REVISITED: These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

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Author: Georgette Heyer

UK Publisher: Arrow

Genre: Historical romance

Under the reign of Louis XV, corruption and intrigue have been allowed to blossom in France, and Justin Alastair, the notorious Duke of Avon and proud of his soubriquet ‘Satanas’, flourishes as well. Then, from a dark Parisian back alley, he plucks L-on, a red-headed urchin with strangely familiar looks, just in time for his long over-due schemes of revenge on the Comte de St. Vire. Among the splendours of Versailles and the dignified mansions of England, Justin begins to unfold his sinister plans — until, that is, Leon becomes the ravishing beauty Leonie…

This book is one of my top three favourite books (Pride and Prejudice and Ella Enchanted are the other two, FYI). I re-read it recently when I was feeling a bit low and just wanted something nice and familiar to make me feel a bit better, but I will admit first and foremost that I am not going to be an unbiased reviewer. This was the first Georgette Heyer book I ever read, somewhere around the age of 14, having devoured Pride and Prejudice and craving more. I will sing this book’s praises to the rooftops and beyond.

But, to ensure balance, I want to provide a sense of the cons first, many of which I’ve noticed through several re-reads, as I’m bringing new experiences and understanding to the book myself.

Con the First – May/September Romance

This is perhaps the most obvious one. We’re given to understand that Léonie is 19 at the start of the book, 20 by the end, whilst Avon is somewhere in his early 40s at best. He’s also in a position of care over her, first as her employer and then as her adoptive “father” when he takes her on as his ward. This age gap isn’t great, but at no point in the book does Avon exploit his position of power over her to try and make a move. In fact, whilst he admits to being in love with her, he also is emphatic that he is absolutely the wrong person for her, being both too old and too awful. She is besotted with him, and he knows it, but he also never encourages these affections or tries to embarrass her by bringing them up. Instead he gives her opportunities to meet men closer to her own age, and the relationship between the two of them only becomes viable when he is no longer her only option for care and safety, and she does not feel forced.

Con the Second – “Not Like Other Women”

This is, unfortunately, a sentiment that Heyer uses a lot in her books, setting her heroines apart from their contemporaries who are silly and shallow. That said, it very much mirrors the similar sentiments found in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth and Jane are set apart from their own sisters, so fits the tone for a Regency (or in this case a pre-Regency) romance. Perhaps some of it might also be a gift from Heyer’s own experience too – this book was published in 1926, women had only got the vote eight years earlier, and it would be another two years before women would be given equal voting rights to men. These aren’t excuses, simply historical context to understand the perspective of the narration, particularly when it’s a sentiment I would be less forgiving of in a book written today. Despite the use of the sentiment, however, Heyer rarely punishes her supporting female characters. Léonie is different because she has lived her entire adolescence as a boy, so hasn’t had the societal behavioural expectations of girls drummed into her, and this means she fits Avon well – she’s different yes, but not in a way that makes her necessarily superior, just in a way which makes her right for Avon. Fanny is the more traditional socialite, and whilst she is given foibles and silliness, she’s shown as smart, kind and strong-minded – a contrast to Léonie, but not inferior.

Con the Third – Diversity

There isn’t any. Heyer wasn’t trying to push boundaries, she was writing commercially appealing fiction for 1920s and 1930s Britain. So there’s no LGBT representation (although an argument could be made for Rupert, who continually professes no interest at all in women), and the only person of colour is Fanny’s page who is given one line’s worth of attention, doesn’t even speak, and is never mentioned again.

Con the Fourth – Love, honour and obey

There is some talk of women having to obey their husbands or convince them to do what they want, husbands having to be strict with their wives etc etc. Of course, this is portrayed when Fanny totally ignores her husband’s instructions to stay home and instead heads off with Avon and Léonie. Edward marches up, furious, to take her home, but then the situation is defused when it turns out he can’t stay mad at her and she doesn’t really want to upset him. Heyer mostly seems to use the obedience line for a bit of period-appropriate colour, and she doesn’t ever really hold her characters to it.

Con the Fifth – Blood will Out

The nature of this specific plot is that Léonie is too delicately featured and innately regal to be the daughter of a farm hand, whilst another character is obviously not a true aristocrat because he is clodhopping and more interested in farming than being in court. It attributes nature over nurture to social superiority, which works for the plot but does smack a little uncomfortably of eugenic theory. This sort of isn’t entirely unusual in historical writing – Dickens used the very same premise in Oliver Twist, where Oliver’s good breeding set him apart from other street kids born to lower class parents, despite experiencing the exact same level of abuse. But Dickens was writing this in the 1830s, not the 1930s, so it feels somewhat awkward – is it the voice of the characters or the voice of Heyer? I hope it’s the former, but I suspect, given how the plot is woven around it, it comes from the author herself.

But I love this book. I’ve loved it for years. It’s not actually a Regency romance, it’s pre-Regency, pre-French Revolution. Unlike Enchantée, which shows the darker side of the aristocracy in France, this book relishes in the excess and the glamour. It’s an aspirational book, inviting the reader to enjoy the wealth and the characters. It’s not subtle, but for me the strength comes from the characters.

My general preference for romantic leads is along the lines of a Mr. Darcy – not someone fussy, or flamboyant, which makes my love of Avon quite unusual. Avon is the pinnacle of fashion, always dressed in full skirted coats and heels and jewels. His style is part of his power, he’s always in precise control of everything around him, and Léonie is the first person in many years to talk back to him. That’s novel to him, and he leans into it.

I mentioned in my review for Regency Buck that one of the things I love about Heyer is the way she writes family and friendship groups and the chaos they bring with them, to the bafflement of everyone around them. This book and its sequel are perhaps the peak examples of this, with the Avon clan sweeping past everyone, utterly impervious to the confusion they cause. They are all delightfully realised and distinct in their characters, and frankly I adore the contrast of Léonie and Avon. He is so cool and measured and collected, and she is so emotive and forthright. They work so well. Equally, Léonie’s transformation into a debutante is exactly what I was hoping for in Someone to Love with Anastasia, but sadly I was left wanting.

At no point do you doubt Heyer’s grasp on the historical setting, nor does anything every feel jarring or out of place amongst the prose. She was a mathematician in the precision of her narrative and scene building, unlike other historical romances I’ve read which can knock me out of the story quite easily if something doesn’t sit quite right. She’s fully versed in all the social mores and history of the time, and it shows.

This book is like a warm blanket for me when I read it. It makes me very happy.

Briefly:

  • This book hits a lot of my favourite romance tropes – disguise, complementary opposite personalities, absolute denial that they can be together because they’re not good enough. Dang, it’s like a fanfic.
  • It’s not a modern book with modern sensibilities, which is a shame but not unexpected. It’s an all white, all rich, all heterosexual story, like so many out there. I just think it’s very well written – I don’t find myself getting impatient with the characters in the same way as I do with other books that have a similar colour palette.
  • I’m very picky with my romances, as you perhaps may have seen if you’ve ever read any of my romance reviews. The fact that this ticks all my boxes is unusual!

Rating: 5/5 – I’ve read this at least into double figures over the last 15 years.

5 thoughts on “REVISITED: These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

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