In today’s article, romance reader and author, Mimi Matthews, shares her views on one of the most popular of Georgette Heyer’s novels, These Old Shades. It is not a Regency, yet, had it not been her first best-seller, Heyer might never have gone on to write all those Regency novels which remain so popular even today. It is an important milestone in Heyer’s body of work. As Mimi explains, These Old Shades, for all its delightful and witty dialog, is the antithesis of a Regency romance. Do you agree?
Visitors are welcome to share their thoughts on this novel in comments to this article.
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Whereas with these old shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word of line
They cannot well indict me…
—"Epilogue to Eighteenth-Century Vignettes"
by Henry Austin Dobson
When one hears the name Georgette Heyer, one generally thinks of her Regency Novels. Books like The Grand Sophy, Regency Buck, and Frederica. Books where gentlemen drive curricles drawn by match-bays and ladies wear sprigged muslin gowns. It was therefore a bit of a surprise to me when I first picked up These Old Shades and discovered, within the opening paragraph, that instead of striding down Bond Street garbed in pantaloons, an elegantly folded cravat, and Hessians polished to a mirror-shine, our hero, Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, was "mincing" down a side street in Paris, wearing:
A long purple cloak, rose-lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast. A three-cornered hat, point-edged, was set upon his powdered wig, and in his hand he carried a long beribboned cane.
These Old Shades is, in fact, one of Heyer’s Georgian novels. Set in Paris in 1756, powdered wigs, face paint, and patches were the norm and there was nothing at all out of the ordinary about a hero wearing high-heeled shoes and wafting himself with a chicken-skin fan. But you mustn’t let the affected foppishness of the Duke of Avon fool you. Beneath his fashionable façade lies a cold, calculating anti-hero possessed of "a merciless strength." As his own valet says: "The Duke, he is not human. Some call him Satanas, and mon Dieu, they have reason!"
When a young, red-haired boy charges into Avon as he is out walking, he recognizes at once the opportunity to avenge himself against his bitter enemy the Comte de Saint-Vire. He purchases the boy (in a chapter aptly titled ‘His Grace of Avon Buys a Soul‘) and makes him his page only to learn that the boy, Léon, is really a girl, Léonie. He sends Léonie off to the country to become a lady and, when her metamorphosis is complete, he introduces her into society. All the while Avon is falling in love with her. And all the while he is working toward his ultimate vengeance, maneuvering, manipulating, and outguessing his opponents with the consummate skill of a chess grandmaster.
Published in 1926, These Old Shades was Georgette Heyer’s third novel. It was also, as the title hints at, a novel that contained shades of characters from her very first book, The Black Moth. The Duke of Avon is a better version of The Black Moth’s villainous Duke of Andover. But unlike the cruel and selfish Andover, the Duke of Avon is capable of love and self-sacrifice, his feelings for nineteen-year-old Léonie ultimately transforming his epic quest for vengeance into a righteous pursuit of justice for his wronged beloved.
These Old Shades has the classic witty Heyer dialogue and the typical laugh out loud Heyer moments. And it has romance. A subtle, redemptive romance so loved by Heyer herself that the characters of Avon, Léonie, and their various offspring would appear in two additional books. But at its heart, These Old Shades is less a romantic comedy of manners and more an intricate tale of revenge.
Personally, I love nothing more than a good revenge saga. The colder and more thorough the revenge the better. Heck, I was quoting The Count of Monte Cristo in grammar school. But good revenge is hard to come by. It often suffers from one-dimensional villains or descends into cringe-worthy camp. These Old Shades is guilty of neither charge. The characters are well developed, the dialogue layered with subtlety, and the story itself — although containing some pretty farfetched elements — manages to feel more like a historical than a comedic farce. It is no wonder that it was Georgette Heyer’s first bestseller. And even less wonder that after reading most everything else Heyer has written, it is still one of my all-time favorites.
Mimi Matthews is an author of contemporary and historical romance as well as young adult fiction. She is currently under contract with a New York literary agent. In her other life, she is an attorney with both a law degree and a BA in English Literature.