Cross-posted on The Dead Writers Society.
Arabella was written in 1949, immediately after The Foundling, and right before The Grand Sophy. It is set in the spring of 1817 (per the Georgette Heyer chronology, which you can find here. The chronology was compiled by a number of individuals who used textual clues to determine the precise time period in which the book was set).
I thoroughly enjoyed Arabella, although I think that it does take a backseat to Sprig Muslin by just a little bit. I was frequently reminded in Arabella, more than any other Heyer that I’ve read, of the novels (and life) of Jane Austen. Jane was the daughter of a vicar and lived in genteel want for much of her life. Arabella, too, is the daughter of a vicar. There are too many siblings and not enough money, and it is made clear to Arabella that, as the eldest and prettiest, she must marry well in order to secure comfortable livings for her siblings, which, of course, is reminiscent of Jane Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice.
Arabella, though, resembles Lizzie Bennett much more than she resembles the quiescent Jane. She is a bit reckless, with a hot-temper, but has a deep well of integrity. She gets herself into trouble with that recklessness by claiming to have a fortune when she has no such thing, because she is angry at the hero, Robert Beaumaris, when she overhears him accusing her of being a fortune hunter. Once she has made the claim, she finds herself unable to extricate herself from her dilemma, and it becomes known throughout London that she is an heiress. This makes her wildly popular among the men, fortune-hunter and wealthy alike.
When her brother, Bertram, shows up and manages to get himself indebted to Beaumaris to the tune of hundreds of pounds by some inexperienced gambling, things go from bad to worse, and she finds herself turning down eligible proposals because she believes that they have been made under false pretenses, and giving all of her money to her brother to try to bail him out of his scrape.
Heyer’s solution to this dilemma is also remiscent of Pride and Prejudice – Arabella’s entire family is bailed out by Beaumaris, as the Bennett family, and most particularly Lydia, is bailed out by Darcy.
I am really ambivalent about Beaumaris as a hero, however. On the one hand, obviously, he must be a fine physical specimen, since the discussions of the fit of his coat and his lack of a need for buckram wadding to broaden his shoulders are ubiquitous. He is wealthy and well-educated. On the other hand, he is just too old for Arabella. The actual age difference between them is never articulated, but he must be in his late thirties, based on the way he is presented, and Arabella is in her first season. I really struggle with getting behind a romance with this enormous age difference – even if it was common during that time period.
The other issue I have with Beaumaris, though, is bigger even than the age difference. I’m just not that convinced that he’s a very nice guy. He is shallow and privileged and bored. I am clear on the fact that Arabella brings out the best in him. Arabella has a surprising sensitivity to social injustice, and this the only Heyer that I’ve read so far where Heyer even acknowledges the gulf between rich and poor in British society during this time period. Arabella repeatedly – three times total – tries to rescue some unfortunate who has crossed her path.
The first unfortunate, Jemmy, is also the most appealing. He is a climbing boy, apprenticed to a chimney sweep (although enslaved is a better verb, honestly), responsible for the really terrible job of cleaning chimneys, by climbing up them, in order to prevent chimney fires. This was horrifying and dangerous work, that was done by boys as young as four. When Jemmy mistakenly climbs down her chimney and into her room, Arabella takes custody of him, routs the sweep with threats of prosecution for abuse, and then hands Jemmy off to Beaumaris to be cared for, all in one fell swoop. This is a truly remarkable moment in the book, and shows Arabella as compassionate and headstrong. She is maybe 19, and is able to identify – and do something about – an injustice that Beaumaris has ignored for his entire life. And I didn’t get the impression that he took custody of Jemmy because he recognized a human obligation to a hungry, skinny, abused and orphaned child. He did it because he is diverted by how adorable he finds Arabella. It’s patronizing.
There are two other incidents of the same sort. Arabella rescues a mangy dog that is being beaten a bunch of thuggish young men, and asks for permission to help a prostitute named Leaky Peg who has been helping Bertram out when he runs out of money and is tossed out of his hotel. Beaumaris is willing to help with the dog, but draws the line at Leaky Peg.
He also manipulates Arabella rather badly. He knows from the beginning that Arabella doesn’t really have a fortune, but he plays her like a fish on a line – because her childlike innocence amuses him – for far too long. Arabella feels terrible about deceiving Beaumaris. Beaumaris doesn’t ever really seem to feel terrible about deceiving Arabella, even though she spends a number of really miserable, fraught days. And then, there is the matter of Bertram, who is also left dangling for far too long. The risk that Bertram might have committed suicide as a result of the dire financial situation he was in is certainly not insignificant. Beaumaris had no qualms about playing with emotional fire so long as he thought it might get him what he wants in the end. I can only hope that marriage to Arabella will improve him – make him less selfish, less prone to playing with other people’s lives and emotions for his own amusement, and less blind to his own privilege.
To continue with the Pride and Prejudice analogy, I hope that Beaumaris is a Mr. Darcy, but I am afraid he might be a Mr. Wickham.
Arabella has some of the most wonderful characteristics of Heyer's writing - sparkling dialogue, humor, and an appealing heroine.