Pastel by Georgette Heyer

I’m not the Georgette Heyer fanatic I was at thirteen; I now find her work repetitive, and extremely uneven in quality–for every Grand Sophy there lurks in the bookshelf a Corinthian or a Beauvallet.  Still, I enjoy dipping into my old faves over and over, and I’ve probably read Lady of Quality twenty times.  (For those not in the know, these are titles of Regency romances–a wildly popular genre created single-handedly by Heyer.)

Besides her thirty-odd  Regencies (all of which are still in print, and continue to sell briskly), Heyer also penned several well-regarded if not popular thrillers.  The least famous of her works is a handful of contemporary novels that Heyer herself suppressed after their initial  publication. These novels seem to have been reissued after Heyer’s death in 1974,  only to disappear into oblivion shortly after.

I chanced upon one of these long out-of-print works at my local library sale last week. Pastel (1910) is the story of two sisters, Evelyn, a flamboyant beauty who’s all quicksilver charm and verve, and Frances, an ordinarily pretty, less vivid  personality who longs for the aura of glamor surrounding her sister.  Frances’s envy crystallizes when she falls in love and the object of her affections seem to prefer Evelyn.  The manner in which the two sisters navigate their love-lives, and, in particular, Frances’s reconciliation of her girlish fantasies with the reality of married life forms the thrust of the story.

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The premise has distinct possibilities, but Heyer never quite follows through, and the result is a maddeningly unsatisfying novel. From the heavy-handed metaphor of Evelyn in a primrose frock  telling her mutinous sibling that pastel colors suit her best ( in the first chapter, no less)  to pages of expository dialogue about the New Woman,  it almost seems  as though Heyer was unable to articulate her argument clearly even to herself. Many interesting angles, such as Frances’ fear of sexual intimacy, are not fully developed; instead, we are given Scenes featuring tears and sulks and pouts and cliches, where capricious women slay men by peeping through their long wet lashes.

Frances dabbed at her eyes and gave a heart-rending sob. She did not look outraged now; she looked forlorn and pathetic, and Norman was filled with a deep loathing for himself. He put his arms around her, but not too tightly, just in case it was after all another wrong move. “I’m sorry darling. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Don’t precious!”

Frances turned and clung to him. “Oh Norman!” she sobbed. “I’m sorry! It was all my fault!”

So inspite of every appearance to the  contrary it had been the right move after all. Truly you never knew where you were with women, or what was expected of you.

Heyer’s main preoccupation is the role of gender and class in the romantic and marital lives of women, and her coy tone does her subject a disservice, placing the novel in an uneasy territory somewhere between chick-lit and literary fiction.  The romance in Pastel is both an end in itself and a means to explore the differing personalities of the two sisters in terms of their attitudes towards life and matrimony (the two being inextricably entwined for women of that era).  Of course, the girls’ viewpoints are a  function of their social class as much as their respective natures, and very much a  product of the time, but still, I was taken aback at the sense of entitlement they displayed, and how much privilege they took for granted, and as a consequence,  was perhaps less sympathetic towards the protagonists than I might have  been.

Heyer writes fluently as always, and the book moves along at a steady clip, but to my mind, Pastel does not quite succeed either as character study or an inquiry into gender roles in the romantic life.  I suppose this book could be read as a record of the era, but so many novels better fulfill this function that, in the final reckoning, I must agree with Heyer’s own opinion of this work. Keep Pastel suppressed, I say!

Pastel by Georgette Heyer

Buccaneer Books, New York, 1977 (orig. 1910)

Genre: Popular fiction

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