Heyer for Beginners #6: These Old Shades (1926)

These Old Shades
Heinemann, 1926

Setting: Paris, London, the English and French countryside
Time: 1756

I REALLY DIDN’T know what to expect from this one. The blurb of my Kindle edition read:

Considered the book that launched Georgette Heyer’s career, These Old Shades features two of Heyer’s most memorable characters: Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, and Leonie, whom he rescues from a life of ignominy and comes to love and marry.

The Duke is known for his coldness of manner, his remarkable appearance of omniscience, and his debauched lifestyle. Late one evening, he is accosted by a young person dressed in ragged boy’s clothing running away from a brutal rustic guardian. The Duke buys “Leon” and makes the child his page. “Leon” is in fact Leonie, and she serves the Duke with deep devotion. When he uncovers the true story of her birth, he wreaks an unforgettable revenge on her sinister father in a chilling scene of public humiliation.

So, okay. For a start, that whole blurb is basically spoiler, and I don’t like it, not one bit. Why would they give away the ending of the book? I really believe that my liking for These Old Shades was ruined by knowing how it was going to end – I kept waiting for the public humiliation to come, and it spoiled not only any uncertainty I might have had about the outcome, but also destroys any suspense that Heyer otherwise manages to cultivate pretty successfully.

Did the people who wrote this blurb assume that anyone buying this book would already have read it, or at least know what it was about? That is the only explanation for this disastrous blurb that I can think of, and I’m sorry, but Heyer’s works just aren’t that universally well-known.

Despite the pall cast over it by its horrible description, however, I have to say that I really enjoyed this book a lot. I enjoyed the supercilious, incisive Duke of Avon – he’s a popular Heyer hero, and I can see why – and the irrepressible Léon/Léonie, and their relationship, even though the fact that he kept calling her an “infant” even after they get together kind of grates on the modern woman that I am, never mind the age difference of twenty-plus years. I could initially forgive all the “my infant” stuff because it was clear he was trying to distance himself from her, try to convince himself he wasn’t in love with her, or that he would be a suitable match. But later? That’s just creepy.

Actually, there’s a fair amount about Avon that is creepy. His personal history is no picnic, what with the attempted abductions and the ruthless gambling and neglect of his family, etcetera.

I’ve learned that most fans consider Avon to be Heyer’s redemption of The Black Moth‘s Duke of Andover, and the parallels are pretty clear: both have shady pasts, both have wit to spare, both are considered omnipotent, and both have a satanic-based nickname, the one “Devil”, the other “Satanas”. Even their siblings – the beautiful, frivolous sister, the carefree, charming brother – are similar, and they both have kind, sensible and honorable best-friends who put up with them being jerks, who knows why?

But where Andover’s habit of kidnapping and raping women is made explicit, and leaves him unredeemable in our eyes, Avon’s murky past is left more subtle, and so we quite love it when he is lured away from his love of vice by his innocent but wise servant / ward / wife. It’s quite lovely, really.

I also really appreciated the insight into French history that this novel delivers, even more so than did Powder and Patch. I went and did a lot of further reading about many of Avon’s acquaintances and Léonie’s suitors, and it was very illuminating. Heyer’s research is impeccable here, for which she is proving to be justly famed, and so is her dialog. Avon and his brother Rupert are especially hilarious, and I laughed out loud with them several times.

If this is indeed the novel that – as that hateful blurb suggested – “launched Georgette Heyer’s career”, then I can certainly see why. I loved it a lot. I just wish I hadn’t known so much about it going in.

Next up is The Masqueraders, which seems to be another Georgian outing, and I will make sure not to read its blurb – or any of the others attached to the rest of Heyer’s bibliography, really – so that I do not have to endure the same fate just visited upon me.

Honestly, I just do not know what there were thinking there.

FAVORITE NEW WORD: “Lawks!” An apparently unrefined exclamation, according to Avon, but I like it. And I feel like I already know the term “lawks-a-mercy,” actually, as one coming from the American South during and after the Civil War. No doubt there is a cross-cultural reason for that, but it is interesting that Heyer did not give the full expression, if that is indeed the case. I have to assume it is because, in line with her research, the former was prevalent in England at the time, while the latter was not. I have so much faith in her by this point that I am not even going to look it up.

HISTORY LEARNED: As I mentioned, there is a lot of French local color during the time of Louis XV – La Pompadour makes another appearance – but it is the arrival of the young Prince de Condé, as an admirer of Léonie, that led me to research the many such princes who populated French history, since an earlier de Condé had been mentioned in The Great Roxhythe, and that novel is set in the previous century. They are a fascinating family – the earlier one actually ended up believing he was a werewolf, which I did not even know was a real psychological condition.

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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—when not writing reviews for Romantic Intentions Quarterly and eating her bodyweight in durian.