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REVIEW: Early Georgette Heyer series

Dear Readers.

As part of our Georgette Heyer week here, I’ve decided to do lightning reviews of Heyer’s very early series. This series includes Heyer’s first runaway bestseller, the first Regency Romance evah, one of the most well-researched books about Waterloo evah, iconic heroes and the cross-dressing heroines who shoot them (well, not quite), duels, highwaymen, and Beau Brummel.

These Old Shades	Georgette HeyerThe series “starts” (sort of) with The Black Moth, which I’ve already reviewed here at Dear Author. This is Heyer’s first book, written when she was 19 (and doesn’t that make me feel like a slacker?). It’s set in 1751 so is a Georgian, NOT a Regency romance. It’s notable, in my opinion, mainly for the hero of the secondary romance, but also for the villain, Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover. To the heroine (and, one assumes, to his author), he’s repellent and yet utterly compelling:

It was not what he said that alarmed her, but it was the way in which he said it, and the vague something in the purring, faintly sinister voice that she could not quite define, that made her heart beat unpleasantly fast, and the blood rush to her temples.

Repulsion or attraction?

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Well, four books (one each set in the 17th, 18th, and 15th centuries, and a suppressed contemporary) and five years later, in 1926, Heyer publishes These Old Shades, her first best-selling novel. She takes most of the characters from The Black Moth, gives them different names, and uses The Black Moth as the back story for These Old Shades, the hero of which is Tracy Belmanoir, now Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon. He’s nicknamed “Satanus” and lives up to it. The novel is still Georgian set, and one of the joys of the books is to read Heyer’s enraptured-historian’s descriptions of Avon’s elaborate outfits. Avon buys a fleeing boy off the boy’s brother in the slums of Paris. He does it for his own nefarious purposes — purposes he carries through with utter ruthlessness at the end of the novel. He makes the boy his page, but of course, his page is much more than he seems…

The novel is problematic: class is innate for Heyer. The blood of aristocrats will always tell, as will the blood of peasants, no matter their education or upbringing. But Avon is the ultimate in the depraved hero reluctantly saved by love and the climax of the novel in which all Avon’s machinations come together and he tells the story of Leonie’s background is riveting reading, not least because he’s wearing a gold suit.

But when I read this book at 13, the two line conversation –

“You do not love me?” she said, like a child.

“Too — well to marry you,” he said

– just about killed me. That little hitch in the middle…SO romantic.

Grade: B

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Six books (three contemporaries, an 18thC, a 16thC, and an 11thC set book) and six years later, Heyer publishes Devil’s Cub (1932), the story of Avon and Leonie’s son, Dominic, the Marquis of Vidal. He’s 25, wild, and utterly entitled. The book starts with him shooting to death a highwayman and leaving the body in the road. Although he hasn’t had time to become as totally depraved as his father, when he has to flee England after a duel (he leaves because of his father’s displeasure, not because he broke the law), he tries to take with him his latest light o’ love, the middle-class (not demi-monde) Sophy Challoner. Sophy, however, has a determined and entirely respectable sister Mary who refuses to allow her sister to lose her virtue to Vidal. So she swaps herself for Sophy, assuming Vidal would let her go after he discovers the switch. He does not, however, and drags her aboard his yacht, where she defends her honor by shooting him. The rest of the novel is a wild romp through France (as was These Old Shades), with Vidal determined to marry Mary because he’s destroyed her reputation and Mary equally determined not to be married to the man she loves for the wrong reasons.

Devil’s Cub has to be one of my favorite Heyers, because I adore Mary and her relationship with Vidal. When Vidal first insists on marrying Mary, she finds herself daydreaming:

She was so shocked to realise that for a few breathless moments she had forgotten Sophia in a brief vision of herself wedded to his lordship. ‘So that’s the truth, is it?’ said Miss Challoner severely to herself. ‘You are in love with him, and you’ve known it for weeks.’

But it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake. ‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’

There are no words for how much I love those lines. Stripping away the mask of the dissipated rake and making him a “wild, sulky, unmanageable boy” who needs managing is just…brilliant, in my opinion. And Vidal’s realization that he needs managing, while talking to his cousin, is perfect:

‘You were not very kind to Mary, apparently.’

‘Kind!’ ejaculated Vidal. ‘No, I was not – kind.’

Juliana ate another morsel of capon. ‘You seem to me to have behaved as though you hated her,’ she remarked.

He said nothing. Juliana peeped at him again. ‘You’re very anxious to get her in your power again, Vidal. But I don’t quite know why you should be, for you meant to marry her only because you had ruined her, and so were obliged to, didn’t you?’

She thought that he was not going to answer, but suddenly he raised his eyes from the contemplation of the dregs of his wine. ‘Because I am obliged to?’ he said. ‘I mean to marry Mary Challoner because I’m devilish sure I can’t live without her.’

The duel that enterprising Mary breaks up, the extended-family conversations we’re privy to, and the conversation between Mary and the unknown gentleman who saves her from herself in France are all absolutely priceless. But this is one book in which Heyer, most uncharacteristically, does not shy away from depicting full on romance at the end, and I adore it for that more than anything else.

Grade: A-

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Five books (four contemporary mysteries and one final Georgian historical) later, Heyer FINALLY publishes Regency Buck, the first Regency romance. I’ve reviewed this one as well. It’s not directly connected to the previous books until the next book, however. Really, everything I need to say about this book, I said in my other review, so I’ll wait here till you’re done…

Finally, An Infamous Army (1937), tells the story of Charles Audley, the brother of the hero of Regency Buck, and Lady Barbara Childe, granddaughter of Dominic and Mary from Devil’s Cub. The timeline between TOS, DC, and IA don’t quite work out, but it’s good enough. Dominic and Mary, now the Duke and Duchess of Avon, have a cameo in the book, but this book is most famous for the brilliantly researched and amazingly accurate description of the Battle of Waterloo that takes up almost its entire second half. The book is so accurate and so readable that for many years it was used as a set book at Sandhurt, the Royal Military Academy. I will admit, however, that I read it once as a teenager and never again, so I don’t actually have much I can say about it, except: the married brother of the heroine of Regency Buck is embroiled in a flirtation with the heroine of An Infamous Army. Pretty much the only thing I remember of this book besides Bab’s painted toenails and dampened skirts, is Harriet, Peregrine’s wife, lamenting that although they survived Perry’s infatuation, she’ll never fully look up to Perry anymore as her hero, that she sees his faults now in ways that she never had before. And as accurate and realistic as that might be, I found it very melancholy. I don’t feel I can really grade this book. But it needed discussing as part of the series.

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As much as we might adore her, Heyer is not an unproblematic author, as we see. But I don’t think anyone can deny the impact she had on the romance genre as we know it today. This series of five books is a mini-catalogue of Heyer’s career in historical romance. She finally settled down into writing Regencies almost exclusively in the 1940s, but these five books show how she got there, not only through her dedication to research, but also in her ability to create amazingly appealing characters.

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

17 Comments

  1. Cheryl
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 12:36:35

    Will you stop doing this? Now I want to buy more Heyer, after the eleven from yesterday and the paperbacks I already own. I’ll be Regencied out (is that a word?) and spout “Dash it all” and become overly fond of kippers. Devil’s Cub is now on my Kindle. I’ll have to wait for the others.
    Or, maybe not. . .

  2. Ros
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 12:43:20

    Devil’s Cub is my desert island Heyer. I adore it more every time I re-read it. I adore Vidal and I identify strongly with Mary and I love the silliness and the melodrama of Juliana and Frederick. And it’s so fun to see Leonie and Avon as parents, and poor Fanny with John. And everything! The scene where Mary finally agrees to marry Vidal is one of the most romantic I’ve read anywhere. She’s another one (like Venetia) who knows exactly what her future husband’s flaws are and isn’t hoping with rose-tinted glasses to change them.

  3. Isobel Carr
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 13:27:43

    I love An Infamous Army. Babs is pretty much my ideal heroine and the description of the Scots marching out to battle makes me cry every damn time. But then I adore this entire series of books. Absolute keepers (though yes, the “blood will tell” thing in TOS always makes me roll my eyes).

  4. SonomaLass
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 13:37:24

    I need to read and re-read some of these, now that I’ve read BLACK MOTH. BM, TOS and DC are the books I think of as ” darker” Heyer, and I lean a little more towards her fluff, I guess.

    And your excerpt reminds me of how I first heard Heyer’s writing described (by an English lit colleague): “Compared to most romances today, hers are squeaky clean. But be warned, her characters ejaculate frequently!”

  5. Ros
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 15:43:55

    @SonomaLass: Cousin Kate is her darkest book, I think. Devil’s Cub really isn’t that dark at all. It’s mostly pretty fun.

  6. pamelia
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 16:32:08

    These Old Shades remains my favorite Heyer with Devil’s Cub a close second. I know Shades is class-conscious to an alarming degree and I know Leonie is very young, but there is just something about how Avon’s character is drawn and how he is illuminated not by what he says of himself, but by what those closest to him say of him and his behaviors or how they react to him. Plus, to me, there is no better hero type than the foppishly dressed dangerous man (blame lots of viewings of The Scarlet Pimpernel as a teenager!) I think I’m about to start seeking out more Georgians than Regencies pretty soon now!

  7. Jayne
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 18:30:43

    @pamelia: The class-conscious thing got me the first time I read TOS. That and Leonie. But I did adore Avon as much as in TBM. I guess I need a reread to see how it would affect me. Maybe just skimming Leonie’s scenes would work…?

  8. Andrea
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 19:08:47

    The Devil’s Cub is one of my all time favourites. Mainly because she shoots him. :)

  9. Barb in Maryland
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 20:43:26

    Great reviews!
    My main problem with An Infamous Army is a sort of sideways thing. Lady Barbara’s father(i.e. the son of Vidal and Mary)is presented(in references)as such a tool! How could the son of two such fabulous people end up so awful??!!? How could they have been such bad parents??!!?!? That bothered me for the whole book.
    I’ve read it several times and the older I get the more I recognize that Babs* deliberately sabotages her early engagement to Audley with her flirtation with Perry, etc. She really did not like herself at all, so she never felt worth of Charles’ love (insert favorite Psych 101 passages here). Oh, I know she blamed her wild Alistair blood, but she’s kidding herself. It’s not my favorite of that set of books (that’s a toss up between Black Moth and These Old Shades), but enjoyable in its own right.
    *As a Barbara I have always detested the nickname Babs. This book did nothing to change my mind on that point!

  10. wade2121
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 02:14:37

    Great review, sounds fun. I haven’t read this book yet and will go on my wish list.

  11. La Rousse
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 03:48:00

    Sigh…. why is it that nobody has any love for False Colours? It never ever figures amongst people’s favorites (except mine).

  12. Ros
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 05:19:11

    La Rousse, I am very fond of False Colours, too!

  13. Eileen
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 07:50:23

    Thanks for these quick reviews. I have really been enjoying all the Heyer reviews and discussion here and at SBTB. I’ve been wanting to read some of her novels for a long time but just didn’t know where to start. I got TOS and DC in the recent sale, but I didn’t realize there were other books connected to this series.

  14. Sunita
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 09:02:43

    @pamelia: @Jayne: Totally with you on your love for Avon. I find him one of Heyer’s most fascinating and alluring characters, even with all the flaws people rightly point out. I now have this tendency to read TBM and TOS together.

    I think we’ve discussed this before, but the timeline doesn’t entirely work for the trilogy. There’s not enough time between DC and AIA. But who cares, really. :-)

    Pedant alert: Infamous Army was on a list at Sandhurst, but it wasn’t required reading. It was on a supplemental (optional) reading list along with a lot of other books. Still a huge compliment.

  15. dri
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 11:28:24

    @La Rousse: Oh I adore False Colours. Not just for the wonderfully subtle and perceptive dynamic between Kit and … oh my god, I can’t remember her name but I know she was adorable … not just for them too but oh my god the mother! Every time she spoke on the page I went off into fits of delighted laughter … I honestly don’t think Heyer was in finer form, dialogue-wise, than with that there venerable lady.

    Yaaaaaaaaaaayyyy for Devil’s Cub love! And oh, Avon. Avon, Avon, Avon. Justinnnn … *sighs* He is absolutely wonderful that it kills me I can’t re-read These Old Shades.

    Because um … was I the only one who saw it as almost paedophiliac? For a good while, it’s quite pederastic … that is, before the reveal. And then the descriptions of her and good grief, the fact he calls her ‘child’ throughout the entire novel? I mean, of course Heyer didn’t intend any of that but ack it just squicked me no end. But then I found Leonie highly highly irritating. She has to be my least favourite Heyer heroine.

    If anything, I rather liked the homoerotic tendencies between Avon and his best friend … Hugh, was it? :p Really, if Leonie had been entirely done away with, I would have been quite happy. She’s much much more tolerable in Devil’s Cub. I find, anyway. :)

    And yes, I have to absolutely agree on the utter loveliness of that final scene, the image of Dominic raising his glass and all the family happy together and aaaaawwww. *clasps* Mary’s definitely one of my favourite Heyer heroines … the way their relationship develops is so very very fascinating, how it all shifts after That Thing that happens on the ship.

    I could not make it even fifty pages into An Infamous Army, so much so I’d completely forgotten the link to the others. It bored me even worse than A Civil Contract did. *sighs, feels guilty once more*

  16. etv13
    Aug 20, 2011 @ 04:42:58

    As to the guy with whom Leonie was switched at birth, it would be horrible to contemplate a happy ending for Leonie and Avon if he’s just thrown under the carriage. To her credit, Heyer didn’t quite do that. But think of all the interesting possibilities she could have entertained in lieu of the “oh, he’s a peasant, he never really fit in in the aristocracy” approach she took: (1) He had a true vocation for the church, and now that he’s no longer the heir to a great title and estate, he’s free to pursue it. (2) he’s always wanted to go off to explore Brazil/Antarctica/the South Pacific, and now he’s free to do it (with funding from Leonie’s uncle); (3) he was madly in love with a lower-class girl, and now he can marry her amd take over running her father’s business . . . Or maybe he becomes a leader of the Revolution. (Okay, so maybe that’s not so happy.)

    I doubt that Justin is capable of true sympathy with the guy, but it would have done a lot to reconcile me to Leonie (I’ve never liked her much — probably because I read Devil’s Cub long before These Old Shades, and I never quit got over her intial reaction to Mary, who had my entire sympathy) if she could have afforded even a moment’s thought to her counterpart’s situation. The right person could write a really good book about that guy, raised in the aristocracy only to learn that he didn’t belong there, and I’m not sure fan fiction is the right term for what
    that would be. “Corrective fiction,” maybe.

  17. REVIEW: Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer | Dear Author
    Jan 13, 2012 @ 09:54:59

    [...] was too slow and too rural, and the hero and heroine weren’t exciting enough. I was totally a These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Frederica kind of girl. But as I reread it in later years, I grew to appreciate the quiet [...]

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