A Successful Cross-Genre Novel Without a Clear Protagonist; Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’


OTheTalismanRing.jpgIn the last post I was waffling on about protagonists and main characters. I gather that according to some writing advice, it’s meant to be fatal not to have a clear protagonist. What a tiresome man I know calls an ‘Absolute No-No.’
I rambled on to points of view, remarking that  some writing advice insists that there is a shift to writing from one person’s point of view, following YA novels (goodness knows why adult novels are following YA novels, but…).

I also commented that a fair number of classic novels, notably ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ don’t have a clear protagonist and depict multiple viewpoints.
Now I’d like to analyze a highly successful and enduringly popular novel that breaks all the rules above, besides the slight matter of being cross genre. Admittedly, it’s old, published in 1936, though it doesn’t count as classic English Literature unless you are a romance addict.

It’s by an author I’ve mentioned before in a post about authors who didn’t believe in what they wrote, yet who made a massive success of writing it anyway.
That’s right – it’s by none other than Georgette Heyer and I’ve mentioned before in this blog how I read it at fourteen, and re-read it when I was doing research on traditional historical romances that use the theme of Disgraced Earl, Framed for Murder by Conniving Cousin, Turns Outlaw.
I didn’t enjoy it myself, but I gather that ‘The Talisman Ring’ is a great favourite among Heyer fans. I couldn’t be drawn into the plot, though I admired the slickness of execution, because I still found the romantic pair, though I could see that they were meant to be something of a spoof, downright annoying.

I found the Earl turned outlaw, Ludovic Lavenham, too tiresome in his combined stupidity and arrogance to be sympathetic, and his love interest Eustacie de Vauban must be one of the silliest heroines I have ever encountered. However, I believe many Heyer fans find them charming and empathize strongly with their attempts to clear his name.

Anyway, my point here is that this enduringly successful novel has no clear protagonist and has in fact, what would be seen today as structural faults with points of view.
Purists about the need for a clear protagonist might argue that it is only because Heyer is so famous, and because it was written decades before these rigid requirements come into fashion, that this book is as popular as it is, and it wouldn’t be if it was published now.

I’m far from sure, myself.

Now I’ll do some geeky analysis (those who have no interest in analyzing light novels are entirely welcome to sneak off or go to sleep).
The action begins with a man with a truly amazing name – Sir Tristram Shield, no less- arriving at the Sussex castle of Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, who’s eighty and dying without an obvious heir, as his grandson is living abroad in exile in disgrace. Sir Tristram is his great-nephew; Sylvester’s got an heir presumptive, the effete Basil ‘Beau’ Lavenham, another great-nephew, but he doesn’t like him for sporting lilac pantaloons with ribbons, and a quizzing glass (not politically correct, the old lord).
His grandson is the equally astoundingly named Ludovic Lavenham, a wild youngster who had to be rushed abroad two years since, suspected of murdering a dishonourable fellow gambler in order to get his prized ring back.
This bounder had taken this priceless talisman ring as surety at a gaming table, wouldn’t give it back, and was in the ill-advised habit of wandering at night in deserted spinneys, though he knew that Ludovic was a hot-tempered crack shot, full of vengeful spirits and regularly three parts drunk on the other sort of spirits.
Tristram Shield was in the spinney too and heard a shot ten minutes after he’d last seen his enraged cousin. The cheat’s body was found the next day, minus the ring and complete with a handkerchief of the heir to the earldom’s.
Tristram Shield and his grandfather hurried the miscreant out of the country. Basil Lavenham, despite the damning evidence against him, advised him to stay and stand trial. Now why might that be?
Sylvester is eager for Sir Tristram to marry his other grandchild, a girl he’s taken out of France because its 1794. She’s a great romantic and doesn’t think much of the acid and prosaic Sir Tristram, who’s thirty-one besides, even if he is muscular and gung ho. After Sylvester duly passes away, she decides to run off to be a governess rather than marry him on the grounds that if she is a governess, there is bound to be a grown-up son in the household who will fall in love with her (that’s the way her mind works).
highwayman_bodyInevitably,on her setting off through the snowy night, she runs into a group of smugglers who are led by her exiled cousin Ludovic Lavenham. He insists she has to accompany him; they are chased by Excise men, Ludovic is shot and they end up hiding in an inn run by a friend of the Lavenham family.
Here, a woman called Sarah Thane, staying there with her bizarrely self-absorbed brother, and clearly meant to be highly sensible, comes on the scene of their arrival and helps them, taking an immediate and intense liking to the pair, and resolving at once to assist them in clearing Ludovic’s name.
He and Eustacie have already fallen in love, needless to say.
They suspect the jewellery collector Sir Tristram (who incidentally, is supposed to have a sour view of women, having been disappointed in love many years ago) as the villain of the piece. But, when he turns up he protects Ludovic from law enforcers, and says that he suspects none other than Basil Lavenham as the murderer. Well, he’s a second cousin, after all.
The rest of the story is taken up with the attempts to evade incompetent thief takers and the machinations of Basil Lavenham, who has the ring (possession of which will show he is the murderer) concealed in his house.
As there are only approximately six or seven pages of love scenes in a novel of nearly three hundred, as regards genre, this seems more of a mystery story than an historical romance.
Also, if Ludovic and Eustacie are meant to be the hero and heroine, then the romance between them is singularly devoid of the plot driving conflict romance writers insist is indispensable. He says he wants to marry her – she’s quite agreeable – the morning after they meet. The only conflict is that provided by external forces, which doesn’t make for much interest in the relationship.
It is arguable that they are not in fact the hero and heroine, but the ‘romantic’ foils to the down-to-earth and bantering Sir Tristram and Sarah Thane.
Certainly, Tristram Shield has the hallmarks of a Heyer hero; he’s dark, saturnine, skilled at the manly arts of boxing, shooting and riding, and carries with him scars of an emotional nature.
Yet, it is also true that Heyer does have another, less frequently used sort of hero, a callow young man with the right ideas but who needs to mature, who is wild, thoughtless, headstrong, and generally tall and athletic, with fair hair and blue eyes. He is to be found as Sherry in  another of her novels ‘Friday’s Child’. Ludovic is more or less the same character as this one, save he’s quicker on the draw.
Then again, with regard to heroines, Sarah and Eustacie conform to the types Heyer often uses, the witty, independent, slightly older, tall and statuesque woman, and the spirited ingénue of few inches. What we seem to have is a set of two possible heroes and heroines.
So, then, ‘Spot the Protagonist’: whoever is that?
It might appear to be Sir Tristram, who is the one who solves the mystery and traps the villain. But this can’t be so according to the most popular definitions, as the story is not bound up with his fate, unless that is, to clear himself of the others’ suspicions that he is the thief and murderer. Yet after all, his fellow conspirators quickly acquit him of that when he sets about trying to expose the real villain.
As Tristram doesn’t deny that he has never liked Ludovic (they are reconciled two-thirds of the way into the novel), it is certainly to his credit that he exerts himself so determinedly to clear his name. It is never made clear why he devotes himself to this task with quite such single mindedness, except possibly through a sense of justice and a desire to clear the whole family’s name as well.

There does, however, seem to be an strong bond between the two male and rivalrous cousins, all the more smouldering for being unstated.
In fact, if there is emotional intensity in this novel, it is not between the opposite sex couples, but between Tristram Shield and Ludovic, a passionate sort of love hate relationship which seems to hint at strong elements of repessed desire: –
‘”Damn you, take your hands off me,” Ludovic whispered.
Sir Tristram paid no heed to this, but obliged him to drink some of the water. He laid him down again, and handed the glass to Miss Thane. “Listen to me,” he said, standing over Ludovic, “I never had your ring in my hands in my life. Until this moment I would have sworn that it was in your possession.”
Ludovic had averted his face, but he turned his head at that. “If you have not got it, who has?” he said wearily.
“I don’t know, but I’ll do my best to find out,” replied Shield.’
When he does find the famous talisman ring – in Basil’s quizzing glass, where else-
Shield’s graceless younger cousin breaks into an emotional speech of thanks intriguing in its implications: –
‘‘There is nothing I can say to you, Tristram, except that I could kiss your feet for what you have done for me.”’
As Ludovic Lavenham’s fate is what the story is about, he must surely be the protagonist, according to common definitions of that role. But he is a singularly thinly drawn main character. He is roughly sketched in as a reckless young man, supposedly charming and handsome with ‘a commanding air’ (shades of Heriot Fayne in Garvice’s The Outcast of the Family). We don’t even know the names of his late parents or what his relations with them were (for convenience, all the parental generation in this story have been killed off save Tristram’s widowed mother).
The reader is clearly intended to find him charming, just as she is meant to find Eustacie sweetly ingenuous, but that requires much patience.

For instance, the Conniving Cousin obligingly tells Tristram Shield that his house will be empty on a certain day, and that the library window needs fixing. Tristram laughs at the crudity of this ploy, but Ludovic rushes into the trap, with his protector close on his heels to rescue him.

Again, protagonist or otherwise, at the climax of the story Ludovic is locked in the cellar in a sort of symbolic imprisonment (where for his security the landlord and Sir Tristram have insisted on keeping him for several days), and in fact the story ends before he even emerges. Given that there are such strong undercurrents of unexpressed desire between him and Sir Ttristram (and that brings me on the possible hidden motives of the Beau), it is highly appropriate that he should lurk in a Freudian manner in the basement, while Sir Tristram proposes to Sarah Thane.

All this seems odd in a protagonist, when the Wicki definition assures us that we must empathize deeply with one, while the main character is intended to provide mainly interest and excitement.

Again, he is the only character who is purely ‘seen from outside’. Although it is certainly true that we have little access to the inner lives of any of the characters in this book, we have some insights into the thoughts of the other three main characters (though mercifully few in the case of Eustacie). Still, we are never told what is taking place in Ludovic’s head at all.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to draw a main character and not to give any access to his or her mental processes, thereby enhancing mystery, but there is nothing mysterious about Ludovic, and one is forced to conclude that Heyer wisely refrains from giving the reader access to the inside of his head largely because it is empty.
The reader, however, is clearly meant to sympathize with him and Eustacie, and to care about their fate; how far this is true for most readers I don’t know, but I found myself unequal to that.

Sir Tristram, then, seems to be the hero – not the ‘False Hero’ I have read of, but a ‘False Villain’. We never get to know him particularly well, partly because some of his actions are designed to take the reader by surprise.

We are not told, in fact, what the unromantic pair makes of each other until the end, although of course, the reader is lead to guess.

These, then, are some of the issues that intrigue me about this perennially popular ‘Regency’ (in fact, late Georgian) romance. The peculiarities of the plot, the confusing combination of seemingly two heroes and two heroines, the high proportion of mystery to the romantic detail, all seem to indicate something shocking – dare I say it of so polished, professional and detached a writer as Georgette Heyer – that she had done what is regarded as literary critics as ‘An Absolute No No’ and ‘Lost Control of Her Material’.

This is, of course, practically a literary equivalent to  a teacher losing control of a classroom. Still, Heyer is in distinguished company. The charge has been leveled at Elizabeth Gaskell in the melodramatic third volume of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ and at Pushkin in the second half of his robber novel ‘Dubrovsky’.

To me this seems the only explanation for the strangely unsatisfactory balance in this story; it is as if Heyer set out to write a vaguely Gothic spoof of romantic themes (both romantic in the modern sense of he word and the eighteenth century one which incorporates adventure). Perhaps, Jane Austen admirer as she was, in the contrasting two pairs of lovers she envisaged a sort of adventurous equivalent to ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Possibly she started the novel intending to focus most of her attention on the romantic couple, but subsequently lost interest in them, and allowed the down to earth ones to take over the action and resolve the plot.

I found these issues a far more interesting mystery than the one concerning the whereabouts of talisman ring.

One thing is certain; despite the lack of a clear protagonist, and whatever might be seen by modern literary pundits as structural faults, ‘The Talisman Ring’, at seventy-nine years old,  is number fifty in the historical romance category on Amazon.co.uk.

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2 thoughts on “A Successful Cross-Genre Novel Without a Clear Protagonist; Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’

  1. I’m not a great reader of Historical Romance, but I’m actually tempted to give this a go. ‘Sir Tristram Shield’??!!! Any book containing a name like that can’t be all bad… 🙂

  2. Get, the names, eh, Mari? What fascinated me with it, as you’ll see from above, was also the unexpressed passion between the said ‘Sir Tristram Sheild’ and Ludovic Lavenham; it is appropriately Freudian that the latter should be lurking in the cellar when Sir T makes his romantic proposal to Sarah Thane. All this gave me inspiration for Edmund Ravensdale’s unexpressed passion for Reynaud Ravensdale.

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