There is a school of thought which sees The Quiet Gentleman as a sort of unsatisfactory Sense and Sensibility, with Marianne Bolderwood as a more thinly drawn Marianne Dashwood, and Drusilla as a pale variation of the sensible Elinor Dashwood. One critic complained that the hero Gervase Frant, Earl of St Erth’s courtship of Drusilla Morville is almost non-existent.
I don’t agree. I have always enjoyed the subtle steps by which Georgette Heyer indicates Gervase’s growing interest in Drusilla. To appreciate this, you need to attune your ear to the ironic – and irony is something Heyer does supremely well. Drusilla is not your usual Regency heroine. She is not particularly pretty, she employs no arts to attract, and her conversation is prosaic. We know that; ‘the Earl thought her dull.’
The Quiet Gentleman, original cover, courtesy of Wikipedia
However, he does notice that ‘she was dressed with propriety and even a certain quiet elegance’ and that, ‘Her countenance was pleasing without being beautiful, her best feature being a pair of dark eyes, well-opened and straight-gazing.’
Their relationship consists of a series of small encounters, each adding to Gervase’s knowledge of her character and his gradual discovery of the qualities he needs in a wife. Their first conversation is not propitious. Drusilla says that she has been looking for him and the Earl’s response is decidedly cool. He raises his brows and says, ‘In what way may I serve you, Miss Morville?’
It is meant as a put down but Drusilla is not fazed. She replies that she is only concerned to serve the Dowager, and adds that she can see that he thinks she is guilty of presumption.
She has wrong-footed him and the earl reddens. It is the only time in the book where Gervase is put out of countenance; somehow she has got to him. When she adds, ‘I should have explained that I have no very great opinion of Earls’, her father is a Philosophical Historian writing a History of the French Revolution from a Republican point of view, we can see that his interest is caught.
She tells him about her background (her parents are intellectuals with advanced notions of women’s rights) and he is amused. She then persuades him to allow the huge epergne on the dining table, which Gervase had ordered to be put away in a dark cupboard, to be displayed on a Buhl table in the window embrasure instead. As the Earl ruefully says later to his cousin, ‘I have let the wretched chit talk me into permitting the continuing existence of that abominable epergne in my dining-room!’
Somehow, Drusilla has negotiated a domestic compromise, stood up for herself, and amused him with her down to earth remarks. He learns that she is well-used to society (she stays with her Morville relations for the Season) and, later, his step-mother remarks that, ‘the Morvilles must be supposed to rank amongst those of the best blood in the country’ in spite of their shocking Republican views. In other words, (though this is far from his thoughts at the moment) marrying Drusilla would not be a misalliance.
Alert readers will notice the care with which Georgette Heyer lays her ground; Gervase is not yet interested in Drusilla but he no longer thinks she’s negligible.
Later, he discovers that it is largely Drusilla who has organized the ball. She tells him that she enjoys it and she’s obviously good at it. We realize that Heyer has given her another tick; Drusilla would make a good chatelaine.
Heyer allows Drusilla to be seen at her best at the ball wearing a gown in soft pink under a figured-lace robe which suits her (and it’s obviously not cheap). She has diamond drops in her ears, holds an antique fan and wears ‘a pair of very long French gloves of a delicate shade of pink which instantly awoke Marianne’s envy.’ She is, clearly, no dowd.
When Gervase, being polite, asks Drusilla to dance the waltz, ‘she surprised him by proving herself to be an experience dancer, very light on her feet…’ He asks her for another dance and makes it clear that this is what he wants; ‘I consider myself now at liberty to please myself.’ Dancing involves physical contact and subconsciously the Earl surely notes that their steps match.
There is a significant moment about half-way through the book when Gervase’s horse throws him and Drusilla discovers that someone pulled a rope stretched across the path to bring him down. They discuss the implications and what line they should take. Gervase says, ‘I have a great dependence on your discretion, Miss Morville. We shall say, if you please, that I was so heedless as to let Cloud set his foot in a rabbit hole.’
Note that significant ‘we’. A few moments later, Gervase, Drusilla, and his friend Lord Ulverston are in a curricle driving back to the castle. Gervase puts his arm along the back of the curricle to give Drusilla a bit more room. I don’t know what you think, but I can’t help thinking that Drusilla would have felt Gervase’s arm behind her, even though it wasn’t touching her; and he would have been fully conscious of what he was doing.
I love Drusilla’s prosaic remarks; they make me laugh. It’s obvious to the reader (though not to Drusilla) that Gervase enjoys them, too. One of my favourites is her comment about the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘Mama has always maintained that most of the trouble arose from Miss Wollstonecraft’s determination to make him (her lover, Gilbert Imlay) an elm tree round which she might throw her tendrils. Very few gentlemen could, I believe, support for long so arduous a role.’
The Earl says, ‘I find myself, as always, in entire agreement with you, Miss Morville,’ he said, gravely.’ And we cannot doubt the irony here, the word ‘gravely’ gives it away; he obviously enjoys it as much as the reader does.
When Drusilla comes to visit him after a second, more serious attack, where Gervase is shot, the Earl smiles at her and stretches out his right hand ‘in an unconsciously welcoming gesture.’
Drusilla looks at it and doesn’t move. When she does speak it is in ‘her most expressionless voice.’ It is obvious that Drusilla at least is well aware of her feelings for Gervase. Gradually, as the plot thickens, the wounded Gervase and Drusilla are thrown together and we notice that they now touch each other unselfconsciously: she takes his pulse, he grasps her wrist. He holds her hand and kisses it.
But Heyer cannot yet allow any words of love to be spoken. The villain is still at large and the plot needs to be wrapped up.
The final scene is delicious. Up to now Drusilla has been in control of her emotions but when Gervase kisses her, she bursts into tears and, for the first time, allows her own insecurities to show. I cannot resist quoting here:
‘Oh no! Pray do not! You felt obliged to comfort me! I assure you, I don’t regard it – shall never think of it again!’
‘My poor dear, you must be very much shaken to say anything so foolish!’ said the Earl lovingly. ‘Never did I think to hear such nonsense on my sage counsellor’s lips!’
‘You would become disgusted with my odious common sense. Try as I will, I cannot be romantic!’ said Miss Morville despairingly.
His eyes danced. ‘Oh, I forbid you to try. Your practical observations, my absurd robin, are the delight of my life!’
Miss Morville looked at him. Then, with a deep sigh, she laid her hand in his. But what she said was: ‘You must mean a sparrow!’
‘I will not allow you to dictate to me, now or ever, Miss Morville. I mean a robin!’ said the Earl firmly, lifting her hand to his lips.
Georgette Heyer 1939 by Howard Coster
The critic who complained that the courtship between the Earl and Drusilla was negligible also complained that there was only one kiss. Well, there’s only one kiss between hero and heroine in Cotillion, The Grand Sophy and The Reluctant Widow, and many other Heyer novels. So what? For me, a long, anticipatory build up is just fine.
I like the fact that the reader has to be alert to the oblique signs of interest expressed by Gervase, and to Drusilla’s touching hidden emotional insecurity. The Quiet Gentleman is not an ‘in your face’ novel and, in my view, it’s all the better for that.
Photos: Cover of The Quiet Gentleman courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo: Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster
Other photos of Lyme Park and Chiswick House standing in for Stanyon Castle by Elizabeth Hawksley