In which we serialize Heyer Society editor Rachel Hyland’s first book in her Reading Heyer series, Reading Heyer: The Black Moth. Called “delicious” by Heyer expert Jennifer Kloester, it is a reading guide, critique and loving homage all in one. But mostly, it’s just a lot of fun. We hope you enjoy. Check back every Monday for another installment, or buy the book here.
CHAPTER IV: INTRODUCING THE LADY LAVINIA CARSTARES
Finally, we get to meet the woman so fascinating, so bewitching, that she would (unwittingly, we hope) cause a seemingly decent enough fellow like Richard to turn cheat and coward, thereby consigning his brother to a fate worse than death: social ostracism.
This chapter kicks off right where the previous one left us, with Dick sighing manfully and wallowing in his guilt and despair (as he damn well should), when this is interrupted by the ostentatious arrival of his lady wife. “She came rustling into the room, embroidery in hand,” we are told, and at once we have the measure of her. And we are soon proved right. She is a vain, shallow, empty-headed termagant, beautiful and vivacious and certainly not without her charm, but so unashamedly self-involved that there really is no excuse for it—although she gives us at least a dozen.
She’s exhausting, and very… er… emphatic. When Richard dares refuse to promise never to disgrace her by revealing the truth of the events that terrible night at Dare’s card party, she lets loose such a succession of exclamation marks as to put one of those old Batman fight scenes to shame. (BIFF! WHAM! BOP!)
Oh, and she really doesn’t seem to like her own son. What a stone-cold bitch.
On the other hand, one must feel some sympathy for her. “Oh, why did you tell me you cheated after you had wedded me?” she sobs furiously, and of course she’s just being manipulative here, but she also has a point.
’Cause yeah, Dick, why did you? Oh, that’s right! As previously established, you’re kind of a dick.
Then there’s a whole bunch of repining over being stuck in the country. Poor Lady Lavinia, with her maids and her manor house and her enormous wardrobe of silks and brocades that her husband can ill-afford, is just so bored, Dicky—like a child at the end of summer vacation. Damn it, she wants the bright lights of the big city or she vows she’s going to be even more hateful (if that is possible). She begs Dick to reform, to be carefree and indulgent; she’s “dull” and “ill-tempered” and “discontented” and only London, and an unlimited credit limit, will set her to rights.
(Which, if we’re honest… doesn’t sound half bad, does it?)
Thwarted, Lavinia retreats forlornly, at which we can only heave a sigh of relief. And now we get to meet two more male members of her clan: the five-year-old John, her apparently despised child (yes, Dick named him for his brother; okay, we get it dude, you feel bad!), and Lord Andrew Belmanoir, the brother of whom she doesn’t seem to think much more.
Andrew is an engaging but rackety fellow who has but one purpose for this visit: money. It seems he has run up some gaming debts numbering in the thousands of pounds, and naturally enough, his Ducal brother Tracy can’t help him out. So here he is, frankly begging a loan from Dick, and then even more frankly admitting that he won’t be paying it back. (“I shall have a run of luck soon–a man can’t always lose. Then I shall be able to repay you, but, of course, I shan’t. It’ll all go at the next table. I know!”)
And almost despite ourselves, we can’t help but fall a little under Lord Andrew’s careless spell. He may, like Lavinia, be self-obsessed, but at least he is also self-aware (and also, he appears to like her son). He’s just so delightfully… Bertie Wooster about it. Similarly decadent, indolent and possessed of a cleverly vapid way with words, but adorned in satin instead of spats. Though if Dick is his Jeeves, then boy, is he in trouble.
Also in here is the first we hear of the other other Belmanoir boy, Bob (really? Lord Bob?), as cash poor as the rest of the family, but at least having entered into gainful employment, in one of the few industries allowed to the sons of the nobility: war.
Throughout much of Heyer, especially her Georgian works, one peculiarity has always plagued me: her usage of the word “doubt. I have long not thought it meant what she thought it meant. To wit, this piece of dialogue, from the lovely Andrew, when he is asking Dick for money:
“Here’s Tracy turned saint and swears he’ll see me damned before he hands me another penny. I doubt he means it, too.”
This kind of thing has puzzled me for the longest time in the reading of Heyer, and others of her ilk. Didn’t Andrew actually mean he “didn’t doubt” Tracy meant it, too? I mean, at times, Heyer’s “doubt” seems to be what we all know as “doubt.” For example, in Chapter I:
“Apoplexy, I make no doubt?”
– Jack, to Warburton, on how his father the Earl had died.
But then, this, from that fat merchant we all hated in Chapter II:
“I doubt I shall never see my money again,”
– by which he seemed to be saying he had no doubt he’d never see his money again.
I have no idea why I have never researched this before, but it turns out that this is no mere eccentricity in Heyer’s writing. Anyone who has ever read any of Bill Bryson’s exacting yet enthralling texts on the etymology of our wacky language will know just how screwed up the whole thing is; indeed, anyone who ever wearily tried to explain to, say, a stubborn French-speaking friend how a “recess” can be both a break in a court case and a handy place for shelving in their new apartment (okay, yes, that was me who did that… for an hour), will know it, too.
In its Archaic form but one still used in the 17th-century and even beyond, “doubt” was used as a synonym for “fear” – so Mr. Fudby feared he’d never see his money again; Lord Andrew feared Tracy meant it, too. And yet, at this same period in time, the modern usage of “doubt” as meaning “uncertainty” was also, confusingly, common.
So… there you go.
What other mysteries of the English language might we further uncover, going forward in this landmark novel? An explanation of that “i before e except after c” rule? Exactly how often “bimonthly” is? Why there is nothing that rhymes with orange? Let us head to Chapter V, and find out together!
New chapters of Reading Heyer: The Black Moth will be posted here at Heyer Society each Monday. Or buy it here.