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REVIEW: Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

The third book in my class on Georgette Heyer is Sylvester. We’ve had the founding Regency romance, Regency Buck, and Cotillion, the book that makes fun of the tropes Regency Buck establishes. I chose Sylvester for our third book because I love it and because I love how Heyer again plays with the construction of the hero by having the heroine, Phoebe, use Sylvester, the hero of the book, as the villain in her Gothic romance.

Sylvester by Georgette HeyerSylvester Rayne, Duke of Salford, is looking for a wife, but is horrifying his mother with the bloodless, passionless way he’s going about the search. She casually mentions her (deceased) best friend’s daughter, so Salford decides to check her out. Phoebe is not at her best in social situations, especially around her scary step-mother, so when Salford meets her (again — they met once during Phoebe’s season the previous year), he is unimpressed and can’t wait to get away. Phoebe, however, mistakenly thinks that Salford will definitely propose to her, and so runs away with her best (male) friend during a snow storm. Tom, however, breaks his leg on the flight, and Salford comes to his and Phoebe’s rescue (it makes sense in the book — that its ridiculous is part of the point). They spend a week together, snowed in at an out-of-the-way inn, becoming friends. Salford then helps Phoebe get to London when they’re discovered. There they set up a flirtation, until the truth of Phoebe’s book comes out.

After her utterly unsuccessful season, Phoebe wrote an utterly improbably gothic novel that also happened to be a roman a clef. It’s published when she and Sylvester are at the height of their flirtation and takes the ton by storm. She used Sylvester as her villain because of his villainous eyebrows and because of his abominable pride. If there’s one thing wrong with this book, it’s how many times the characters and the narrator attempt to describe exactly what’s wrong with Sylvester’s pride. They go on and on and ON and it’s almost like Heyer doesn’t *quite* have a handle on it or was trying to convince herself that Sylvester’s pride was actually wrong. That pride is damaged by Phoebe’s book and he confronts Phoebe in public, ruining her.

Much like Charlotte Bronte who unwittingly dedicated Jane Eyre to William M. Thackeray who had a mad wife hidden in his attic, Phoebe coincidentally gave her villain a young child as a ward who is completely under his control. Sylvester’s deceased brother’s son is his ward and completely under his control. Sylvester, of course, is nothing like Phoebe’s villain, and loves his nephew, but Phoebe’s book gives Sylvester’s sister-in-law the idea to spirit her son away to France. The book turns into a road romance at this point, with all the character careening around the countryside of France. But it’s hysterical, character driven, brilliantly plotted, and so perfectly done.

I adored this story on reread. It’s always been one of my favorite of Heyer’s books, but I fell into it and just didn’t come out until I was done, even though I knew exactly what was happening. Most of all, I love how Sylvester and Phoebe fall in love:

His sense of humour, too, was lively: often if a fatuous remark were uttered, or someone behaved in a fashion so typical as to be ludicrous, Phoebe would look instinctively toward him, knowing that he must be sharing her amusement. It was strange how the dullest party could be enjoyed because there was one person present whose eyes could be met for the fraction of a second, in wordless appreciation of a joke unshared by others: almost as strange as the insipidity of parties at which that person was not present.

This is one of Heyer’s more romantic books — of course, it’s still Heyer, so “more romantic” means that love is, in fact, mentioned at some point. But still, the understatedness of Sylvester when

looked around quickly, and saw her. Something leaped in his eyes; she had the impression that he was going to start towards her. But the look vanished in a flash, and he did not move.

doesn’t make it any less powerful for all that. And the climax and denouement of the book are among the most romantic Heyer wrote: “O God, Mama, I’ve made such a mull of it. What am I to do?”.

This book is one I recommend for conversion kits. It’s not too heavily filled with Regency cant, like Cotillion, the characters are brilliant, the story is delightful, and the scenes with Edmund and both the button and the tassels are just not to be missed.

Grade: A

Next up, a visit by Sabrina Jeffries, and we’ve added Venetia to the syllabus for the last class! So you get one more review out of me.

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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.

26 Comments

  1. Brussel Sprout
    May 27, 2011 @ 11:43:00

    Yup, it is just delightful. One of my all time favourite books. Great review.

  2. Ros
    May 27, 2011 @ 12:29:38

    I love this book more every time I read it. The relationship between Sylvester and Phoebe is just so much fun – and it’s one where I feel that they are really going to enjoy being married to each other.

    Venetia is, in my opinion, the most romantic of all Heyer’s books and I’m looking forward to your review of it.

  3. Isobel Carr
    May 27, 2011 @ 13:06:43

    Love this one and love Venetia (have a major soft spot for Frederica as well; the bits with the dog and the romance killing powers of calves-foot jelly are priceless).

  4. Lynne Connolly
    May 27, 2011 @ 13:14:00

    I absolutely love this book. You’re reviewing some of my favorite Heyers, which basically means the creme de la creme.
    She started me writing, as she started so many other authors on their way. I’m not sure that she wouldn’t be appalled by that fact!

  5. Barb in Maryland
    May 27, 2011 @ 14:12:57

    Oh thank you for the wonderful review of one of my favorites by Heyer. And, as a cherry on top, you are going to do Venetia, which is another of my all time favorites.
    I cry every time I read the ballroom scene where he rips into Phoebe and she runs off. And the scene at the end between Phoebe and Sylvester’s mama is just wonderful.
    Ah, happy sighs.

  6. Janet W
    May 27, 2011 @ 14:13:18

    Altho it wouldn’t be my top choice, a good conversion Heyer would be Venetia ~ achingly romantic, literary & humourous + rake. I can’t see Sylvester as being terribly effective but YMMV. As I said on twitter, I didn’t see them as having a flirtation but rather a deepening friendship played out on a very public stage. I do so love this book but there are perhaps ten or so I prefer … is it that there are a few too many “set” pieces (the scene w/ghastly step-mum, the snowed-in inn, to name a few)? The secondary characters like the Squire, Tom’s father, and the buttons man, marvelous. I wonder if the horrific hole left in Sylvester’s life when his brother died is almost too dark compared to the more frothy bits tho. And of course his crying out to his mother just cuts to the quick but it’s a pity we don’t see more of that side of the duke. There’s a lot of cruelty visited on Phoebe, even at the end from her godmother.

    Lovely to read a review of it though: makes me want to start a re-read instantly … and lovely to to hear other Heyer lovers weigh in.

    * A humourous first-time Heyer that is immediately engaging: The Grand Sophy. That might be in my conversion kit.

  7. Sunita
    May 27, 2011 @ 15:15:54

    This is one of my favorites, too. Sylvester’s pride came across clearly to me; to some extent, I see him as the heroic version of Lord Lionel Ware in The Foundling. It succeeds better for me than Frederica because the madcap aspects are balanced by the subtext of seriousness and even melancholy.

    I don’t know what I would select as a Heyer conversion book. Maybe Arabella? It’s certainly been copied enough and it has a classic plot. I like Regency Buck and Venetia both very much, but Heyer shows off her historical and literary skills too much in them for me. They’re really impressive the first couple of times, but then they feel overwritten.

    I feel as if I’ve just committed blasphemy by saying that, though.

  8. Darlene Marshall
    May 27, 2011 @ 17:06:13

    I just re-read Sylvester in April. Still entertaining, still makes me smile. That’s one of the things about Heyer books–they have staying power. You can re-read them and enjoy them in an entirely new fashion.

    Having said that, Sylvester doesn’t end up in my top three Heyers, and barely makes it into the top five.

  9. hapax
    May 27, 2011 @ 21:10:14

    Probably my second or third favourite Heyer (FREDERICA will always be #1, and COTILLION or THE FOUNDLING for their delicious beta heros vie for #2).

    I’ve found DEVIL’S CUB to be an excellent “conversion” novel, though. Who can resist the scene where Mary shoots Vidal? (certainly not Loretta Chase, who gave it such an charming shout out in LORD OF SCOUNDRELS)

  10. Nikki Jewell
    May 28, 2011 @ 02:26:28

    It took me a couple of reads to really appreciate Sylvester I think – love the review. :) Thanks.

    I think Heyer does show that Sylvester’s pride & arrogance harms his own relationships and his dependants as well – eg the scene where Phoebe upbraids him for not considering the health and welfare of his groom who has a bad cold. He does learn though. And I also love that Phoebe herself is not a typical heroine type. Sylvester’s mother is a nice character too, refreshing.

    Venetia was the first Heyer I read and I loved it from start to finish, despite an eye-rolling moment or two at Venetia’s and Damerel’s first meeting. Love that Venetia breaks herself out of the “protect the heroine for her own good” trap.

    Always thought These Old Shades to be a good conversion book, mainly because Léonie is irresistible.

    I love The Grand Sophy except for parts of the scene with the moneylender and if I recommended it to anyone I’d do it with a warning about that bit.

    Sometimes I wonder if my favourite Heyer altogether isn’t A Civil Contract, although that’s not really a romance I guess. I’m also fond of Faro’s Daughter and some of the novels set in Bath – Black Sheep and Lady of Quality. I like The Nonesuch, too. I think the Heyers that are least successful for me are the ones along the lines of Sprig Muslin and Charity Girl.

  11. Marguerite Kaye
    May 28, 2011 @ 03:29:29

    I love this book too, it’s one of the ones that I read and re-read and I still can’t put down when I do. I especially like that Phoebe isn’t beautiful and doesn’t become beautiful, and I love the way she takes Sylvester down from his pedestal. Great review. And I second what everyone says about Venetia, it’s the most romantic Heyer, and I think it has one of the sexiest kisses in it.

  12. Hydecat
    May 28, 2011 @ 07:47:04

    All of these reviews are making me itch to read more Heyer (I think Venetia and Cotillion will have to be first on my list). I also enjoyed Sylvester, but not as much as some other of her novels. It has great moments but it didn’t make me want to go back and re-read it like the way A Civil Contract did. I think A Civil Contract is a really great example of a romance because it’s not love at first sight, but the two characters do get to a happy ending. Maybe I’m just old and jaded, but I like novels where the hero and heroine don’t immediately fall into passionate love at the drop of a hat.

  13. hapax
    May 28, 2011 @ 10:38:34

    Am I the only Heyer fan who doesn’t really care for VENETIA?

    I dislike Damerel intensely, and don’t believe he truly loves Venetia — at least, not as much as he loves his self-indulgence and laziness.

    I’m rather disappointed that the heroine not only puts up with, but cheers on his selfishness.

  14. Isobel Carr
    May 28, 2011 @ 17:21:23

    @hapax: I think he utterly loves her, but knows he’s unlikely to make her happy (not realizing that her standards are likely to be quite low, given the men of her own family). It’s one of my all time favs: the rake only partially redeemed. *grin* I see grand times ahead as he teaches Venetia how to misbehave.

  15. Ros
    May 29, 2011 @ 03:14:59

    @Isobel Carr: Yes, this. They won’t have a dull, conventional marriage but I think they will both enjoy it very much. She’s inexperienced, but she’s not missish, and I think she is very much looking forward to having fun.

    For me, Damerel’s determination to send Venetia away is a clear indication of just how much he loves her – rather than, as he thinks, ruin her life by marrying her. And he is kind to her, helping shoulder some of her burdens; and they clearly understand each other well. One of my favourite bits is when she confesses that she has no other friends to laugh with, but Damerel always gets the jokes.

    But anyway, we are anticipating next week’s review!

  16. Ros
    May 29, 2011 @ 03:18:31

    @Hydecat: A Civil Contract is one of my favourites, too. I love how determinedly unromantic it is, and yet it still has a romance at its heart.

  17. Isabel C.
    May 29, 2011 @ 08:47:26

    @hapax: Oh, see, I just read Venetia and I liked it *because* of that. I’m more like Damerel–missing the Tragic Past, of course–than I am like most romance heroines, and I wouldn’t have much patience with any SO who tried to reform me. So seeing someone who was like “yep, you’re a rake and a bit of a slacker, yep, that’s awesome” was quite…heartening. :)

  18. ksb36
    May 29, 2011 @ 15:10:48

    ARABELLA will always be my favorite Heyer. Mr. Beaumaris is to die for!

  19. Andrea K Host
    May 29, 2011 @ 21:22:27

    “Sylvester” is one of my absolute favourites. The passage quoted about that one person you can share a silent appreciation with strikes to the heart of my idea of a fantastic relationship.

    I love Tom’s exasperation with the both of them on the trip back.

  20. etv13
    May 30, 2011 @ 23:40:45

    @Andrea K Host: I love Tom, period. He reminds me in some ways of the Tom (I think) of The Foundling, and of Nicky Carlyon, but he is much more mature and sensible than either. I don’t do fanfic, but if I did, he would be near the top of my list for getting his own romance. (Tom the ironmonger’s son from The Foundling would be fun, too. Picture him in one of those Balogh-style cit-marries-an-aristocrat romances.)

  21. Abby Gaines
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 04:34:57

    Sylvester is currently my favorite Heyer! There’s just so much conflict to get past before there can be a happy ending. My heart clenches when I read this book…

  22. E.D. Walker
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 05:57:47

    This review made me want to pick up another great Heyer-esque Regency. I know once I finished Heyer’s backlist I was hungering for more Heyer-esque stuff and I feel like The Silver Nightingale by Sylvia Thorpe delivers on that. My mom gave me her old copy when I was in high school and I still remembered the book fondly ten years later.

    The Silver Nightingale is from 1974 and the beginning of the book is VERY similar to Sylvester. So much so I’m pretty sure Thorpe was inspired by Heyer. The heroine runs away from her engagement and winds up snowed in with the hero at a rural inn. The Silver Nightingale, though, becomes a bit of a mystery plot and they never leave the inn. I’ve been rereading the book today and it is just as good as when I borrowed it from my mum in high school. Thorpe’s hero is yummy and honorable. Her heroine is no shrinking violet, and I think any Heyer fans out there would highly enjoy this book, too. There’s no digital copy that I’ve found, unfortunately, but you can get it used for relatively cheap. Oh, and btw the heat level is on par with Heyer books. Just kissing. If anyone decides to check this one out let me know what you think. :)

  23. etv13
    Jun 16, 2011 @ 16:19:08

    E.D. Walker: I have a bunch of Sylvia Thorpes, and recently re-read The Silver Nightingale. It is sort of vaguely Heyerish, as is The Scapegrace. On the whole, though, I prefer Thorpe’s more melodramatic books — my very favorite is The Changing Tide, which features a sea captain hero and a Royalist lady in the 1640’s or 50’s.

    For people who’ve read all the Heyer there is and want more, there’s also Clare Darcy.

  24. Julie P.
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 08:52:13

    While I love “Sylvester” dearly, my favorite always has been (and always will be) “The Talisman Ring.” It’s got a murder mystery, yet it’s very, very funny.

  25. carmen webster buxton
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 15:04:29

    My Heyer favorites list would start:

    1) The Foundling (because I love the little Duke!)
    2) Arabella (because the hero falls for her only after she does something noble– and I love the dog)
    3) The Unknown Ajax (it’s funny and I love the secondary characters!)

    After that, it’s hard to rank them, but I do like Sylvester a lot, and Edmund and the button are a great bit. Cousin Kate is the only real stinker, but then Heyer wrote it to get out of a contract.

    I wish that Amazon would fix the price for the Kindle version of Sylvester! It’s right on B&N. I spent a lot of money on Kindle books yesterday; even at $1.99 a book it adds up!

  26. Damon Suede
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 18:17:25

    Now you’ve made me want to go back and reread this. I was just rereading Devil’s Cub after a full-on Pride & Prejudice binge and this feels like a perfect tonic to compliment that. Lovely review! Many thanks.

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