Jul 24 2012 11:00am

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.

Heidi Breton
1. AnemoneFlynn
I've had difficulty in the past finding Heyer novels in my local bookstores or in ebook format. I've only read The Black Moth and Cotillion so far, but I have to say that Cotillion has been my favorite. I'm really looking forward to reading more about her other novels and pick out some more for future reading!
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
My library loves her work. I think there are two rows of just her books.
Azara microphylla
3. Azara
I loved this book when I was twelve, but I find it pretty nearly unreadable nowadays. I'm no longer able to 'roll with it' when it comes to Heyer's ideas that both aristocratic refinement and peasant boorishness are inborn rather than learned. Furthermore, Léonie's childishness for a twenty-year old wasn't quite as obvious to me when I was only twelve as it is now.

One thing I found interesting is that it includes a fairly specific date for the action, which I think she avoided in most of her works set in the 18th century. It's supposed to be ten years after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, which made a mess of her arithmetic when it came to ages of the Avon family in An Infamous Army.
4. etv13
You're right that Leonie should be older than her age rather than younger, given the life she's led. Frankly, I don't think Leonie is all that mature even as a woman in her mid-forties in Devil's Cub. I read Devil's Cub long before I even knew These Old Shades existed (although from the text it was pretty clear there was a prequel). I didn't like Leonie in Devil's Cub, and that carried over to my feelings about her in These Old Shades. I'm not sure whether I think Dominic makes sense as the offspring of Avon and Leonie or not.

As far as cross-dressers go, I like both Prudence (and Robin, for that matter) and Pen Creed much better than I like Leonie. Pen is actually younger than Leonie, and has had a much more sheltered life, yet she seems more mature, and more equal to Richard than Leonie is to Avon. Maybe it's because she sort of treats him as she would if she were the public-school boy she's dressed like, up until it's clear she's a young woman he's in love with.
5. EC Spurlock
I have often wondered if J D Robb's Rourke was influenced by Avon; they seem to me to share some similarities.
Shelly wb
6. shellywb
I love this Heyer. It's probably my favorite, and while much of that is because of Avon a lot of it is the supporting cast. With Avon, let's face it, Heyer created a romance archetype that every romance writer since has attempted to recreate, most unsuccessfully. But the friends and family that populate this novel are a delight, and while their growing closer through their escapades may not be realistic, I love reading about it every time.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@AnenomeFlynn -- For years Heyer's books were very difficult to find in the States since they were out of print here (they remained in print in the UK.) So they became treasured finds in used bookstores. That changed when Harlequin began issuing a series of reprints about a decade ago, followed by the Sourcebooks and other editions now, with ebooks. My local library is even carrying her ebooks, which is a major improvement.

I don't think too many people would disagree with your assertion that Cotillion is a much better book than Black Moth!

@Braid_Tug -- Ooooh, you're lucky. For years I could usually only find four or five Heyers per library, if that.

@Everyone else: Fascinating divergence of viewpoints here! (I see we're going to have a lot of fun when we reach The Grand Sophy.)

@Azara -- What fascinates me about that is that Heyer herself was not exactly of aristocratic blood on either side -- her parents were connected and wealthy enough to let her join the fringes of aristocratic society, but she was still the descendant of Russian immigrants whose origins had decidedly not been middle class. (As we'll discuss later some of her ancestors may have been Jewish, and it's not clear how aware she was of this.) Yet she didn't just buy into this myth; she propogated it, and repeated it in both contemporary novels ( Barren Corn) and her historicals/Regencies. She did sometimes soften it (in Bath Tangle and Black Sheep), or would allow one aristocratic parent to improve the breeding, but never entirely dropped the concept.

@etv13 -- Yeah. I am not overly fond of Leonie in Devil's Cub, either, what between the leaping to conclusions, emotional manipulations, dictates and so on. Avon, despite probably being a much worse human being, comes off as more likeable.

@EC Spurlock -- I have no idea, although Nora Roberts/J D Robb certainly has read most if not all of Heyer's books.

@shellywb - I tend to prefer the supporting cast in almost all of her novels. Even when they are awful. Perhaps especially when they are awful. They provide most of the fun.
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@Azara -- Whoops, meant to address your other point -- The Masqueraders is pretty carefully dated to a single year as well; the protagonists are fleeing Culloden.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
Rupert is probably my favorite character in this. I enjoyed Avon's immediate leap to the idea that he and Leonie had eloped, and even more their reaction when they heard what he thought, some historical novel version of you've got to be kidding!
Carolyn Style
10. Louisa
I love this one. I've loved it since I was a teenager. There are so many things about it that are wrong - even offensive - age differences, notions about class, the innately noble heroine raised as a peasant (who can read and write and speak upper class English) and the young Vicomte who longs for a farm, the fact that no one seems to recognize her once she is in girl's clothes & back in Paris. Usually these things would bother me terribly, but they don't in this book. I forgive it everything.

I think it's the wit of the dialogue. And relationships between the all the characters. I love Rupert, of course, and Davenant, and Fanny, ... oh everyone.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Pam Adams -- I cannot envision Rupert in a serious relationship with anyone except excellent wine. And even then he'd be unfaithful.

@Louisa -- That sums up my feeling for a lot of Heyer books -- the class stuff and snobbery really should bother me terribly, and I do notice it, but I somehow find myself managing to forgive it. Partly because I'm laughing.
12. DresdenRose
I am improbably in love with These Old Shades. I read it years ago and have re-read it since. Avon is, and will always be, one of my favorite heroes. Despite the improbably plot, the occasionally dated style of writing, and equally dated social views, I always, always laugh as I read, and delight in the Heyer-esque universe of happy endings.
13. S.M. Stirling
Cross-dressing plausibility: I did some research on this, and it actually happened. Not common, but not unknown.

There were multiple instances of women successfully masquerading as men for -years-, and at all social levels, in the 17th and 18th centuries. And those only got into the record because they were the ones which were "outed". It was a dangerous and desperate thing to do, but it did happen -- and people knew it happened.

One really weird instance; a British slaver out of Bristol got into a brush with a French privateer off the Guinea coast, and a sailor took an oak splinter through the thigh.

The ship's surgeon cut "his" breeches off... and oh, didn't he get a surprise! The captain noted it in the log, and mentioned that he'd had women's clothing run up and put her to work helping the doctor. And that was it -- it was a weird thing to happen, but nobody thought it was earth-shaking.

It's a matter of gender conventions in dress (though it helps if shaving is predominant!).

In a society in which these conventions were very strong and clothing fairly voluminous, the eye literally does not see. "Pants = male", and the mind supplies the rest of the data, if there isn't something that's -impossible- to ignore.

That's the way human perception generally works; we don't actually see most of what we think we're seeing. We see a little and the mind fills in the rest from filed stock images. Something radically new often can't be comprehended for some time.

Deval Murphy, the travel writer, ran into his several times when she was biking through Ethiopia in, IIRC, the 1970's. She'd come to a village, and the first question was "man or woman"? (She wasn't pretending to be male, just dressed in ordinary hiking clothes.) Sometimes they had a couple of women examine her in private to be sure.

Another instance: a (female) American reporter was talking to some Pushtuns who were wroth about a picture of an American soldier searching some Afghan women. She pointed out that the soldier was a woman, and they -literally- couldn't "see" it, though it was perfectly obvious to her.

She had to go over the picture in detail, pointing out things like hips and the Adam's apple, and they still weren't entirely convinced.

So if a woman didn't have an impossibly opulent figure and she was careful, it was actually fairly easy to pass for a male back then.

These days we're much better at picking up more subtle physical clues as to gender because the conventions on dress have largely broken down, and also of course because we just wear less cloth most of the time.
14. S.M. Stirling
Social attitudes: I find this shrinking-in-abhorrence at different attitudes in historical fiction (or stuff written in the past) sorta baffling.

Yeah, people in the 18th century (which Heyer was trying to show as accurately as she could) assumed that "blood will out" and that aristocratic, middle-class and lower-class characteristics were inherent.

So? You want real values dissonance, reread "The Taming of the Shrew".

One of the main points of reading (or writing) historical fiction, or speculative fiction, or stuff written in different times/cultures, is to get inside the heads of people who are -really different- from yourself.

If I want to see my own reflection, I can walk into the bathroom and look in the mirror. If I want to see my own neighborhood, I can walk out the front door.
Azara microphylla
15. Azara
Yeah, people in the 18th century (which Heyer was trying to show as
accurately as she could) assumed that "blood will out" and that
aristocratic, middle-class and lower-class characteristics were

I have no problem with the characters having those attitudes - it's the fact that the author shares them that's the problem.
Mari Ness
16. MariCats
@S.M. Stirling --

I probably should have been more clear in my post: it's not that I find cross-dressing implausible (I can add a couple of medieval examples to your excellent list); it's that Heyer, for the most part, seemed to reject the idea that women either could plausibly pass as boys or men on a permanent basis (here and in The Corinthian) or would want to (in The Masqueraders, a book I'll be looking at in a couple more weeks.)

Indeed, one of the minor problems with These Old Shades is that Leonie SHOULD have an easier time passing as a boy, given how long the book claims she's been doing so. In The Masqueraders, both cross dressers have a much easier time of it -- despite less practice.

Regarding different social attitudes of the past -- well, yes, of course, part of the point is to get inside different heads and different attitudes. But I'm not sure it necessarily follows that I can't criticize those attitudes or admit that they can make me twitchy, as here.

Having said that, my real twitchiness here was not so much the way Leonie's noble blood shines through everything, allowing her to be a perfect aristocrat despite her twitchiness, but the way the boy who has been raised in luxury all of his life returns to a peasant life and is "happier" and more comfortable there. This, incidentally, is markedly different than what actual 17th and 18th writers wrote about wealthy people suffering a sudden reversal in fortunes: most people of the time did not handle this at all well, largely because 17th and 18th century peasant life involved a lot of backbreaking, hard work with no servants or luxuries to help out. So, yes, I found this difficult to believe, but I also think that 18th century writers also would have found this difficult to believe, no matter what they may have believed about inheriting social attitudes and behaviors at birth.

@Azara and @S.M. Stirling -- I'm honestly not at all sure that most 18th century people did share these attitudes. Some certainly did, and I'd suspect many aristocrats did, but others strongly argued against it, and if the 18th century can be characterized by anything, it would be strongly changing and often polarized views about class structure and birth.
Cassandra Cookson
17. cass
I just reread _These Old Shades_ and I still enjoy it and Leonie. I was surprised other readers viewed her as childish. There's a scene where Leon sits beneath Avon's chair and tells the story of his/her life and it's obvious that she's been traumatized and seen quite a bit of the nasty side of life. I like her spirit and her humor and her courage. Heyer's later heroines are sometimes a little too sensible (maybe too English) and this book is just such fun. It would make a great movie especially the part where Avon tells Leonie's story at the salon.

Mari Ness
18. MariCats
@DresdenRose -- I'll be looking at this later, especially when we reach Penhallow, but certainly the happy endings of most Heyer novels help explain their popularity and why so many people turn to them for comfort reading.
Carolyn Style
19. Louisa
You mention 'comfort reading'. I worked in a bookstore for a while. One day a couple came in to buy a 'last book' for a friend who was dying and they wanted recommendations (no pressure). While I looked for something for them, all I could think was that in that situation, I would be rereading Georgette Heyer.
20. S.M. Stirling
@Azara and @S.M. Stirling -- I'm honestly not at all sure that most 18th century people did share these attitudes. Some certainly did, and I'd suspect many aristocrats did, but others strongly argued against it, and if the 18th century can be characterized by anything, it would be strongly changing and often polarized views about class structure and birth.

-- yeah, there was some dissent, particularly say in Revolutionary-era France, but on the whole most people at all social levels probably accepted the basic mind-set. It is, after all, one that's been common over enormous parts of the world in many cultures for a very long time. It's much more historically prevalent than contemporary 21st-century individualism/egalitarianism.

An ancient Greek reader, or a pre-Meiji Japanese one, would have been perfectly comfortable with -that- part of THESE OLD SHADES. In a "yes, of course, that goes without saying" sort of way.

It remained quite common much later, too. Most people most of the time more or less blankly accept the prevailing consensus of their social reference group. There are periods of upheaval, but they're rare, and things then tend to settle down again. Most people strongly dislike cognitive dissonance.

(There's a big difference between -gaming- a system of ideas and -rejecting- a system. The former is common as dirt; the latter, rare.)

I have no objection to seeing things through this blood-will-out prism for the duration of reading a book. Why should I so privilege my own perceptions of how the world and human beings work that I insist on having them confirmed every time I open a book?

I vividly recall how much I enjoyed the TALE OF GENJI back when I was a teenager because the people were so weirdly alien.
21. S.M. Stirling
I was once stuck in Accra, Ghana, for two weeks with -nothing- to read but a box full of second-hand Heyer paperbacks. And I had dysentry. I owe Heyer an eternal debt of gratitude for mitigating what was otherwise a rather unpleasant interlude.
22. etv13
I never had the impression Leonie's replacement was going to be thrust back into a peasant life. Armand says he's going to buy him a farm and settle money on him, which I took to mean he was going to be set up as sort of a gentleman farmer. Obviously it would cast a pall on Leonie's happy ending if it were achieved at the cost of misery for the young man who replaced her, but from my twenty-first century perspective it would have been better if he'd been excited about the chance to enter the priesthood, or become an explorer, or even join the army.
23. S.M. Stirling
"Armand says he's going to buy him a farm and settle money on him, which I took to mean he was going to be set up as sort of a gentleman farmer."

-- being a self-employed property-owning farmer with your own land meant middle-class status.

'twould put you well into the upper 25% of the social pyramid. Far, far below the aristocracy, but well above most ordinary folk.

" but from my twenty-first century perspective it would have been better if he'd been excited about the chance to enter the priesthood"

-- lifelong celibacy and poverty?

"or become an explorer"

-- probable death?

"or even join the army."

-- probable death, -and- poverty, unless someone was going to get him an officer's commission. Which would require a substantial private income.

Then it would be fashionable probable death.
24. etv13
@ S.M. Stirling: Well, we know because there's a sequel that Leonie bears a child and survives into middle age with her health and her beauty intact, but really, what were the odds? Surely if we went by percentages, a good many Heyer heroines' happily-ever-afters didn't last all that long.

I have a friend from law school who, after working for a government agency for a few years, decided to become a Roman Catholic priest. He's a man from a wealthy family who went to Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School, and "celibacy and poverty" obviously had some meaning to him that was far from unattractive. So maybe we ought not to be so dismissive of a vocation for the priesthood.

Joseph Banks survived a voyage of exploration, as did countless others. My father flew over 400 combat sorties in two tours of duty in Vietnam, and is a flourishing 79-year-old today. On the other hand, men I've danced with have died in plane crashes, developed brain tumors, died of aortic aneurysms. Life is risky, and for some people it's short, even today.

My point in all of this is, when I say I would have preferred Leonie's substitute to have wanted to be a priest or an explorer or a soldier, I'm not wishing him an early death, or overlooking the possibility of one, but simply saying I would have preferred Heyer to have characterized him as someone intelligent and ambitious in his own way, rather than some stereotypical bovine peasant who wants nothing more than to stay on the farm. Indeed, I'd even have been happier if he'd been eager to apply his own innovative theories to farming.
25. duj
As something of a costume buff in my youth, I feel compelled to point out that there's a difference between sleeveless and just-past-the-elbow or three-quarter length sleeves, as seen in the paintings you linked to. Ladies didn't parade their upper arms in the 18thC, but sleeves that stopped at the elbow, with perhaps a fall of lace under which the forearm was clearly visible, were the height of fashion.

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