The bad boy hero is a most popular romance trope today. Yet, it may surprise many people to know that it has been in use for at least 250 years. But perhaps no one did bad boys better than Georgette Heyer. Today, romance author, Bliss Bennet, shares her views on one of the badest of them all, the Marquis of Vidal, son of Satanas himself, the Duke of Avon, from These Old Shades. Vidal is the hero of the sequel, Heyer’s Georgian romance, Devil’s Cub.
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The figure of the rake—an aristocratic, handsome, devil-may-care gentleman who gambles, drinks to excess, duels at the merest hint of insult, and partakes of the pleasures of ladies of ill-repute with unapologetic gusto—has long been a staple of historical romance. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century moralists such as Samuel Richardson deplored what they believed to be common knowledge among women and girls of their day, that "a reformed rake makes the best husband." Richardson wrote his 1748 novel Clarissa, in which rakish Lovelace lures away, imprisons, and ultimately rapes pious good girl Clarissa, intending to combat and expose this "pernicious notion." Yet by the twentieth century, Richardson and his fellow moralists had clearly lost the battle: the appeal of the bad boy lived on, in particular in the pages of the romance novel.
Georgette Heyer’s typical hero is far more understated than the usual rake of romance. Yet in These Old Shades, and in particular in its sequel, Devil’s Cub, Heyer embraced the truism wholeheartedly. In the figure of Dominique Alistair, Marquis of Vidal, Heyer crafts a protagonist who out-rakes any rake who had come before him, or who would come after, yet who could still be regarded by an intelligent heroine as potentially worth her respect and love. And all without allowing readers much inside the head of said rake, a remarkable writing feat.
Devil’s Cub opens leisurely, establishing its hero and heroine, Mary Challoner, in their own quite different milieus before throwing them together on a most unusual road trip. We are introduced to the handsome, quick-tempered, and ennui-plagued Vidal coolly shooting a highwayman who had the effrontery to approach his carriage. When he arrives at his destination, his friend asks:
"What have you done with the corpse, my boy?"
"Done with it?" said his lordship with a touch of impatience. "Nothing. What should I do with a corpse?"
Mr. Fox rubbed his chin. "Devil take me if I know," he said after some thought. "But you can’t leave a corpse on the road, Dominic. People might see it on the way back to town. Ladies won’t like it."
His lordship had raised a pinch of snuff to one classic nostril, but he paused before he sniffed. "I hadn’t thought of that," he admitted. A gleam, possibly of amusement, stole into his eyes. He glanced at the lackey who still held his damaged greatcoat. "There is a corpse somewhere on the road to town. Mr. Fox does not wish it there. Remove it!" (5)
Vidal is an ambiguous mixture of traits that are simultaneously attractive and repellent. His coolness at killing a highwayman is both admired and feared by his grooms, seen as a sign of a lack of proper human feeling. His casual ordering about of his servants (and in the above scene, the servants of others) demonstrates not only his enviable power and privilege, but also a selfish disregard for those he considers lesser than himself. Even our omniscient narrator does not seem quite sure of Vidal, deeming that "gleam" in his eye only "possibly" of amusement. Unlike many a rake in contemporary historical romance, whose actual rakish behavior often turns out to be not so bad after all, Vidal does more than just hint at breaking the rules. "And with all his faults Justin was ever bon ton. It is no such thing with Vidal," notes his aunt, comparing her nephew to his father, the wily Duke of Avon. Vidal, unlike his father, openly challenges the boundaries of the socially acceptable, urged on both by his unfashionably hot temper, which society insists he keep in check, and by the desire to outdo (and thus earn the respect of) his famously rakish father.
Vidal’s lack of overt emotion—"Cool fish, ain’t you," notes his Uncle Rupert—is both the heart of his appeal as well as his central problem. "Ever let anything trouble you?" Rupert asks; Vidal simply yawns, and ripostes, "I’ve never found anything worth troubling over." "H’m, not even women?" Rupert pushes, to which Vidal once again responds in the negative. "Won’t do, y’know. Must care about something, Dominic," Rupert cautions (47). What Dominique will come to care for is, surprisingly, his reputation, his father’s good opinion, and, in true romance fashion, the love of a virtuous woman.
That woman turns out not to be Sophie Challoner, the bourgeois girl whom Dominique has been wooing, but instead her "Miss Prunes and Prisms" older sister Mary (49). Dallying with a woman outside of his class, one who has claims to respectability, is a dangerous pursuit, particularly for one whose "devil don’t prompt me to marriage" (30). Even Vidal’s father warns him to amuse himself only with women who "understand how the game should be played" (28). Aristocratic men do not ruin virtuous women; seducing Sophie will leave Vidal’s reputation in tatters. Yet when his father banishes him from England after yet another reckless duel, Vidal seems to lose all regard for his good name, inviting Sophie to fly with him.
Luckily for Sophie’s reputation, her elder sister receives the missive directed to "Miss Challoner" outlining the details of the escape. Up until this point, Mary Challoner has shown herself to be far more sensible than either her scheming mother or her flighty sister. Yet even the upright Mary is not entirely unsusceptible to Vidal’s charms:
"Oh, my lord!" Sophia murmured, casting down her eyes.
His smile was indulgent. "Well, child, what?" he said.
"I did not think to meet you," Sophia explained, for her sister’s benefit.
The Marquis lifted her chin. "You’ve a short memory, my love."
Miss Challoner with difficulty suppressed a chuckle. My lord disdained the art of dissimulation, did he? Faith, one could not help liking the creature. (42)
Thus, Mary’s plan to save her sister from ruin—to take her place in the carriage, convince Vidal that Sophia has played a joke on him to teach him a lesson, and then return home, reputation intact-contains equal parts intelligence and self-delusion. Mary wishes to save her sister from scandal, true, but she also wishes to save Vidal from a loveless marriage—and keep open the possibility that he might, just possibly, come someday to care for a very different type of woman than Sophia.
Mary’s plan, of course, goes horribly, hilariously wrong. Mad voyages over land and sea, pistols, impersonations, and elopements, and repeated discussion of how to transport six dozen bottles of the best port, inevitably follow. The resulting mayhem gives Vidal the time to discover that the woman he’s kidnapped, while just as cool a customer as he is himself, also matches him in spirit and courage.
Does Vidal reform by book’s end? Mary and Dominique’s final exchange both confirms, and casts doubt on, the efficacy of reforming a rake:
"Until you ran away with [name omitted, to avoid plot spoilers], I never knew how much I loved you, Mary. If you won’t marry me, I shall spend the rest of my life striving to win you. I’ll never rest till I’ve got you. Never, do you understand?"
A smile trembled on her lips. "And if I do marry you, my lord? You’ll let me go my own road? You’ll not come near me unless I wish it? You’ll not fly into rages with me, nor tyrannise over me?"
"I swear it," he said.
She came to him, her eyes full of tender laughter. "Oh, my love, I know you better than you know yourself!" she said huskily. "At the first hint of opposition, you’ll coerce me shamefully. Oh, Vidal! Vidal!" (300)
Bliss Bennet’s debut Regency romance, A Rebel without a Rogue, will be published in the fall of 2015. Bliss’s alter ego, Jackie Horne, writes about the intersections of romance and feminism at the Romance Novels for Feminists blog (romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com).
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