Georgette Heyer: the problem of brothers (for sisters)

False Colours by Georgette Heyer Cover by BarbosaBrothers, in Georgette Heyer’s Georgian and Regency novels, can be a sad trial for their sisters. Not always, but often.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about children in Heyer’s novels. That produced some interesting feedback and a really fascinating related blog by Elizabeth Hawksley about children in the nursery.

Elizabeth’s blog made me think about the problem of brothers. Not children, but grown-up brothers. So in this blog, I’m exploring those relationships (with quotations in blue which, sorry, make this blog pretty long).

Male children, primogeniture, the law and more

Back in the Regency, males definitely had it over females. Upper class males could, and did, do a lot of what they liked, even if it was reckless or dangerous. Females were hidebound by rules about what they could and couldn’t do. Mostly couldn’t.

Regency reading woman

print courtesy of Louise Allen

Brothers could join the army, attend university, travel the world, mount mistresses, swear and cuss, indulge in fisticuffs or worse, and so on.

Sisters? Well, sisters learned feminine arts like music and sketching and sewing. They might learn how to manage a household, as preparation for marriage and a home of their own. But always they had to be wary of how the outside world was viewing them: they must do nothing fast, or ill-mannered. And until they were pretty much in their dotage, they should not go about unchaperoned.

A brother could legally own and dispose of property. A sister had to have trustees.

Venetia by Georgette HeyerThe eldest brother could inherit a grand estate. His sister, even if older than him, generally had to be content with whatever dowry her father bestowed on her.

“It is the fate of sisters, is it not, to be obliged to take second place when their brothers marry?”
[Venetia Chapter 11]

And when the heir married to secure the succession, his sister was likely to be consigned to the role of aunt-cum-dogsbody and dwindle into being an old maid (or an ape-leader) unless she managed to escape via her own marriage.

Brothers with power and position

Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer First UK edition coverThe crucial thing about brothers in Heyer’s novels is that it is taken for granted—by males and females—that brothers matter more than sisters. Brothers have innate authority from being male (even if they are stupid, or idle, or utterly irresponsible, or worse). Sisters are by definition weaklings who require the guidance and protection of the males of their family.

That was very much the conventional wisdom of the time. And the legal position, too.

“Oh, don’t make yourself uneasy, Geoffrey! I promise you I am well-able to take care of myself.”
     “No female is able to take care of herself,” he said positively.
[Lady of Quality, Chapter 4]

How to deal with brothers (even the head of the family)

Tactic 1 : the doting sister

Faro's Daughter by Georgette HeyerOften, the older sister dotes on the brother and spoils him.

[Kit Grantham, in all the glory of his scarlet regimentals] had not been in London on leave for above a year, so that his aunt and sister were delighted to see him…. They hung about him in the fondest way, and found him all that a young officer should be.
[Faro’s Daughter Chapter 10]

But Mr Ravenscar knows better…

[Deb] sighed, but shook her head. “…the poor boy found himself in a sad quandary. He is a little spoilt.”
     “He wants kicking,” said Mr Ravenscar, “and he will get it if he comes serenading my sister.”
[Faro’s Daughter Chapter 12]

The doting sister will respond if the head of the family wants to be a Tulip of Fashion…

Regency Buck by Georgette HeyerThe next business was to get him into his new coat … Peregrine, panting slightly from his exertions, turned to his sister and proudly asked her how he looked.
     There was a laugh in her eye, but she assured him he was quite the thing. In any other man she would have ruthlessly condemned so absurdly waisted a coat, so monstrous a cravat, such skin-tight pantaloons, but Peregrine was very much her darling, and must be allowed to dress himself up in any dandified way he pleased.
[Regency Buck chapter 5]

…or fancies himself in love…

“…Miss Fairford is the only one out. Her name,” said Peregrine rapturously, “is Harriet.”
     Miss Taverner knew her duty, and immediately replied: “What a pretty name, to be sure!”
[Chapter 7]

Even Frederica succumbs…

The Misses Merriville … were warmly welcoming the head of the family, exclaiming joyfully at his unexpected arrival in Upper Wimpole Street, hugging him, kissing him, thrusting him into the easiest chair in the drawing-room, procuring refreshment for him, and greeting his sudden appearance with all the fond delight to be expected of two loving sisters.
    Frederica by Georgette HeyerInevitably, it was Frederica who first came to earth, and who demanded to know what had brought him to London. Fortifying himself with a long drink from the tankard she had just handed him, he met her anxious gaze with an engaging grin, and said: “Oh, I’ve been rusticated! … Nothing to throw you into high fidgets, I promise you!”
     Her anxious mind relieved of its worst fears, she … asked him no further questions, knowing well that these would only set up his back.
[Frederica, Chapter 15]

Yes, even Frederica can spoil Harry, at least for a while, until she comes back to earth and reverts to being a managing sister.

Alverstoke is an unprejudiced judge…

Within ten minutes of making Harry’s acquaintance, [Alverstoke] had recognised … a pleasing boy, with frank, well-bred manners, whom it was impossible not to like; but one who lacked strength of character, and would always be amiably ready to let another shoulder his responsibilities.
[Frederica Chapter 15]

Yet Harry, being the eldest son, is head of the family and legal guardian to Charis. Even though Frederica is older, more responsible, less selfish and altogether a better candidate.

Tactic 2 : the managing sister

Another approach is to manage the brother in some way. Some sisters cajole and manipulate, knowing their brother’s likes and dislikes to a nicety.

“We arrange that Eustacie shall stay with me in London on a visit. … my brother, finding his cold to be no better, declares himself to be unable to risk the dangers of travel in this inclement weather. Which reminds me,” she added, rising from her chair, “that I had better go and inform Hugh that his cold is worse.”
     A little while later… she found Sir Tristram waiting in the coffee-room. He … said sardonically: “I trust you were able to convince your brother, ma’am?”
     “It was unnecessary,” she returned. “Nye had taken him up a bottle of Old Constantia. He thinks it would be foolhardy to brave the journey to London until he is perfectly recovered.”
     “I thought he held strong views on the subject of smuggled liquor?” remarked Sir Tristram.
     “He does,” replied Miss thane, not in the least abashed. “Very strong views.”
[The Talisman Ring, Chapter 6]

Or she can predict exactly what he will do…

Venetia by Georgette Heyer cover“I daresay [Conway] would be glad if I would rid Undershaw of Mrs Scorrier, and before he returns, but I doubt if I could… He must do it himself. He will, too, which is something I fancy she doesn’t yet suspect!” Venetia gave a little chuckle. “Of course he would never quarrel with her at Cambray, where she would have made a great noise, and put him to the blush, but he won’t care a button what noise she makes here! And I shouldn’t wonder at it if he makes Charlotte tell her to go, and goes off hunting all day while she does it!”
[Venetia Chapter 12]

…because Conway “dislikes to be made uncomfortable.” [Chapter 12]

Tactic 3 : the spiky sister

And some sisters lose all patience with their high-handed brother. Which they can just about get away with, if they are independently rich and strong-minded, too.

“Do you permit him to plague you?”
     “I can’t prevent him! I don’t permit him to dictate to me—which is why we are so frequently at outs! He is older than I am, you see, and nothing will ever disabuse his mind of his belief that I am a green and headstrong little sister whom it is his duty to guide, admonish, and protect! Which is, I acknowledge, very admirable, but as vexatious as it is misjudged, and seldom fails to send me up into the boughs!”
[Lady of Quality Chapter 9]

It is notable that even Annis is prepared to say that Geoffrey’s intentions are admirable. Even Annis, strong-minded as she is, accepts the convention that males are supposed to provide guidance and protection.

Tactic 4 : low cunning — prevention is better than cure for brothers

The Grand Sophy paperback cover

“Your brother! Good gracious, what were you about to let him grow into such a tyrant? Why, I would not permit even Sir Horace to become so dictatorial, which is a thing the best of men will do, if the females of their families are so foolish as to encourage them! It is not at all good for them, beside making them such dead bores!”
[The Grand Sophy Chapter 3]

Sophy, of course, has no brothers. But she has been practising on her father for years. Charles Rivenhall, the dictatorial brother Sophy is referring to above, tells her it would have been better if she’d had a brother.

“I don’t think so,” said Sophy, quite unruffled. “The little I have seen of brothers makes me glad that Sir Horace never burdened me with any.”
[Chapter 4]

Possibly she is right? At least in those times? And she resorts to some underhand tricks to ensure that Charles’s dictatorial instincts are foiled.

Brothers and proposals of marriage

Convention decreed that a would-be suitor should ask permission before making a proposal of marriage to his beloved. The suitor should ask permission of the head of the family—father or brother or other male relative. By and large, he did so, even when the lady in question was of full age.

The response might be complaisant…

Sir Hugh merely said: “Oh, so you’re back, are you?”
     “Yes,” said Shield, releasing Miss Thane. “Have I your permission to pay my addresses to your sister?”
     “Oh, certainly, my dear fellow, by all means! Not that it’s anything to do with me, you know. She’s her own mistress now.” …
[The Talisman Ring Chapter 14]

or hostile…

Signing the Register Edward Blair Leighton

Like him?” echoed Sir Geoffrey, in a stupefied voice. “I can tell you this, Amabel: nothing will ever prevail upon me to consent to such a marriage!”
     “But Geoffrey—!” she expostulated. “Your consent isn’t needed! Annis isn’t a minor! If she decides to marry Mr Carleton she will do so, and you will be obliged to accept him with a good grace—unless you wish to become estranged from her, which I am very sure you don’t.”
     He looked to be somewhat disconcerted, but said: “If she chooses to marry Carleton, she will have to bear the consequences. But I shall warn her most solemnly that they may be more disagreeable than she foresees!”
[Lady of Quality Chapter 14]Princess Charlotte's wedding, world-building

or threatening, like James Wendover’s…

“If Abby is so lost to propriety, to all sense of the duty she owes her family, as to marry Calverleigh, she will no longer be a sister of mine!”
     “That’s no way to dissuade me!” said Abby.
[Black Sheep, Chapter 15]

But the sisters make up their own minds.
(As did Princess Charlotte, shown right.)

However, even brothers can be unselfish…

Occasionally, the response of a brother is both thoughtful and considerate of others…

[Oliver] had listened to her sentimental outpourings in silence, disappointing her by saying quietly, when she had done: “Lavvy, you shouldn’t repeat what Fanny tells you.”
     “Oh, no! Only to you—and Mama, of course!”
     “Well, to Mama perhaps, but not to me. I let you do so only because I already knew, from Mama, that Fanny had formed an–an attachment which her aunt dislikes. And because I fancy you are much in sympathy with her.”
     “Yes, indeed I am!” she said earnestly. “It is the most affecting thing imaginable, for they fell in love the first time they met!” …
     “Listen, Lavvy!” he said. “The thing is that he hasn’t behaved as he ought! A man of honour don’t flummery a girl into meeting him upon the sly, and he don’t pop the question to her without asking leave of her guardian!”
     “Oh, Oliver, you are repeating what Mama says! How can you be so stuffy?”
     “I’ll tell you this, Lavvy: if Calverleigh had made you the object of his havey-cavey attentions I’d knock his teeth down his throat!”
     Startled, and rather impressed, she said: “Good gracious! Would you? Well!”
[Black Sheep Chapter 10]

Oliver, I would say, is a much more attractive brother than many in Heyer’s books. Lavinia is lucky to have him. It is a pity he never got to be one of Heyer’s heroes.

The characteristics of brothers (of the worst kind)

Sisters can be pretty clear-eyed when it comes to their brothers, even if said brother is the head of the family.

“Conway might have sold out when my father died, had he wished to! She must have known that!”
     Venetia sighed. “You’d think so, but from something she once said to me I very much fear that she believed he remained with the Army because he thought it to be his duty to do so.”
     “Conway? Even Clara Denny couldn’t believe that moonshine!”

Wellington at Waterloo     “I assure you she could. And you must own that anyone might who was not particularly acquainted with him, for besides believing it himself, and always being able to think of admirable reasons for doing precisely what suits him best, he looks noble!”
     He agreed to this, but said after a thoughtful moment: “Do I do that, m’dear?”
    “No, love,” she replied cheerfully, opening the standish. “You merely do what suits you best, without troubling to look for a virtuous reason. That’s because you’re odiously conceited, and don’t care a button for what anyone thinks of you. Conway does.”
     “Well, I’d a deal rather be conceited than a hypocrite,” said Aubrey.
[Venetia, Chapter 11]

In Venetia’s case (above), the reader gets two self-centred brothers for the price of one.

Georgette HeyerAnd Heyer makes us laugh at them…

Georgette Heyer can give us a ridiculous brother in a few words…

skin tight pantaloons of 1817Breakfast, upon the following morning, was enlivened  by the appearance of Peregrine, who had driven back from Worthing so early on purpose to wish his sister many happy returns of her birthday. He thought himself a very good brother to have remembered the event, and would have bought her a present if Harriet had put him in mind of the date sooner. However, they would go out together after breakfast, and she could choose her own present, which would be a much better thing, after all.
[Regency Buck Chapter 23]

“I cannot think what can possess her to refuse such an eligible offer!” exclaimed Mr Grantham. “Particularly now, when it would mean everything to me to have my  sister in a position of consequence! … It would be above anything great if Deb were to become Lady Mablethorpe! Only think what a difference it would make to me!”
[Faro’s DaughterChapter 10]

Personally, I think Max Ravenscar was in the right. They all want kicking!
(Apart from Oliver, who deserves a heroine of his own, don’t you think?)

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna, confirmed Heyer fan

20 thoughts on “Georgette Heyer: the problem of brothers (for sisters)

  1. Sophie

    Yes, of course they want kicking! But the affection for some of them is very real, despite their pomposities and other failings. I love the Merrivilles fussing round Harry, It is a very sweet scene of a happy bunch of siblings at a really good moment.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree, Louise. Reading it again for this blog made me appreciate her (and Sir Hugh) all over again.

  2. Elizabeth Rolls

    I loved Oliver, but you’re right. Very few of Heyer’s brothers are altogether admirable. I suppose part of the reason is that the brothers are often used, in their masters-of-the-universe personae, to create conflict for their sister, the heroine.

    1. Joanna Post author

      That’s true of brothers + sisters, Elizabeth, but actually there are some admirable brothers + brothers. Think of Regency Buck with Worth and Captain Audley for example. They’re better when they’re not having to “protect weakling sisters” I reckon

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Loved this. Memory lane. There are also the idiot brothers who are used for comic effect – Pelham and Dysart for example. They too display the attitude of male superiority, despite their sisters being a deal more clever and sensible.
    I do think the sibling familiarity and affection is well done though, even with brothers when they aren’t absolute horrors or bores.

  4. Sophie

    I think that idiot brothers Pelham and Dysart are not yet hopeless. Dysart in particular is quite shocked by what Nell thought he’d done and was willing to overlook. And Cardoss says “I like your brother more than my sister,” so there is hope for an altogether more intelligent, stable mentor for Dysart in the future.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’ll have to go back and reread. Neither Pelham nor Dysart were males that immediately sprang to mind when I was working on this blog.

  5. avm1966

    The brother and sister are rather more evenly matched in the Masqueraders but Robin still thinks it is OK to go off and do his own thing whilst Patience sticks to the ‘story’! There is a general feeling about brothers running through Georgette Heyer that ‘boys will be boys’ whatever their age. But thank heavens the sisters are there to keep the ship afloat, however restricted their lives are 🙂

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for this and welcome to Libertà. I didn’t use Robin and Prudence in my blog because it’s very much a Georgian story. Also because, as you say, the pair are pretty evenly matched. I do so agree about the running theme of “boys will be boys” and, what’s more, that it’s OK because that’s how life works. To a large extent, it probably did and Heyer is only reflecting the mores of the time. But still, it did need the more sensible and responsible females to pick up the pieces.

      I also have a problem with how Prudence is portrayed in the story. Although, as Peter, she does all the male things like riding astride for hours, fighting, drinking and so on, Heyer often stresses that she’s too physically weak to succeed at those things. I’d have thought that if, for example, she’d spent hours riding astride, she would be pretty strong given how much riding strengthens the core and leg muscles. Similarly Prue’s fencing. I got the impression Heyer felt it incumbent on her to stress that females are the weaker sex. Or maybe she actually believed it? I’m reminded that it was published in 1928 when that would have been the received wisdom so maybe she had an excuse.

  6. Rachel Summerson

    A lot of interesting stuff here, Joanna, and I’m delighted to continue the conversation, as it were. I confess that my heart sinks whenever I read Mrs Tallant’s thoughts on the position of girls. ‘She (Mrs Tallant).naturally concurred in his (Mr Tallant’s) decision that whatever became of their daughters their sons at least must receive every advantage of education.’

    That’s all very well, if the said sons are taught that it will be their job to see that their sisters are not left in poverty, if they don’t get married. But as your blog shows, all too often, brothers in Heyer’s books are so used to putting their own wishes first, it’s most unlikely that they will bestir themselves in the matter at all.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’d forgotten about Arabella and of course you are absolutely right. It was very much the accepted wisdom. Most females would have been educated by governesses who probably couldn’t teach much beyond French and the use of globes 😉 Most of the males in Heyer’s books went to Eton or Harrow and then Oxford or Cambridge. Lots of them didn’t make much of those opportunities (boasting of not being “bookish”) but I imagine some of their sisters must have longed for such a chance.

      I suppose we should be glad that we do have the chance of an education nowadays, eh?

      1. Rachel Summerson

        Absolutely, Joanna. Going first to the Sorbonne and then to University changed my life! It’s interesting that, as you say, quite a lot of the men seem to pride themselves on not being ‘bookish’, but a number of the heroines, like Venetia, seem to relish the label.

        1. Joanna Post author

          Yes, and Damerel was “bookish” too, in spite of being a rake. That’s an interesting combination for a hero, I think. Venetia, stuck at Undershaw, had little choice but to immerse herself in literature as an escape for her very bright and enquiring mind. Clearly no one thought for a moment that she, a weak female, could possibly immerse herself in Greek and the like. “Warm stories” like Medea

Comments are closed.