Powder and Patch (or The Transformation of Phillip Jettan), by Georgette Heyer, is my favourite book of all time. I obtained my first copy at an op-shop when I was a teenager and read and re-read it until it began to fall apart. It was actually the book that inspired me to begin making 18th century costumes, as well as influencing me to begin writing again.
The story is set in mid-18th century England, during the era of powdered wigs, sword duelling, tricorn hats and full-skirted coats. The plot centres around Mr Phillip Jettan, a young man living on his father’s country estate, who shows no inclination for the ways of Polite Society. His father desires him to “experience the pleasures and displeasures” of the world, thereby learning about himself and others around him, but Phillip refuses to be tempted, instead preferring to work on the estate.
“I am selfish, Father? Because I will not become the thing I despise?” “And narrow, Phillip, to despise what you do not know.”
In the town of Little Fittledean there also lived Miss Cleone Charteris, a very pretty young woman with golden curls and eyes of cornflower blue. Mr Phillip Jettan has known Miss Cleone since they were children, but has fallen in love with her since her return from seminary school.
Upon the arrival in town of Mr Henry Bancroft – a fashionable, languid, charming, mincing, flattering fop – Phillip’s qualities are thrown into the shadows. He is clumsy with words and dresses for comfort rather than fashion. His nails are unpolished and he wears no jewels, and does not even have a wig! Cleone, attracted by the graceful homage and dainty complements of Mr Bancroft, responds with her youthful gaiety.
Phillip’s jealousy for Cleone’s attentions lead him challenge Mr Bancroft to a duel, in which he is easily worsted. He then proposes to Cleone, feeling certain that she would want “an honest man’s love” instead of a “painted puppy dog”, but is rejected. Whilst she loves him, he lacks the polish and finesse of a gentleman of the time and has a tendency to presume ownership of her, rather than pursuing a gallant courtship.
“Cleone,” blundered Phillip, “you – don’t want a – mincing, powdered – beau.” “I do not want a – a – raw country-bumpkin,” she said cruelly.
Dismayed by his rejection and knowing that he wants her for his wife, Phillip decides to go to London and then France in order to learn the arts of coquetry and fashionable manners properly. After only six months he has made a huge impression in France: he fences, speaks French, dresses fashionably, writes poetry, attends balls, and phrases pretty compliments to women – all the necessary arts of a fashionable gentleman.
Mr Bancroft arrives in France, initially meeting Phillip at a rout in Paris. The tables have now been turned, as Phillip has many friends in Paris and is sought after at every fashionable gathering. He hears that Bancroft has been bandying his love’s name around and challenges him to another duel. This time he is successful, pinking Bancroft easily.
Once Phillips’s father and Cleone hear of his duel “over some French wench”, he returns from Paris to London, hearing that Cleone is not at all happy that he has been engaging the attentions of other women. Meeting her at a ball in London, he deliberately plays the part of a languid, mincing town-gallant that she bade him to become, showering her with all the insincere, flowery complements of a dandy. She is initially surprised and then angry, feeling hurt that his attentions to her are indifferent and blase. To cover her feelings, she begins to flirt and court the attentions of other gentlemen, treating them with the same indifference and triviality.
It all comes to a climax at a ball in London. Phillip takes a straightforward approach and proposes to Cleone again, to which she replies by elaborating on his encounters with women in Paris, accusing him of bringing her a tarnished reputation. He leaves her side, and James Winton – another friend from childhood – comes to sit beside her. Whilst she is thinking about her conversation with Phillip, she notices that James is earnestly entreating her to answer yes to his question. In impatience she replies in the affirmative, only to discover that he had been proposing to her. Once he leaves her side, a Sir Deryk Brenderby comes and takes her to a small withdrawing-room to cool herself down. Once they are there, Sir Deryk teaches her how to dice, wagering the rose at her breast. As he removes it, a locket is broken from her neck and rolls under the funriture. Upon retrieving it, Sir Deryk notices Cleone’s agitation that it be returned to her, and suggests a new wager. If she wins, she gets the locket back, and if she loses she needs to kiss him to obtain the locket. Reluctantly she agrees and promptly loses the wager. Just as she is kissing him, Phillip and James walk into the room.
In order to spare Cleone the shame of being discovered in a compromising position, Sir Deryk pretends they have just got engaged, to which James replies hotly that Cleone is engaged to himself. Phillip congratulates them all and departs.
“What’s this?” Sir Maurice [Phillip’s father] spoke with well-feigned astonishment. “Cleone, you are not betrothed, surely?” “To two men,” nodded her aunt. “I have never been so amused in all my life. I always considered myself to be flighty, but I’ll swear I never was engaged to two men at one and the same time!”
In order to extricate her from two engagements, Phillip first fights a duel with Sir Deryk Brenderby and then uses his influence to persuade James to give up his suit. He then arrives at the door of Cleone’s lodgings and announces that she is free from her engagements. All that remains is for him to persuade her to marry him, which he does most masterfully.
This novel is a step away from Heyer’s favourite era – the Regency – and whilst it is a relatively simplistic storyline, it was my first introduction to the world of Heyer, and even history! For this reason it has obtained a special place on my shelf.
Georgette Heyer is a great writer, and I think she is especially so in her historical romances. I love her mix of historical accuracy, romance and wittiness, which have often caused me to laugh out loud as I read! In a phrase, she’s my cup of tea!
Powder and Patch – read an excerpt of the fateful encounter in the withdrawing room!
Powder and Patch – buy through Amazon