Almost a century ago, a teenage boy, suffering from hemophilia, was ordered to bed for an extended period of rest. To a bright, eager thirteen year-old, this was a devastating sentence of unutterable boredom. At this time, there were no game consoles, computers, the Internet, or even television. The radio had only recently become available to the public, but the sets were expensive and stations only broadcast a few hours each day. Most of the time, the air waves were silent. Oh, the tedium of it all!
Fortunately, this boy had an older sister who was very fond of him. Like him, she was an avid reader, especially of adventure stories by authors such as Baroness Orczy, Rafael Sabatini and H. Rider Haggard. The children’s father had always encouraged them to read, and there were many books in the house, but after a time, the teenage boy was running out of new stories. His sister decided to write a story for him in the form of a serial, producing multiple new installments for his amusement, which she usually read aloud to him as they were finished. This story was set in the mid-eighteenth century and was filled with much swashbuckling and derring-do. The boy’s name was Boris, and this special gift from his sister, Georgette, would be edited to become her very first published novel, The Black Moth.
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George Heyer, Georgette’s father, had enjoyed the story so much when he listened to her reading it to her brother that he suggested she edit the serial installments into a full-length novel, with an eye to publication. Though she was only seventeen, her father’s encouragement gave her confidence and she did as he asked. In 1921, The Black Moth was published by Heinemann. Heyer dedicated her first novel to Boris, the brother for whom she had written the serialized version. The book sold well enough that she published a second novel two years later and went on to write nearly sixty novels over the course of her career. Not only is Georgette Heyer credited with creating the Regency romance genre, she is also credited with creating the historical romance genre as well.
And yet, if a manuscript of The Black Moth were to be submitted to a romance publisher today, it would almost certainly be rejected. There is, in fact, very little romance in this story. The hero and heroine do not actually spend much time together over the course of the story and there are only a couple of very chaste kisses between them. Essentially, the heroine is the prize won by the hero at the end of the tale. However, when one remembers that this story was originally written for a teenage boy, who was much more interested in sword-play and the hero’s triumph over the nefarious villain, that makes perfect sense. Young Boris would have found the romantic and intimate scenes so many of us enjoy today thoroughly barf-worthy. Not to mention that most of Heyer’s first readers, even beyond Boris, would have been quite shocked at anything more physical than those chaste kisses. From her first novel to her last, Heyer would always keep the bedroom door firmly closed. And yet, her romances are very romantic, satisfying reads.
Heyer did not do the thorough, meticulous research for which she would later become so well known and respected when she wrote The Black Moth. But she had read enough history and novels of the era in which she set her story that she was able to give it the flavor of those times. She also used eighteenth-century spellings with many of the words used by her characters in their letters and notes to one another to add yet more period color to the story. That was enough for those first readers of The Black Moth, few of whom would have been familiar with the details of the mid-eighteenth century and were certainly entertained by the swashbuckling adventure of the story. However, despite the success of her first novel, Heyer clearly felt the need for more in-depth research for her second novel, The Transformation of Philip Jettan, which was set in the same time period. She would haunt the top libraries in London throughout her career, using her research to create realistic settings for her stories. Like many authors of historical romance novels today, Heyer enjoyed doing research as much as she enjoyed writing her stories, perhaps even more so.
The Black Moth is not a romance, it is actually a melodrama. As with any good melodrama, a compelling villain is a crucial character. The more dangerous and threatening the villain, the better the foil he is for the hero. And Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, is a most compelling villain, making the hero, Jack Carstares, look all the more heroic by comparison. However, Heyer did much too good a job with her villain, he is the most well-rounded and riveting character in the story. She may well be the first author who was so captivated by her bad boy character that she had to give him a second chance. But as she gained experience as an author, Heyer knew there would be no way she could create a believable scenario in which to redeem her melodrama villain. Instead, five years after the publication of The Black Moth, she wrote These Old Shades. The title is the key to that second story. Many of the characters in that novel are shades, or shadows, of those from The Black Moth. Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is the shade of Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover. Avon has lived a thoroughly rakish and disreputable life. However, unlike Andover, Avon is willing to sacrifice his own happiness for the woman he loves. Thus, he earns the happily ever after Andover never got. With These Old Shades, Heyer set the precedent for the redemption of a villain from a previous novel, something a number of romance authors employ to this day. As it is one of my favorite plot lines, I am very grateful to Georgette Heyer for leading the way with the concept of redemption for a compelling villain.
Though it is certainly not Heyer’s best novel, The Black Moth is in a very real sense her most important. It was her first published novel and it inspired These Old Shades, which was her first best-seller. Had she not discovered that she could make a good living at writing historical romance, she might not have gone on to write Regency Buck a decade later, thus creating the Regency romance genre. Had Heyer not written The Black Moth, none of those other books would have been written. What a loss that would have been for all of us who love her work and all the historical romance novels written after she showed the way. And it all stems from the kindness and compassion felt by the teenage Heyer. The kindness that made her want to relieve the boredom of her bed-ridden younger brother, and the compassion that impelled her to redeem her first villain as the hero of her first bestseller. I, for one, am very thankful that Georgette Heyer was such a caring and loving sister.
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