Inquiring readers: I have no doubt you shall enjoy this post by my good friend, Lady Anne, an expert when it comes to the subject of Georgette Heyer. Lady Anne has read Georgette Heyer’s novels for most of her years upon this earth. Smart, sassy, fabulous, well tressed and well dressed, she has read every GH book backwards and forwards. There is not one tiny detail of Georgette’s novels that escapes Lady Anne’s attention or opinion. As to her review of These Old Shades- please enjoy.
Set in the Georgian period, about 20 years before the Regency, These Old Shades is considered to be the book that launched Heyer’s career. It features two of Heyer’s most memorable characters: Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, and Leonie, whom he rescues from a life of ignomy and comes to love and marry.
The title of the book, These Old Shades, is a subtle allusion to the fact that this book is a far superior reworking of Georgette Heyer’s first book, The Black Moth, a book she wrote for the amusement of her brother who was ill. The characters in The Black Moth are at best two dimensional, but like most of Heyer’s creations, have enough humor and idiosyncrasy to catch our interest. In her case, it was the character of the villain whom she wished to revisit, develop and deepen.
These Old Shades is the first of the Alistair trilogy – she really did like these characters – and is not Regency, nor does it take place primarily in England. Like many of her early books, it falls more accurately into the category of historical romance, and is cast in mid-18th century Paris, with a short idyll at the English county seat of our hero, Justin Alistair, the Duke of Avon. He is known by the soubriquet Satanas, for his cold exactitude and prescient understanding of what his opponent will do next, as well as a certain elasticity in his moral fiber. The Duke has restored his family’s fortune through gambling; he is, as one would expect of one of the first peers of the realm, an arrant snob, careful, although certainly flamboyant, in his dress, and punctilious in manner. The historical background is the court of Louis XV, complete with its intrigues and excesses. It is the perfect backdrop for this story, for which one must be willing to suspend disbelief for pages at a time. It is such fun, and so sparkling in its writing, that one is indeed willing.
We first meet the Duke, dissolute, languid, apparently unaware of his surroundings, when a gamin comes hurtling from a side street and provides Avon with the weapon he has been waiting for to bring about the destruction of the Comte de Saint-Vire, the man who famously insulted Avon beyond courtesy. Avon buys the youngster from his brother, and establishes him as a page dressed in sober black, who attends Avon at parties, assemblies, and the Court at Versailles. The youngster, called Leon, attracts considerable attention, not only for his utter adoration of his master, whom he calls Monseigneur, but also for his startling red hair and dark eyebrows. Such hair and eyebrow combination is evident in the Saint-Vire family. As le tout Paris buzzes, Avon begins laying his plans. Leon is revealed to readers as Leonie, and goes to England in the country to learn how to be a lady. The Duke adopts her and returns to Paris with his ward. His friend Hugh Davenant returns to Paris at the same time and Avon tells him, in a passage that makes clear both the character and performance of this Duke:
“I am becoming something of a patriarch, my dear.”
“Are you? Davenant said, and smiled to himself. “May I compliment
you on your ward?”
“Pray do! You find her to your taste?”
“Infinitely. Paris will be enchanted. She is an original.”
“Something of a rogue,” conceded his Grace.
“Justin, what does Saint-Vire to do with her?”
The thin brows rose.
“I seem to remember, my dear, that your curiosity was one of the
things I deplored in you.”
“I’ve not forgot the tale you told me – in this very room, Justin. Is
Leonie the tool with which you hope to crush Saint-Vire?”
His Grace yawned.
“You fatigue me, Hugh. Do you know, I have ever had a fancy to
play my game — alone.”
Davenant could make nothing of him and gave up the attempt.”
But it is not the plot that carries the reader along; it is the delightful characters. The Duke, the darkest of Heyer’s heroes, has real charm, albeit a little sinister. He is not one you would wish to cross, as we see. Leonie, the heroine, is an effervescent charmer with a ferocious temper and an inherent sense of her own worth that grows through the book. Her character is honest and instinctively noble. She also, like any adorable pet of a large circle, gets away with being outrageous – except when Monseigneur is displeased. The supporting characters have charm and individuality as well. It is no wonder that Heyer comes back to the family twice: once in The Devil’s Cub – to revisit the Duke and his family, with a focus on the Cub, definitely the son of both his parents, and then in what is generally considered her finest novel, in An Infamous Army, where the grandchildren of the second book’s couple play out their roles at Waterloo.
If the story that unfolds is outrageous and unbelievable, the characters develop beautifully, the dialog bubbles delightfully, and we love the rollicking ride.
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