At first, The Talisman Ring and I weren’t going to get along very well. The first character introduced, Sir Tristram Shield, seemed altogether too dry to be the Proper Heyer Hero.
He meets with his great-uncle, who is Soon To Die, and hears him propose that he should wed his cousin.
The first half of chapter one I just wasn’t quite into BUT THEN …
(ah, yes. The ‘But Then’ that took up my lunch break and gave me a good few giggles)
… but then I hung in there. And it got better. Much better.
Eustacie, a young French girl who knows exactly what she would wear should she ride in a tumbril on her way to the guillotine (dressed all in white, with perhaps a handkerchief, a little pale but quite unafraid), burst into the scene and by the end of chapter one the dryness of Shield was quite forgivable when contrasted to Eustacie (and the appearance of Beau Lavenham was interesting – was he supposed to be the hero?).
The great-uncle dies leaving Eustacie and Shield betrothed. It is not an altogether happy betrothal.
“Yes, but I think I shall,” said Eustacie, propping her chin in her hands and gazing mournfully into the fire. “After all, I have had a very unhappy life without any adventures, and it would not be wonderful if I went into decline. Only nothing that is interesting ever happens to me,” she added bitterly, “so I dare say I shall just die in childbed, which is a thing anyone can do.”
Sir Tristram flushed uncomfortably. “Really, Eustacie!” he protested.
Eustacie was too much absorbed in the contemplation of her dark destiny to pay any heed to him. “I shall present to you an heir,” she said, “and then I shall die.” The picture suddenly appealed to her; she continued in a more cheerful tone: “Everyone will say that I was very young to die, and they will fetch you from the gaming hall where you-”
“Fetch me from where?” interrupted Sir Tristram, momentarily led away by this flight of the imagination.
“From the gaming hall,” repeated Eustacie impatiently. “Or perhaps the Cock Pit. It does not signify; it is quite unimportant! But I think you will feel great remorse when it is told to you that I am dying, and you will spring up and fling yourself on your horse, and ride ventre à terre to come to my deathbed. And then I shall forgive you, and-“
[ventre à terre by the way, is basically riding flat out. Very romantic, to be sure.]
As you can see, Eustacie is a Romantic. Sir Tristram Shield is Not. Also, there is another cousin who has fled the country due to a murder which he may or may not have committed. Also there is the title ring that everybody wants. (Except Eustacie, who just wants an adventure).
Eustacie decides that she doesn’t want to be betrothed to Sir Tristram and so [very naturally] runs away. To London. To be a governess.
Things happen. Hilarious things. Sparkling dialogue and new characters. Eustacie runs into a smuggler – or as they like to be called – free traders.
“I wish I could be a smuggler,” said Eustacie wistfully. “I think I should like that.”
“You wouldn’t do for a smuggler,” he replied, shaking his head. “We don’t encourage females in the trade. It’s too dangerous.”
“Well, I do not think it is fair that just because one is a female one should never be allowed to have any adventures!”
Quite right, my dear Eustacie. Quite right. But no fear, there is quite an adventure ahead of you.
In the course of things (a chase! a revelation! a gunshot wound!) Eustacie and the wounded Free Trader (who is [spoiler!]) arrive at an inn and it is there that one of the best characters of the book is introduced. Or rather, she introduces herself:
“Let me present myself to you: Sarah Thane, a creature of no importance at all, travelling to London with my brother, whom you may hear snoring upstairs.”
She wishes to know if Eustacie and the Free Trader are eloping.
“But, of course, I am not eloping with him! Voyans, how could I elope with him when I have only just met him? It would be quite absurd!”
“Oh, if you have only just met him, I suppose it would,” agreed Miss Thane regretfully. “It is a pity, for I have often thought that I should like to assist an elopement. However, one can’t have everything.”
And so the adventure continues. And what an adventure! The stakes increase and the ring is ever absent. Or is it? Danger lurks about them …
“I may have said that I wanted to have an adventure,” replied Miss Thane. “But I never said that I wanted to be murdered in my bed.”
… and hilarity rushes forward with it.
Sir Tristram redeems himself in my eyes and more, though his name is often blackened by those around him:
“On the contrary, I am becoming quite accustomed to it. But I am afraid that even your imagination must fail soon. I have been in swift succession a tyrant, a thief and a murderer, and now a fortune hunter. There is really nothing left.”
This book is now one of my favourite of Heyer’s books. The Goodreads summary is quite right in saying that:
The Talisman Ring is one of Heyer’s funniest and fastest-paced romantic comedies, telling the story of a fugitive heir, a tempestuous Frenchwoman, and the two sensible people who try to keep them out of trouble.
Quite right indeed.
Heyer, I salute you with this one.