Oct 16 2012 3:00pm

Refining the Rake as Hero: Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub

A reread of Devil’s Cub by Georgette HeyerFor her next work of derring-do, Georgette Heyer decided to try something new: rather than simply reuse characters and toss them into another story, as she had in These Old Shades, she would write a direct sequel to that popular book, telling the story of Avon and Leonie’s son, Alistair, Marquis of Vidal, who appears to have inherited the very worst of both of their parents. If the derring-do of duels and parties and high stakes gambling and elopements somewhat resembles the previous book, and if Alistair has certain traits in common with Avon, Devil’s Cub is a very different sort of book from its predecessor. Partly because its heroine, Mary Challoner, is a very different sort from Leonie.

It also marks a very different sort of reading experience for me than for many of the other Heyers, since it contains a hero that I really, really, really, but really should not like. And yet I do.

Alistair, Marquis of Vidal, begins the novel with a cold-blooded murder, casually leaving the corpse on the side of the road. He is annoyed that anyone would ask him to do something about the corpse. He then continues with heavy gambling, shooting someone who accuses him of cheating at dice, racing his curricle while drunk, and, oh yes, seducing one of his social inferiors. This all proves to be too much for his father, who orders Vidal out of England. A still fairly drunk Vidal plans to take the girl with him; her sister, Mary Challoner, unaware that Vidal is heading for France, attempts to trick him, hoping this will infuriate him enough to drop the seduction. It does infuriate him; he decides to abduct and rape Mary instead, choking her hard enough to leave bruises on her neck.

His first rape attempt is abruptly stopped by Mary’s severe case of seasickness (which, to Vidal’s credit, he nurses her through.) Once they reach land, however, he says, “...by God, I’ll take you!” and rakes his eyes over her body.

He was advancing towards her. She brought her right hand from behind her, and leveled the pistol. “Stand where you are!” she said. “If you come one step nearer, I shall shoot you down.”

He stopped short. “Where did you get that thing?” he demanded.

“Out of your coach,” she answered.

“Is it loaded?”

“I don’t know,” said Miss Challoner, incurably truthful.

He began to laugh again, and walked forward. “Shoot then,” he invited, “and we shall know. For I’m coming several steps nearer, my lady.”

Miss Challoner saw that he meant it, shut her eyes, and resolutely pulled the trigger. There was a deafening report and the Marquis went staggering back. He recovered in a moment. “It was loaded,” he said, coolly.

After this, convinced that Miss Challoner is a woman of character and virtue (trying to save a sister=the behavior of a trollop; shooting a gun=virtuous), Vidal insists on marrying her. Miss Challoner, aware that Vidal does not love her, refuses, and their romance begins.

Vidal does assure us and Miss Challoner—more than once—that it is not his custom to “abduct respectable young females,” later assuring us that he does not “ruin persons of your quality,” and, a third time, “I don’t ruin ladies of your quality.” So, just lower and middle class vulgar women then. That’s good to know.  

So. Murderer. Alcoholic. Drunken curricle driver. Abductor and rapist of women.

And yet... I find myself liking him, even as I know I really, really, really shouldn’t.

I know.

Heyer is of course playing with the bad boy image here. Vidal is undoubtedly the worst of her bad boys that turn out to be heroes, and is even worse than some of her bad boys who would turn out to be, well, bad boys. She does not make the mistake of having Vidal become completely repentant (at the end of the book, he has to reminded of the name of one of the men he previously shot, and shows complete indifference to his victim’s fate.) But she does show us, early on, hints of minor redemption and hope for his character. Vidal may leave corpses on the road, to the despair of some of his peers (Charles James Fox, in a nice little historical cameo, claims that finding the corpse would distress the ladies, and thus, the servants really ought to remove it), but he also speaks to his cousin frankly and clearly and gives her excellent advice. The man he murders is a robber; the second man he shoots is a drunk who is way out of line, and Vidal does not kill him. It’s very little, I know. But something.

But his real redemption begins when he recognizes the qualities of Mary Challoner.

Mary is one of Heyer’s best heroines: practical, resourceful, blessed with a saving grace of a sense of a humor. She is not the only Heyer heroine to shoot a gun, but she is the only Heyer heroine to do so in defense of her own life. Dhe is intelligent enough to realize her danger – and intelligent enough to recognize that a man who was planning to seduce her sister, and threatened rape, is not a man who has fallen in love with her, and not someone she should risk marrying, even if she is falling in love with the man behind the rake. She takes practical steps to avoid this fate.

Not that she has too many practical steps to take: both Mary and Vidal are quite aware of the very limited options available to her as a now ruined woman: marriage to Vidal, or life as a servant in France. Mary speaks French, but has no references, and no training for the available jobs, although she hopes that she can become a milliner and possibly a chambermaid. She has no illusions about either job, but she meets the prospect unflinchingly. And that is why Vidal begins to fall in love with her. (Slowly. Heyer does not make the mistake here of showing him instantly falling in love; his offer of marriage is meant to save both their reputations.) They are, after all, better matched than anyone may expect: they both unflinchingly accept the consequences of their actions, and neither can be accused of cowardice or indecisiveness. This becomes Heyer’s first convincing romance. Oh, yes, Leonie and Avon from These Old Shades reappear, proving, to an extent, that their marriage has been happy – but their subplot is focused on Leonie deceiving Avon again, and somehow, even now, they do not seem perfectly well-matched.

Also in this book: an early example of Heyer’s tendency to bring in all of her characters, major and minor, for a final scene of misunderstandings and explanations. Often resembling the ending of stage comedies, and serving the same purpose, this would become one of her greatest strengths. It works well here, with Mary’s confrontation with the Duke of Avon a particular highlight.

And “comedy” is the key word here. Devil’s Cub begins as a historical romance, but midway through, Heyer switches to high comedy. It was not, of course, her first attempt at comedy and humor. But it was the most successful so far, more successful, in some ways, than The Masqueraders, where the comedy depends largely on one character. Here, the comedy depends largely on the clash of character types, conveyed almost entirely through dialogue and misunderstandings, but laced with the wit that would become Heyer’s trademark.

But the greatest change here, and showcase of what was to come, lies in Heyer’s tone and word choice. Perhaps—even probably—exhausted from her recent attempt to recreate a medieval “tone” and dialogue for The Conqueror, for the first time, Heyer stopped trying to give her narrative voice a correct, period tone, instead using a similar language to what she was starting to develop for her contemporary thrillers. The result is the first book that, after a few awkward chapters, “sounds like” one of the vintage Heyers, and indeed, begins to approach that level in its final. If Fanny Burney is to believed, no one during the period would have spoken this way – but characters would speak this way in later Heyer novels.

And although this is hardly her first book to dwell lovingly on clothes, this is her first book where she stops the action dead for a lengthy discussion of how hard it is to dress men with poor muscle tone. (It’s a hilarious run down of the various methods 18th century men used to make their legs and shoulders look good.) Heyer is one of the only writers capable of doing this; it helps here that this entire bit is treated with humor, and has enough absorbing detail to make us forget, for a few pages, that Mary is getting away and may marry the wrong guy, gulp – wait, what was that about padding with sawdust again?  Again, a forerunner of what would be coming.

I don’t know if I can list Devil’s Cub among her best books, and I think some readers may find it impossible to get beyond the flaws of the hero, charming and funny though he may be. But, once past the first few chapters, I definitely found myself laughing more – and in studying those 18th century pictures, wondering just how many legs were padded with sawdust.

Incidentally? Devil’s Cub?  Still not a Regency. Heyer had not quite discovered that period. Yet.  

Time to skip some more books:

Footsteps in the Dark, important only as Georgette Heyer’s first attempt to write in the suspense/mystery genre, something that would provide her with a bit of an additional income in the forthcoming years. It is, alas, not a very promising attempt, with an implausible mystery (complete with secret passages), an even more implausible villain, and a still more implausible romance. (“Hi! You’re cute! Let’s get married, now that we’ve interacted for a grand total of a half hour. Sure!”) Heyer would reuse the fake ghost motif here in later novels.

Why Shoot a Butler, her second mystery, featuring weak characterization,  an ending that barely makes any sense, and, if possible, an even less plausible romance than the one in Footsteps in the Dark. Most annoyingly, readers are not given enough information to solve the mystery on their own. Some of the dialogue is witty, but this is arguably Heyer’s worst mystery on either the humor or the mystery level.

Next up:  The Convenient Marriage.

Mari Ness is in complete agreement that seduction during moments of seasickness is just not going to work for anyone. She lives in central Florida.

S Cooper
1. SPC
I think what Vidal took away from her explanation first was not "trying to save her sister" but "playing a trick on me" which would certainly come off as less worthy to a man of his self-consequence.
Darlene Marshall
2. darlenemarshall
It works well here, with Mary’s confrontation with the Duke of Avon a particular highlight.
I adore this scene. Absolutely, positively one of the best ever for revealing characters. I usually re-read Devil's Cub every couple years, but I re-read this scene at least once a year because I want to study how Heyer did it--what the characters are doing, saying, and in one character's POV, thinking. It's a classic for a good reason, and thanks for reminding me of why I love Devil's Cub and Heyer.
3. OtterB
It's been some time since I reread this, but as I recall the beginning, Vidal thought that Mary's sister was a tramp (with some justification) and that therefore Mary must be also (since of course blood will tell, but let's not go down that road). And that Mary had taken her sister's place not to protect her sister but to game whatever goodies she could out of Vidal. He therefore required some strong persuasion that she Meant No.

And I also love the scene with Mary and the Duke of Avon. But also Rupert and Leonie and the wine.
4. hapax
It may not be one of Heyer's best, but it's certainly one of her best-beloved. I think that's because so many of her favorite tropes just gel perfectly here -- the jaded bad-boy hero, the sensible heroine, the road-trip plot, the sparkling dialogue, the amusing, deftly-drawn secondary characters...

I don't think it's ever been "officially" confirmed, but Loretta Chase's LORD OF SCOUNDRELS (equally well-beloved by historical romance readers) definitely seems like a homage to this book.
5. etv13
A minor quibble: Alastair is Vidal's family name; his given name is Dominick (or Dominique, if Leonie's take on it counts).

I read Devil's Cub for the first time when I was thirteen or fourteen, and it didn't occur to me back then that I really shouldn't like Dominick, but geez, he's kind of a psychopath, isn't he? And yet I love him anyway.

@hapax: Except for the one element, which indeed may well be a tribute to Devil's Cub, the two books aren't particularly similar. (Though I love them both, and yet Devil's Cub isn't my favorite Heyer, and Lord of Scoundrels isn't my favorite Chase.) Chase gives us an upbringing and pscyhology for her bad-boy Marquis that's quite different from Dominick's being the son of a previous romance couple, with a doting mother, and Jessica's quite different from Mary, and seems to have (and know she has) more and better options than Mary (and, again, a very different kind of upbringing).
6. EC Spurlock
Agree with #3OtterB, as I recall, Vidal got picked up by Mary's sister at Covent Garden, a place noted for Secret Assignations and where no decent woman would be seen without considerable protective male escort. I got the impression that he was aware from the start that she planned to allow him to compromise her in order to trap him into marriage (and her mother agrees to this, forsooth!) and his intention was to turn the tables by abandoning her in disdain as soon as he had had his way with her. When Mary switched places, he assumed she was planning the same, and intended to treat her the same. The fact that Mary turned down both his advances AND his offer of marriage left him somewhat nonplused, as he couldn't imagine what other motive she might have for the deception.

Devil's Cub was my gateway drug to Heyer and, subsequently romance in general. A college friend loaned me her copy and got me hooked. Compared to the contemporaries of the day, the leads were generally quite intelligent and clever (and the secondaries who were not were roundly lampooned), the heroes redeemable, or at least understandable, the worldbuilding relatively accurate, and the whole filled with dry British wit and humor that I appreciated. And best of all there was PLOT; not just two people mooning hopelessly over each other. For an emancipated woman of the 70's, showing heroines who were generally quite content with their independent lives facing various disasters with equanimity and self-reliant fortitude, and allowing men to share their lives without dominating them, provided a literary model that suited me. Devil's Cub is not my favorite Heyer, but it was good enough to bring me into the fold, and superior to most other options available at the time.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@SPC, OtterB, EC Spurlock -- Oh, yes, absolutely Vidal thinks that Mary is a slut who played a deliberate trick on him (and the trick part is real) and therefore deserves what she gets.

But, and this is important, the AUTHOR doesn't think that Mary's actions means she (or any woman) deserves to get raped. In other books, Heyer makes it clear that even a loss of reputation does not mean that a woman deserves to be raped at any point, and that honest, honorable men sleep only with willing women, regardless of the reputation of these women.

@hapax -- I've never read any of Loretta Chase's books, so I can't speak on this.

@darlenemarshall -- Balancing POVs and in-character knowledge would become a focal point of Heyer's comedy. I think it's also one reason so many of her mysteries fail as mysteries, even when they work as comedies, because she became so caught up in the comedic side of the POVs she failed to see how they could work as alibis (or how problematic it would be when readers weren't given ENOUGH information about the knowledge or motives of a specific character.)

@etv13 -- Headthunk. You are of course correct. I don't know what I was thinking.
Beth Friedman
8. carbonel
I'm currently rereading An Infamous Army (although the previous read was long enough ago that I've forgotten all but the most salient details) and was struck by how Heyer seems to feel it necessary to make the Alistairs mostly bad characters, with occasional redeemable features.

Dominic's son (safely dead, I assume, and not appearing onstage so far) is never spoken well of in AIA, though Dominic is. And of the current generation, Babs is wild and only the men adore her, and George is a slimy seducer, though reputed to be a good soldier. And people keep saying how all those Alistairs are a Bad Seed.

If Blood Will Out, you'd think Leonie's and Mary Challoner's blood would have some improving effect.
9. C.S.E. Cooney
Well done, Mari! I'm so glad you're writing these!
10. Rush-That-Speaks
How much do I love that she actually shoots him? So much. So very much. I can't think of another book where that happens. And that the gun is loaded, and that it actually hurts him, and that it's basically luck and inexperience which keep her from killing him. Because that is the level of consequences which attempting rape produces. Which even Vidal admits. Mary will always be one of my favorite romance heroines for shooting him and never once regretting it.
Carolyn Style
11. Louisa
This book is such a guilty pleasure. I kinda hate myself for enjoying it. I think what redeems Dominic is his empathy and his conscience - he's a bad boy, but not a psychopath. When Mary becomes seasick, he is able to be amused - so he is able to step outside his own selfish wants. Then, he provides exactly the comfort she needs - including coming back when she is sleeping and covering her. The next morning he gets her to eat. It's that scene I come back to when I worry about my affection for him.

Then, there's his unflinching acceptance of, and his regret for the situation that his behavior has put Mary in - and his attempts to do the right thing. So... not a psychopath and therefore redeemable.

Plus, he falls in love with Mary, and for all the right reasons. That, too, means he's redeemable.

That's my rationalization and I'm sticking with it.
Carolyn Style
12. Louisa
Also, are you skipping all the mysteries? Because I'd like to put in a plug for my two favorites - Death in the Stocks and Behold Here's Poison. Death in the Stocks for the wonderful Vereker siblings and Behold Here's Poison because I think it owes a lot to Heyer's regencies, especially Randall - the hero (who is too fastidious to be Dominic, but could be a cousin).
13. Helena Celeste
Great piece, but you do know don't you his given name isn't Alastair? It's Dominic. Alastair is Avon's first name.

My favourite scene is when on the road to Paris, Mary realises Vidal's cousin was her best friend at school.

"'Was she,' he replied, not visibly impressed. 'Mad piece ain't she?'"
14. Gini
I just finished reading this for the first time--particularly chosen out because I knew you had written this reread and it was on my shelf. I think the only book of Heyer's I've loved more at this point is Frederica.

My take on Dominic is that he is terribly jaded and quite spoiled by his parents, and the society he has been keeping has turned him into an unwitting Diogenese: he wishes for the calm of true virtue, but even the innocent daughters that have been strewn in his path strike him as women who he could compromise, if he had just an inch less honor.

I love that Mary shoots him, but even more I love that Mary is unflustered by his temperament during his convalescence. She offers what is best for him, and when he commands it away she doesn't tease or coax. It throws him off balance, this calm resignation.

The one thing I noted was that Mary's continual concern over "stealing" Vidal from Sophie, after being part of her litany of impossibilities throughout the book, simply disappears at the end. Sophie who?

And Mary is the most Elizabeth Bennett-like character in the Heyer I've read so far: hideous mother and sister to overcome, but the qualities of a true lady.

I've been devouring Heyer of late! But I do highly recommend that one not attempt to read two of her books at the same time. I was stuck in a dreadfully boring meeting lately, and downloaded The Corinthian on my Kindle app. Trying to read that and Devil's Cub simultaneously was amusingly confusing!
15. jekni
@13 Helena Celeste

Actually, Avon's first name is Justin. Alastair, as has been previously commented, is their surname.
16. Abbi
"Hi, you're cute. Let's get married..." How I love your summing up of the bolted-on obligatory romance. I've brought up this very beef with other GH fans who (inexplicably to me) say they like the romance in her mystery novels. Sure, build in a romance, but not one based on such a flimsy premise that only gets thrown in at the end.

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