Heyer’s children : too young, too old, just right?

Eton_Schoolboys,_in_ad_Montem_dress,_by_Francis_AlleyneRecently, I’ve been indulging in comfort reading. And my comfort reading tends to be Georgette Heyer. I have all her historical novels in a long line on top of my bookcase. And this time, the ones I read were SylvesterFrederica, and Venetia. I noticed that they have something interesting in common, apart from being brilliant novels—they all feature children as main (rather than walk-on) characters. Heyer’s children here are Edmund (in Sylvester), Jessamy and Felix (in Frederica) and Aubrey (In Venetia).

The other thing I noticed was that, in these three books, Heyer’s children didn’t always seem—to me—to fit the ages that Heyer had assigned to them. Let me explain what I mean. (The texts in blue are direct quotes from the three books and—sorry—they do make this blog rather long.)

Exhibit #1 from Sylvester : Edmund, 6 going on 4?

Sylvester by Georgette HeyerEdmund is one of the most memorable of Heyer’s children in all her books. He looks like an angel, with golden curls and big blue eyes. He is both a little menace and totally captivating. Here he is as they travel across France in the party led by Sir Nugent Fotherby, his mother’s new husband:

“I want to go home!” announced Edmund fretfully. “I want my Button!  I’m not happy!”

Is that a six-year-old? Even after a horrid journey, does a lad of six sound quite so babyish?

And when Sylvester catches up with the party:

Edmund succeeded in opening the door, still shrieking Uncle Vester! at the top of his voice, just as Sylvester reached the coffee-room. He was halted on the threshold by having his legs embraced, and said, as he bent to detach himself from his nephew’s frenzied grip: “Well, you noisy brat?”
    “Uncle Vester, Uncle Vester!” cried Edmund.
    Sylvester Georgette Heyer 1958 coverSylvester laughed, and swung him up. “Edmund, Edmund!” he mocked. “No, don’t strangle me! Oh, you rough nephew!”

Leg-embracing seems to me to be the behaviour of a toddler. As does difficulty in opening a door. And being swung up by his uncle? That’s what you do to a very small child, isn’t it? But a sturdy boy of 6?

At that period, I am reminded, children as young as 4 worked in factories and coal mines. But Edmund cannot even wash or dress himself. Tom warns Sylvester that he’ll have to do it, several times a day, if he takes Edmund home without Phoebe to look after the child.

And yet…

After the incident with Fotherby’s precious Hessians, Edmund comes back to own up and apologise. When he then produces the missing tassels, Fotherby, infuriated, starts up menacingly. And Edmund stands his ground. Maybe he is 6 after all?

My final exhibit is this beautifully observed scene which still makes me laugh:

[As they dined in the coffee-room, an enormously fat French woman was so ravished by Edmund’s beauty that] she not only complimented Phoebe on his seraphic countenance but was unable to resist the temptation of swooping down upon him and planting a smacking kiss on his cheek. “Petit chou!” she said, beaming at him.
portrait of beautiful happy blonde boy with curly hair   “Salaude!” returned Edmund indignantly.
   For this he was instantly condemned to silence, but when Sylvester, after explaining to the shocked lady that Edmund had picked the word up without an idea of its meaning, …sat down again and directed a look at his erring nephew that boded no good to him, Phoebe took up the cudgels in Edmund’s defence, saying: “It is unjust to scold him! He doesn’t know what it means! He must have heard someone say it at the Poisson Rouge, when he was in the kitchen!”
   “Madame says it to Elise,” said Edmund enigmatically.
   “Well, it isn’t a very civil thing to say, my dear,” Phoebe told him, in gentle reproof.
   “I didn’t think it was,” said Edmund, in a satisfied voice.

Calculating, quick-witted, vengeful? Four? or six going on sixteen?

Exhibit #2 from Frederica : Jessamy, 16; Felix, 12 going on 8?

Early cover of Frederica by Georgette HeyerFrederica has three brothers and a sister. The eldest is feckless Harry, rusticated from Oxford and nominally guardian to his younger siblings, including the divine Charis.

Jessamy at 16 is destined for the Church and alternates between adolescent escapades and failed saintliness.
Fearless Felix, aged 12, is fascinated by science and engineering and pursues his thirst for knowledge with focused determination.

Choirboy late 19th centuryJessamy, in spite of being on the cusp of manhood, shows no signs of interest in the opposite sex. That could be justified. There is a theory that the age of puberty, for both boys and girls, is now much lower than it used to be. Evidence for the theory about male puberty is said to be the fact that choirboys’ voices now break at a much younger age than in previous centuries.

Bach wrote music to be performed by boy sopranos in their mid- to late-teens. These days, male trebles are unlikely to be more than thirteen.

And Felix?

Two children playing in mudFelix, aged 12, romps all over London, alone, investigating matters of science and engineering. That isn’t perhaps so surprising. In previous generations, children as young as 4 were allowed “out to play” without supervision. Mothers were rarely aware of where they were going or who with. If they were home in time for tea, that was fine.

Parents rarely found out about their children’s hair-raising escapades. What about dropping off a tree onto a sow’s back to see how far you could ride her? Or diving into a river with your ankles tied together (to improve the profile of the dive)? Or climbing over slag heaps and through pits full of murky water on a bomb site? Younger readers may be horrified but these all happened in my lifetime and seemed perfectly normal to the kids concerned (of whom I was one).

But are these extracts about a 12-year-old, or someone much younger?

[Jessamy says they need no refreshment.]
 “Yes, we do!” objected Felix. He directed his seraphic gaze, strongly suggestive of a boy suffering from starvation, upon Wicken, and said politely: “If you please!”
   “Felix!” exploded Jessamy.
  Raspberry sponge cake with lemonadeBut Wicken, not more hardened than his master against the wiles of schoolboys, visibly unbent, saying benevolently: “To be sure you do, sir! Now, you go into the book-room, like a good boy, and you shall have some cakes and lemonade! But mind now!—you mustn’t tease his lordship!”
   “Oh, no!” responded Felix soulfully. “And then will you take me to that foundry, Cousin Alverstoke?”

[and when they—inevitably—have visited the foundry and returned to Alverstoke’s house]
   “J-Jessamy said you didn’t w-want to come, but you did, sir, d-didn’t you?”
   “To be sure I did!” replied the Marquis, perjuring his soul without hesitation.
   “And even if you didn’t, you m-must have been interested!” said Felix, with a brilliant smile.

And then there’s the balloon:

Hot Air balloons cartoon

   “Cut line, Felix!” commanded Alverstoke. “If it isn’t a scrape, what is it?”
   “Well—well, it’s a balloon, Cousin Alverstoke!” disclosed Felix, taking his fence in a rush.
…His lordship merely said, in the voice of one inured to misfortune: “Is it indeed? And what have I—or you, for that matter!—to do with balloons?”

   “But, sir—!” said Felix, deeply shocked. “You must know that there is to be an ascension from Hyde Park, on Thursday!”
  Frederica by Georgette Heyer “I didn’t, however. And let me tell you, here and now, that I have no interest in balloons! So, if you are going to ask me to take you to see this ascension, my answer is NO! You can very well go to Hyde Park without my escort.”
   “Yes, but the thing is, I can’t!” said Felix. Suddenly assuming the demeanour of an orphan cast penniless upon the world, he raised melting blue eyes to his lordship’s face, and said beseechingly: “Oh, Cousin Alverstoke, do, pray, go with me! You must! It’s—it’s obligatory!” he produced urgently.

… “…Frederica said, afterwards, that she utterly forbade me to plague you to take me. But I am not plaguing you: I am just asking you, sir! She says you don’t wish to see a balloon ascension, but I think it would be a treat for you!”

And, of course, Alverstoke is persuaded to take Felix, which leads to other things…
But Felix sounds to me like a wheedling 8-year-old. What do you think?

Exhibit #3 from Venetia : Aubrey, 16 going on 60?

Venetia by Georgette HeyerVenetia comes from a family of thoroughly self-centred and selfish men. There may be another blog in that, one of these days 😉 (And Frederica’s Harry would be in it, too!)

Venetia’s late father was an obstinate recluse. His heir, Sir Conway, has left Venetia to run his estate while he continues to serve in the army, even years after Waterloo. He is a splendidly robust young sportsman to whom the writing of a letter [is] an intolerable labour.

Aubrey, at barely 16, has a brilliant mind and a very caustic tongue. His passion is the study of classical Greek and he pays attention to little else, including his sister, who carries all the responsibilities for running the household.

[Aubrey] was a thin boy, rather undersized… [He] had not long entered on his seventeenth year, but physical suffering had dug lines in his face, and association with none but his seniors, coupled with an intellect at once scholarly and powerful, had made him precocious… [He] walked…with a pronounced and ugly limp… Such sports as his brother delighted in were denied him, but he was a gallant rider, and a fair shot, and only he knew, and Venetia guessed, how bitterly he loathed his infirmity.

Boy genius…

Boy genius in front of blackboard, annotated "Greek is the answer. What's the question?"Aubrey seems to be a boy genius.
Is a genius always so focused on himself and his own interests?

The humorous gleam sprang to her eyes as she glanced at Aubrey, still lost in antiquity. She said: “Aubrey! Dear, odious Aubrey! Do lend me your ears! Just one of your ears, love!”
   He looked up, an answering gleam in his own eyes. “Not if it is something I particularly dislike!”
   “No, I promise you it isn’t!” she replied, laughing. “Only, if you mean to ride out presently will you be so very obliging as to call at the Receiving Office, and enquire if there has been a parcel delivered there for me from York? Quite a small parcel, dear Aubrey! not in the least unwieldy, upon my honour!”
   “Yes, I’ll do that—if it’s not fish! If it is, you may send Puxton for it, m’dear.”
   “No, it’s muslin—unexceptionable!”

…with a very nasty tongue

Fist from mouth to knock down brick wallWhat’s more, Aubrey takes a perverse pleasure in warring against his sister-in-law and her odious mother, even though his sarcastic jibes can only make real trouble for Venetia.
Jibes like this:

   [Mrs Scorrier] flashed a particularly wide smile at Venetia, and added: “It is the fate of sisters, is it not, to be obliged to take second place when their brothers marry?”
   “Undoubtedly, ma’am.”
   “Doing it rather too brown, m’dear!” said Aubrey, a glint in his eye. “You’ll still be first in consequence at Undershaw if you eat your dinner in the kitchen, and well you know it!”

I could add lots more, but this blog is long enough already! I’m sure you’ll have your own examples if you love Venetia as much as I do.

Finally, Aubrey is a boy genius, maybe, but continually addressing his much older sister as m’dear?
Not even an adolescent.
Sixteen going on 60, I’d say.

How do you read Heyer’s children? What ages do they seem to you?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


26 thoughts on “Heyer’s children : too young, too old, just right?

  1. Michelle H

    Oh, now I’m going to have to go and reread all my Heyer favorites or I’ll be miserable. And Frederica and Venetia share top billing with a few others.

    Some very good questions and observations, Joanna. One of my thoughts was that, like other authors, her characters are placed there in the plot for the sake of the plot. After reading and rereading certain favorite books, I’m still asking ‘Why did she do that? Why didn’t that character keep that little bit of information to himself? Why doesn’t this character or that character stand up for themselves?’ But then I try taking that little bit of plot device out of the picture and the whole house of cards falls down.

    In Frederica, the boys play their parts and in fact the whole family invades Alverstoke’s life. But without the boys keeping Alverstoke involved and observant he could have gone back to his old life very easily. That’s not what we want! 😀

    With Venetia, I think that passage about Aubrey means that he wasn’t yet seventeen when he was struck with the disease that left long lasting damage to his hip. By the time we are introduced to Venetia and her brother it had been several years since his illness and he’s been staying home to study ever since. He is a genius and had been devoting himself to scholarship before that event. But he balks at being treated like a cripple, hates it. Venetia and Aubrey have been living on their own since their father’s death. They’ve reached the comfortable banter between siblings having to deal with their unique problems, the too quiet country life, neither able to do what they wish they could. Yes, Aubrey acts like someone younger because he’s been coddled and overprotected even though he resents it. So when Conway’s wife and mother-in-law show up and are grasping and rude and demanding as they are, his backhanded compliment to his sister is a joke only the two of them get. Oh stop me!! I could go on and…….

    I’m really looking forward to that next post of your observations of Heyer’s works. I hope you are enjoying a lovely Spring. And I hope you and yours are safe and healthy.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I didn’t expect such detailed replies, Michelle, thank you. I absolutely agree that all of these child characters are necessary to Heyer’s plots. None of the books would work nearly so well without them. I’ve often thought, with Sylvester, that Heyer could have finished the book without taking her characters on the French expedition. She could have found a way of reconciling Sylvester and Phoebe in London after the disaster at the ball. The French expedition is almost a whole new story in itself. Not that I’m complaining, you understand. It’s brilliant invention and the imp Edmund is central to it.

      I do love the boys in Frederica (though, as I said, I am not a fan of Harry, but that’s for another post). I think Felix steals the show, being the 12-going-on-8 year-old imp he is, but I’ve also got a very soft spot for Jessamy and his adolescent swings from almost grown-up to childish. I’m sure we can all sympathise with adolescent mood swings. Heyer contrasts the two boys brilliantly and the relationship between them is very well drawn.

      Your comments about Aubrey’s age made me stop and think; and then go back to the book to check whether you were right. When Venetia meets her mother, towards the end of the book, Lady Steeple complains that Aubrey was a fretful baby and Venetia replies that it could have been because of his hip. That suggests to me that Aubrey was born with his hip disease. Also he could not go to Eton because of it, and boys went to Eton at about 12 or 13. If the disease didn’t strike till 16, why wouldn’t he have gone to Eton, at least till he became ill? Venetia is 25 and the oldest child. Aubrey is the youngest. And Heyer says Conway is 6 years older than Aubrey. So the oldest Aubrey could be is about 18. Personally, I do think he’s just 16 and precocious with it. He’d needed a better tutor at 14 and at the start of the book he was “entered already at Trinity College” which suggests to me that he is going to university at a younger age than normal. Feel free to disagree though 😉

      You’re right, of course, about the banter between them. It’s what they do when Aubrey can be persuaded to take his nose out of his books. They enjoy it. But I do think the quote I used was meant as a malicious dig against the awful Mrs Scorrier, because as Heyer puts in, a few paragraphs before, Aubrey “had decided for war”. It is a delightful war from the reader’s point of view. What Aubrey says to Mrs Scorrier is what we want someone to say. And Venetia is too well-mannered to do it. Mrs Scorrier must have been a delight to write. I can imagine Heyer grinning as she made the woman worse and worse, can’t you?

      1. Michelle H

        Well, I’m in your camp now. I went back and reread that passage even before I read your reply because it was bugging me. Oh yes, it was a malicious dig at the awful Mrs Scorrier but SHE might have taken it as Aubrey agreeing with her. Unless she sat around replaying that conversation later and recognized it was the dig that it was at her. I have forgotten the passage in its entirety and whether or not she was intelligent enough for that. I just remember she was a nightmare.

  2. Lesley Cookman

    I hope this comment appears, Joanna – my last one on Flying into the Mist didn’t, and I tried twice!

    What a lovely blog! I always rather loathed Edmund, although I loved the “Salaude” comment, and he does, indeed seem a lot younger than six. Felix, however, I have a soft spot for, and his name is forever linked in my mind with the Balloon. But yes, much younger than twelve. As for Aubrey, the “m’dear” always grated, and I think I I turned him into a nineteen year old in my head, although, as with the others, there are anomalies in his behaviour. I wonder if they were based on GH’s own experience?

    Much food for thought, here.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’ve wondered about GH’s experience with children, too, Lesley. I haven’t read her biographies so I don’t know if her children were brought up by nannies. If so, it might account for some of the anomalies in her child characters’ behaviour. Or maybe she just used the behaviour she wanted for her plot and didn’t bother that it was anomalous for their ages?

      I think, on reflection, that Aubrey’s “m’dear” is meant to grate. I think it’s meant to convey the 16-going-on-60 part of Aubrey’s character. It’s a clever way of doing it, too, because the reader can’t help but notice.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Really interesting post. I had not thought about this and merely accepted the children as they were portrayed. Looking at the examples you’ve picked up, I would agree about Edmund being a tad too young for his age. Children were expected to be “little adults” at the time, and so no doubt matured earlier than we would expect now. On the other hand, might we excuse Edmund on the score of having been babied and pampered by Button and his mother?
    I don’t find Felix out of age character. I think he’s drawn pretty well for 12, especially given his exuberant attitude to life. Jessamy strikes me as being typical adolescent, half man, half child. But at 16, boys would be in the Army if destined for that life.
    Aubrey is explained as being precocious and he doesn’t seem out of place for his age to me. I have a nephew who was like that at the age of 2! Admittedly, we didn’t know what he was talking about, but he was extremely serious and earnest, mansplaining things to us. I think the m’dear is designed to demonstrate his old young man persona.
    I wonder if Heyer was relating age as she experienced it in her own time. I know I find it really hard to establish small children’s ages in books. Thankfully, I have so many nephews and a couple of nieces and was able to go by their abilities at a given age. I do think, though, that children are very different. I don’t think there is a typical type of behaviour for a particular age – except when kids are with their peers and group pressure prevails. They might be quite different at home.
    It’s a tricky area. Enid Blyton children are vastly different from children now. On the whole, I think the historical context allows Heyer to get away with these slight anomalies.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I love the image of your nephew, at 2, mansplaining stuff to you, Liz. Made me laugh. And, as I said in reply to Lesley, I agree that “m’dear” is deliberate for Aubrey. It’s a very clever verbal trick, too. Aubrey is definitely an “old young man” as you say.

      You’re right that Heyer gets away with any anomalies here. I’m still a great fan of all three books. But I have to find something to blog about, and when I’m at a loss for a topic, why not nitpick in Heyer???

      1. Elizabeth Bailey

        My mansplaining nephew hasn’t changed much! Admittedly he’s a geriatric consultant, and that may be why he’s now a lot kinder in his approach.
        Absolutely with you on nitpicking Heyer. I love discussing her books and this sort of examination is right on my radar.

  4. Liz Fielding

    Such an entertaining post, Joanna. I have a six year old grandson and agree it would take a well set up man to swing him up in the air! He does still like a cuddle though and he relishes being the youngest — totally horrified when his sisters suggested to their mother that it was time for another baby. (Not as horrified as his mother!)

  5. Philippa Carey

    Every time I read your comments about GH I have to go and read the books yet again and with fresh eyes. However, in this case, Felix reminds me of 1964 when I was running around Paris in the middle of the night aged only 13…

  6. =Tamar

    They are all believable to me. Kids vary a lot, and today’s kids are hemmed in to a degree that would have been considered harmful when I grew up.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I do agree about today’s kids. What I was allowed to do, today’s kids wouldn’t. But I still don’t believe the ages of some of Heyer’s kids. Thanks for dropping by.

  7. Sophie

    Very interesting post. Have to admit that I never boggled over the ages of any of these chaps.

    I have observed that children behave in very different ways depending on what they’re faced with and whether or not their parents are around. Edmund, in particular, is clearly much less constrainedand, to some extent growing up, when away from his mother who wants him as part doll, part supporting act, both of which induce different and equally irritating sorts of behaviour in Edmund. But then, when faced with the terrors of a return sea crossing and the prospect of disappointing Uncle ‘Vester, he turns up trumps and stomps aboard the vessel.

    As for tossing a six year old up in the air – I had a friend who damn nearly did that to me, aged 30. Most disconcerting. Some men are stronger than you expect.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Interesting points, Sophie, thank you. Also for the image of you, aged 30, being tossed in the air. Made me grin

  8. Antonia Custance Baker

    I think they are all totally believable – from my little ones and nieces and nephews they are capable of jumping up and down the maturity level at a moments notice. Felix is not unlike Just William in many respects, and freedom opportunities aside it matches what I’ve seen from modern 12 year olds. They can mimic conversation styles of grownups and when they are passionately interested in something – hot air balloons or pokemon cards they can talk in a fluent and grown up style but can also still enjoy imaginative play, can be very innocent/ignorant about large swathes of the world, and view themselves as children compared to adults which are very much a separate species.

    I’ve known six year olds (particularly after a long journey, or feeling unwell) who can have tantrums and need coddling and kisses, but also can cuss like sailors (lockdown has been hard), lecture on recycling or can spend a whole afternoon playing by unsupervised. And being swung by ankles is an important part of life right up to a 10 years depending on the weight of the child.

    For Aubrey – yep precocious adolescent – very little experience of boys his own age whose main companion is an elderly cleric – rings true – his speech is sophisticated, his emotions are selfish and immature.

    1. Sophie

      Ah well, that’s the voice of recent experience, Antonia. Hats off to your observational skills and training from the smalls. Completely agree with you about Aubrey.

      He’s actually my second candidate were I ever to write GH fan-fiction. Aubrey, 10 years on, planning to absorb himself in a university career and then falling in love with a woman and having to choose between career and love. (Would have to check but I’m pretty certain that senior members of college still had to remain unmarried at that time.)

      STOP PRESS Yes, fellows of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges had to remain celibate for another couple of generations. Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act of 1877 required that for fellowships the requirements of celibacy, Anglicanism and previous membership of the University should disappear. (Individual colleges adjusted, of course. Queens College Cambridge changed their statutes “to meet the dangers of widespread matrimony it was provided that at least two College officers should reside in College during term. A fellowship was to lapse after six years, unless held in conjunction with a College administrative or teaching office or a professorship. Thereafter the society normally elected to fellowships only men prepared to take part in the educational work of the College.” Source https://www.queens.cam.ac.uk/visiting-the-college/history/college-facts/statutes

      1. Joanna Post author

        I was aware of the requirement for fellows to be unmarried, Sophie, but I do wonder about celibate. That may have been what the colleges intended but who says it actually happened? Interesting, though, that the formal requirement was for fellows to be “celibate” rather than “unmarried”.

        1. Sophie

          I’m pretty sure that, as with a celibate priesthood in the church (from which of course the requirement stemmed) the objective was to make sure there were no wives and, more important, children to make a financial claim on the college. Informal arrangements probably went in and out of fashion and some colleges would have been more tolerant than others. Not really surprising that it was the Victorians who knocked that one on the head, I suppose.

          1. Joanna Post author

            You’re right about the celibate priesthood. The Church back in the middle ages definitely didn’t want any priestly children having financial claims. Didn’t get them out of “nephews” though, did it? I seem to recall Popes having “nephews” who did all right out of the church. The Borgias? And of course there was Lucrezia as well. A “niece”?

    2. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Antonia. I intended my blog to provoke discussion and it certainly has. I think we probably all have different views on kids, depending on our own experiences of them. And they are all different, aren’t they?

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