Black Sheep – Georgette Heyer

black-sheep_sml.jpgLorna Freeman and I both worship happily at the altar of Georgette Heyer. We discovered this the usual way. You know how it goes…you enter into casual conversation with a new friend, “Hey, wow, so you like Regencies?” She says, “I’ve been known to read a few in my day.” You look at the ground and say shyly, “So, read any Heyer?” She’s far cooler than you, but not quite sure where the conversation is going. “Some.”

You grow bold. This is a rare moment. Probably not to repeated in this century You say, “So, wanna co-review Black Sheep with me?”

Much to your surprise and happiness, she agrees. Eagerly. You have found a soul mate. Which is good, because Black Sheep is all about soul mates. The good kind, the you-honestly-believe-these-people-are-meant-for-each-other kind, the you want this romance to go on forever kind. Black Sheep is romance at its best. Trust us. We’ve hardly every lied to you.

(Must. Resist. Urge. To. Fake. Georgette. Heyer’s. Style.)

There is only one cloud on Miss Abigail Wendover’s horizon: her beautiful, rich niece, Fanny, has fallen in love with a fortune hunter. Oh, sure, he’s got perfect manners and high-pointed collars that suggest a man of fashion without veering into the realm of a tulip of first stare, but his smiles don’t reach his eyes, and he, well, he tried to elope with another heiress. Not good ton at all, and certainly not the kind of behavior that recommends him to Abby or her equally protective older brother.

A chance encounter with Miles Caverleigh, the estranged uncle of Fanny’s love, offers Abby a chance to form an alliance with someone who understands that this is not a match that can or should be made. If she can convince Miles that this is a battle worth stirring himself for. After all, he’s the Caverleigh black sheep, forced out of England due to an indiscretion (he has some qualities in common with his young nephew), and cannot see why he should be bothered to plot against a mere calfling. Especially one as callow as Stacy Caverleigh, impoverished and not willing to work hard to change that circumstance.

Miles, of course, cares little about his family, but finds that he’s willing to aid Abby in her crusade…

And thus we have our story.

Lorna: I read first my first book by Georgette Heyer in high school. Up to that point, my Regency Romance exposure had been pretty limited to Barbara Cartland and her two-a-month numbered series. Reading Heyer was like Dorothy leaving black-and-white Kansas for technicolor Oz. I was completely dazzled. I devoured all of Heyer’s books—both romances and mysteries—and when I finally read all I could find, I went back and started over again. Now, too many years later, I’m still rereading. Her works are more than romances and mysteries, they are character studies set against a comedy of manners, written with a deft hand and a keen eye for the absurd.

Black Sheep certainly fits this mold.

What I really like about Black Sheep is that Miles isn’t one of these incredibly handsome, extraordinarily studly, morbidly tortured gifts to womankind usually found lurking between the covers (hah!) of a romance book. And that Abigail is an intelligent woman who isn’t afraid to show her intelligence. Their romance is a coming together of equals.

k2: Well, it isn’t often that a hero is introduced by way of sallow skin, is it? I am an absolute sucker for smart and funny men. From the moment Miles hits the story, he is all that and more. I just reread the first scene between him and Abigail — pure genius. Heyer makes it absolutely clear that he’s playing a game with Abby and allows Abby to enjoy the game as well. And it’s hilarious. I nearly killed myself the first time I read that scene. Heyer and treadmills don’t mix. This is, as you say, a true comedy of manners set against the absurd — it is humanity at its best.

However, Heyer makes it clear that Miles is a hero of unexpected depth. There’s pain mixed in his banter. In a few short pages, you learn that he’s smart, funny, dealing with his past, and mysterious. If I met this guy at a party, I’d be chatting all night long. This is going to turn into a lovefest, isn’t it?

I imagine we’re going to circle back to the idea of Georgette Heyer and the modern Regency, but I’d like to talk about Abigail Wendover first. So often in romance novels, the heroine is too good to be true. All good thoughts and deeds. When Abby’s sister opens her mouth, Abby says the right thing — after forcibly swallowing a smart remark or two — and still wonders what planet her sister is from. From the beginning, we realize that Abby is the kind of snarky that makes for great comedy, yet she’s vulnerable in a way that makes you want something wonderful to happen in her life. How do you think Abby compares to modern romance heroines?

Lorna: Lovefest, yeah! I want to be just like Heyer when I grow up. And not just me. Many writers admit to admiring her work. I went to SF/Fantasy convention last month and instead of the traditional masquerade, they held a Regency dance and many of the booksellers present sold Heyer’s works. She is the best (hail, hail).

Anyway, Abigail. Unlike many heroines, even from the best of the writers out there, Abby is real. She is not a disaster waiting for rescue, or for a man to make her complete. She is a whole person by herself and her life, if not wildly exciting, is satisfying enough to make her content. In fact, when Miles first proposes, she is unsure what to do because she realizes that her acceptance will take her out of a very comfortable place. It isn’t a question of whether Abigail needs Miles. It is a question of whether she wants him enough to give up her comfort zone.

However, I don’t see Abigail as vulnerable–or I suppose she is, but not in the wounded creature sort of way. Her vulnerability is because her heart is so great. She loves selectively, but those she does love, she loves deeply. And it’s not a blind love. She is fully aware of Miles’ shortcomings and faults, yet accepts him as he is in his entirety–as she does her sister Selina and niece Fanny. I enjoyed the scene where Abigail explains to Fanny the reasons behind Selina’s exaggerated illnesses, but it also shows a depth of understanding of her sister that in no ways diminishes Abigail’s affection for her.

And you’re right. Miles is funny, smart, with hidden depths. He is able to see the folly in people, including himself, and is still able to smile at it. Yet, he also has a ruthless strength that he doesn’t hesitate to use. Abigail comments that his shoulder is the right height for a tall women to lean against. She intuits that no matter how strong she is–and she is strong in her own right–that Miles will be there when she needs someone to be strong for her.

But what I like most about Abigail and Miles is that despite their circumstances and experiences, they are unabashedly romantic. Abigail calls Miles a kindred spirit, and Miles comments that he should love such “a bright and particular star.” Not gushing, not tortured, and well within their characters, but so profound. I think it is more affecting than the most passionate sex scene.

And speaking of sex–there is none. There’s just a kiss and a promise of one. Heyer’s works are incredibly tame compared to what’s out there today. Do you think it is lacking because of that? Or–here’s a controversial thought–maybe today’s romances are diminished because they rely so much on sex to drive the plot?

k2: Real is an excellent description — and a high compliment. What we’re given here is a heroine and hero with character flaws. But Abby’s one great strength, in my mind, is the one you pointed out: she is completely fulfilled by her current life. I grow bored with women who simply don’t seem to have anything going on outside the romance; Abby has a rich, full life. She has friends, she has interests, and she has her family. You noted the scene where she explains to Fanny that Selina’s many illnesses are a way of drawing attention to a lonely woman. I couldn’t help catching my breath. What must it be like to live in a world where you are defined so narrowly that a stomachache (real or imagined) is a cry for attention? Times have not necessarily changed so much that this doesn’t happen to people in our world, but at least we have more control over our own destiny. A single woman, even one with money, had far less humanity in that era.

(So cool about the SF/F conference. I think there’s a lot of overlap between Regency fans and SF/F because it’s so often about the world-building and social structures).

You mention the sex — at the risk of scaring my husband, I don’t need sex. Or rather, I don’t need sex to enjoy a romance novel. This book is, pure and simple, a romance. It is about the falling in love — which, quite often, is more thrilling than being in love (something that’s easy to fall into complacency about). This is about the discovery of another person — a soul mate. I think that sometimes romance novels overplay the soul mate idea; it’s often something I’m told about. Here, I am shown the meeting of minds, of hearts, and even bodies.

The trend (and all romance is trendy) toward sexier, edgier reads sometimes weakens the pure romantic aspects of stories. There seems to be a move away from unabashedly romantic, and I find I return to novels like this over and over again because they don’t shy away from the emotional thrill…while not equating emotional depth with doom-and-gloom pain. The way their personal tragedies and triumphs shine through their words impresses me.

This relationship is largely developed through witty bantering. Abby and Miles do the back-and-forth thing so well, it feels like a chess match. Do you think Heyer’s ability to write multi-layered dialogue is a key to this book’s success? Also, how do you think the Regency world created by Georgette Heyer compares with the world-building of today’s Regencies?

Lorna: Absolutely. Heyer’s descriptive and narrative skills are excellent, but I think her dialogue carries the book. It is intelligent, it’s natural, and it’s written with such a skillfully light hand that we don’t see Heyer at all. She steps aside and lets her characters speak for themselves. And when Abby and Miles speak, the repartee sparkles so much that I will sometimes back up and reread just for the pleasure of it.

And revisiting the sex issue [pet peeve alert!], I agree with you that it’s not necessary for a romance. Romance is necessary for a romance. Many times a promising story has been has been ruined for me by the lust = love equation. You know, the ‘we must be in love because we can’t keep our hands off each other, even though we just met thirty minutes ago.’ Now, I definitely believe that a well-written sex scene–or better yet, the promise of sex–is a great page turner, but it, like all elements, should be in service of the story, not the other way around. Many times I’ve fast forwarded through unnecessary lusting and not missed anything. That tells me that the sex was either formulaic or just filler, and as real as instant coffee lightened with nondairy creamer.

Which rant takes me to:

World-building. You’d mentioned that SF/F and Regency writers have a lot in common in that they both have to be skilled in creating a world real enough to draw the reader in. Many times I’ve been jarred out of a period romance–be it medieval, Elizabethan, Victorian, or Regency–because the characters’ actions didn’t match the era. But Heyer is meticulous in making sure her characters are true to the limitations and expectations Regency England. They may chaffe at society’s rules, yet they do not blithely shrug them off as they’re ware what the consequences would be if they did. On the other hand, Heyer is able to make them sympathetic to us, even though their constraints are not ones we’d tolerate ourselves. I wanted Abby to shove aside all barriers that kept her from Miles, yet I understood why she did not. (Of course, that didn’t keep me from wanting to bop both Selina and Abby’s brother James on the head.)

k2: I’ve been a Regency fan ever since I was desperately seeking something (anything!) to read and picked up Elizabeth Mansfield’s “An Accidental Romance”. This was a sweet story set in a time that I hadn’t considered before — suddenly I was transported in to a new world with new rules. Since then, I think I’ve read the breadth and depth of the Regency genre, and still find the smart, witty, clever ones to be my favorites. I came late to Heyer, and as I’ve reread this book, I’m particularly struck by the elegant way she imparts information about the era — the mores, cant, and everyday life — without stopping to explain what she means.

I am less of a stickler for historical accuracy than many Regency fans. I don’t need to inhabit the world that was as much as I want to inhabit the world of the story. To me, this means creating a world that is consistent and believable. Regency romances have created a very specific set of rules (largely informed by Heyer), and I think we, as readers, have come to believe in this definition of the era. It’s not like any of us were there, so the society we’ve created collectively needs to be followed — an author who breaks the rules must make it believable. We know the Regency era, and we have expectations that cannot be broken without justification.

I am also a great proponent of structure — and writing Regencies requires working within a structure — so believe these rules and mores are not limiting in the least. It’s what you do with them, after all.

A while back, I read a current Regency where the heroine used slang in her speech. The author then very carefully explained to me (the reader) that this was “boxing cant” normally used by the heroine’s brother. Just in case I couldn’t figure out what was happening from the context — and a serious reader of Regency romances already knew this and more. They know the world, they know the history, they even know that the setting informs the story. Black Sheep is set in Bath, which comes with its own lengthy history and special place in English society. I am enjoying particularly Heyer’s use of invalids (Selina and Oliver particularly) to bolster her setting.

Okay, Lorna, I’m throwing the last thought at you. You are a self-proclaimed Georgette Heyer fan. You are an acclaimed author of a fantasy series. How, if at all, did Heyer influence your work?

Lorna: Heyer’s work influenced me most in three ways. The first two we’ve already discussed: develop multi-dimensional characters who are true to themselves and to their world; and do your damnedest to write intelligent dialogue.

However, I think the last is the most important: always figure that my readers are at least as smart as I am. Heyer never writes down, condescends or accommodates that awful beast, the lowest common denominator. You mentioned above about the author who irritated the heck out of you by explaining something you already knew. But even when I don’t know what Heyer is talking about (I’d dearly love to know exactly what “fusby-faced” means), I appreciate the fact that she assumes that I can keep up with her and doesn’t break her stride.

k2 (who really can’t resist getting in the last word): One can only assume that being called fusby-faced is a bad thing. Luckily for us, we are far from such an epithet!

You can find Georgette Heyer (in spirit) here. You can buy Black Sheep here or here. It’s currently out of print, which is a horrible, awful, wrong-headed shame.

10 thoughts on “Black Sheep – Georgette Heyer

  1. I own a first edition of Black Sheep, but it’s one of Heyer’s I haven’t read yet. I think I must be needing to get another “reading” copy of it so I can enjoy it.
    My favorite Heyer novel is The Grand Sophy. Loved it.

  2. Oh yes, get yourself a reading copy (I had, sigh, go and purchase a new used copy for this review — sometihng tells me I had a moment of impetuousness and pressed my real copy on a friend who absolutely had to read it). The Grandy Sophy is an excellent favorite, though I am currently working on a scheme to convince Lorna that we want to read The Nonesuch…

  3. The Nonsuch? The Grand Sophy? Bring it on! Though I have to admit my favorite is Fredrica with The Unknown Ajax and Cotillion neck and neck for a very close second.

  4. It’s been years and years since I read Heyer – and you’ve got me all hot and bothered to go back in time.
    HelenKay – you can always make up for lost time. It’s been a while, but I so remember Heyer’s books – I adored all of them. It’ll be interesting to reread and see how they are now.
    I’m also posting to go ahead and get a fangirl squee in for whenever you post the review of Lover Awakened. This may be the first book, ever, that I’ve actually been watching for the laydown date, so I can be goofy and haul ass to the bookstore to snag my copy. Wheee!

  5. I was trying to remember if I had read a Heyer book…the only one that I can remember reading was “The Convenient Marriage”

  6. Stephanie – You are not alone on LOVER AWAKENED. We actually had the book scheduled for review later in September but then the books arrived and, well, why pretend we wanted to wait?
    For me, Heyer falls into that category of romance-author-trailblazers-I’ve-never-bothered-to-read. I have somehow missed all of these fine ladies and their classic romances. Like FLAME AND THE FLOWER – yeah, never. One of these days I have to circle back around and complete my education.

  7. HelenKay, skip F&TF. It’s good, but to me, the primo Woodiwiss is A Rose In Winter. I do kind of wonder how it would read now, all these years later. I probably read it four times, but it’s been a very long time ago.
    Stef, who will now be stalking this site, anticipating the next review – and if it’s not so hot, I shall gnash my teeth and tear my clothes and perform other biblical renderings of prostrate grief. Okay not really – it’s just a book, after all. But dayam, I want it to be good!

  8. My favorite Woodwiss is Shanna, though I enjoyed many of her other books. But like you, Stephanie, I read them all a very long time ago and I don’t know how they’d hold up now.
    Would you all cast stones if I admit I’d never heard of J.R. Ward?

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