May 27 2011
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 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.
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.