Reading Heyer: The Black Moth: Chapter XXIII

In which we serialize Society Patroness 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 Sunday for another installment, or buy the book here.

ALL CHAPTERS

CHAPTER XXIII: LADY LAVINIA GOES TO THE PLAY

Because, yes, what is a forlorn lady of the manor who believes herself supplanted by another woman to do but go to the theater, there to keep the assignation she had previously made with her husband’s would-be cuckold? Accompanied by some rather pointless cousins, and a very woebegone Dick, Lavinia finds little joy in the performance, the interval gossip, or even the prospect of telling Captain Lovelace she will soon consign herself to his effusive care. All she can do is silently bemoan the fact that this might very well be the last time she is accompanied anywhere by her husband (while he is silently bemoaning the very same thing), and even as we are bombarded with sightings of plentiful notables of the day and gifted with a rather oblique review of the play being enacted, we are never allowed to forget the depths of Lavinia’s misery.

Also attending the play this night is Tracy, and though he does his utmost to keep them apart, Lavinia does finally manage to catch a word with Lovelace, and tell him that she’s prepared to ruin her reputation entirely in order to elope with him. At first he is exultant, but when she explains that she isn’t at all excited about it and, in fact, would rather not elope with him at all – and is only doing so because her husband, whom she loves desperately, no longer wants her, and she has nowhere else to go – he’s less enthusiastic. However, he is clearly very in love with her because despite what would have to be one of the more impressively honest disavowals of all interest in him by his lady love, he undertakes to carry her away with him anyway, convinced that she doesn’t love Dick at all and will come to care for him in time. In this, he’s rather like Tracy, except at least he actually asked if she wanted to come live with him.

Speaking of Tracy: he, in his omniscience, knows exactly what Lavinia has planned, and confronts Dick with his wife’s pending betrayal. Dick admits that he knows about the forthcoming elopement, and declares he will not interfere; harsh words are exchanged and Dick even reaches for his sword at one point. (Because, of course he’s wearing a sword!) But Tracy gets even meaner, disdaining Dick for a card cheat, admitting he knew all along that Jack would never have done such an abominable thing, and even further confessing that he engineered Jack’s disgrace in order to have the much weaker-willed Dick as a wealthy brother-in-law, and under his thumb. (Aha! We knew it!)

Dick is horrified, of course, but somehow finds a spine and still refuses to put a stop to Lavinia and Lovelace’s plans. Which, of course, leaves Tracy determined to a hand in the situation himself.  

Hmm. Scary.

THOUGHTS

Oh, Georgette Heyer! At the beginning of this novel – and, indeed, throughout the middle, and almost right up until this point – I had thought both Lavinia and Dick utterly irredeemable as characters. True, at no point have I found them dull or unnecessary – indeed, Lavinia’s exclamatory conversation and Dick’s dry commentary has provided much entertainment, as has their tangled, twisted, dysfunctional relationship. But now, in the space of two chapters, I find myself having progressed from mild, vaguely disdainful sympathy for the pair to outright liking for them as a couple and sadness over their troubled, wounded spirits.

As character redemptions go, that is a very impressive feat indeed.

I must admit that Dick has been growing on me longer than Lavinia; the depths of his remorse over his brother’s unjustified disgrace in the eyes of their rarefied world has been slowly working on me, and while I still think he was kind of a dick lo, these seven years ago, I’ve been discovering within myself increasing forgiveness for his youthful folly. But even had that not been so, I would have had to have the black heart of a Tracy Belmanoir not to have been moved to compassion by this fevered passage:

After the encounter with O’Hara, whatever peace of mind Richard had had, left him. He knew not a moment’s quiet; all day, and sometimes all night, his brain worried round and round the everlasting question: John or Lavinia? He had quite decided that it must be either the one or the other; the idea that he might conceivably retain his wife and confess the truth, never occurred to him. So often had Lavinia assured him that he had no right to expect her to share his disgrace, that now he believed it. He thought that she would elope with Lovelace, whom, his tortured mind decided, she really loved. Any attempt to frustrate such an action would, he supposed wretchedly, be the essence of selfishness. Of course he was not himself, and his brain was not working normally or rationally; had he but known it, he was mentally ill, and if Lavinia had thought to examine him closely she could not have failed to observe the fever spots on each cheek, the unnaturally bright eyes and the dark rings encircling them. Richard wore the look of one goaded beyond endurance, and utterly tired and overwrought.

Aw. Poor Dicky.

Also, Lavinia is very sorry and sad in these chapters, and again, I find myself feeling for her. First here, upon hearing the news that her husband is apparently in thrall to another woman:

Lady Lavinia was stricken with horror. She had sickened him by her megrims, as Tracy had prophesied she would! He no longer cared for her! This was why he continually excused himself from accompanying her when she went out! For once in her life she faced facts, and the prospect alarmed her. If it was not already too late, she must try to win back his love, and to do this she realised she must cease to tease him for money, and also cease to snap at him whenever she felt at all out of sorts. She must charm him back to her. She had no idea how much she cared for him until now that she thought he did not care for her. It was dreadful: she had always been so sure of Dicky! Whatever she did, however exasperating she might be, he would always adore her.

What a horrible way to live! And then later:

With a sigh, she reflected that it was an entirely new departure for her to strive to please and captivate her husband, and she fell a-thinking of how he must have waited on her in the old days, waiting as she was waiting now–hoping for her arrival. Lady Lavinia was beginning to realise that perhaps Dick’s life had not been all roses with her as wife.

I really had no idea that I found penitence such an attractive quality, but I must because I kind of love these two now. I love them, and I am suddenly very invested in their romance – potentially even more so than I am in Jack and Diana’s! (“Two Georgian kids doin’ the best they can…” Okay, sorry, I know I said no more Mellencamp, but come on! It’s irresistible.)

The other thing I would like to address here is this notion of carrying dress swords about the place. It’s a simple fact of life in Georgian novels, and yet the practice seems to have fallen by the wayside by the time of the Regency, if most of my reading is to be believed – except, that is, among members of various militias and regiments and what have you, the members of whom always cut such a dash when arrayed in their full regalia. But exactly when, throughout the intervening years – I found myself wondering just as Richard made to pull his sword on Tracy – did this seemingly ubiquitous gentlemanly fashion accessory become so passé?

A quick search sent me to a very illuminating piece by historian Kathryn Kane[1], who concisely explains that it was due to a) Beau Nash, the absolute ruler of Bath (and mentioned here, actually, in Chapter XXIII), banning swords from the city limits following his friend’s death in a duel; b) the increasing safety of London, following the establishment of the Bow Street Runners, aka police; c) the Age of Enlightenment, in which Man was exhorted to overcome his baser Violent Instinct and d) that famous Arbiter of Fashion, Beau Brummell, who decided a sword just didn’t go with his outfit. But, as Kane says: “the decline in the wearing of swords took nearly 100 years.”

So. There you go.

Now, what other arenas of inquiry might the further unfolding of our tale suggest to us? Will Dick and Lavinia contrive to stay in our good graces? And are we ever going to see Jack again? Ahead to Chapter XXIV, and we shall see what we shall see…

* “A Gentleman Does Not Wear a Sword in the Presence of a Lady!” – Kane, Kathryn; regencyredingdote.wordpress.com; 26 September 2008


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