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

For 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.


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