Pandora's Box


Georgette Heyer
2003 reissue of 1949 release, Classic Fiction (Regency England)
Harlequin, $5.99, 416 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373835558

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

Arabella Tallant is the daughter of a vicar, and when she gets the opportunity to spend the season in London with her wealthy godmother, it's a dream come true. Much is riding on Arabella's season, as she has seven younger siblings who will need help with their own launches into the world.

Arabella's season takes an interesting turn before she even arrives in London. When her carriage breaks outside Mr. Robert Beamaris's hunting box, she shares a meal with him, and is driven by his snobbery to claim that she is an heiress. As her season begins, she discovers that her outrageous claims (intended only for Mr. Beaumaris's ears) are widely believed in the ton. Meanwhile, she begins to spend time with Mr. Beaumaris, who finds that this simple country girl is becoming very important to him.

Blythe:   This month Pandora has a special guest columnist, AAR Reviews Editor Sandy Coleman. She's the perfect person to discuss this particular book with because she has an extensive knowledge about Georgette Heyer's work. I am still a relative neophyte where Heyer is concerned. I read Frederica when it was reissued about two years ago, and I loved it. Since that time I have been glomming all the reissued Heyers, but I hadn't had time to read any of them until now. I really enjoyed Arabella, which shares some similarities with Frederica. But before I get into details, why don't you talk a little bit about your past experience with Heyer, Sandy?

Sandy:   Thanks, Blythe, I am so glad to be "guesting" this month - especially when I can talk about Heyer! I'm very lucky, I think, to have discovered her when I was about fourteen. A librarian encouraged me to try one (I don't remember which one it was) and both my mom and I glommed Heyer. Arabella is one of my favorites.

Blythe:   What strikes me about the two Heyers I have tried is that they are books to really savor. I didn't go careening through Arabella - I enjoyed every little conversation and all the details of characterization. Heyer seems to write the type of characters you can really get into. I found Arabella to be a very sympathetic and believable heroine, and I loved knowing that Robert Beaumaris was going to fall for her like a ton of bricks.

Sandy:   You are so right. I haven't read Arabella for at least ten years (though it's one I used to re-read a lot) and this time out I was able to appreciate even more both her delicious humor and the fact that she's just . . . well, wise. Every single character from the fashionable fribble Lord Fleetwood to Lady Bridlington's Mr. Collins-like son are absolutely positively real people with their foibles and personalities so well portrayed. But, something else, Blythe, that I also noticed this time is that maybe the book should be called Mr. Beaumaris because she does such an incredible job of taking us through his path to love. Arabella is a bit more of a mystery.

Blythe:   I think you are right. Maybe it's just a given that Arabella would fall for Beaumaris (because hey, who wouldn't?) but we really need to see just why this urbane sophisticate would be drawn to a country girl from Yorkshire. As far as characterization goes, one of my favorite parts of the book is when Lady Bridlington is introduced. In a few brief sentences, Heyer explains the type of person she is completely. She sees the Masters' exhibit every year, but really only goes because she knows she's supposed to be intersted in art. I think we all know people who go to art museums because they know they are supposed to, but don't really get anything out of the experience. She also complains about the dreadful crush at parties and how tedious they can be because that's what everyone else says - even though she never finds parties tedious and she loves crowds. Too funny.

Sandy:   Yes, we all know at least one Lady Bridlington, don't we? And, absolutely, who wouldn't fall for Robert Beaumaris? (I think Heyer did!) He is one of my very favorite heroes of all time. Heyer spared nothing in creating one of her most appealing characters. And what about that dog? How funny is that?

Blythe:   I have to say my very favorite parts of the book were when Beaumaris talked to that dog about his problems with Arabella. The conversations take just the right tone, and he never loses his dignity, even though he is talking to an underfed mutt rescued from the street. After a less than successful conversation with Arabella, Beaumaris asks the dog whether he should continue his attentions, as if he expects Ulysses to supply the answer. I am guessing that Heyer had a fondness for dogs of uncertain origin, as one plays a major part in Frederica as well.

Sandy:   Yes, the Baluchistan Hound! Those conversations with Ulysses are absolutely wonderful and really are just about my favorite part of the book, too. Clearly, Mr. Beaumaris couldn't have asked for a better or more loyal confidant. One of the sweetest aspects of the book, I think, is that Mr. B. is surprised to discover in himself that he's actually quite a good person. Before Arabella it's quite clear that he can't quite get himself too worked up over anything except his horses. But, you mentioned a similarity to Frederica and I see what you mean. Mr. B. and the Marquis certainly share the same sense of ironic ennui. The big difference to me are the heroines. Frederica is a very much more mature and self-reliant heroine and Arabella is quite an unabashed Daddy's girl.

Blythe:   That's it exactly. The Marquis of Alverstoke and Mr. Beaumaris have a lot in common, but they fall for completely different women. They also break out of their molds in similar ways as they are called upon to help others. Children play a much bigger part in Frederica than they do in Arabella, but I couldn't help noticing that in both cases the kids really seem like kids. Nobody is a caricature. The other thing that really interested me is that there are clearly some conventions that started with Heyer, like the hero who is very sophisticated and puts the dandies to shame with his elegant black clothing. It's been copied so often that it has become a cliche (I almost like reading about a dandy hero now and then just for a change of pace), but with Heyer you can just tell it's original.

Sandy:   I realize now that Heyer formed my impressions of both the Regency period and Regencies. And, it's been said before, but as you pointed out she is so often imitated - mostly affectionately, I think. And, I totally agree that the kids are kids, but then she was such a mistress of characterization that I really can't think of an instance where she failed. And no matter what story she's telling the intelligence of her characters always shines through. But, while Arabella is a delightfully fun read, I think it's also romantic. I've always had a weakness for stories (and, gee, that weakness probably started with this one) for men who work behind the scenes to fix stuff. There's just something so noble about that.

Blythe:   I really like that too. What better way to show your love for the heroine than to quietly set things right. We see it too with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. It's interesting to me that we really come at Heyer from totally different directions. I had read many, many romances before I read even one of hers, but I can recognize an original when I see it. I have to add too that people often complain about reissued romances taking up shelf space, but I haven't seen anyone complain about the Heyer reissues. When Harlequin reissued the first batch two years ago, I was thrilled. Most of her books are fairly hard to find in good condition, and I confess to being a very lazy book hunter; I like good finds to just fall into my lap. I was disappointed when the initial group of reissues stopped at six books, and didn't include several that I knew were popular favorites. This latest batch will include not only Arabella (coming in May) but also The Grand Sophy (which I bought yesterday), Venetia, and These Old Shades. It's like Heyer heaven, and I hope they keep them coming every so often until I can collect them all.

Sandy:   I bought several of mine on trips to England because she's never out of print over there! The reissues are a wonderful thing because, obviously, she is a writer who always deserves to be read and introduced to new audiences. And, Blythe, do whatever you can to get your hands on a copy of Devil's Cub, the sequel to These Old Shades. It's my favorite Heyer and features one of the original bad boy heroes who's completely the opposite of Mr. Beaumaris in just about every way. And like you, I also find it interesting that we both come at Heyer from totally different places. It's a tribute to her that her originality shines so brightly to someone like you who's read so much within the genre.

Blythe:   I'm in luck; Devil's Cub will be reissued in August, right after the re-release of These Old Shades. I think Heyer is an author who stands the test of time, and I can think of few higher tributes than that. In a recent ATBF (brought on by LLB's reading of Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens) the concept of "books of the moment" came up. I think Devil's Bride is a book of the moment, as is the popular and well-loved The Flame and the Flower. Women who read TF&TF in 1972 loved it (and many remember it fondly). But there are not many women reading it for the first time now that really love it. In my review (written in 1998, which is when I read the book) I explained why it didn't work well for a modern romance reader. Heyer, OTOH, is a different story. I think her books, like Jane Austen's, are ones readers will be enjoying forever.

Sandy:   I found that "book of the moment" ATBF very interesting and I know exactly what you're talking about. When I first read Arabella I was a very young girl with little to no life experience and very unformed ideas about men. Obviously, now I'm no longer 14 (and, actually, that's a relief) and I loved reading it just as much today as I did then. I may have enjoyed Arabella on different levels today, but my enjoyment was undiminished.

Blythe:   Sandy, thanks so much for filling in. You've been a great guest columnist, and I'm glad we were able to discuss a book we both enjoyed so much. Next month Linda will be back, and we will be discussing Loving the Highlander by Janet Chapman. In the meantime, it would be great to hear other readers weigh in with their opinions on Arabella (and other Heyer books) on the message boards.

--Blythe Barnhill and Sandy Coleman, for

-- Pandora's Box

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