I’ve been rereading Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage. It’s funnier than I’d remembered, but the prejudice against women is just appalling. It’s not the obvious stuff that’s bothering me, like the double standards the hero and heroine are held to – I can ignore that as an artifact of its time, and actually Horry, the heroine of this one, has a surprising amount of agency. Not only does she propose to Lord Rule (to Sacrifice Herself on the Altar of Sisterly Love, or in plainer terms to save her older sister, who loves someone else) though he does later solicit permission from her mother (not her brother!) but after her marriage at 17 she instantly becomes a queen of society, with a social circle independent of her husband’s. This one is set in the Georgian period, not Regency times; Horry has gorgeously decorated satins instead of plain muslins, has young men visiting her bedroom to help her decided which patch to wear, and perhaps more freedom overall for women.
It’s not even the fact that Horry is continuously outsmarted and outmaneuvered by her husband that bothers me; given that he’s literally twice her age I should hope that he’s learned something over those years! What appalls me here is the need to sacrifice any of the sisters: Lord Rule wants to marry into the Winwood family because of its prestige, for some reason that is never well explained, but one of the Winwood girls has to marry Rule for his money – because of their brother’s Fatal Tendency to gamble deep. The family needs money, so one of the girls must marry a rich man; originally the eldest and most beautful sister is betrothed despite her Love for Another and is only saved by her youngest sister’s initiative. And nobody sees anything wrong with this, with a brother’s bad habits forcing his sister to be sold to save the family. They treat his “tendency” as an inescapable family fate, and it does run in the family – Horry gambles too, as soon as she is married and is allowed to, but there is no indication that it might beworse than a bad habit, if it ruins someone else’s life. The brother, Pel, is presented as a sympathetic character – not too bright, but with a good heart. He’s willing to go to great effort to support his sister when she’s in trouble, but there’s no sign of guilt or that he owes her anything.
It would be easier to dismiss all this if it were truly a reflection of social mores in the late 1700s – but for all her research, Heyer published this in 1934. It’s a reflection of her time, not George III’s, and her time is not so very long ago. My maternal grandparents were married in 1936; in 1934 they were dating, trying to earn enough money to marry on in those Depression years. Heyer’s book would have been fluffy escape reading for people dealing with the realities of a harsh time, and though she might have been portraying the customs of an older time, she still needed to be writing plots that would go down easily for her contemporary readers.
Even more depressing, here we are 84 years on, a long lifetime later, and we’re still hearing people who think it’s reasonable when a boy’s light action ruins a girl’s life, who still say it’s OK if he didn’t really mean to harm her. Or didn’t realize. Or couldn’t help himself.
Mirrored from Dichroic Reflections.