Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

On Georgette Heyer’s Novel ‘The Corinthian’

corinthian cover image

"TheCorinthian". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

There are few women of my age (which I am not about to reveal, incidentally) who, in search of non-fattening comfort food, don’t retire to the sofa with a cherished Georgette Heyer. They’re so popular they’re being reissued even now, nearly forty years after Heyer’s death.

The one I reread most recently, The Corinthian, is by no means one of her best. Published in 1940, it’s very short, with only one pretty trivial theme: how does a very rich young man, pressured by his despairing family into marriage, manage to give the woman who regards herself as his betrothed the slip and find a more suitable bride? At that time people needed happy endings – there were too many real-life stories of the miserable variety for those living at the start of the war. So this is escapist with a capital E – frivolous even.

Nonetheless, Heyer took great care with her exposition. When three of her minor characters open the first chapter, the location of the house they enter is not simply geographical; it is in St James’s Square. So we know we are dealing with the highest echelons of society. Sir Richard Wyndham is not just any aristocrat: he is a very rich one. It is of little surprise that one of the visitors is one of high aristocracy but Heyer conveys this information with a PG Wodehouse-like observation:

…upon the dignified [butler’s] informing the elder of the two ladies that Sir Richard was not at home, [the gentleman] cast a deprecating glance at him, not in the least the glance of a peer of the realm upon a menial, but an age-old look of one helpless man to another, and [spoke] in a pleading tone…

Sir Richard’s gate-crashing relatives are ushered into the Yellow Saloon. To us yellow is a colour like any other. However, in the early nineteenth century it was the result of a new and expensive industrial process, and could be afforded by only those with the deepest pockets – like Sir John Soane, who also had a yellow saloon in the house now his museum.

Soon the peer’s wife strips off her gloves. They are lavender, suggesting that she is still in light mourning for someone. The rest of her attire is important too, for the high- waisted gown with low cut bodice and tiny puff sleeves tells us in which years the novel is set, as does an allusion to Beau Brummel.

The three visitors discuss their absent host’s duty to marry. We are aware from the start that his will be a dynastic match, not unusual for the time. No-one, especially the hapless groom elect’s brother-in-law, is overly keen on the young woman who has apparently been waiting for years for his proposal. So the stage is set.

The handsome young Sir Richard resolves to propose to the woman his brother-in-law describes as a statue, but spends the night before he makes his proposal getting drunk. On his way home he encounters a youth escaping from an upper window, only to discover that it is in fact a girl seeking his protection. Together they flee from her family and enjoy a rollicking adventure with thieves, Bow Street runners and irate parents. The plot is thin but we do suspend our disbelief for however long it takes to read two hundred pages – the equivalent, I’d say, of a tub of Green and Black’s ice cream: junk food in nutritionist’s eyes but the very best junk food.