixties, her company Heron Enterprises was a source of contention between her and the tax authorities, and a large chunk of the profits from books written around this time went towards paying back money to the Treasury. Plagiarism also became a problem—from the 1950s onwards, several other writers traded on her popularity by writing novels using names, phrases and events from her books. She was even accused by some of her fans of publishing substandard work under a pseudonym. Although Heyer sought legal advice on several occasions, she never chose to sue.
Faro’s Daughter was published in 1941, as Heyer was reaching the height of her popularity. It bears all the hallmarks of her best romances, being witty, charming and brimming with historical insight. It features a number of familiar comic characters, including the kind-hearted, ineffectual Lady Bellingham, the bewildered ingénue Phoebe, and the dissipated, ageing rake Lord Ormskirk. Miss Grantham and Mr Ravenscar are flawed, though ultimately likeable protagonists, and their many misunderstandings and entanglements only make them more endearing.
Notes by Caroline Waight
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