By Day 8, the True Love is getting more ambitious and, frankly, a bit cracked.
Today’s gift embraces both livestock and human trafficking. This is seriously dodgy territory now. He’s clearly into all things quaint, traditional and with just a hint of the Good Old Days. Maybe even Heritage.
I feel we’re beginning to detect some disturbing undercurrents in these so-called gifts. Are they not just another way of tying his Beloved to endless cleaning and animal husbandry? Only now she’ll have staff to placate as well. Not a good outlook.
DAY 8 BOOK
I admit I struggled with milkmaids.
I tried desperately to convince myself that the seminal Cold Comfort Farm would provide the designated dramatic personae. But, while the novel gave freely of cows – Graceless, Pointless, Aimless, and Feckless; I remember them all with affection – they were tended by a love-sick elderly cowman. The only maids in sight – Flora Post and the ethereal Elfine – were not in the milking business.
Thinks: could Old Adam possibly be some sort of relative of our rhyme’s True Love? He’s certainly a died-in-the-wool traditionalist with a bad case of Quaint.
I rummaged further and my memory muttered vaguely about a Georgette Heyer heroine who thought she would like to be a milkmaid.
Clearly a frivolous chit with a Marie Antoinette complex, said my left brain, acidly. Possibly not too bright. I pondered The Foundling. But no, the angelically beautiful but dim Belinda liked the farm kittens, not milking cows
The associations started to tumble into place. Kittens.
No. One particular kitten.
Called Joseph by our youthful heroine after its impressionable donor, farmer’s son, Joe Ninfield.
And there she was, Heyer’s milkmaid. For Day 8, I give you Sprig Muslin.
Amanda is very special. She is young and determined, resourceful though inexperienced, reads (and plagiarises for her own purposes) highly coloured romantic novels yet, underneath it all, is profoundly practical.
Sometimes she is as heedless as naughty schoolgirl. Sometimes she is very wise. She probably saves our hero’s life, in fact.
Above all, she is brave. I can’t think of another Heyer heroine quite like her.
After her third flight, Sir Gareth asks a farmer wearily: is she trying to get a job as a chambermaid? “‘No, sir,’ grinned Mr Ninfield. ‘When last I see her, she was making my Joe teach her how to milk the cows, and just about as happy as a grig.'”
When I first read Sprig Muslin I thought it was a bit unsatisfactory. The two main characters, handsome thirty-something Corinthian Sir Gareth and runaway teenager Amanda don’t fall in love.
The first time I read it, I spent far too much time investing in the wrong expectations, and hoping that they would. In fact, Amanda is in love with someone else, though he only appears much later.
Fashionable Sir Gareth’s story is more complicated: as a younger man he loved a wilful beauty who was killed in an accident which her headstrong courage provoked. He has never recovered from her death.
And then his brother is killed in the Napoleonic wars. So, in the belief that it his duty to provide an heir to his title and estates, Sir Gareth proposes a marriage of convenience to a quiet spinster of 29, “past her last prayers”, who was a friend of his lost love.
His sister, who loves him, is in despair at what she interprets as resignation to a second best life.
ON RE-READING FOR DAY 8
This time, I found this story delightful and entirely satisfying. Basically, Sir Gareth needs a good emotional shake-up, and within a couple of hours of encountering Amanda in difficulties, he has embarked on just that. Yes, she reminds him of late fiancée. But he wants to protect her as, of course, he failed to protect Clarissa.
There is romance here, in fact two. They are subdued but heartfelt. But they are not the main objective of the plot. Basically we have here two decent, warm-hearted people who somehow need to be brought back to life.
And Amanda, entirely without meaning to does just that. She is a catalyst, not just for Sir Gareth, but also for Lady Hester who, to everyone’s astonishment including his own, rejects his civilised proposal outright. During Amanda’s subsequent adventures, she earns the respect of both of them and, in so doing, breaks them out of their bloodless good manners into fun, vitality and deep feeling.
WHY READ DAY 8 BOOK?
Because the darkness of the back story is wholly confounded by life-affirming adventures and self-discovery by Sir Gareth, not as entirely in control as he thought he was, and Lady Hester, far more of a free spirit than anyone thought she was.
Indeed it’s some people’s favourite Heyer, as Elizabeth Hawksley uncovered earlier this year.
Because in places it’s very funny.
Because there’s real, delightful female solidarity in this story.
Because the pompous get their comeuppance.
Because the good end happily – and you believe it will stick, too.
Because of joyous, determined, courageous Amanda.
And Joseph the kitten doesn’t hurt, either.