Simon the Coldheart
Small & Maynard, 1925

Setting: England and France
Time: 1400 – 1418, in the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V

And once again. as with my much-loved contemporaries (which I am finding I only love more and more as time goes on, and I think more about them, and read them again and again), Georgette Heyer proves herself to have been a far too harsh critic of her own work, as Simon the Coldheart – though, admittedly, only the fourth of her historical novels I have so far read – is my favorite of them. In fact, it is my favorite of all her books, regardless of genre. It is so, so good, and so, so much fun to read!

I just don’t understand why Heyer would have suppressed this novel. I get it with The Great Roxhythe, to some degree. It is kind of plodding and doesn’t really offer up much in the way of romance and as much as I enjoyed the blossoming relationship of Roxhythe and his earnest secretary Chris, most of the characters were pretty vile people. (Which is true of Heyer’s similarly suppressed contemporary novels, as well.)

But Simon the Coldheart! So many people to love here. From Simon himself, so determined and driven and kind but brutal when he has to be, to his best-friends Alan and Geoffrey, courtiers and soldiers with wit and courage to spare, to the spirited Lady Margaret and her charmant lady in waiting, Jeanne, to the great booming Lord Fulk, who takes Simon under his wing, the cast of characters is so amazing and easy to adore, it would be impossible to choose a favorite.

And the story, which sees us in the time of Henry IV and Henry V and sees the illegitimate Simon raised to the nobility due to his own efforts as well as seeing him win the hand of an enemy despite all the wrongs done her by him and his King (and yes, the English do Lady Margaret wrong, history is written here by the victors) is just so fast-paced and exciting and excellent that I read this book straight through, late into the night.

What could it have been that set Heyer so firmly against this novel? Could it be that Simon is a bit of a Mary Sue (long before that was a term) good at everything and very, very lucky? Surely not – he has as many foibles and follies as Philip Jettan, and Powder and Patch was never withdrawn from circulation. Was it that the romance of the story doesn’t take place until the book’s final third? Or did she just not want to have a hero who was illegitimate? (If that was the case, she should have mentioned it to the Heyer who wrote Penhallow.) Perhaps we’ll never know.

All I know is I loved this book. Loved it. I loved it’s Coming of Age story, I loved its positively exhilarating battle scenes (and I have never been one for battle scenes, I can promise you), and I loved the way the stalwart Simon’s allegedly cold heart was thawed by the fiery Lady Margaret, and her hatred for him became love even after he had conquered her lands and castle and taken her captive. I shouldn’t like their romance, perhaps. The fact that she is his captor and she his prisoner makes for some disturbing power imbalances and untenable social dynamics—in most stories, I would be crying Stockholm Syndrome and suggesting that Lady Margaret was being taken enormous advantage of by her jailer. But Heyer gives her passionate French liege lady so much determination and courage that it is almost impossible to see her as a victim. She is more than a match for Simon, a man it seemed no one could ever be a match for, and the book is layered so wonderfully, from his early years in training to his assumption of a barony in need of an Extreme Home Makeover to his clever victories in battle, that their romance, when it finally comes, feels like a reward both for Simon and for the reader, as well.

I have read very limited contemporary works from these times – there are not many still extant, even assuming they were ever written – so I was plunged here into an almost wholly unfamiliar world, and I was so quickly immersed in it that I barely registered that it was so very new to me – though I will admit that, in my mind’s eye, a lot of the castles and landscapes look a lot like sets from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But after this visit with the Middle Ages, I am eager for more, and can only hope a future Heyer novel will allow me a return trip.

Next up, meanwhile, is These Old Shades, which I am told is one of her best, but it’s back to the Georgian times of The Black Moth and Powder and Patch, and so I find I am not looking forward to it very much. Isn’t it bizarre, how a good book can end up being ultimately depressing, because you’re never sure you’ll find something like it ever again? Simon the Coldheart has done that to me.

It’s that good.

FAVORITE NEW WORD: “Scullion” – basically the lowest of all the kitchen servants. Or me, whenever I visit my grandmother.

HISTORY LEARNED: A lot! Particularly about the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, and the general care and feeding of Mediaeval English soldiers.

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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.

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