Derring-Do, This Time with Cross-Dressing: These Old Shades

The first time I read These Old Shades, I could hardly recognize it as a Georgette Heyer novel. It was the first of her early, non-Regency historical romances I had read—and everything about it felt alien to the Georgette Heyer I knew, or thought I knew. Perhaps because of those expectations, on a first read I found I didn’t enjoy it much. And yet this was the book that launched Heyer as a bestselling novelist, the book her admirers begged her to repeat, the novel that was for years her most popular work. Was I missing something?

Rereading it now, I think perhaps I was.

These Old Shades is sort of but not exactly a sequel to Heyer’s first work, The Black Moth. It picks up more or less the same characters three years later. Only the characters now have completely different names, and that book’s villain has become the hero, putting the earlier book’s central characters more off to the sideline. One or two inconvenient and minor relatives and young brothers are left out, and if you haven’t read The Black Moth, you can jump into this book without a problem.

The book starts out on a chilling note, as his Grace the Duke of Avon buys a teenager for a single diamond, establishing that a) he’s a wealthy but careless sort of dude and b) really not good with the entire bargaining and c) the teenager’s guardian is not the nicest sort of dude. Although said teenager is filthy and dressed in rags and has just been accused of snake thievery, the Duke and his friend, Hugh Davenant, can immediately tell that the kid is actually of gentle birth, because, well, the kid is all mannerly and has a gentle bearing and no member of the lower classes can possibly fake that sort of thing. It’s fiction; roll with it. (Plus, later, a totally different supposedly upper class character will be revealed as “obviously” of low birth because blood will tell and all that and although he’s seemingly wealthy he can’t help longing for the peasant farm, cause, you know, that’s his heritage, not that he’s ever actually been to a peasant farm. As I said, roll with it, oh plebes.)

It does not take any really astute reading to realize that the teenager is in fact a young girl, supposedly twenty, but acting much younger, and the Duke’s purchase of her is part of a Decidedly Evil Scheme that will (spoiler!) produces an appropriately happy, Cinderella ending for all, even (eventually) the poor unfortunate middle class dude who gets his horse stolen in the middle of the all of the kidnapping, duels, drugging and general derring-do, an episode that leads to this bit of dialogue from the horse-thief, Rupert, who is, of course, a charming and feckless nobleman:

“Curse his impudence!” said Rupert.  “I left him a message!  Does the fellow think I’m not to be trusted with a horse?”

“That was the rather the impression he gave me,” said his Grace.  “What did you do with it?”

“Well, to tell the truth, I sold it,” replied Rupert, grinning.

The horse turns out to be perfectly okay. But perhaps more important (depending on your feelings about horses), here, we see for the first time Heyer trying out something she would later master: the speech of people sublimely unaware of the full ridiculousness of what they are saying. Here, too, the rather vague dialogue assigned to characters in The Black Moth sharpens and tightens: nearly every character in this book can be identified by speech alone. Which is not to say that this is quite yet the comedies of dialogue that Heyer would also later master. Heyer’s focus here is on plot, and a lot of it, creating less a comedy and more a Romance on the grand scheme of things, with, as I noted, plenty of cross-dressing, kidnapping, duels and so on.

The cross-dressing was a minor theme Heyer would return to in two more early works, before abandoning it in later novels, perhaps because Heyer decided it was simply too implausible. In this book, she somewhat jumps around that implausibility by having nearly everyone who spends significant time with Leonie quickly note the deception, which then creates a secondary problem: if it’s so easy to guess that Leonie is a girl, how exactly has has she survived as Leon?  

But, in case it’s not obvious, this is not a book about plausibility. Rather, Heyer uses cross-dressing as a a convenient method for her heroines to disguise themselves, as well as argue against gender restrictions that they found irritating or overly constrictive. Her later heroines would occasionally wish they were men (Faro’s Daughter) but for the most part, accepted that they were women, and made little effort to challenge those restrictions, a probably more faithful reconstruction of gender relations of their period. In these early books, the women (well, one woman and two teenagers) demonstrate that they are equal to, if not superior to men, by not merely masquerading, but actively succeeding in male roles—while free of the severe constrictions caused by the conventions of “polite behavior” for their gender. (Leonie, in fact, never does fully accept those constrictions.)

Which perhaps explains the other reason why Heyer later abandoned the cross-dressing motif. If here she is arguing that a woman can step into the role of a man, or at least a boy, and find it more fun than being a girl, in the later books, as we’ll see, Heyer sometimes seems to be arguing that women are not equal to men—this after a successful career as the family’s main breadwinner.  

The book also features the first of what would be a reoccurring theme with Heyer: the marriage between the young, innocent and naïve young girl and a considerably older hero—in this case, about twenty years older. Full disclosure: I like some of these romances considerably more than others. This is one I end up liking. Leon/Leonie is both annoying and a delight.  Delight: her refreshing ability to rescue herself in the middle of a kidnapping without having to wait around for the hero; her decision to leave Avon rather than see him hurt, and because she believes—sincerely, if for an annoying reason—that she is not good enough for him (she believes she is illegitimate, and Avon must marry someone born in wedlock); and her ability to tell jokes and stand up for herself. But also annoyingly young. Avon calls her “infant” for, I think two reasons: partly to remind himself that she is too young for him, and partly because she is, well, very young.

And, truthfully, too young, or, really, immature. Implausibly so. We are expected to believe that after a life spent partly working in a low class tavern that Leonie would manage to remain this naïve, this innocent. This ignorant of Paris high society, certainly, but of actual life, not so much. (In classic Heyer style, the well born girl rapidly leans correct standards of high class behavior and how to fit in with the top nobility in just a few months, in strong contrast to her lower or middle class heroines who never do, but, again, roll with it.)  Nobody, of course, expects psychological realism from a Georgette Heyer novel (although, surprisingly enough, that can be found in the later novels) but this is stretching credibility just a little too far. Leonie should be old for her age, not the ten year old she generally acts like.

Nonetheless, even if Leonie usually acts about ten, in their final chapter, at least, the romance mostly works. It shouldn’t, but the words they speak are, in the best sense of that word, romantic, and for a brief moment, I was almost convinced that Avon had been calling her “infant” all along not so much because she frequently acted like one, but to continually remind himself of his age, and their unsuitability. But the Leonie in that final chapter has grown—a very little—and she seems almost a match for Avon. Almost. And the final dialogue here works much better than it will in some of the later novels featuring this sort of pairing.

That it works at all is probably thanks to the masterful portrait of the Duke of Avon, that delightfully evil yet utterly suave and utterly, utterly well dressed man, never at a loss for word or action. He is, in a word, cool. He would serve as a model for Heyer’s later suave, elegant and utterly bored heroes, who would never quite have his same energy. Here, in his first incarnation, he blazes across the page — all while keeping the jokes coming.

The book is melodramatic. It’s beyond implausible. It’s slightly disturbing. And yet, it’s easy to see why This Old Shades remains a favorite with many Heyer fans: it’s also frequently hilarious, dripping with fine clothing, and oh, yes, Avon. Heyer would make this character type more amusing later, but rarely have him bristle with so much menace, danger, and, okay, yes, romance.

Total sidenote: In the comments to previous pots we’ve had a fairly lively discussion about the presence of bare arms in 18th century paintings, along with a request for some examples.  

Leaving out the nudes/pornographic images that were produced in vast quantities at the time (the 18th century loved porn), and also leaving out the various depictions of “classical” stories (read, excuse to show naked bodies and focus on breasts) also a feature of art at the time, here are some examples of 18th century women with bare arms not pretending to be Roman goddesses:

David Allen’s Highland Wedding was the chief image that I was thinking of; of course, I think we are meant to see this image as barbaric and shocking and certainly not aristocratic. Here’s another example of a lower class woman with bare arms, although note that another woman in this image has properly covered arms.  And here’s Marie Antoinette sporting the peasant look with her arms partially shown (gulp), an image that was controversial at the time, or wearing a court dress with sleeves coming only to the elbow (I have to say, I love the hat), and two rather less controversial pictures of her as a younger girl with elbow length sleeves.

All of these images, however, mostly highlight what commenters were noting: respectable 18th century women kept their arms covered up. Even not particularly respectable but still aristocratic women kept their arms covered up.

Admittedly, very few book covers have ever gone for historical accuracy, and I credit the Sourcebooks covers for at least sorta going for period covers.  (Some of the older editions of Heyer novels are far, far worse.)  What makes it odd here is that these are covers for books obsessed with clothing, and getting the clothing absolutely, precisely right for the year in which the book takes place. Really, obsessed: in Devil’s Cub, the action stops dead for several pages to allow a valet to discuss the difficulties of dressing men with poor muscle tone, in what is but a brief sign of what’s to come. It’s one of Heyer’s hallmarks; alas, none of her book designers have shared her obsession.

Next up: Helen.


Mari Ness is currently eating a lot of cherries, which made this post somewhat harder to type out than you would think.

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