RogerBW's Blog

These Old Shades, Georgette Heyer 13 June 2020

1926 romance. The evil Duke of Avon, walking through Paris, finds an urchin fleeing from a beating and buys him as a page. But, being who he is, he has plans within plans.

This is, of course, the sequel to The Black Moth, only with the Moth as the hero. Except that it isn't, because all the names are changed; Andover becomes Avon, Diana Beauleigh becomes Jennifer Beauchamp, and so on. Except that it is, because many of the personalities are the same or at least closely allied, and the events of the previous book clearly happened to them, with some tweaks here and there. And the title is taken from Austin Dobson's Epilogue to 'Eighteenth Century Vignettes' (1892):

This Age, I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful;
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:
Belaud it, and it takes your praise
With air of calm conviction;
Condemn it, and at once you raise
A storm of contradiction.
Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

which is often described as an admission that Heyer had used these characters before – though to me it seems more to be a justification for writing historical rather than contemporary fiction. (Between The Black Moth and this book, she'd written one modern-set novel and three historicals, so it's a bit late for that.)

So why change the names? To make it "not a sequel" and therefore more saleable, or to disassociate it from her earlier and more juvenile work? (Certainly one doesn't need to have read The Black Moth to work out what's going on here.)

Anyway, there's also a huge change of style; it's departed from the neighbourhood of Farnol and Sabatini, and moved to its own more distinctive place. There's very little violence here, and it's shocking when it happens rather than being just the sort of thing an adventurer casually indulges in. The people have largely developed from the types that they were in the earlier book into distinctive individuals.

There's a lot of talk, which can be both good and bad; it's enjoyable and witty (and I'm sure one of the reasons Heyer returned to Andover/Avon is that he's fun to write), but it does to some extent slow the pace – as does the tourism round Paris of 1756. There are three big discoveries to be made, and even the addition of a kidnapping can't always keep things moving.

It certainly doesn't help that everyone (including Heyer) assumes that Blood Will Out: the child of a peasant will still act like a peasant even if brought up as a noble from the day of their birth, and vice versa. And any problems one might have with the age difference between hero and heroine aren't made less by Avon's constantly calling his beloved "infant".

The wickedness of Avon also falls a little flat at times; everyone regards him as a terrible villain, but the worst we hear of him here is that he's kept mistresses and allowed an idiot to ruin himself at the gambling-table, and all of polite society finds those things acceptable. (A long time ago he may have debauched ladies of quality, but that's never really clear, even if it forms part of the reason for his desire for revenge on a particular enemy; and similarly, what Avon knows of that enemy's bad behaviour doesn't necessarily make him the horrible person that Heyer would like us to see.) Since Avon's regard of himself as a bad man is one of the things that holds back the romance, that feels thin.

Still, the gradual development of his plan works; and when things go awry and he has to improvise, they go awry because he has behaved in character and not shared certain information, which makes the general idea of the Big Misunderstanding rather less annoying than it can often be. This is a couple in whom one can believe; and even when the pace flags, the writing is enjoyable enough that one doesn't mind.

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