Jun 26 2012 11:00am

A Bit of Derring-Do and Name Dropping: The Black Moth

Contemporary cover image for The Black MothGeorgette Heyer wrote her first novel, The Black Moth, at the age of 17, largely to entertain a sickly young brother. It has derring do, a Robin Hood type figure who even names himself as such, an Evil Duke, kidnappings, an aristocratic marriage in severe trouble thanks to the wife’s inability to stop spending money and be annoying, and a rather dull romance. If this does not seem to be the typical adolescent male entertainment, and if it reads rather polished for a first time, teenage author, this may be partly explained by a suggestion in her semiautobiographical novel, Helen, that her father helped write it.

For Heyer fans, however, what makes this book fascinating is the first appearance of a character who would become, with various twitches here and there, her stock in trade: the wealthy, bored, indifferent, rude and often cruel male aristocrat (always, but always, wealthy) who cares little for society’s pretensions (while upholding them), or, in other words, Heyer’s version of a Byronic hero, but one with the ability to quip. Here, the man is the Duke of Andover, who, in a departure from the later Heyer novels, does not get the girl.

This is partly because he kidnaps her, and mostly because of the appearance of the actual hero—in this case, a young nobleman playing Robin Hood because, well, that’s what bored noblemen accused of cheating at cards do, I guess. She, too, is a type that would appear in later Heyer novels—the spunky yet surprisingly innocent young girl—and it’s rather a surprise to see that neither appears on the page that much, in a book that is somewhat more of an assemblage of characters.

Also present, for the first time, are some bits that would become Heyer trademarks: the inexplicable hatred of puce; the dashing young or somewhat middle-aged men who can fight a duel one minute and sit down for a fine dinner the next; the utter fascination with precisely tied cravats; the casual name dropping of historical aristocratic figures. More unusually for a Heyer novel, the plot also features a highly reliable and aristocratic Irishman; she was later to drop Irish characters from her works completely. Based on the Irish brogue she (or her father) attempted to imitate in this book, this may be just as well. And, most unusually, most of her lower class characters here, if not quite as intelligent or refined as their upper class counterparts, come off quite well indeed; Heyer would not be so kind to the lower classes until Bath Tangle in the 1960s, and even then calling those descriptions “kind” is a stretch.

Incidentally, although this book is usually marketed as a Regency romance, and started Heyer’s career towards this field, it is not, in fact, a Regency, but set considerably earlier, in the mid 1750s, as made clear by the mentions of Madame Pompadour (active in the French court from around 1745 to 1764) and Beau Nash (Master of Ceremonies at Bath until about 1762) and others. Heyer wrote this book before she assembled her astounding research library, but most of the details feel accurate enough, even if they aren’t, a gift she would retain in later years, and she would never stop the name dropping.

It’s not a terrible book, although if it had not been written (or at least co-written) by Heyer it would be forgotten today. And if it begins slowly, it improves greatly in the middle, and delivers a satisfying ending. Heyer completists might want to pick it up, despite the flaws.


Mari Ness confesses that she has, from time to time, worn puce, despite knowing that Heyer would disapprove. She lives in central Florida.

Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
For some reason, I had missed out on the puce-hatred. Possibly I need to read more of her novels.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
I really can't blame her for the puce thing- it's supposedly the color of flea blood.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
....I have to admit I haven't examined fleas closely enough to determine the color of their blood.

But that may explain why most of the vulgar, nasty characters in Heyer novels inevitably show up in puce. What could be more vulgar and nasty than fleas?
4. mbg1968
Also, Wikipedia says it was Marie Antoinette's favorite color?

Thanks Mari for doing a Heyer re-read! I'm looking forward to reading them.
5. elsiekate
i'm so glad to read this because i have never managed to finish this book and i like heyer, in general. IME, first books of long series are often not that great in retrospect, though. (examples, the first nero wolfe book he hadn't found archie's voice yet, the first ngaio marsh, det. allen is not that interesting, etc.) i imagine you'll get to the the heyer that everyone but me likes, eventually, and there we will part company, but it's nice to read we agree here. also, heyer re-read=yay!
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@mbg1968 - Well, nobody accused Marie Antoinette of not having any taste -- just of being elitist, out of touch, and bad with people. Which in Heyer terms might go along with wearing puce, although Heyer usually attached puce to her bad guys or her vulgar people.

@elsiekate -- Heh. I might share your dislike for that particular Heyer book -- I'm more enthusiastic about some of her Regencies than others, and there are few - Arabella pops to mind -- where I love individual bits and hate other individual bits.

The Black Moth isn't Heyer's best book by a long shot, but it gives an idea of where she would be going with some of her romances -- and since I really couldn't have a These Old Shades reread without a The Black Moth reread, and you can't have a Heyer reread without a These Old Shades reread, I went ahead and included it.
7. Megpie71
By coincidence, I'm re-reading The Black Moth at the moment (as in, this is the book which is currently lying open on my desk while I type this comment). I originally picked up The Black Moth with the idea of getting together a complete collection of Heyer's works; I'll be honest, if it weren't for the whole "gotta get 'em all" thing floating around in my head, I'd probably hand it in to a second-hand bookshop (which is where I picked up this one). As elsiekate points out, it really does suffer from a bad case of what I call "first book syndrome" (the first book in a series is usually not the best gague for how the series is likely to run) - the author hasn't found her style yet, and she's still assembling her cast (which is why the cast of characters in this book is so very diverse - almost cluttered, compared to some of her later work. It's clear she hasn't quite figured out how to tell some of the characters that they're not being cast; this certainly explains Mr Bettison).

I agree, there's a definite link between The Black Moth and These Old Shades. My guess is that in between the two books, Heyer took a bit more time to get to know her characters, realised she'd always been much more interested in her villain than her hero (although the hero does get a second run in The Talisman Ring) and decided to give the villain even more of centre stage than he originally managed to steal.
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@Megpie71 - Heyer openly admitted to just reusing the cast of The Black Moth for These Old Shades and just adding Leonie -- thus the title of the second book.

Between those books she wrote four others (Powder and Patch, Simon the Coldheart, The Great Roxhythe and Instead of the Thorn) and a number of short stories, so I think it's more that by the time she wrote These Old Shades she had a much better sense of pacing and plot.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
the heyer that everyone but me likes
Which one?
10. filkferengi
There was a chapter-by-chapter reread of this over on tor.com's sister site that folks might enjoy:


note: this is the concluding chapter, with links to all the previous chapters.
Jo Beverley
11. jobevtor
The cover above has been bugging me, and I realized it's the bare arms.
Very un-18th century. Now I think the whole look is early 20th century
-- the breast shape's wrong, too, and the hair is sort of Gibson Girl.
Any idea what painting it is?
12. elsiekate
@pam adams: _the grand sophy_
13. Maureen E
@jobevtor: I don't know the exact name of the painting, but that series of re-issues definitely used Victorian re-imaginings of Regency life for the covers, rather than Regency illustrations.
14. Lemon
Puce is the colour of drops of dried (human!) blood on white bed sheets, which is a telltale sign you've been bitten by fleas in the night, not the colour of flea blood.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@Jobevtor -- Sourcebooks, Inc. is just crediting the cover images to various libraries ("Fine Art Photographic Library", "Bridgeman Art Library") so I have no idea who the artist is or what the intended period was. I have seen quite a few 18th century paintings featuring bare arms, but that quibble aside, I agree wholeheartedly that none of the cover images are particularly historically accurate, or, for not matter, particularly related to what's happening inside the book. I think they just went for cheaply available somewhat public domain image vaguely relevant to the historical period of the book. For what it's worth, that is equally true of pretty much every Heyer edition.

@Lemon -- I was about to say that without those unpleasant connotations it's not inherently an awful color, but....now I have those associations in my head.
Jo Beverley
16. JoBeverley
Maricats, if you could remember the 18th century pics with bare arms I'd love to add them to my visual library. I'm always on the look out for anomalies. I did find one with sleeves to the wrist, which was also very unusual. I'm talking fully dressed women of fairly high social standing here, especially ones dressed for grand occasions.

Yes, on the cheap public domain images, and at least this one is in the right range. My first publication was a hardcover Regency romance. It had a plain cover with a line drawing of a woman in a cameo, but she looked like a Victorian Lolitta! I often come across it in freebie collections. I thought the paperback cover had to be an improvement. I was wrong, but it was original art.


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