Heyer for Beginners #2 — The Black Moth (1921)

This it the version I read (Sourcebooks, 2009) – who are the women on the cover supposed to be? Is it Diana and Lavinia at a ball IN THE FUTURE?

The Black Moth
Constable, 1921

Setting: London, Bath and the English countryside
Time: the 1750s, in the reign of George II

The Black Moth is not the first book that I have read that was set in Georgian times – which encompasses the years 1714 through to 1830, or thereabouts – but it absolutely is the first that was not written in those times. I know, I can hardly believe it myself, but my exposure to historical fiction really is that limited. Indeed, it is virtually non-existent.

Some wonderful works of literature emerged from that period, especially in England, from whose Kings, of course, we get the “Georgian” moniker for the period amongst English-speakers. (The same time frame is known as the mid-Qing Dynasty era in China, the Enlightenment / Finnish War / Union eras in Sweden, and the late-Bourbon / Revolutionary / First Republic / Napoleonic / Restoration / Second Republic eras in France, just for example.)

Georgian English Literature is diverse – in tone, if not in proponents: it was very much a White Man’s World in libraries of the period, though a relatively impressive number of women, also White, did manage to make their mark – and runs the gamut of syrupy soap opera to biting satire (often of syrupy soap opera) to trenchant observation to outright absurdity.

My favorites from the period tend to be female writers, and those who reveal a lot about their world in between the lines of their often romantic narratives: Jane Austen, of course, but also Phebe Gibbes (d. 1805), whose often lurid work deals with matters such as institutional sexism and child welfare; Welsh writer Anna-Maria Bennett (1750 – 1808), who argued passionately for female empowerment in both her subtext and text; and Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851), who wrote a lot beyond her first and most famous work, 1818’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, but is really only remembered for that, which is a crying shame. Read her positively eviscerating Mathilda (published posthumously, in 1959), and see a writer of uncommon, and profoundly unsettling, observational powers.

Historical fiction existed then too, of course, and is the reason I have never read any Walter Scott, whose works are commonly held to be among the earliest examples of the genre. I haven’t read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, either, and much else that is considered “classic,” because the disingenuousness of a long-past setting is just that troublesome to me; and now that I’ve articulated it so baldly, I begin to think I may have a problem.

All of this is basically to say that I had very low expectations going into The Black Moth. Not that I anticipated a bad time, exactly. So many people adore Heyer’s works and talk of her gifts for prose and dialog and character-building – not to mention my own impressions of her ability, from the four contemporary and eleven detective fiction novels she produced, plus whatever Penhallow really is – and so I didn’t think it would exactly be torture to read her first novel, even though I knew that it was published when she was only nineteen. (Shelley was, after all, similarly tender in years with her own debut.) But a lot of people love a lot of terrible things, so I figured it would probably be a perfectly fine diversion for a couple of hours, and that would be it.

But I loved this book.

I loved it so much. From its opening, with its suave and arresting hero who turns out to be the villain (and a real villain. If #metoo was a thing back then, women all over the country would have been #metoo-ing about the Duke of Andover constantly, given how much he was apparently given to kidnapping and raping them.); to its story of two very selfish people in a failing marriage who learn to communicate and find their way back to each other (for Heyer to have invented Richard and Lavinia Carstares, such complex and alternately despicable and sympathetic characters, at such a young age is nothing short of amazing); to its climax, a true comedy of errors and a fitting end to an outlandish, entertaining story of redemption and (the book’s least interesting part) romance, The Black Moth has made of me – almost – a historical fiction convert.

I also really appreciated the details with which Heyer peppered her scenes, and of course I am far from the first, or even the first million, to point this out. Right at the beginning of the book, we meet an innkeeper who is completely incidental to the plot, but when Heyer gives us his political affiliations in a snide, candid way, not only does she tell us when the book is set, but she also tells us so much about him as a person, even though he is a person we don’t necessarily need to care about, and indeed never see again.

It is very clever. This whole book is full of clever. But also there is some not so clever, as well. After finishing The Black Moth I read Rachel Hyland’s companion piece, Reading Heyer: The Black Moth, and she points out (lovingly but firmly, and very amusingly; for those who know Rachel, an unsurprising tone) many of the flaws of the narrative, as well as all of its glories. Her chapter-by-chapter analysis of the book called out so strongly to me because she strikes just the right note between This is incredible! and What the hell?, and that is how I felt all the way through reading it. It is incredible, but also what the hell?

I can only hope this is a feeling that continues as I read my way through the rest of Heyer’s historical fare. Next I’m going to tackle The Great Roxhythe, which is one that Heyer herself disliked and suppressed. But she also disliked and suppressed her contemporary masterpiece Instead of the Thorn, and that book is just excellent. So I’ll reserve judgment.

But in the meantime, I am happy to report that this historical fiction experiment is off to a very good start!

FAVOURITE NEW WORD: “Zounds!” What fun.

HISTORY LEARNED: The “Bonnie Prince Charlie” of the song was actually Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II, and not the once-exiled Charles II, as I had always thought. Further research unearthed the fact that his full name was Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, which is a mouthful, even by royal standards.


Maura Tan was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Morocco and lives in Singapore, where she is currently studying for her third degree in Contemporary Literature.