A novel by Georgette Heyer, published in 1940 by William Heinemann

A Corinthian, in nineteenth century slang, was a gentleman whose primary interests were sporting rather than sartorial or social. For a rich young man during that period known as The Regency, sport meant boxing, hunting, riding (horses), driving (carriages) and fencing. It also encompassed such pursuits as gambling on horses, cock fights and boxing, as well as drinking heavily.

The Corinthian of the title is Sir Richard Wyndham, a very privileged young man. Wealthy, intelligent, handsome, articulate, and fashionable, he has spent his twenties having fun and, bored by his lifestyle and under pressure from his family, he faces the prospect of spending his thirties embarking on an arranged marriage to a young lady with whom he has nothing in common.

Upon this dismal scene enters Penelope Creed, wearing her cousin’s second best suit and dangling precariously from an upstairs window. Rescued by an inebriated Richard, Pen explains that she is compelled to flee from a similarly distasteful marriage, and naturally the best way to do this is dressed as a boy. Seeing the sense in this, Richard packs a bag and joins her.

Pen and Richard’s journey begins and ends on the stagecoach. In between they meet a thief who has lately taken to highway robbery, survive a crash, discover stolen jewels, witness a murder, do a bit of birdwatching, hide from a fish-faced aunt, assist in an elopement, get arrested and Pen becomes an unwelcome suitor to a distressed damsel. In other words, business as usual for Heyer.

As always in Heyer’s novels, the secondary characters are the real stars. Heyer had a better grasp of the contents of thieves cant and gentlemanly slang than any person since Francis Grose himself, and the cast of this particular book gave her plenty of scope to use it. A thief, a conman-turned-highwayman, a Bow Street Runner and a couple of young Corinthians have distinct, cleverly drawn voices and the average reader will come away with a greatly expanded vocabulary. Mostly centred on being drunk:

“Damme, I knew you’d shot the cat, Ricky, but I never guessed you were as bosky as that!”

“Yes,” said Sir Richard reflectively, “I fancy I must have been rather more up in the world than I suspected.”

“Up in the world! Dear old boy, you must have been clean raddled!”

The Corinthian is pure escapism, a delightful froth of story constructed on a thorough and meticulous knowledge of the time and place. From my teens this was my favourite Heyer. Pen, happily wandering the countryside in coat and breeches, befriending landladies and criminals with equal charm, was the heroine I wanted to be, and every other page has a snippet of quotable dialogue. Sir Richard is the ideal hero for real teenagers as much as the fictional Pen.

Just between you and me, he is still my ideal hero.