This was Georgette Heyer's last completed book, published in 1972. She died on July 4, 1974, at the age of 71, which means that she was writing A Lady of Quality in her late sixties.
I am struck by a few things reading this book. First, the writing seems both tired and a bit manic at times, as though Ms. Heyer had perhaps become a bit exhausted with writing in the same style and theme for so many years. A Lady of Quality was her 34th historical romance (georgian/regency) and, if wikipedia is to be believed, her 55th novel.
Now, onto A Lady of Quality.
Annis Wychwood is the titular lady of quality, and the main character of the book. She is a lady of nine-and-twenty who considers herself to be quite on the shelf - a Heyerism for an unmarried woman who has outlived her place in the Marriage Market. She is also a woman of independent means. She has inherited a respectable fortune, and is able to support herself more than adequately.
A typical Heyer novel spends, if not equal time on the hero, much time developing the hero's character. In this book, however, the hero remains little more than a cardboard cut-out plot device throughout the book. Heyer spends more time looking at the various types of woman who might have existed in regency society, and evaluating their independence.
There are really four women who are evaluated in this way: Annis, Miss Maria Farlow, Lucilla, and Lady Wychwood, the wife of Annis' of brother. Of all four, Annis is the only female character who is not under the protection of someone else.
Miss Farlow is under the protection of Annis, and if she weren't, she would need to find a different protector. She is a woman of no means at all - we are never told how old she is, although the implication is that she is elderly. Elderly in this case probably means about my age. As an unmarried spinster of no fortune nor employment whatsoever, she is the very definition of superfluous humanity. She exists in the nearly invisible world of genteel poverty, unable to work (too well-bred) unable to marry (too unbeautiful) and unable to live on her own (too poor). She is nothing more than a burden. She is reminiscent in some ways of Miss Bates, from Emma, but even Miss Bates has a home of her own, albeit a poor one.
The treatment of Miss Farlow is cringe-inducing. No one ever acknowledges her as a person with value, her humanity is barely acknowledged. People are impatient with her foibles, constantly rude to her, and she is shoved in and out of rooms with no thought at all to her feelings. Even Emma, as thoughtless as she often is, is made to feel shame for her rudeness to Miss Bates. Someone desperately needed to shame Annis, Mr. Carleton and Lord Wychwood for their utter disregard for her feelings. She had no choice but to take it from them, and imagining how she must have felt about having to accept such monstrous treatment is physically painful.
Lucilla, as well, as a young girl of seventeen, is also essentially unable to take herself out of the sphere of protection of a male relative or a well-meaning female. Annis takes Lucilla in hand when she flees from an unwanted marriage to her childhood friend, Ninian. The book leaves Lucilla's fate unresolved - Oliver Carleton, the hero, is also her guardian, and he finds a place to stash her, like a piece of luggage, once he convinces Annis to give up her independence in order to marry him. She is charming, pretty, ingenuous and a bit vapid. No doubt she will marry well.
Lady Wychwood is married, and as a married woman, has some freedom that is forbidden even to Annis. She is a lightweight woman, but there are hints in the book that there is more to her than meets the eye.
Annis is an interesting character. She has never met a man who engaged her interest, which may say more about the men she encountered than it does about her. Heyer has created a character who has carved out some independence for herself in a society that does not generally allow for independence. The decision to marry, in fact, is a difficult one for her - not because she is unattracted to Oliver Carleton, but because she is disinterested in submitting to a "domestic tyrant," and she is concerned that a husband will be just that. She declines his initial proposal, saying: