Recently, 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 Sylvester, Frederica, 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?
Edmund 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 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.
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.
“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?
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.
Jessamy, 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.
Felix, 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.
But 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:
“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!”
“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’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.
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
[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?”
“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.
How do you read Heyer’s children? What ages do they seem to you?