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REVIEW: False Colours by Georgette Heyer

sail under false colours (British & Australian) also sail under false colors (American & Australian)
to pretend to be something that you are not in order to deceive people

When we did a series of reviews on some of Georgette Heyer’s novels, many people listed “False Colours” as a favorite. Since I’d never read it, I decided to give it a whirl and see what I thought. Thought it has its charm, is amusing and is filled with well drawn characters, there are a few things about it that will keep it from the top ranks of my most loved Heyer novels.

As the younger son, Christopher (Kit) Fancot entered the diplomatic service while his elder brother Evelyn was due to inherit the Earldom at their father’s death. The two have always been close and when Kit senses something amiss at home, he rushes back home from abroad. Upon his arrival at the family townhouse in London, his loving but flighty mother, Lady Denville, informs him just how bad things are. She is deeply in debt – again – and, due to the will left by their father, Evelyn will not be able to control the estate funds and pay her vowels until he marries a woman of whom their fraternal uncle approves. He’s been courting a young woman, Miss Cressida Stavely, who the family thinks will fit the bill though there is no violent passion on either side. Only before the match can be announced, Evelyn must past muster with Cressy’s gorgon of a grandmother – the Dowager Lady Stavely.

The problem, as Lady Denville explains it to Kit, is that she lost heavily at cards and pledged a piece of jewelry – one of the many she’s had secretly replicated in paste in order to be able to sell the original to pay down her other debts – to a incorrigible gossip who would take great pleasure in exposing that fact should he figure it out. Thus Evelyn had set off to try and redeem the piece before the man could attempt to sell it. That was days ago and nothing has been heard from Evelyn since. Lady Denville wouldn’t worry except that the Stavelys are expecting Evelyn at a dinner party the next night and if he’s a no show, it’s for sure that the Dowager Lady Stavely will take it as an insult and withhold her approval of the match.

It’s then that a brilliant idea occurs to her. Kit will impersonate his brother for one night and hopefully Evelyn will appear soon and all will be well. As identical twins, the two brothers have often been mistaken for each other. Against his better judgement, Kit agrees and the evening goes well. Knowing he’d better not stay in town and risk being exposed in the ruse, he flees to their country estate but instead of getting better, the situation only gets worse. Lady Stavely announces she and Cressy will visit him plus the one parsimonious sibling Lady Denville possesses sees a chance at a free country house visit for the summer and arrives with his fussing wife and professional invalid son in tow. Not about to abandon Kit in his hour of need, Lady Denville also gives up the pleasures of town along with her long time loyal beau, Sir Bonamy.

With this cast and crew plus several ancient family retainers watching his every move, can Kit keep the masquerade going until Evelyn, where ever he may be, finally arrives? And what will happen as two people who shouldn’t fall in love find themselves doing just that?

Unlike most books I’ve read from this era, False Colours is told mainly from hero’s POV but this is needed because Kit has to be in the dark about where Evelyn is and as to what Cressy’s feelings are as well as what she knows about what’s going on. I wished for at least some small hint that Evelyn was alright as I began to worry about him too as the story progressed with no clue as to his whereabouts. The plot moves forward in increments. Entire days are described in – take your pick – exquisite or excruciating detail. The opening two chapters of the book should give you a feel for the style/speed of the story and if you don’t like it, move on to another book. There are plenty more Heyers left to choose from.

Amabel, Lady Denville, is a charming widgeon, as Dowager Lady Stavely says. Vivacious yet flighty, mannered yet able to think on her feet when curveballs are thrown their way while attempting to maintain Kit’s disguise – it does not do to underestimate her. I laughed at how she almost consoles Kit for being the sensible, level headed man he is. But she’s also a tigress in defense of either of her sons as well as a staunch friend to Cressy. Cressy is an unknown entity for much of the book. Read carefully and it’s noticeable when she begins to catch on that something isn’t right and also when she declares her love for Kit. Though she doesn’t declare it to Kit.

Poor Kit is the one upon whom the burden of maintaining the charade mainly rests. He’s got to remember to act like Evelyn in public and attempt to mimic his twin’s mannerisms with a snuffbox while keeping straight how Evelyn is supposed to feel about everyone at the house party. On top of that, he’s also worried sick about his twin and sick at heart that he’s falling for the one woman he feels he can’t have or else the whole house of cards will come crashing down on the Fancot family. The “I love yous,” when they finally arrive, are done with quiet fervor rather than loud fireworks but are just as satisfying, I find.

I had great fun reading about the relationship between the Quality and servants. Kit gets away with very little around Evelyn’s valet or the groom who taught the boys to ride or their nurse who still enjoys fussing over both of them. Old time retainers like the valet, groom, town butler, and old nurse have much more leeway in what they can get away with vs the newcomers like the Ravenhurst butler and housekeeper. But everyone closes ranks against outsiders such as when Kit easily depresses the pretensions of Mrs Alperton whom even the country butler pegged at her much lower social status and was ready to fob off as well.

What didn’t I like? The cant, cant, cant – I would guess almost every phrase Heyer either learned or made up is here. Kit speaks cant, Amabel speaks cant, the valet and groom speak cant, the guests spout it. It’s almost like a chocolate cake with chocolate chips and topped by ultra rich chocolate frosting – too damn much. Give me a glass of milk and get back to plain speaking. A little cant goes a long way.

The romance is very slow. Very, very slow. It’s not until almost the halfway mark that things begin to move faster than glacial. If you want details at a stately pace, this is the book for you but if you’re used to today’s faster clip, mentally prepare yourself to sit and savor.

This is not a Heyer book I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with traditional Regencies or with Heyer books. There are better places to start with her oeuvre. It would also help if you’ve got some grounding in the Regency era. As I said, it’s not the first Heyer book I’d suggest but if you want something different as well as liking a country vs London or Season setting, then False Colours should be on your Heyer list. B-

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

12 Comments

  1. Ros
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 15:19:18

    Kit and Cressy’s declaration scene is one of my favourite ever.

    I agree about the slower pacing, though I personally enjoy that. There are some fabulous secondary characters in False Colours – the way that Sir Bonamy is played is hilarious.

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  2. Estara
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 15:24:23

    Hah, I didn’t realise how much False Colours has in common with The Toll-Gate which I just reread today. While it is told in third person it is mostly from what the hero experiences, surmises and thinks – although the introduction into his function inside his family right at the start is a lovely way of setting up how others view him. LOADS of cant – because this is also a mystery. The romance is very quick if you count the factual days but very subsumed under the plot.

    What the heck, I’ll link my review instead of repeating everything ^^.

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  3. carmen webster buxton
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 18:03:32

    I rate False Colors right about the middle of Heyer’s historicals. As you point out, the likability of the characters makes it a satisfying read, even at the slower pace. I don’t see it as having a real villain, and in some ways, poor Sir Bonamy ends up being the hero.

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  4. Emily
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 19:28:13

    Warning: Spoilers
    I love this one. Heyer never exactly phones it in, but this book stands out to me as having a plot that is truly unique. One of the things I love about Heyer is that I think her views on men and women are very interesting and vary greatly from book to book.
    I consider this book to be almost a double romance with two heroines and two heroes. For me Kit’s mother is definitely a heroine of her own and in some ways could be the primary heroine of the book. I love the fact that Heyer lets a woman over 40 have a romance and still be considered attractive and a catch at her age. Also she takes a flightly and seemingly shallow heroine, but also makes her smart and loving: ready to do what she can to get her boys out of the mess she gets them. She is loyal and fun-loving and I understand why her boys love her even when she’s annoying.
    (Perhaps as a contrast to Lady Fancot Heyer gives us Cressy’s annoying stepmother who is about the same age as Cressy. (rather than being an older woman alla Cinderella. Also interesting to note is the good young stepmother in Bath Tangle. Cressy’s stepmother shows off the warmth and poise of the otherwomen in the book.)
    I love the way the family comes together in this one. Heyer always for me at least puts a family that is never too sentimentalized or idealized, but her families can also be real and warm and loving like the family here. (Of course the Fancots are less fond of their other relatives and the father was cold and distant when the father was alive, but I meant the mother and twins .)
    Kit and Cressy come off to me as real people trying to make the best of the situations their family have gotten them in. I have to say I am sucker for a quiet hero who tries to do what’s best and am quite fond of reliable heroines who are competent and kind.
    Finally Sir Bonamy Ripple starts off more as a joke but is also very smart and astute and incredibly loyal in the way he treats Lady Fancott. He is heroic in so many ways, even though he is undoubtably overweight. (no six pack)
    I love this book but it is a little slow and I wanted more Cressy. My grade is B+.

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  5. dri
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 19:29:18

    Hehe, you know, it seems like I’ve been reading Heyer for so long that I take the cant totally for granted, so much so that it actually startles me to realise some people may struggle with it. God knows the older guy in my writing group found it hellish when he borrowed Sylvester off me. (don’t ask me, I didn’t question it.) He told me he needed a dictionary. Now I wonder what sort of dictionary he found that had Regency cant. I wonder if he had to look up ‘reticule’. *chortle*

    I have to say I love it, every single bit of cant. For me, it’s part of the whole linguistic delight of Heyer, how playful and real it is, how so utterly immersive. *sigh* Makes my brain fizz with delight.

    I just re-read False Colours myself after being reminded of it here and yeah, I did notice the excruciating daily detail when I hadn’t before. But the relationships and the hilarity always distracted me from that slight struggle. And ohhhhh yesss the subtle way Cressy picks up on Kit. Love it, love it, love it.

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  6. Estara
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 00:45:16

    @Emily: If this isn’t a GoodReads review, it should be. Very well described ^^.

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  7. etv13
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 03:26:39

    This is one of the last Heyers I managed to get hold of (Charity Girl was my first) so by then I was so well-versed in the cant that I didn’t really notice it, and I actually like the slower pacing, which is a feature of many of Heyer’s country-set books (e.g., The Quiet Gentleman, The Unknown Ajax, The Nonesuch). While I wouldn’t call this my favorite Heyer (I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite, actually), it ranks pretty high in my esteem. I really like both Kit and Cressy, and Lady Denville cracks me up when, for example, she proposes redecorating her recently and expensively redecorated rooms because it’s occurred to her the color might by unlucky.

    The B- attached to this review illustrates one of the reasons I find the whole letter-grade project troubling. As Heyers go, maybe a B- is appropriate. And you know, I really enjoyed (to pick a recent example) Bad Boyfriend. But if we’re saying that’s an A- and this is a B- on the same scale . . . No. They’re really not comparable.

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  8. Jayne
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 06:27:56

    @carmen webster buxton: I ended up like Sir Bonamy a lot. He starts out almost as a buffoon and figure of fun yet the impression that others have of him slowly changes as the book progresses and he does take on heroic aspects.

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  9. Jayne
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 06:34:11

    @dri: Obviously as far as the level of cant is concerned, milage varies. To me, this one is top-heavy with it – much more so than most of the other Heyers I’ve read. So much so that it feels more artificial than realistic. As if the characters are working at it to see how much they can insert into each sentence. That’s why I don’t feel this is a book for Regency newcomers to start with.

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  10. Kate Pearce
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 11:02:57

    I didn’t notice the cant either, I’ve obviously read too much Heyer, LOL and being a Londoner, I’m used to the cockney. I liked this one because it was mainly from the male POV which is unusual for Heyer. I’d put it in the B range because although it starts quite slowly, the characters are surprisingly well fleshed out and very likable. It obviously made some impression on me as I called my second son Kit. :)

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  11. Twila Price
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 15:08:12

    This was my first Heyer ever, back at the tender age of 12 or so. I found it in the library and devoured it. I read the others as I found more, but even though this is not my absolute favorite Heyer, it is still a sentimental delight to me. So I can’t say I actually notice the cant, or the slow pace, or anything else except the delicious characters and how enjoyable it is to revisit them.

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  12. Marguerite Kaye
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 12:08:14

    I do like this one, but when I reread it recently, I found that the mother grated, and the relationship between her and the twins was a bit too sugary for me. I found myself getting annoyed with her for getting into debt and for being so fluttery, and her flutteryness didn’t sit well with her more prosaic kind of understanding of her sons and what would be best for them. Plus – and maybe it’s just me – but though I loved Bonamy, I couldn’t help grossing out at the thought of him and Lady Fancot in the bedroom – way too horrible image of him lying on his back with his mountainous stomach and her – well, you get my drift. I will probably still read it again and enjoy it differently, that’s the thing with Heyer, no matter how many times you comfort read her, it works.

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