RogerBW's Blog

The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer 20 February 2022

1936 romance. Sylvester Lavenham is dying, and is determined to protect his niece Eustacie (young and excitable) by betrothing her to his nephew Sir Tristram Shield (rather older, stolid, but willing to do his duty). Naturally, she must run away to London to become a governess. But she wasn't expecting smugglers…

In this chronological re-read (skipping, to be fair, the books that interest me less), this feels like the one in which Heyer has Got It. And the way in which she has Got It is to split her characters: she allows into the story both the enthusiasm of the young and the feeling of exasperation which a mature adult feels at those young passions, at the sense that everything must be done right now and if that means a bit of murdering well so be it.

Because there are two couples here: Eustacie and the True Heir, Ludovic Lavenham, who fled to France after having been accused of murdering a man to get back a ring he'd unwisely pledged at cards and is now a Suspiciously Superior Smuggler; and Sir Tristram and Miss Sarah Thane, travelling with her brother. The Thanes have fetched up at the Red Lion, the coaching-inn nearest to Lavenham Court, and when Ludovic (wounded by an Exciseman) and Eustacie arrive there in the middle of the night, Sarah naturally gets involved and becomes Eustacie's friend and companion.

It's Sarah who's the masterpiece in this book, I think. She immediately sees Eustacie's inexperience and plays up to her love of the idea of Adventure to stay in her good graces, while trying to steer her away from the perils that she would otherwise wander blithely into – and commenting in a dead-pan way, which goes entirely past Eustacie but not the reader, on how splendid it is to be thrown into discomfort and danger.

Eustacie gave a gasp. ‘Oh, Sarah, you do not think he will come to murder Ludovic, do you?'

‘I shouldn't be at all surprised,' said Miss Thane. ‘And I am occupying the back bedchamber! I just mention it, you know.'

‘So you are!' Eustacie's face cleared. ‘But it is of all things the most fortunate! It could not be better, enfin!'

‘That,' said Miss Thane, with strong feeling, ‘is a matter of opinion. I can see where it could be much better.'

‘But no, Sarah! If Basil comes to murder Ludovic in the night he will find not Ludovic, but you!'

‘Yes, that was what I was thinking,' said Miss Thane.

‘Well, but it would be a good thing, Sarah!'

‘A good thing for whom?' demanded Miss Thane with asperity.

‘For Ludovic, of course! You do not mind doing just that little thing to help, do you? You said that you wanted to have an adventure!

It's the sparring between Sarah and Sir Tristram which gives the book its spine, while the children are coming up with ever more impractical plans for locating the ring that's the key bit of evidence to make everything right again.

He stared at her in the blankest surprise. ‘Wishful to become a governess? Nonsense! Why should she wish anything of the kind?'

‘Just for the sake of adventure,' said Miss Thane.

‘I have yet to learn that a governess's life is adventurous!' he said. ‘I should be grateful to you if you would tell me the truth!'

‘Come, come, sir!' said Miss Thane pityingly, ‘it must surely be within your knowledge that the eldest son of the house always falls in love with the governess, and elopes with her in the teeth of all opposition?'

There are secret panels and knives in the night and comic-relief Bow Street Runners; there's also a sense of staginess which recurs in Heyer, making repeated use of the same few locations. But there's mostly a sense of fun here which was sometimes suppressed in the earlier books; Eustacie could easily be Léonie from These Old Shades, but this time we're not expected to cheer for her and put up with her flights of fancy, and so perversely she becomes a more interesting person with whom to spend time. For me, definitely in the first rank of Heyer's works.

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