Desert Isle Keeper
These Old Shades
When Laurie first asked me to do a review of a Georgette Heyer book, I was a little reluctant. I adore Georgette Heyer, I think she’s one of the finest writers I’ve ever read, but I’m not comfortable doing reviews. Actually, I’ve never done one, but what can you say about Ms. Heyer except that she’s great?
But the more I thought about it, the more interested I became. I have a particularly soft spot in my affections for Georgette Heyer. Without her, I might never have started reading romance. I’m certain I wouldn’t have written one, which is the reason Laurie asked me to write the review in the first place. Let me explain.
I got married in 1972, the year Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers published their first books. My wife bought them both and devoured them. Soon romances were collecting in eery room, on every table, in piles on the floor. Having seen only the covers, I made tacky remarks about them, you know, the kind made by people who’ve never read a romance. I called them her “sin, lust, and passion” books so often my daughter started calling them mommy’s celeste passion books. One day, after a particularly annoying remark, my wife threw a book at me with orders to read it or shut up.
The book was Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades. I loved it. I immediately started searching until I found every book Georgette Heyer had ever written, including the mysteries. After I’d read everything about three or four times, I started reading other writers. Later, I began writing. I’m starting on my 24th book, and I owe it all to Mrs. Heyer.
You might ask what’s so special about Mrs. Heyer. “She’s just a regency writer”, you say. No, she is the regency writer. Many have tried, but no one does it better. No one has such a detailed knowledge of the period, dress, furnishings, manners, morals, speech, terms, history – everything that goes into bringing the past vividly alive. And her knowledge and handling of cant phrases (slang of the day) are without parallel. But let me tell you a little about These Old Shades.
According to my records, Mrs. Heyer wrote over fifty books, the first published in 1923 and the last in 1970. These Old Shades, her second book, appeared in 1926, and already she’s at her full maturity. I think it’s still her best book. No one has ever created more vibrant characters. The Duke of Avon, Léonie, Fanny and Rupert, the Compte de Sainte-Vire all become vividly alive in her hands. Mrs. Heyer has created many delightful heroines — I couldn’t choose one as a favorite — but the Duke of Avon is undoubtedly my favorite hero. I can almost hear the him when he speaks, see his expression, visualize his languid movements. I can almost reach out and touch him.
Léonie is a delightful heroine, alternately impetuous, sweet and gentle, mischievous, despairing. While the Duke never loses his composure, Léonie is emotionally all over the map, enjoying each emotional state to its fullest. The tragedy of her life is made bearable by her irrepressible spirit. Fanny and Rupert are selfish escape graces with hearts of gold, but Sainte-Vire is evil enough for everyone.
The story begins in the Paris of Louis XV where the Duke of Avon encounters Léonie dressed as a boy running from her brother to escape a beating. Struck by her Titian hair and believing he knows its source, the Duke buys her and turns her into his page. Léonie worships Avon for rescuing her, and follows him around Paris in an attitude of slavish adoration. The Duke has a fearful reputation, if often called Satanas, but Léonie will allow no criticism.
The Compte de Sainte-Vire is an old enemy. Avon believes Léonie is his daughter. He’s certain of it when, after showing unusual interest in Léonie, the Compte sends an intermediary to try to buy the page everyone else believes is the boy, Léon. Avon refuses. After making a visit to the town where Léonie grew up, Avon makes the surprising announcement that he’s known from the first that Léon was really Léonie, and that he intends to take her to England, teach her to be a girl again, and adopt her as his ward.
At this point, the Duke’s brother and sister, Rupert and Fanny, make their appearances, and the read learns even more about the Duke’s dark past.
While in England, everyone realizes that Léonie loves the Duke. They also realize that he loves Léonie. But since he’s twice her age and has a terrible reputation, he doesn’t consider marriage. Léonie believes herself baseborn, and knows the proud Duke would never marry beneath him.
The Compte de Sainte-Vire kidnaps Léonie. The chase and rescue are wonderful. It’s only about now that the reader figures out that Léonie is the legitimate daughter of Sainte-Vire, that he switched her at birth for a son, and that he’s trying to get rid of her before exposure of his villainous deed can destroy him. Avon is just as determined to prove Léonie’s birth and restore her to the rank and privilege she deserves. This puts the two powerful aristocrats on a collision course with Léonie caught in the middle.
The tension is wonderful from the very beginning, yet the constant humor keeps you laughing and reading as fast as you can to see what happens next. Mrs. Heyer had three years to work on this book, and it shows. Every line of dialogue is a gem, the absolute perfect thing for the character to have said at that moment. There are no long sections of narrative as in so many of her later books – just page after page of delightfully funny dialogue and nerve-racking suspense. And all the while you can see these two people falling more and more deeply in love.
These Old Shades is simply a great book. If you haven’t read it, give yourself a real treat. They always tell writers that the most successful books are about people you care about. These Old Shades is spilling over with characters so brilliantly portrayed you can’t help caring about them.