I haven’t read much Heyer and wasn’t aware until I finished that this is one of her least liked books. I just bought it because it was on offer on the Kindle.
This is one of her regency books and there is certainly a tangle between the various men and women falling in love in this novel. I’m not sure I can review this without spoilers, so please be aware that there will be spoilers throughout this review, but I will try not to talk too much about the ending.
Whilst the end pairings resulting from the tangle are entirely predictable I found this novel going a different way than I expected time and time again.
The main character is Serena, the fiercely independent daughter of the Earl of Spenborough. The novel opens just after the death of the Earl. This is an intriguing start that had me wanting to read more straight away. Serena’s Mother died in childbirth and she was brought up by her eccentric and extremely wealthy Father with little restrictions. Her Father re-married and married a woman younger than Serena.
I immediately expected this to be an antagonistic relationship, but in fact the young widow is very innocent and shy and is very friendly with Serena.
At the will reading it turns out that all of Serena’s considerable wealth has been unexpectedly tied up with a guardian and she has been left access to pin money only. [As an aside £600 is probably more than I spend a year on clothes, hair, etc now so it must have been a considerable amount at the time]. The only way to gain access to her money again is to marry a man that her guardian approves of. This is all only made worse when she finds out that her guardian is Ivo, her childhood friend and the man she had previously been engaged to but had jilted close to their wedding date.
Serena throws a bit of a temper tantrum on finding all of this out and we immediately see why she left Ivo, they are very antagonistic to each other and constantly argue and enrage each other. Ivo is abrasive and sees no need to follow polite social conventions. I expected that each would have a redemption arc before ending up together at the end of the novel but I was only half right, and that is where I ended up having issues with this novel.
Ivo and Serena are not pressed together by circumstance to rediscover each other as I expected, instead Serena sets up house with her Stepmother, Fanny, in the Dower house. We see Serena struggling with the quiet life, in mourning at the Dower house, and even more with seeing the changes her cousin is making to the estate.
In the end she is eager to leave the estate she grew up in and Fanny and Serena decide to set up for a few months in Bath. Enter, the first complication to the plot in Major Hector Kirkby, whom Serena was not allowed to pursue a relationship with given their different social positions. She confesses to Fanny that Hector was the only man, amongst the many she has flirted with, that she has loved. It becomes clear that Hector has remained infatuated with her and has put her on a pedestal that Serena is very aware she does not deserve to stand on.
Hector and Serena become secretly engaged, not making it public as Serena is still in mourning. Their relationship is done very well by Heyer. Hector tries not to be bothered by Serena’s outgoing, boisterous ways and her lack of respect for proprietary. Serena in turn tries to be more like the gentle, country wife that Hector is looking for. It quickly becomes clear that they entered this relationship hastily.
Hector then finds out just how wealthy Serena will become when they marry and is dismayed by how much more wealthy she will be than him. Serena cannot see the issue and they fall out, particularly when Hector asks if the money can be tied up for their children so they do not have access to it.
Perhaps not on this scale, but even today one partner earning significantly more than the other can be a contentious issue. Heyer was also the main wage earner in her household so it is not hard to imagine that some of Serena’s frustration at her Father, Ivo and Hector is really Heyer voicing her feelings on the matter.
I think it would be easy to see Serena as hot-tempered and spoiled here but to continually have any possibity of independence or power held just out of her reach must have been incredibly frustrating. Being one of the wealthy elite has not actually brought her any happiness.
So far I was still very much enjoying this story. I felt social issues were being brought up and I felt sure Ivo and Serena would come together, and gradually learn to soften to each other. It is made clear that Ivo does not feel Serena needs any sheltering, and if he does come across quite brutally it seems likely that he will soften and become more responsible as the novel progresses.
The next addition to the tangle is Emily Laleham, the young seventeen year old daughter of a social climber who has been taking every opportunity through the novel to thrust her family into the spheres of Serena, Fanny and Ivo. Suddenly through the Bath gossip Serena and Fanny learn that Ivo and Emily have become engaged.
Serena is surprised but tries very hard not to think too much about the relationship. Fanny on the other hand is horrified. There is over twenty years between them and she worries that angry, powerful Ivo will be a terrifying husband for Emily.
Serena scoffs at this, which I think could again be seen as self-centeredness. The way I read it however was Heyer trying to show Serena’s true regard for Ivo- she doesn’t believe he could hurt someone like that. It does lead again to serious and interesting discussion around young, innocent brides- as indeed Fanny was. Serena thinks that if Emily didn’t want to marry Ivo she could have just said no. Fanny tries to explain that it is not that simple and that a girl may be compelled to agree. This is very effective at showing the different upbringings of the two girls as well as conveying potentially disturbing implications to Fanny and the Earl’s marriage if one reads into it at all- which is rather more depth than I was really expecting.
Up until this point I was really enjoying the novel, it was enjoyable but dealing with complex issues. But then I started to realise just how far through the book I was. There were a dwindling number of pages left in which for these characters to reform. I started to worry the whole ending was going to be rushed, particularly as lies and lovers became ever more tangled.
However, there is no rushed realisation of their increasingly atrocious behaviour, because there seems to be no redemption arc whatsoever. In my opinion, neither Serene or Ivo are particularly likeable in the final chapters.
I went from thoroughly enjoying the novel and being caught up in it, to being left with a slight distaste for the whole affair.
I’d love to hear people’s opinions in this book. Am I pushing my modern opinions into a book where they just don’t belong, or has anyone else been left dissatisfied with Bath Tangle?
On the plus side, this was published in 1955 and can contribute to my much neglected Century of Books challenge