Beauvallet
Heinemann, 1929

Setting: London, Spain, the High Seas
Time: 1586, in the reign of Elizabeth I

FOR ALL MY general (now rapidly diminishing, thanks to reading Heyer) aversion to historical fiction, I do have a soft spot for the piratical high seas adventures of Errol Flynn and Kirk Douglas and their fellows, from old black and white movies I would watch with my Great-Grandmother as a child. Mei Mei loved those movies and I loved spending time with her, and they have become so entangled with my memories of her that it is almost painful to watch them now. I felt echoes of that pain as I read Beauvallet.

I had hoped that this story was going to be a direct sequel to Simon the Coldheart, given its title, and I was looking forward to learning more of our man’s continued career, and maybe seeing Alan of Montlice find a bride. (Assuming he was indeed into women, and not Simon, as I still suspect.) And while this book is not that, it does have an extensive amount of Beauvallet family backstory in it, enough that you have to wonder what readers who did not then have ready access to Simon the Coldheart – which was out of circulation from the 1930s until its rerelease in 1975, after Heyer’s death – would have thought of this details history of our current hero’s ancestry. I was into it, because I liked to see what had become of my Simon’s descendants, but for anyone to whom he was a stranger, I can’t imagine the exalted House of Beauvallet carried that much interest, especially as it has very little to do with the family’s latest abductor of women.

Because here we have fast forwarded from the time of Henry V to that of Elizabeth I, and Sir Nicholas Beauvallet is sailing the seas on behalf of her Virgin Majesty in the war against the Spanish. Famous for his feats against Spanish galleons and beloved of the Queen, of course, he sets off on his ship the Venture for yet another round of looting not-quite-enemy vessels.

To this end, he – in a whirlwind opening chapter – captures and boards an enemy ship on which sails the fiery, emotional Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva, and, like his ancestor before him, falls immediately in love at first sight with a strong-willed woman. (Though Doña Dominica is no Margaret of Belrémy, it must be said.)

But Doña Dominica is a proud – and, of course, wellborn – daughter of Spain, and so, despite her softening towards him during her time of capture, and especially after her attempt to kill him (another similarity between this Beauvallet and his ancestor), she feels compelled to return to her homeland with her ill father, so Nick risks it all, including his and his sailor’s lives, in order to return her to her own shores. Literally, he drops them off on the beach. It’s a little like if Elizabeth Swann had fallen for Captain Jack Sparrow in those Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and then he sailed her to Dover. But with a lot more Shakespearean-style speechifying.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort, just as I did in The Great Roxhythe, to make the speech patterns of the characters seem in keeping with the time. But there is such a thing as going overboard on the period detail, and that is definitely the case here, at least in the early part of the book.

But later, when Nick infiltrates Spain to fulfill his promise to come for his new lady love – and, in the process, rescue Dominica from the ravages of the oppressive Inquisition – the language evens out and the pace picks up, but this is where the narrative falls apart slightly for me. Because court intrigue is bad enough, but add in religion and I get a bit weary of it all. It feels like it takes forever for Nick to smuggle Dominica out of the country, and all the while he is basically a spy in enemy territory, not to mention a heretic Protestant in a land ruled by Catholicism as the One True Faith, and that’s kind of wearisome, too.

Still, it is a mostly enjoyable book, and Nick is a gallant and witty hero, even if Dominica could, and should, turn down the histrionics a notch (or twelve). She does improve latter in the narrative, and her clashes with the sinister Spanish powers who wish to use her for their own ends are actually pretty heroic. I also think that the villain of this piece, the suave and sardonic Doña Beatrice, is the best antagonist that I have so far encountered in Heyer, a development that bodes well for her later works. I’m looking forward to seeing if she carried on creating more fully-realized females with evil in their hearts.

I have to say, though, that what really puzzles me about Beauvallet is that Heyer chose to suppress Simon for some reason, but left this one standing? Not that either should have been suppressed, but Beauvallet over its progenitor, for sure. And also, it’s a sequel – if totally standalone – so why remove the original from circulation? I don’t understand. Simon is great.

And Beauvallet is, if not great, at least pretty good. Mei Mei, at least, would have loved it.

Next up is another historical outing, I suspect in the vein of Roxhythe, evocatively entitled The Conqueror. I have to assume it is about the William who, er, conquered England – unless Heyer here takes an abrupt turn in her historical fiction writing oeuvre and it turns out to be about, say, Cortes, or Atilla the Hun. And honestly that is not impossible, given the flexibility she has shown so far in her writing interests, but… I doubt it.

So, yet further back in time I go!

FAVORITE NEW WORD: “Reck” – to mind or care about something – as in “reck not.” Because Beauvallet cares naught for danger, of course! (It’s better than Margaret de Belrémy’s “Conquest or death” at any rate.

HISTORY LEARNED: Way more about the Spanish Inquisition and its iniquities than I ever really wanted to, or expected. (Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, you know.)

BUY HEYER FOR BEGINNERS HERE!


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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