It’s tosh and I loved it. Bath gentility, Almack’s assemblies, gauzy frocks, curricles and phaetons, two aristocrats in a marriage of convenience, her lover and his mistress.
I can’t help feeling that Georgette Heyer would have arranged matters very differently. The cynical, bored Marquis of Rohan, the Man in Grey, would have met not the beautiful, immature Clarissa, but a confident, intelligent woman, perhaps a governess closer to his own age. Or an unconventional and bewitching girl, dressed in boys’ clothes, would have fetched up at the same coaching inn, attempting to escape an unwelcome betrothal. Clarissa, meanwhile, would have met Rokeby before she married, and someone would have bought him a commission in a smart regiment. Clever, embittered Hesther would have… no, Hesther wouldn’t have been there at all. Georgette Heyer would have saved Hesther for a detective story. (Apologies for all these adjectives, but Eleanor Smith liked adjectives.)
As it was, Rohan married Clarissa for an heir and, once their son was born, they led amicably separate lives. Then Clarissa offered a home to Hesther, a school-friend living outside society. Through Hesther she met Rokeby (Swinton Rokeby – possibly the least romantic name ever for a hero) and they fell in love, while Rohan made Hesther his mistress. Whatever else she was, she was not a bore. Hesther’s feelings about Clarissa were complex: she liked her but was secretly jealous of her position, possessions and, most of all, husband.
All this is told in flashback, in 1941, by the young Marchioness of Rohan while her husband is away fighting. She is nervously exploring the family mansion, when she knocks against a panel, ‘a little door swung softly open’ and she peers into
a small aperture lined with shabby turquoise velvet and crammed with bundles of papers. … The velvet was frayed and worn, the papers thick with dust and a strange musty odour came from the hiding-place. … [She] paused, almost panting with excitement.
By now, you might be able to guess why this silly book is so enjoyable. The plot twists and turns, and the story is told breathlessly, catching you up in the drama. Clarissa and Rokeby are charming, Rohan is as sardonic and damaged as any romance fan could wish and Hesther has a back-story to explain her character. The background is part-Gothic gloom, part-Regency elegance. It’s not the real Regency any more than Georgette Heyer’s is, of course, but it’s rich and convincing. There is crime and a supernatural shudder. Heavens, there are even buccaneers. In 1941, this must have offered a much longed-for distraction from air-raids.
The Man in Grey is an early bodice ripper, much more discreet than today’s soft porn examples but distinctly less ladylike than Georgette Heyer’s novels. It also owes much to Victorian melodrama and to ghost stories. There is, for example, a touch of Lady Audley about Hesther, and there are echoes of M R James or Sheridan Le Fanu. It is a clever combination by a knowing author.
Eleanor Smith (1902-1945) is hardly remembered today but was a personality in her short lifetime. She was Lady Eleanor, daughter of the 1st Earl of Birkenhead (F E Smith, a Tory politician and ally of Churchill, who became Lord Chancellor). She was a socialite, novelist, gossip columnist and film critic. Her title is prominent on the title page and in the publisher’s catalogue at the back of the book. After all, who better to write about aristocrats than an aristocrat?
Today The Man in Grey is best remembered as a 1943 film, with the screenplay partly written by novelist Margaret Kennedy, of Constant Nymph fame. Here is the trailer. Film was an even more important means of wartime distraction than the novel. This was the first of the hugely popular Gainsborough pictures, with the classic cast of James Mason (Rohan), Margaret Lockwood (Hesther), Phyllis Calvert (Clarissa) and Stewart Granger (Rokeby). Jolly good they are too, within the confines of the material, although there is some hamming. As often, the differences between novel and film are instructive. In the novel the ending of the Regency section is fitting, whereas the film introduces the sadism usually found in Gainsborough melodramas. The novel’s contemporary ending introduces an element of horror but is rushed and unsatisfactory, while the film wisely takes an entirely different, but contrived, line.
‘I am writing these words on a wild and stormy night…’ One to enjoy.