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.
I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer, to borrow one of her oft-used phrases. I read and reread all the Heyer books in my parents’ library, and I pronounced her last name “High-er,” like a regular mushroom. (I only learned how to say her name “Hare” when I met other Regency romance fans).
Heyer pioneered the Regency romance, and so much of her research and invention are present in today’s historical romances. There’s a lot that is problematic about reading Heyer now, given the attitudes towards women, people of color, people who are not aristocracy, and people who are not Christian. I’m not going to add a ‘but’ there to softsell the systemic bigotry, because Rachel’s analysis of The Black Moth recognizes both Heyer’s brilliance and acknowledges her more unpleasant attitudes. That’s important, to recognize that your faves can be problematic, and not to try to justify them, but to recognize them and allow the reader to make her own decision about them.
Romance readers and authors have dual feelings about their genre: on the one hand, we will defend its tropes, structure, and insistence on a happily ever after as vehemently as any fierce fan. On the other, we recognize that a lot of what is in our genre can be ridiculous, which is what makes Rachel’s analysis so delightful—she shares why The Black Moth is such a joy to read, so many years later, but also points out the more ludicrous points in the story.
You don’t have to have read The Black Moth recently or even at all to appreciate what Rachel has done here; she guides you through the plot, the language, the characters, and the duels with aplomb, stopping to toss in a pop culture reference here and a furrowed brow there. It’s the most fun kind of literary criticism, sharing the elements and structure while also being amusing.
I howled in laughter while reading this, and it reminded me why I love this genre in general so much. Begad, it’s good.
New York, 2018
Set in England’s Georgian era, circa 1751, The Black Moth tells the tale of one Jack Carstares who, wrongly accused but selflessly confessing to a social solecism of the highest order, retreats from Society and sets himself up as a prosperous Baronet… and highwayman! He holds up a coach containing the abducted beauty Diana Beauleigh, and saves her from an uncertain fate at the hands of the dastardly Duke of Andover, getting himself injured in the process. Cared for at the lady’s home, the two soon find love… but the Duke is in no way resigned to the loss of his coveted prize. Meanwhile, painful truths out of the past are revealed, relationships are tested, witticisms are dispensed and buckles are swashed in this very first of Georgette Heyer’s historical romances, published in 1921 when she was only – and astonishingly! – nineteen years of age.
John “Jack” Anthony St. Ervine Delaney Carstares, Earl of Wyncham
Jim Salter – Jack’s devoted servant
The Hon. Richard “Dick” Carstares – Jack’s brother
Lady Lavinia Carstares (née Belmanoir) – Richard’s wife
Hugh Tracy Clare Belmanoir, Duke of Andover – Lavinia’s Machiavellian brother
Lord Andrew Belmanoir – Lavinia’s scapegrace brother
Mistress Diana Beauleigh – object of much affection
Sir Miles O’Hara – Jack’s best friend
Lady Molly O’Hara – Sir Miles’s wife
Sir Horace Lovelace – troublemaker
Here, it is my privilege to revisit The Black Moth, many years after I first experienced its wonder, going chapter-by-chapter in an attempt to uncover every gem (and every misfire) contained within the pages of this remarkable first novel. Reading Heyer has always been a favorite pastime; at last, I have found a way to share the experience!
And so, without further ado…
THE BLACK MOTH
Originally published in 1921 by Heinemann
A short opener gives us to understand that our Hero, for such we must surely think him, is a perfect cad, the kind of sardonic and seemingly heartless bad boy we love to see redeemed (or, at least, redeemed enough to make him acceptable to our Heroine, but without coming over all milksop). He is a Duke. He has for middle names, if you will credit it, Tracy Clare. He wears only black and silver, and both follows and disdains the expected fripperies of fashion. His letters are written at an escritoire, and signed DEVIL. He writes of duels and whippings and young ladies of perhaps assailable virtue. He is, in short, the very model of a major historical heartthrob.
Already, this book has me gripped. It really is astounding to think that such precision of language, such deftness of characterization and the ability to so carefully build anticipation came from the pen of one so young. Of course, young authors are not entirely uncommon – Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at nineteen and S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders at sixteen; hell, Daisy Ashford wrote The Young Visiters at age nine – but the command with which Heyer begins this novel is indeed extraordinary in one so inexperienced.
Especially as she essentially created a whole new genre at the same time.
True, Sir Walter Scott got there a lot earlier with tales of high adventure and romance set in an earlier time – his first, Waverley (1814), is set fifty years prior to its writing; his arguably most famous, Ivanhoe (1820), is set in the 12th Century – and Hugo, Dumas, James Fennimore Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others, all fit into the Scott model. But Heyer took the best of them, mixed in some Austen, Radcliffe, Orczy and Gaskell, along with a zing all her own, and launched a publishing phenomenon that has only gained in strength and popularity (and, it must be said, graphic sex) ever since.
At nineteen? Amazing.
New chapters of Reading Heyer: The Black Moth will be posted here at Heyer Society each Monday. Or buy it here.