The Reluctant Widow (1950)

Based on a novel by Georgette Heyer.

Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite authors, and when, the other day I discovered that one of Heyer’s books had been made into a film, I managed to find a copy on YouTube. Though the hard-coded Greek subtitles on this copy are a little distracting, at least I was able to watch The Reluctant Widow, aka The Inheritance.

The film begins on a night in the English countryside. Elinor Rochdale (Jean Kent), who has just gotten off a stage coach, is hailed by a groom with a carriage, asking her if she has come in answer to the advertisement? Elinor says yes, so she gets into the coach and is taken to (as she assumes) the home of Mrs Macclesfield, who has employed Elinor as a governess for her young son. Elinor, once wealthy, is in sadly reduced circumstances since the death of her father, and with nowhere to go and no other means of keeping body and soul together, has chosen to work.

When she arrives at a gloomy, ramshackle-looking mansion, Elinor is shown into a room where a man, Lord Carlyon (Guy Rolfe) comes forward to talk to her. They have a convoluted and somewhat baffling conversation, until it dawns on Elinor as well as Lord Carlyon that they’re talking at cross-purposes. It finally emerges that this is not the Macclesfield home; the groom had been sent to fetch quite another lady who was expected in response to quite another advertisement…

Elinor is distressed; what will Mrs Macclesfield be thinking? When Elinor gives Lord Carlyon Mrs Macclesfield’s address, he offers to take her there. They get into the carriage, and as they travel, they chat. It turns out Carlyon knew Elinor’s father, and therefore knows of the many debts she has inherited thanks to her father’s death.

Their conversation is interrupted when the carriage is drawn to a sudden stop by a rider hailing them.

A panting and distressed young man flings open the carriage door. This is Nicky (Anthony Tancred), Lord Carlyon’s younger brother. He’s all in a flap because he’s gone and killed Eustace. Nicky says he found Eustace trying to molest a woman who had come to the inn at Billingshurst in response to an advertisement, and when Nicky came to the woman’s rescue, Eustace pulled out a knife on Nicky—and in the ensuing fight, Eustace was wounded.

Eustace Cheviot (Peter Hammond) is the Carlyons’ dissolute cousin, and he’s not dead (yet). But given the severity of his wound and the fact that Eustace’s constitution, ruined by years of alcoholism, is not the best, he’s probably alive for only a matter of moments. And the woman who had come to the inn is very likely the one whom Elinor had been mistaken for: a woman who was had been hired (sort of) to marry Eustace so that he could will his property to her rather than have it go to Carlyon. Eustace hates the idea of leaving his money to Carlyon, and Carlyon hates it equally.

Lord Carlyon races for the inn at Billingshurst, with Nicky and Elinor—the latter since she has no option—in tow. There, Lord Carlyon tells Elinor all about Eustace and the bequest, and how, to prevent inheriting the money, Carlyon had advertised for a woman to come and marry Eustace.

Now that that woman is gone, and Eustace is about to die, will Elinor marry him instead? It will of course be a marriage only in name, since she will be a widow before dawn. Elinor is aghast at the very suggestion, but Carlyon is unflappable, intent on somehow salvaging the situation. He tells Elinor that in any case, Eustace is dying; he will happily bequeath all his wealth to her, which will allow Elinor to pay off all those debts she has inherited from her father.

Finally, Elinor gives in. A special license is produced (Carlyon has prepared well for this), the priest is summoned, and Elinor is married to Eustace, an angry and sullen dying man if there ever was one.

Shortly after the wedding, with Eustace now dead, Carlyon drives Elinor to her new home, the mansion where she had been mistakenly taken just a few hours earlier. Carlyon looks through some of Eustace’s papers and says he’ll examine them later. Meanwhile, he advises Elinor to invite a friend over so that she may have some company. Elinor agrees.

The scene now shifts to Whitehall, where Sir Malcolm (Hector MacGregor), who is the Duke of Wellington’s personal representative, comes to meet Lord Bedlington (Andrew Cruickshank). Bedlington is ADC to George, Prince of Wales, and comes across as a blustering, gambling-addicted incompetent. How incompetent, it soon emerges:  he rails at Malcolm, telling him that an important dispatch—which Bedlington calmly admits to having left in his desk—has gone missing. Bedlington seems to suggest it is all the fault of the bumbling officers he is surrounded by, and adjures Malcolm to find the missing document.

In the office outside, Malcolm meets Colonel Strong (George Thorpe), who, on discovering what’s happened, is annoyed and distressed. They cannot afford to have that paper fall into the hands of the French. It must be recovered as soon as possible. Thinking over it, Malcolm expresses his suspicions about Bedlington’s nephew, Eustace Cheviot, who might (in Malcolm’s opinion) be a go-between. He’s impoverished and has friends among the French émigrés.

Malcolm also wants to summon Lord Carlyon. Carlyon, it turns out, is a major; now that he’s applied for special leave following in the wake of Eustace’s death, Malcolm thinks it worthwhile to call Carlyon.

… and thus, rather puzzlingly, two officers turn up at Carlyon’s doorstep. He is arrested and taken to Whitehall. There, in a brief scene, we discover that Carlyon has been court-martialed and stripped of his rank. But just after, Malcolm and Strong speak to him in private and it’s obvious that this was just a ploy to make it appear to the world that Carlyon has been disgraced; Carlyon will now appear innocuous, perhaps even bitter and vengeful (and therefore possibly co-operative) to whichever traitor has got his hands on the missing letter.

While the three of them are discussing the matter, they are interrupted by Lord Bedlington’s son, Francis Cheviot (Scott Forbes), who seems to be a dedicated dandy, completely devoted to his appearance.

When he’s gone, Malcolm, Strong and Carlyon discuss Francis, and mention one of his French acquaintances, a Mme Chevreaux. Who, it is also mentioned, is known to Carlyon too. The conversation implies that they suspect Mme Chevreaux of being part of a plot against the English. Strong and Malcolm believe she will now probably approach Carlyon. (Very little of this is making sense to me. If they suspect Mme Chevreaux, why hasn’t she been arrested? And what do they suspect Francis of, and why?)

The scene now shifts back to Elinor, who is reading a book when someone knocks at the window. It turns out to be a smuggler, one of Eustace’s decrepit associates, who’s come to inform Eustace about a consignment of cognac he’s brought. Elinor is realizing, with swift and disconcerting suddenness, that her late husband was not at all the paragon of virtue.

Having sent the smuggler on his way and got back to her book, Elinor hears sounds and steps out of the room, to find a stranger outside. It’s very late at night by now, and the servants have all retired. Though the man recovers from his surprise soon and claims to be a friend of Eustace’s, Elinor is rattled. How did he come in, when nobody let him in, and all the doors and windows are closed? The man, who has a French accent, goes his way and is most civil about it all, but Elinor is disturbed by this episode.

The housekeeper, when Elinor asks her the next day, agrees that all doors and windows were closed. Nicky, coming to call on Elinor, is fascinated by her story, and insists on searching the house for a hidden passage—which he finds. He persuades Elinor to let him stay the night in the house, in the hope that the Frenchman of the previous night will again put in an appearance.

Elinor and Nicky are proven right in their suspicions: in the dead of night, someone does emerge in the house by way of that hidden passage. Elinor, who awakens, quickly goes and wakes up Nicky, who follows the intruder. There’s a bit of confusion; the intruder runs off, but only after putting a bullet through Nicky’s shoulder.

This is all getting pretty confusing. Who is this Frenchman? Why is he frequenting this house? Where is that missing letter? Is Francis Cheviot really just a conceited fop or is there something more sinister to him?

What I liked about this film, what I didn’t like, and some comparisons:

Georgette Heyer’s original novel doesn’t just have a fairly complicated plot, a lot of the book depends upon a lot of long dialogue. There’s dialogue to establish the case of the missing papers. There’s dialogue to build Elinor’s and Carlyon’s relationship. There’s dialogue to build the character of Nicky, who (to me) is one of the most hilarious characters in the Heyer canon.

The film, because so much dialogue is both unwieldy and can begin to pall, trims it down so drastically that we end up:

(a) with a very lukewarm, lacklustre Nicky, nowhere as delightfully harum-scarum as he is in the book, and

(b) pretty much all at sea about the plot: how it all ties up, why the good guys suspect the bad ones, and so on.

The film makes other changes (giving Lord Carlyon a military background, for instance), cutting out several characters (Carlyon’s siblings, besides Nicky), introducing a few more (Mme Chevreaux is not there in the book), and making other changes. Some of these I can appreciate, given that they make the screenplay crisper and less cumbersome for cinema. Others I find needless and irritating: for instance, there’s a hurried wedding between Carlyon and Elinor, with him pretending to be on his deathbed, all to no real purpose; the amusing, easy, bantering relationship between them which is a hallmark of the book (and is very common in Heyer’s novels) is missing here.

Plus, the Francis Cheviot of the book, a simpering fop who ‘mollycoddles himself’ is simply not there in the film. Scott Forbes as Francis Cheviot may occasionally say things that mark him as the dandy, but he looks nothing like the irritating creature of the book, and comes across more as a shrewd (not to mention fairly good-looking) man about town.

Talking about looks, Guy Rolfe, I will admit, wasn’t, for me, hero material: too gaunt, too harsh—and that goes also for his dialogue-delivery and his acting. The book’s Lord Carlyon is a bossy man, but he also has a sense of humour; the cinematic Carlyon is just bossy through and through, not a man I liked at all.

I liked Jean Kent as Elinor Rochdale, but even she can do only so much.

On the whole, a film I’d advise steering clear of if you enjoyed the book. It’s not anywhere near the same.  If you do want to watch it, though, there’s this copy, on YouTube.

27 thoughts on “The Reluctant Widow (1950)

  1. Ah man, that’s what everyone’s saying about this movie version, but I’m always hoping against hope it will somehow magically turn good so I can watch it.

    I’ve always thought it was such a weird choice of her books to make a movie out of, and probably one of the least suitable. You’ve really nailed the problem with it, I think. It’s such a shame but I guess we have the books.

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    • I agree completely – this is not, in my opinion, one of Heyer’s best. Certainly not a book, at least, that I would have thought anybody would want to make a movie out of. There are so many more movie-suitable books of hers out there! (And I remember having read somewhere – now for several years – that there were plans afoot to adapt The Grand Sophy).

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    • Other than having heard her name, I was not familiar with Georgette Heyer and probably would not watch the film, however I did appreciate your review of it. When I reached your remark “…very little of this is making sense to me”, I laughed because I was in full agreement and wondered what all that had to do with the reluctant widow! I think the film makers just thought that was a good title. I have not read any of Barbara Cartland’s novels either, but do recall she seemed to get a lot of publicity in the latter years of her life, doing many television interviews. She even recorded an album of love songs. Definitely remember her singing ‘If You Were the Only Boy in the World and I Were the Only Girl”..!

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      • The original novel by Heyer is called The Reluctant Widow, and the basic plot line of the film is very much that of the novel, so I can see why that title might have been used. :-) But the film, because it makes unnecessary deviations from the plot, and cannot replicate the involved and extensive dialogue, ends up being really confusing and tedious!

        I hadn’t known Cartland had recorded an album of love songs. My goodness.

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  2. Man, I began reading thinking, “Hey, didn’t we just speak about Heyer being cinematic gold?” and almost immediately after, “But, whyThe Reluctant Widow of all her books, when there are so many more interesting ones out there that would make for better cinema – The Grand Sophy, False Colours, Arabella, The Quiet Gentleman…?

    And I was rather zapped when you wrote about Carlyon’s court martial – I didn’t remember there being one in the book. Then I came to the end of your review and sighed in relief that I wasn’t completely losing my marbles! I think I will go back and read a Heyer and give this one a miss! Thanks for the warning. :)

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    • That conversation we had about Heyer being cinematic gold was what sparked this one! – I went searching to see if there were any movies based on her books, and this is what I found. It’s really an odd choice (and obviously not a good one) to adapt to cinema – so little action, so much dialogue. There are plenty of other, far more interesting Heyers that could have been made into films, why this?! (And Arabella was made into a German film; I haven’t found a subtitled copy, unfortunately).

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  3. I just can’t get into Heyer despite multiple attempts. Something about her characters seem flat and lifeless to me. Barbara Cartland seemed more lively despite her alpha-boor misogynistic heroes and stammering spineless heroines. IMO Patricia Veryan who came much later wrote better characters and more convoluted plots. The redemption of Roland Farleigh Matheison in Dedicated Villain is a work of art. Roland reminds me a lot of Dev Anand’s gray characters.

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    • Ah, well. To each one’s own! I read Barbara Cartland briefly as a young teen, when my sister used to borrow them from friends and bring them home, but even at that age, the books soon palled for me. I have loathed Cartland’s books for many years now. I don’t think I’ve read Patricia Veryan.

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      • Yes, you outgrow Barbara Carland’s shallow characters pretty soon. But I still remember the gorgeous covers. Anyway, she got me learning French just to make out those random French phrases she sprinkles throughout.

        Patricia Veryan is a mixed bag. Her series usually has a mission/quest with a group of heroes with each book concentrating on one pair. And they come in a variety of flavors -staid and conventional, bold and rebellious. The women are pretty independent surviversand make their decisions(sometimes criminal) despite remaining true to the time period. And best of all 20-25 year olds act their age. They are impulsive, they make mistakes, plays childish pranks. A serious duel could devolve into a joke and vice versa. And there are consequences and prices to pay for mistakes made. The Roland I mentioned in the previous comment was one of the party of villains who torture one of the heroes of the previous books. He does not participate. But neither does he stop his collaborators. In his own book he has to pay the price -undergo torture and lose one of his eyes. What goes around, comes around.

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  4. I didn’t know any of Heyer’s books had been filmed. I think Reluctant Widow could be an OK choice if done more faithfully. The adaptations don’t sound good.

    Incidentally, I outgrew Barbara Cartkand very rapidly. Whereas Heyer; I started reading her when I was 23, and I reread most of my favourite Heyer novels every few years. During the pandemic I reread at least 25 of her novels! Including the Reluctant Widow. There’s a lot in the text in many books, which just cannot be filmed. eg The Civil Contract. But I think The Convenient Marriage would work very well, as of course the Corinthian or Regency Buck.
    And False Colours is so Bollywood-ish!

    Thanks for the review …

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed this. I personally don’t think The Reluctant Widow was a very good choice for a film adaptation, because it just has so much dialogue that wouldn’t translate to cinema. To the books you suggest that might work well, I would like to add Sprig Muslin (which is one of my absolute favourites) and Arabella, which was actually made into a German film. I wasn’t able to find a subtitled version, though, sadly.

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  5. Count me in as someone who outgrew Barbara Cartland very quickly. Her vapid heroines and the alpha-male heroes do nothing for me. Like you, I quickly grew to loathe her novels.

    I came late to Heyer. After marriage, in fact. A cousin was appalled that I hadn’t read her until then and lent me three of her books – These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub and False Colours. Man, that set me off on a journey to discover as many of her novels as I could. I love her not only for her wit and humour and very real heroines (who all have a spine!) but also for her impeccable research regarding the history of the times, the dress and manners.

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  6. By coincidence, I read the book just a couple of weeks ago! I haven’t been much of a Georgette Heyer fan. But Ira was a big fan and had a collection of her books, which I have kept. I am reading them slowly. I totally agree about the witty dialogues and madcap, convoluted plots that make for a delightful reading. I can imagine translating to a movie would take much of that fun away, and looks like in this movie they have failed thoroughly. I would love to see a good, nice (or even a not so nice!) Bollywood adaptation of some of her books.

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