So here I am doing a book review of a book first printed in 1926. Georgette Heyer, for the uninitiated, was a writer of Regency and Georgian Romance and Historical Adventure novels, as well as a Mystery writer. I’ve only read one of her Mysteries, but I’ve read many of her Romance/Historicals. Next to Jane Austen, she is the Regency writer. She was an avid and meticulous researcher who did the comedy of manners trope extremely well. One of my favorites is “Royal Escape“, which isn’t a romance at all. It’s historical fiction about Charles II escaping from the Roundheads. Another of my favorites, “The Toll Gate“, is a combination of a Regency romance novel and a mystery. “The Masqueraders” is part romance, part farce, and part high adventure, set in the Jacobite rebellion.
Somehow I had never run across These Old Shades, one of Heyer’s earliest novels. It’s Georgian Romance set mainly in the France of Louis XVI, with much debauchery, deceit, with a wickedly complicated revenge plot.. There are no explicit sex scenes in These Old Shades. The sexual tension doesn’t play out like it usually does in “sweet” modern Romances. The character dynamics are much different and I suspect the reasons for the lack of explicit scenes is much different than with “Sweet” modern Romances.
Even with the lack of explicit scenes, it’s a very adult novel with complex characters who are not always likable. The main romance isn’t all that palatable to modern sensibilities, since the age gap between hero and heroine is measured in decades and the power issues in the relationship are dizzying.
All those bad things– the power issues, the age gap, the emotionally damaged heroine, the not always scrupulous male protagonist, the terrifying revenge plot that the male protagonist is irretrievably bound to which could destroy our heroine– these are the very things that make the story so powerful. Behind the comedy of manners and inevitable happy ending are messy characters with personalities that leap off the page. Set in a historical framework where Heyer unapologeticaly and with unflinching matter of factness presents the mores of the times, it’s not the easy-breezy book candy that one might expect of a “Romance” novel. It’s pure early genius from one of my most beloved authors. For me, Heyer is a role model.