We had another pet health emergency this week, a cat this time. He seems to be recovering nicely from his expensively unspecific “dietary indiscretion.” But it meant a couple of anxious nights during which I turned to my usual cure for insomnia: an old favorite audiobook. I chose Georgette Heyer’s Lady of Quality.
I’ve always thought of this book as similar to Black Sheep, one of my favorite Heyer novels, and that’s true in terms of basic plot/character structure:
- A late-20s heroine with a comfortable fortune, contentedly single
- A rakish hero, considered (by interfering family) improper for the heroine to know
- A girl, not quite out, for whom the heroine is responsible
- Tension between heroine and hero created by this girl and her romantic entanglements
- No one believes the heroine is in danger of falling for the hero, because his manners are deplorable and he’s not handsome, unlike her usual type
- It turns out the hero is the heroine’s type, because he’s honest with her and understands her
- Though she’s in love, the heroine is not sure she wants to marry and give up her independence
But listening to this book again soon after listening to Black Sheep during the dog health emergency, I was struck by the differences. There’s a lot of anger in Lady of Quality. The hero has a temper, but he’s not alone. When I grabbed the book off the shelf, the first page I opened to had the line, “She had been in a state of seething fury. . . .” Annis is angry a lot. And I think an angry romance heroine, or at least one who expresses her anger, is pretty rare.
Cultural representations of anger are very gendered. Angry men may be scary and violent. Or they may be righteous leaders/rebels/reformers. Angry men are powerful, and their anger often has good cause. Angry women are harpies, viragos, feminazis. Their anger is never justified; it’s an over-reaction. Angry men can be good. Angry women? Not so much.
So I was surprised to find a sympathetic, likeable heroine who is so often angry. How does Heyer do it?
For one thing, Annis’ anger in the beginning of the novel is on behalf of another, as if Heyer’s easing us into anger. Annis takes Lucilla Carleton under her wing when she finds Lucilla at the side of the road, running away from an arranged marriage. Lucilla is essentially a pawn–or a burden–to the adults charged with her care. Annis sympathizes with her, and is angry at Lucilla’s uncle and guardian, Oliver, because his lack of attention has left Lucilla in this plight. So heroine and hero (because of course Oliver is the hero) meet angry, not cute.
Another reason the reader (at least this reader) doesn’t mind Annis’ anger is that Oliver generally doesn’t mind it. He’s perceptive about her feelings and recognizes her right to have them. True, he calls her “hornet,” but it’s an affectionate nickname (often “my sweet hornet”) rather than a way of belittling or de-legitimizing her anger. In their very first meeting, he quickly recognizes that he’s made her angry:
His penetrating gaze searched her face; he said: “Oh! Are we at dagger-drawing? What have I said to wind you up?”
They argue, but they argue as equals, and Oliver assures her he is “not trying to ride rough-shod over you.”
Oliver may provoke her to anger, but he also sympathizes with and encourages her to express her feelings:
At one moment, he could be brusque, and unfeeling; and then, when he had made her blazingly angry, his mood seemed to change, and her resentment was dispelled by the sympathy . . . which she heard in his voice, and detected in the softened look in his eyes. . . .
She hesitated, and after a moment he said in a matter-of-fact way: “You had better open the budget, you know, before all that seething wrath in you forces off the lid you’ve clamped down on it, and scalds everything within sight.”
I think all this anger is in part a symbol of the other passion, as yet unexpressed, blazing between them. There’s a rather stereotypical passage where Oliver points out how anger enhances her beauty, for instance (though he’s partly saying it in jest to make her angry).
But their willingness to fight their battles openly, to show each other their anger, is also a sign of their equality. They respect each other enough to be honest about their feelings and to work out their differences. Oliver is a hot-tempered and not particularly nice person. Annis’ ability to get angry at him assured me that she wouldn’t let him ride rough-shod over her if he ever had a mind to.
Finally, I saw Annis as justifiably angry at her circumstances. Her anger is often an attempt to defend herself against the restrictions placed on women of her time and class. So I guess this is my International Women’s Day post: like “angry feminists,” Annis has a lot to be angry about. It’s not her anger that’s the problem. Annis had to fight to leave her brother’s home and set up her own in Bath; reluctantly, she has accepted the companionship of a cousin to satisfy her brother’s sense of propriety. That cousin, Maria Farlow, is a font of non-stop, inane chatter who drives Annis mad. She reports on Annis to her brother, Sir Geoffrey. “Well-meaning” people are always trying to limit what Annis can do, treat her as if she were not an independent adult.
What made her so angry in the”scalding overflow” scene quoted above? Sir Geoffrey arrived unannounced at her house to tell her his wife and children were coming to stay the next day. Annis strongly–and correctly–suspects that the real reason for their visit is to “protect” her from Oliver Carleton. Geoffrey treats her house as his own and doesn’t consult her wishes. He doesn’t talk to her openly, as an equal, about his concerns, but tells her he knows what’s best for her. No wonder she’s angry. Most of the time she represses her anger, because that’s the proper thing for a Lady of Quality to do. But sometimes it overflows and scalds people.
Oliver, though he says he loves her for “her quality” (that’s the best way he can explain the inexplicable), recognizes her right to be angry. At the novel’s end, he’s magnificently angry on her behalf. I think both those things are important in Annis’ decision to marry him. She needs to be assured that she’ll be less constrained, not more, as his wife–and for women of her time and class, that still depends on his willingness not to constrain her.
All that said, while I understand and sympathize with Annis’ anger, I wonder if part of why I prefer Black Sheep to this book is that its characters spar and banter, but don’t really fight. It is a less angry book, easier to love. I can be an angry feminist, or just an angry woman. I think female anger needs to be expressed more. But I share some of the cultural discomfort with it, too.
If you’ve got thoughts on Lady of Quality or examples of angry heroines in romance or elsewhere, I’d love to hear them.