Georgette 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.