RogerBW's Blog

The Black Moth, Georgette Heyer 22 April 2020

1921 romance, first of Heyer's novels. Six years ago Jack Carstares left England in disgrace, having admitted to cheating at cards. Now in 1751 he's back, and living as a highwayman, leaving the family home to his brother even though his father has died and he's now the rightful Earl; but meanwhile Tracy Belmanoir, the sinister Duke of Andover, has his eyes on beautiful Diana Beauleigh…

This is famously the book that the young Georgette wrote to amuse her brother Boris, who suffered from hæmophilia and was often weak. What's surprising is that it's not the pastiche of Orczy and Farnol that one might have expected; there are duels, and a desperate ventre-à-terre ride in the dark, but even this juvenile work tries to be more about the people and their thoughts than about their actions.

Which means expectations are confounded at every turn. Jack Carstares is on stage for surprisingly little of the story, while Heyer seems more interested in his brother Richard Carstares… the one who actually did the cheating, but Jack took the blame for it so that Richard would be free to marry Belmanoir's sister Lavinia. Lavinia is something close to a child in a woman's body, throwing tantrums whenever her whims are not indulged; but Richard, for reasons that entirely escape this reader, is still madly in love with her, and therefore fights against the pressure of his conscience to let the truth about the cheating be known so that Jack can return to society.

What's particularly strange about this section is that Belmanoir himself takes the hero's part: for admittedly self-interested reasons (he is constantly in need of money, and he and his wastrel brothers can sponge off Richard, which wouldn't be possible if there were a scandal with Lavinia), he sees the problems Richard and Lavinia are having, and fixes them. If it weren't that we already know about the kidnapping and rape (threatened, and presumably committed in the past with other victims) he'd come over as a cynical antihero rather than as the villain of the piece.

This isn't helped by Jack himself, and still more Diana, being remarkably colourless; they aren't entirely stereotypes, but nor are they particularly interesting as people, and the obstacles to their romance are entirely practical rather than emotional ones.

Of course, everything comes to a head in a scene which makes me think that even at this point Heyer had one eye on a stage adaptation: all the principals end up in the same room, and everything is had out.

One slight oddity is the magistrate who provides Jack with a refuge… because he's called Miles O'Hara, and he talks like a stage-Irishman. Now I certainly won't claim that there were no Irishmen being magistrates in England in the 1750s, but it seems remarkably unlikely to pass without mention as it does here; and I find myself wondering whether the story was originally intended not just to be read, but to be read aloud, the accent thus providing a convenient way to distinguish this character from the rest of the substantial cast.

Historical references are laid in fairly lightly, with some mention of Maria Gunning and a passing reference to The Spectator… which is in fact a rare factual error, since the publication by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele had run from 1711 to 1712, and the modern magazine of the same name would not come out until 1828.

In itself it's not a particularly impressive piece, but Heyer is at least striving for something other than the easy imitative form, and getting a remarkable way towards it.

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