Georgette Heyer is best-known for her frothy Regency romances, set during the early nineteenth century (in the days of Jane Austen). She began her career, however, with a series of winsome tales of the eighteenth century. There is swordplay, highway robbery, abduction, cross dressing, and clever skewering of the conventions of high romance. All this plus Vauxhall, minuet-dancing and snuff-taking! Below I review Heyer’s Georgian novels (with the exception of Faro’s Daughter, which is set around 1795 and has more in common with Heyer’s Regencies). Imagine a cross between Alexandre Dumas and P. G. Wodehouse, in eighteenth-century costume, and you’ll have some idea of the delights in store. Lay these by for a vacation, a hospital stay, or any time you’re in need of distraction and delight.
The Black Moth (1921): This was Heyer’s first novel, published when she was just nineteen (!). It is set ca. 1751.
Principals: Miss Diana Beauleigh, John Carstares, Earl of Wyncham, and Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover.
Seven years ago, John Carstares took the blame when his brother Richard cheated at cards, determined to protect Richard from rejection by his intended bride, Lavinia Belmanoir. Outcast from polite society, John traveled abroad, and has finally returned home to occupy himself as a highwayman. “Dicky” Carstares is consumed with guilt, and his marriage with Lavinia is unhappy. Meanwhile Lavinia’s “devilish” brother Tracy is smitten with lovely Diana Beauleigh on a visit to Bath, and determines to abduct her. On the highway, John catches Tracy in the act and saves Diana at the cost of a wound in the shoulder; Diana nurses him and promptly falls in love. But Mr. Beauleigh is hardly likely to let Diana marry a highwayman, and Devil Belmanoir has not yet given up his hopes…
Memorable minor characters: Miles O’Hara, John’s large and bluff old friend, is an Irish nobleman, a member of a group rarely depicted in Heyer’s books. His happy marriage forms a contrast to the misery of Lavinia and Richard. Also interesting is John’s attachment to his beloved mare Jenny, who is important enough to be counted as a character in the story.
Notes: Like many of Heyer’s later works, this debut finds its strength in her deft depiction of upper-class male relationships, such as the jocular yet deep friendship between Miles and John, or the deadly yet respectful rivalry between John and Tracy. Indeed, critics have rightly noted that Heyer is far more interested in the male characters than in Diana, who ought to be the heroine of the tale. Lavinia, meanwhile, represents negative aspects of femininity such as fickleness and vanity, just as Tracy embodies masculine arrogance and aggression. Both find a kind of redemption by the end, and one feels that the romance of the rather bland Diana and saintly John has been hijacked by the tale of the outrageous Belmanoirs. No wonder that Heyer returned to the fascinating Devil Belmanoir and successfully reworked him as Justin Alastair in These Old Shades. That said, Diana is given a few good lines when Tracy kidnaps her:
“My name is Tracy,” he remarked.
“I do not like your name, sir,” she answered.
“There was no thought of pleasing you when I was christened,” he quoted lazily [from Shakespeare’s As You Like It].
“Hardly, sir. You might be my father.”
It was a master stroke, and for an instant his brows drew together. Then he laughed.
The plot is influenced by the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, another tale of an English nobleman who adopts a disguise to perform feats of daring (the Pimpernel rescues noblemen from the guillotine; John is a Robin Hood figure who gives his loot to the poor). All in all, this is a satisfying escapist adventure, which already displays Heyer’s verbal dexterity, her wit, and her knack for conveying serious emotions with a light touch.
Powder and Patch (The Transformation of Philip Jettan): A Comedy of Manners (1923): Set in the early 1750’s.
Principals: Miss Cleone Charteris and Mr. Philip Jettan
Cleone, the local beauty of Little Fittledean in Sussex, has always loved her childhood playmate Philip, but she wishes he were more polished. When a town beau visits, making Philip jealous, he proposes marriage but Cleone rejects him, saying “I could not marry you as you are.” Philip therefore betakes himself first to London and thence to the continent, where he transforms himself into a powdered, bewigged, magnificently attired swordsman and lover, the toast of Paris. When he returns, he finds Cleone the reigning beauty in London, and scarcely happy with his foppish new persona. Can Philip find a way to win her back?
Memorable minor characters: The widower, Sir Maurice Jettan, is a former town beau himself, but like his Jettan forebears has settled later in life at “the Pride,” their country estate. Sir Maurice is an early example of Heyer’s elegant older man, charming, sophisticated and shrewd, with strong family feeling, and the relationship between him, his brother, and his son is lovingly drawn. Also entertaining is Philip’s French valet, François, a comic yet highly capable figure. Lady Malmerstoke’s black page (“Sambo”), however true to the period, strikes a distracting note for modern readers in what is intended as a light-hearted comedy of manners.
Notes: This was Heyer’s third historical novel, after The Black Moth and The Great Roxhythe. At the tender age of twenty, she dashed it off in a few weeks and sold it to Mills and Boon under a pseudonym, perhaps because she preferred attention to be focused on her “serious” work. The final chapter of the original, in which Philippe and Cleone prepare to take Paris by storm, was omitted when the book was republished in 1930 as Powder and Patch.
Compared with The Black Moth, this early novel was far more hastily written. I noticed one continuity error: during his transformation, Philip rejects a ruby ring and decides that he will never wear any jewels but sapphires and diamonds, but later he is decked out in rubies. The exposition relies more on straightforward narrative than Heyer’s other works, and the style is rather flatter than her usual, but there are characteristic flashes of brilliance, like the sprightly chapter titles (“In Which Philip Delivers Himself of a Rondeau” and “Philip Justifies his Chin”). Philip’s opponents in his duels, Bancroft and Brenderby, anticipate later villains in their stylishness (and Brenderby turns out to be not as evil as he seems).
The big disappointment is the beautiful Cleone, not a particularly likable character (the novel’s sympathies lie much more with Philip). Cleone is described as a woman so caught up in her vanity, insecurity, jealousy and pride that she nearly ruins her chances of happiness. Lady Malmerstoke, Cleone’s shrewd aunt, firmly advises Philip that Cleone wants to be “overmastered,” that women are irrational creatures who need to be rescued from themselves, and furthermore, that if Cleone could take care of herself, Philip would not love her. Interestingly, however, Heyer disrupts this sexist conventional “wisdom” (presumably a staple of Mills and Boon novels in that era) by having Lady Malmerstoke also specify that not all women are like Cleone; she herself never wanted to be mastered, but she was “unusual that way.”
A particularly Heyeresque feature in this book is the extensive use of French in the dialogue; Heyer and her publisher assumed that readers of the day were educated enough to get the gist. Philippe’s notoriously bad poem in French, “To the Pearl that Trembles in Her Ear,” is given in full without translation, except for the last line, composed spontaneously by his friend Sainte-Dantin: “Gadzooks, this little pearl is annoying!” This book is notable for a liberal dose of comedy, which would become one of Heyer’s greatest strengths in later works.
These Old Shades (1926): The book is set in England (1750s), and in France during the reign of Louis XV.
Principals: Mademoiselle Léonie Bonnard and Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon.
Resident in Paris, the Duke of Avon, a dandyish rake with the nickname “Satanas,” buys a strikingly attractive boy from a greedy inkeeper on a whim. Discovering that “Léon” is in fact a female reared as a boy, and very possibly the scion of a noble French house, Alastair makes her his ward and conveys her to his seat in England to learn how to be a lady. But he has an ulterior motive, which lies in a long-ago insult for which he means to exact vengeance.
“M. le Duc!”
Justin drew forth his jewelled snuff box, and presented it. Tall as he was Saint-Vire was made to look insignificant beside this man of splendid height and haughty bearing.
“A little snuff, dear Comte? No?” He shook the foaming ruffles back from his white hand, and very daintily took a pinch of snuff. His thin lips were smiling, but not pleasantly.
“Saint-Vire was admiring your page, Justin,” Davenant said. “He is exciting no little attention.”
“No doubt.” Avon snapped his fingers imperiously, and Léon came forward. “He is almost unique, my dear Comte. Pray look your fill.”
Notes: This was originally intended to be a sequel to The Black Moth, telling of the redemption of the devilish Tracy Belmanoir, but Heyer ended up changing the names of the characters. Similarities in the dramatis personae can nevertheless be detected: like Belmanoir, Avon has a frivolous sister; Belmanoir’s friend Frank Fortescue is similar to Avon’s friend Hugh Davenant, and so on.
This much-loved story is unusual in Heyer’s oeuvre because of the enormous difference in age between the Duke, who is in his early forties, and Léonie, who is nineteen. Heyer’s heroes are usually older than her heroines, but not to this degree.
The age difference is explored as an obstacle to their romance, for the Duke initially proposes to treat Léonie as his daughter, and imagines that she views him as a “grandfather.” (For her part, Léon/Léonie loves M. le Duc at first sight, and makes her devotion clear even in her guise as a boy. To some extent, “Monseigneur” is a father substitute for Léonie, whose real father rejected her as an infant.) The other unusual element is the erotic dynamic of dominance and submission between the Duke and Léonie. Gender reversals are also important in the story: the masterful Duke effeminately toys with a fan, much to Léonie’s disapproval, and wears magnificently brilliant clothing, while Léonie chafes in her restrictive corset and petticoats, longing for the freedom of breeches. (Gender norms, of course, win out in the end, although Léonie retains a rather masculine sense of honor.) The title is drawn from a verse by Austin Dobson, “Epilogue to Eighteenth-Century Vignettes.”
The Masqueraders (1928): Set in the mid 1740s.
Principals: Miss Prudence, Mr. Robin, Sir Anthony Fanshawe, and Miss Letitia Grayson.
Statuesque Prudence and slight Robin, the offspring of a mysterious adventurer they call “the Old Gentleman,” have returned to England in disguise after the Jacobite rising and the battle of Culloden. The price on Robin’s head forces them to reverse genders, with Prudence posing as “Peter Merriot” and Robin ably playing the diminutive “Kate Merriot.” On their way to London, the pair rescue heiress Letty Grayson from a forced marriage to the scoundrel Gregory Markham, thus earning Markham’s enduring hatred. Letty’s cousin, the large and sleepy-eyed Sir Anthony, develops a strong interest in “Peter,” who returns his feelings, while “Kate” falls in love with Letty. Meanwhile the Old Gentleman reappears in London as “Viscount Barham, last of the Tremaines,” even as enemies plot to have him hanged as a Jacobite. But if their rascal of a father should establish his claim, how can Prue and Robin reveal their true selves to their beloveds?
Memorable minor characters: The Old Gentleman is unforgettable in his outrageous egotism, a roguish genius with grandiose delusions. And yet, he does seem to be nearly infallible!
Notes: This book is full of adventure and suspense, with a beautifully constructed plot featuring symmetrical love stories. Its great appeal, to my mind, is the Shakespearean-style crossdressing and its gender complications. Such disguises are more plausible for the 18th century than they would be today, given that gentlemen wore wigs, cosmetics, ruffles of lace at the breast, and voluminous skirted coats, while women’s attire also concealed much (though Robin must have made a rather flat-chested, low-voiced beauty). As an escaped Jacobite, Robin’s strategem recalls the real-life escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, who fled Scotland disguised as a maidservant. Although highly accomplished at imitating the opposite gender, each sibling grows tired of the imposture, Prue because she longs for respectable security, and Robin because he cannot exercise his greatest skills of fencing and lovemaking (although his talents as an actor are not far behind). Particularly fascinating is the progress of Prue’s love affair with Sir Anthony, who is strongly attracted to her even before he guesses her secret.
“One day I will tell you the tale of my life.”
“I’ve no doubt I shall be vastly entertained,” said Sir Anthony.
“Oh, it’s very edifying, sir, but it’s not what the life of my Lady Fanshawe should be.”
“Who made you the judge of that, child?”
She laughed. “You’re infatuated, sir. But I’m not respectable, give you my word. In boy’s clothes I’ve kept a gaming house with my father; I’ve escaped out of windows and up chimneys; I’ve traveled in the tail of an army not English; I’ve played a dozen parts, and well–it has been necessary for me often to carry a pistol in my pocket.”
Sir Anthony’s head was turned towards her. “My dear, will you never realise that I adore you?”
Sir Anthony, a big man dubbed “Mammoth” by the irrepressible Robin, is masterful and dignified, like M. le Duc in These Old Shades, but without the evil streak and checkered past of that formidable gentleman. The book features descriptive chapter titles like those in Powder and Patch (sadly omitted in the Kindle version), but the psychological elements and characterizations are much more fully developed.
Devil’s Cub (1932): This book is set ca. 1780. It is a sequel to These Old Shades.
Principals: Miss Mary Challoner and Dominic Alastair, Marquis of Vidal.
Handsome Dominic, the son of Justin and Léonie from These Old Shades, has inherited his father’s cruel streak and his mother’s fierce, impulsive temperament. Although warned by his father not to dally with the daughters of the bourgeoisie, he persists in an affair with the lovely but frivolous Sophia Challoner. Vidal kills his man in a duel, and asks Sophia to flee with him as his mistress; she agrees, plotting with her mother to trap him into marriage. But when Sophia’s disapproving elder sister Mary appears at the rendezvous, determined to avert her sister’s inevitable ruin, the enraged Vidal abducts her and carries her to France on his yacht. Mary manages to defend her virtue in a way that shocks and intrigues Vidal, and she admits to herself that she has loved him from the start. But she foresees only heartbreak for them both in such an unequal match…
Notes: Vidal is Heyer’s most ungentlemanly leading man, more villain than hero in the beginning (and in certain ways, worse-behaved than his father had been). In the first scene, he coolly shoots a highwayman, leaving the corpse to sprawl in the road; later he kills a man in a drunken duel; and he tries to rape Mary. The book deals with his reformation and the determination of his father, Justin, that his son not follow in his own rakish footsteps.
As in Heyer’s other Georgian romances, the reader is treated to descriptions of luxuriant eighteenth-century male dress: “He was impatient of the hare’s foot and the patch-box, but when Timms besought him almost in tears not to go to a ball in Paris entirely free from rouge, he laughed and submitted… The sight of his lordship in full ball dress with diamonds glinting, ruffles of the finest lace falling over his hands, his hair adequately powdered and arranged in neat curls, and a patch at the corner of his mouth, almost took her breath away. She laughed at him, but thought privately that he looked magnificent.” Later, the valet Timms is given a monologue in which he describes the shortcomings of his previous employers and ecstatically compares them with Vidal’s faultless shoulders, waist, legs, face and hands. Vidal is not to be thought a “Macaroni,” however, and later he censures the Vicomte de Valmé for wearing effeminate earrings.
Much of the pleasure in this book lies in revisiting the characters from These Old Shades: an elderly but still vigorous Justin, Léonie (now a devoted mother, but retaining her gamine personality), and others. Mary’s interview with a perspicacious, elegant stranger who turns out to be the Duke of Avon is worth the read in and of itself. The only woman Dominic respects is his mother, and his ideal mate, Mary, is a woman who matches Léonie’s courage, even if she is quite different from Léonie in her Englishness. Unusually for Heyer, Dominic and Mary are almost the same age (twenty-four and twenty, respectively).
The Convenient Marriage (1934): This is set ca. 1776.
Principals: Miss Horatia Winwood and Marcus Drelincourt, Earl of Rule
Elizabeth Winwood, the beauty of the family and the eldest of three daughters, receives a matrimonial offer from Rule, who wishes to ally himself with the family. Although she loves another man, Lizzie feels obliged to “sacrifice herself,” as the family is in financial straits. Therefore the youngest and least pretty of the sisters, Horatia, daringly visits Rule and offers herself instead. To everyone’s shock, he agrees. The marriage is to be one of convenience, and Horatia undertakes not to interfere with Rule’s activities, which include a liaison with a beautiful widow. In return, Rule does not monitor Horatia’s social life. But when she forms a friendship with his oldest and worst enemy, will he draw the line?
Memorable minor characters: Horatia’s middle sister Charlotte, an attractive girl, is nevertheless a spinster by choice who has perceived the Hollowness of Worldly Pleasures. Pelham, the misses Winwood’s wager-addicted brother, manages to be outrageously drunken, dangerously foolhardy, and touchingly loyal all at once.
Notes: Robert Lethbridge, Rule’s archenemy, and Lady Massey, Rule’s mistress, call to mind the wicked Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Lethbridge (possibly also modeled on Robert Lovelace in Clarissa) is a dangerous rake who uses his knowledge of human nature to ensnare Horatia, purely for the sake of revenge. His relationship with Rule runs very deep, and their emotionally intense duel scene is one of Heyer’s best.
Rule has the unflappable calm and bemused manner of Avon from These Old Shades, but lacks his cruel, domineering edge and is not such an exquisite (he does not, for example, carry a fan).
Horatia seemed determined to make a clean breast of her blemishes. “Perhaps you could become used to my eyebrows?”
The smile lurked at the back of the Earl’s eyes. “I think, quite easily.”
She said sadly, “They won’t arch, you know. And I ought to t-tell you that we have quite given up hope of my g-growing any taller.”
“It would certainly be a pity if you did,” said his lordship.
“Do you think so?” Horatia was surprised. “It is a great trial to me, I can assure you.” She took a breath, and added with difficulty, “You m-may have n-noticed that I have a– a stammer.”
“Yes, I had noticed,” the Earl answered gently.
“If you f-feel you can’t b-bear it, I shall quite understand,” Horatia said in a small anxious voice.
“I like it,” said the Earl.
“It is very odd of you,” marvelled Horatia.
The Earl quickly falls in love with his new bride, but in order to woo her, he must overcome the barriers to trust created by his infidelity and her stubborness. Like the Duke in These Old Shades, he worries that he is too old for the woman he loves. In one of the best (and sexiest) scenes, Rule pretends to be Lethbridge at a masked ridotto and plays cards with Horatia, with a lock of her hair as the stake. For her part, Horatia is an unlikely romantic heroine, with her unconventional looks and speech— but she is also resourceful, courageous, intelligent (if naïve), and forthright. She is named after Whig politician Horace Walpole, who plays a minor role in the story.
The Talisman Ring (1936): This is set in 1792.
Principals: Miss Sarah Thane, Sir Tristram Shield, Mademoiselle Eustacie de Vauban, and Mr. Ludovic Lavenham.
The dying Sylvester, ninth Baron Lavenham, arranges a marriage for his granddaughter Eustacie, lately rescued from the revolution in France. He betrothes her to his great-nephew, Sir Tristram, who calmly accepts the arrangement, though somewhat alarmed at Eustacie’s willful and highly romantic personality. Eustacie grows incensed at the idea of marriage with the staid Sir Tristam, who vetoes her taking a lover, and insultingly refuses to ride ventre à terre to her (hypothetical) deathbed. Eustacie runs away to become a governess and falls into the hands of her cousin Ludovic, heir to the barony, who has taken to smuggling. When Ludovic is shot by an Excise officer, he and Eustacie hole up in the Red Lion Inn, where she is befriended by Miss Thane, a sensible woman with a suppressed yearning for adventure. Ludovic, a highly romantic figure, is wanted for murder and cannot assume his inheritance until he clears his name. His fate turns on the whereabouts of an antique talisman ring, and the four main characters (for Sir Tristram immediately arrives in search of his runaway bride) set to work to solve the mystery.
Memorable minor character: Sir Hugh, Miss Thane’s indolent gourmand brother, is only roused to righteous action when he hears of a threat to the Red Lion’s superlative wine cellars (stocked courtesy of the smugglers).
Notes: This novel is as much comedy/adventure as romance, and character development comes in second to plot. Almost equal attention is given to the four main characters. There is an entertaining mismatch between Sir Tristram and Eustacie (who embarrasses him by talking in a forthright manner about his need for an heir and her role as the supplier), while a different sort of sparring takes place later between him and Miss Thane (when she falls into a fake swoon, he threatens to pour cold water on her). Here is a sample, from their first meeting:
“Come, come sir!” said Miss Thane pityingly, “It must surely be within your knowledge that the eldest son of the house always falls in love with the governess, and elopes with her in the teeth of all opposition?”
Sir Tristram drew a breath. “Does he?” he asked.
“Yes, but not, of course, until he has rescued her from an oubliette, and a band of masked ruffians set on to her by his mother,” said Miss Thane matter-of-factly. “She has to suffer a good deal of persecution before she elopes.”
“I am of the opinion,” said Sir Tristram with asperity, “that a little persecution would do my cousin a world of good!”
The dialogue is sparkling, the situations ridiculous (Ludovic dresses up as Eustacie’s maid to escape Bow Street Runners, while the Runners later pursue Miss Thane with their cudgels, believing her to be Ludovic), and there is plenty of action, which allows Sir Tristram to employ his punishing right fist against a series of miscreants.
And which is my favorite? I am very fond of The Convenient Marriage, with its plucky heroine Horatia and the elegant Lord Rule, who bestirs himself to woo his own wife. On re-reading these stories, I also found myself captivated by M. le Duc in the two Alastair books, These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub. His long white hands, exquisite dress, and languid manner give him a touch of gender ambiguity, despite his more obvious masculine attributes. Finally, anyone who enjoys a piquant bit of gender reversal will appreciate The Masqueraders, a book with hidden depths.