Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"Powder and Patch," by Georgette Heyer

The Chick: Cleone Charteris. While she loves her childhood sweetheart Phillip, she wishes he would at least make an effort to her impress her with superior dress and manners.
The Rub: She gets her wish when Phillip leaves for Paris and returns, six months later, a changed man - one she doesn't necessarily like - and she has no one to blame but herself.
Dream Casting: Emma's Louise Dylan.

The Dude: Phillip Jettan. When his ladylove rejects him on the basis that she could never marry a country bumpkin, he sets out to turn himself into a refined man of fashion.
The Rub: He hasn't completely forgiven Cleone for her rejection, however, and he intends to give her a taste of her own medicine and see how attractive a fop truly is.
Dream Casting: Andrew Lee Potts.

The Plot:
Phillip: Hey Cleone!

Cleone: Oh, hi...

Bancroft: Salutations, fair Cleone! Your eyes sparkle like stars!

Phillip: What a douche. Nobody talks like that--

Cleone: *all aflutter* Why can't you be more like Bancroft?

Sir Maurice, Phillip's Dad: YEAH, why can't you be more like Bancroft?

Phillip: ... SCREW YOU GUYS. I'm out! I'll show them, I'll show them ALL!

Tom, Phillip's Uncle: I'll help! *MAKEover, makeOVER, MAKEover, makeOVER- MAKEOVER! (for you and meeeeee)*

Phillip: *Dandy-ized!*

Cleone: WOW, Phillip, I've never seen you look so--

Phillip: Bored, now. *leaves*

Cleone: How - how DARE you follow my instructions to the letter and make me rue my own decisions! I HATE YOU! *runs off and does foolish things*

Phillip: Aw c'mon, don't be like that. Let's get married.

Cleone: I have a couple more stupid things to do, first. *gets engaged to two dudes*

Phillip: You done?

Cleone: Yup.

Phillip: *breaks engagements with a DUEL!* Let's get married.

Cleone: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

2 Duels over a Woman's Honour

3 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

1 Makeover

Several Yards of Brightly Coloured Silks

1 Pair of Stockings Clocked with Hummingbirds

2 Unruly French Servants

2 Broken Engagements

2 Rejected Marriage Proposals

Several Examples of Terrible Poetry

The Word:
Georgette Heyer has a lot of good things going for her as a writer - she has a superb eye for historical detail and literary convention, a fun grasp of manners and humour, and a lively writing style. What she tends not to have, however, is a good sense of pacing. Many scenes in her novels are wasted on conversations that, while oftentimes funny and superficially amusing, have the depth and relevancy of a meringue. Her dialogue often meanders, as many of her characters tend to be easily distracted and amused by the fripperies of their time, and many of them have particular idiosyncrasies that usually involve repeating the same expression over and over and over and over (Rupert, from These Old Shades, for example, exclaims "Stap me if it didn't!" every third sentence).

Perhaps that's why, of the three Heyer novels I've read before this one (These Old Shades, Devil's Cub, and False Colours), I've only really liked one of them (Devil's Cub). The other two sprawled all over the place and even though the stories at the heart of those novels were often interesting, I usually ended up having to wade/skim through so much literary padding and whipped-cream conversations to get down to the meat of the narrative. And even Devil's Cub sagged in the final act with a tiresome and repetitive chase sequence.

When I received Powder and Patch in the mail from the wonderful people over at Sourcebooks Casablanca, I was heartened, rather than disappointed, by the novel's brevity (it's only 183 pages long). As it turns out, I was right in this instance to judge a book by its word count, for Powder and Patch is a delightful romp - thankfully streamlined around a central narrative focus.

The novel quickly introduces us to two sweethearts who've grown up together in the country village of Little Fittledean: Phillip Jettan and Cleone Charteris. While they love each other dearly, Cleone can't help but wish that Phillip was a little more polished. Despite the urbanity of his father (Sir Maurice) and his rakish uncle (Tom), Phillip is a country gentleman at heart. While honest and goodhearted, he bears his personal appearance no mind at all - he refuses to wear a wig, apply even the smallest dash of face powder, or wear clothes tailored more for fashion than practicality.

When Mr. Bancroft, a fashionable dandy, stops by in the village, his elaborate flattery charms Cleone and makes Phillip look twice as clumsy and boorish in comparison. Cleone despairs of Phillip's bumpkin ways, but her distaste isn't as superficial as it seems - she senses that Phillip assumes their relationship is a given, and she wants him to make at least some effort to please and flatter her instead of taking her affection for granted.

Phillip, meanwhile, challenges Bancroft to a duel and has his bumpkin ass handed to him. To pour salt on the wound, Cleone rejects his angry and awkward marriage proposal, saying she cannot marry him the way he is. Trapped in the worst day ever, Phillip goes home to find an unsympathetic father who actually agrees that his son could do with some polish.

Poor ol' Phil is honest and plainspoken to a fault - he cannot comprehend why his father and girlfriend cannot just accept him as he is, or how slapping a bunch of powder on him would make any difference. However, he decides to turn their instructions into their own revenge, and hies off to Paris for six months with his uncle Tom to turn himself into the ultimate dandy. Phillip, using his considerable intelligence and determination, learns French, trains in fencing, outfits himself in costly jewels and silks, and becomes massively popular amongst the Parisian set for his wit and sophistication. During the months of his transformation, Cleone and his father receive no word from him and quickly come to regret their judgment of him.

The skeazy Bancroft arrives in Paris after six months to discover Phillip's become a sensation. To recover his pride, he starts bandying Cleone's name and the story of Phillip's botched duel about. Phillip, his swordsmanship much improved, repays Bancroft for his humiliation in spades by soundly defeating him and forbidding him from saying Cleone's name again. He then decides the time has come to return to England.

News about his duel travels faster, though, and Cleone overhears the gossip that Phillip and Bancroft came to blows in Paris over an unknown woman, and sheds many self-recriminating tears at her harsh rejection of his honest advances six months before. When Phillip arrives and hears of this, he decides not to inform Cleone that she is the unknown woman. Even after half a year, he hasn't completely forgiven her, and wants to find out once and for all if she loves him for who he really is, or who he now pretends to be.

I adored this novel as much as Devil's Cub, maybe even more than Devil's Cub, for it has a much more cohesive narrative structure that lets little go to waste. In this instance, Heyer's penchant for meticulous descriptions of clothing and accessories makes sense within the narrative. Fashion and outward appearances are the central theme of the story, and I enjoyed reading how Phillip comes to develop his own sense of style (he prefers sapphires over rubies).

As for characters, I feel I should deal with Cleone first since it's too easy to dismiss her character as vain, shallow and silly. It is true that she makes a lot of foolish decisions in an effort to spite Phillip, but the reader never forgets that beneath her anger at Phillip's affected demeanor, she's more angry at herself. While Phillip may have taken her feelings for granted at the start of the novel, she discovers she took Phillip's honesty and straightforwardness for granted and many of her antics are merely attempts to provoke Phillip out of his self-imposed mask of flippant wit.

There's also an examination of the nature of the Alpha Male interspersed throughout the narrative. Phillip definitely fits into that category - he's confident in himself and his own powers and feels no need to change for anyone. Cleone initially mistakes this confidence as self-importance - as a sign that Phillip cares only about himself and his comfort than in acknowledging her preferences - but by the end of the novel she misses his strength. She doesn't want Phillip to obey her. She wants Phillip to fight her and win, rather than just acquiesce.

While Cleone spends most of this novel eating heaping servings of humble pie, Phillip comes into his own as well. Narrow-minded and possessive, he never thought he'd actually have to, you know, work to keep Cleone. Throughout the novel, he not only has to strive and fight to win Cleone back, but he also discovers that she's worth fighting for.

Sweet and witty, detailed and colourful, often very funny, and this time to the point, Powder and Patch is a lovely romantic comedy that highlights the best of what Georgette Heyer has to offer.


  1. Vorkosigrrl12:35 PM

    Hi, AnimeJune!

    I'm delighted to see you chalk up another Georgette in the "yes" column, even though this isn't one of my personal favorites. I haven't read it in a long time, though, so maybe I'll give it another shot.

  2. I've always wanted to read a Georgette Heyer novel, but I didn't know which one since they're so difficult for me to track down. I might start with this one :D

  3. oo! oo! oo!

    Read A Civil Contract. That will show you a whole other side to Heyer.

  4. Loved this review! I'm going to FYI it to JoBev :)