We have a very special treat in store for us today. Romance author, Cara King, has invited along her particular friend to discuss Black Sheep, one of her favorites among Georgette Heyer’s Regencies. Cara and her friend, Bertie, have rather different views on the characters and the setting of this story. They even differ on whether this tale is a romance richly laced with humor or a dismal tragedy. As you read through the transcript of their conversation, you will have to decide which of them best understands Black Sheep.
Dear Readers, please do favor Cara with answers to her questions in comments to this article.
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I have a particular love for Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep. I spent my junior year abroad at the University of East Anglia, and when I wasn’t busy freezing, I walked around the ancient city of Norwich and breathed in its beauty. Coming from a part of California where the oldest buildings dated to the 1960s, I was in history heaven. No, even better — I was inside of history.
So picture me, shivering on a bus bench next to the jagged flint remains of Norwich’s medieval city wall, engrossed in Black Sheep. The rain might rain (and rain and rain), but I just could not put that book down.
So because I’ve read the book countless times, I decided to ask someone new to it to read it and join me in this discussion. So here with me today is Bertie the Beau, a Regency exquisite who fell through a time-portal a few years ago and somehow ended up in our era. The following is a transcript of our conversation.
CARA KING: Thanks for joining me, Bertie, in reading one of my favorite Heyers. Here’s my take on it: I love how Abigail has her own independent life living with her sister in Bath, guarding her teenage niece from fortune-hunters, socializing with her friends. She’s happy in her golden world, but bored; powerful, but only within strict confines; surrounded by friends and family, but with no one to really understand her. So when Miles Calverleigh shows up, breaking rules, making her laugh, and tempting her out of her safe little routine, for a long time she can’t see that he is the medicine she needs for the illness she doesn’t know she has. Comedy, romance, wit — what’s not to love?
BERTIE THE BEAU: Dash it! I clearly read the wrong book.
CARA: Oh, no! Are you sure?
BERTIE: Wasn’t a comedy, the book I read. Not remotely.
CARA: Wait — I saw you reading Heyer’s Black Sheep, I know I did.
BERTIE: Yes, and it’s obviously a tragedy. Love the hero, certainly — handsome, charming, elegant — "the coat appeared to have been moulded to his form; the ears of his collars were as stiff as starch could make them" — how could one fail to love such a man? But fate cruelly prevents him again and again from finding the funds necessary to continue to properly clothe his beauty.
CARA: But he’s— You didn’t— Ah, Bertie. The hero is not polished young Stacy Calverleigh, but his lanky uncle, Miles!
BERTIE: Tosh! Miles? He has "harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin." (You see, I have the passage underlined right here. The horror of those words has Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothicks beat all hollow.) Madam, I fear that you may not be fully conversant with the English language (being an uncivilised American), so I will kindly translate for you: he is ugly. Ergo, he is not the hero.
CARA: But that’s what’s so wonderful, so original, about Heyer. She perfected the comic romance, and then started playing with centuries of heroic (and romantic) archetypes. In many of her middle and later romances, there are characters who are young, good-looking, high-spirited — the sort who would be protagonists in a traditional story. These characters have plots with traditional romantic elements — runaways, heiresses, secret trysts — but they’re not the protagonists in these books. Instead, Heyer’s focus is on the aunt, or the uncle; the spinster, or the rake who didn’t so much reform his wicked ways as simply grow out of them years ago. And that’s what we have here: Stacy and Fanny’s courtship involves elopements and secret letters and star-crossed romance, but the real love story is with Abigail and Miles, and the romance consists in making each other comfortable, talking quite a lot, and actually listening to each other. That’s what’s so remarkable about the book.
BERTIE: Ah! I knew your English was poor. The word you are looking for is not "remarkable," but "stupid." Stacy is the hero.
CARA: Stacy is a liar, a wastrel, a braggart —
BERTIE: But Miles has "not the smallest air of fashion," which is infinitely worse.
CARA: [Unintelligible sputtering sounds]. Look, just — let’s agree to disagree on who the hero is. Can we at least see eye to eye on the splendid Bath setting? The Pump Room, the Theatre Royal, the Upper Rooms—
BERTIE: Bath is for old people, sick people, and dowdies. And far too often all three at once. No wonder it drew elderly and repulsive Miles Calverleigh.
CARA: Argh! Even if you can’t like Miles, can you at least see that Stacy is a villain?
BERTIE: My dreaded Aunt Gorgon — beg your pardon, I mean my dear Aunt Gordon — once dragged me to Covent Garden to see that ghastly Kemble fellow play Hamlet. (Decent play apart from the speeches.) My point is — Stacy is Hamlet. Youthful, dashing, only lacks a bit of filthy lucre to be quite happy. But his leathery Uncle Miles? Hamlet’s dreary uncle: ugly, aged, talks far too much, and has all the money that should rightfully be mine. I mean Hamlet’s! Or Stacy’s? Oh, blast it! Now you have me all confused.
CARA: I’m sorry, Bertie!
BERTIE: That’s what comes of reading books. They upset one’s calm and cause wrinkles and hunched shoulders. No reader is ever attractive. You have ruined me!
CARA: Oh Bertie dear, nothing could ever mar your beauty.
BERTIE: Ah! Good point. Very true. But I still refuse to read another book.
[End of transcript.]
So, what about you, O blog reader? What do you think about Black Sheep, or older heroines, ugly heroes, or Bath? (And if you had a Regency exquisite show up in your kitchen one day, what would you feed him?)
Cara King is the author of the Regency romance My Lady Gamester (NAL), and of several years of film and theater reviews for a now-defunct newspaper. She is currently working on a Regency Young Adult novel, and spends her free time teaching English Country Dance.
Connect with Cara (and Bertie) online at: http://caraking.com/