A Career for a Lady: Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle

By the 1950s, even the closest friends of Georgette Heyer had learned to avoid any mention of politics. She was, all agreed, an arch conservative and Tory, distressed by the changes in British society after World War II, and particularly mourning the loss of the great estates, a concern that continued to creep into many of her novels. But even the conservative Heyer—or perhaps especially Heyer, always one to pay attention to what her fans might want—could recognize that even her most devoted fans could feel a certain impatience with traditional gender roles.

After all, three of her most popular novels had featured women cross-dressers. And even the conservative Heyer could question a postwar world which in many ways seemed to retreat from the acceptance of women in (some) careers prior to and during World War II. And so, in Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle (1957), she focused on a new type of Regency character, a young aristocratic woman actively pursuing a career. A career suited to a woman, certainly, but still, a career.

You can all gasp now.

Miss Phoebe Marlow is hardly Heyer’s first historical character to strive for a career. But her previous working heroines had been forced to work thanks to financial circumstances, and had generally pursued careers that were not exactly of high social status (gambling and governessing), which they happily gave up after receiving offers of marriage. Phoebe is not exactly independently wealthy, but her father owns a comfortable estate and is earning a small side fortune from breeding and selling horses, and Phoebe’s grandmother informs us that Phoebe will inherit a small amount of her own.

Admittedly, Phoebe seems to be unaware that she will inherit anything. That ignorance, and a very unsuccessful London season, where Phoebe not only failed to find a husband but had a miserable time, is one factor in her decision to pursue a career in novel writing. But she has other reasons. One, she likes writing and storytelling, and has a decided gift for implausible storytelling and satire. Two, she is desperate to escape a household where she is being physically abused.

For Phoebe is not just the first of Heyer’s Regency heroines to pursue an artistic career: she’s also the first who has been whipped on a regular basis. She’s not the first character, or even the first woman, to be whipped: that would be Matilda all the way back in The Conqueror. Heyer had occasionally hinted that some of her other heroines—notably Lady Harriet in The Foundlinghad also been whipped or beaten into submissive behavior. But that never went beyond hinting. Here, it’s blatantly stated in the text: Phoebe has been whipped, and often, by and on the orders of her stepmother, who finds the girl exasperating. The constant insults, put-downs, and whipping work: Phoebe, thinking back on this later, considers the treatment just. Heyer does not argue that point, but she does point out the effects: in her stepmother’s company, Phoebe can barely speak.

Indeed, this is exactly why she failed to get a single proposal of marriage during her one London Season, and why she instead spent that season studying the foibles of the aristocracy. Her resentment and fury boiled over into a rather lurid novel that she hopes will provide the basis for establishing a small home of her own, accompanied, of course, by her governess. (For a woman frequently described as reckless and a hoyden, Phoebe is remarkably conventional in everything except for her desire to write—a desire she shares with the most respectable woman in the book, the Dowager Duchess of Salford, so even that is not as unconventional as it might seem.)

Enter Sylvester, the Duke of Salford, who has rather lurid eyebrows and who once snubbed her at a London party. That was enough for Phoebe to cast him as the villain of her novel. Which she immediately recognizes is going to provide one major barrier against their marriage.

Sylvester is not proposing to her out of love—he can’t even remember who she is—but out of depression and a sense of duty. Like Phoebe, he is emotionally broken, if for different reasons: his father died at a young age, and more recently he lost his twin brother, a wound that has not healed, and that he is not willing to discuss with anyone. Including his father and his empty-headed sister-in-law. Recognizing that he needs to married, he has found five aristocratic young ladies who might suit him, and asks his mother to choose one. He really doesn’t care.

That attitude shocks his mother, who refuses to select any of the girls, before mentioning that she has only once tried to arrange a marriage for him—with Phoebe, back when Phoebe was only a baby. That, and a meeting with Phoebe’s grandmother, the Dowager Lady Ingram, is enough to get him to start considering making Phoebe an offer. Until, that is, they meet again.

That meeting, in Phoebe’s home, in the presence of her abusive stepmother, goes no better than their first meetings. Sylvester soon decides against offering marriage, and Phoebe, not knowing this, decides to make a run for it, with the help of her friend Tom. Learning that Phoebe would rather flee her house—into a snowstorm, no less—rather than marry him infuriates Sylvester, who decides that he needs to humiliate her by making her fall in love with him. Little does he know that Phoebe is about to humiliate him through her bestselling, rather lurid novel, that makes fun of the aristocracy—and portrays him as a dangerous villain.

Phoebe, more interested in satire than plot, had, through a series of frankly improbable coincidences, created a plot with a rather suspicious resemblance to the real life story of Sylvester and his young nephew. Exactly why Phoebe didn’t do more research on Sylvester’s background before casting him as the villain in her novel is never quite clear, even after various characters ask (I’m sorry, but “I didn’t like his eyebrows” and “he cut me at a very crowded party” are no excuses for not checking a nearby Burke’s Peerage.)

In fact, the idea that she would come up with the plot by complete coincidence is so improbable that several characters refuse to believe it; London gossip suggests that Sylvester really does want to murder his charming young nephew, and one character, Sylvester’s silly sister-in-law Ianthe, decides that Phoebe’s book is Meant as a Warning. As we all know, when you get a warning, the best thing to do is go shopping (at all the best stores), obtain a carriage lined with silk that exactly matches your eyes, and flee to France with the man paying for all this, the very wealthy and fabulously dressed Sir Nugent Fotherby. Phoebe and Tom, attempting to prevent this, soon find themselves kinda kidnapped and in France, with Sylvester in hot pursuit, and a rather infuriated small boy to care for. (I’m simplifying.)

Thanks to the antics of Sir Nugent Fotherby and the histrionics of Lady Ianthe, the flight to France is hands down the most amusing section of the novel. (An adorable dog helps add to the fun.) But Sylvester has several other delights as well: the thoroughly platonic relationship between Phoebe and Tom (watched with slight suspicion by some, even if the mere thought of romance there causes both of them to laugh); a series of increasingly ludicrous characters; and one of the richer romances Heyer had written for some time.

Phoebe and Sylvester decidedly do not fall in love at first sight: he can’t even remember her, and she hates his eyebrows. But, once away from her stepmother, she does not hesitate to speak her mind to him, and he listens. And even changes. Partly because he cares very much about what people think of him; partly because he can be brought to do the right thing, when the right thing is pointed out to him. (Even when his temper leads him to do the very wrong thing, such as fight with Phoebe in the middle of a ball, or assume that she helped kidnap his nephew and heir, or fight with his sister-in-law.) It’s not a complete turnaround—as his mother notes, some of his wounds and personality flaws, especially his ingrained pride, are too deep. But it is a change, and for the better. And, despite his outrage at her suggested plot for her next novel, he will not stop her from writing.

This may be partly because so much of the book revolves around the issues of writing and perception. Sylvester features not one, but two authors (and possibly four, if passing mentions of Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron are included). Because both are women, their names are concealed, and Phoebe even has her governess submit her manuscript in her stead. This is in part to give Miss Battery more of a role in the story, and in part because Miss Battery has a cousin in publishing, which gives her a bit of an in, but mostly because Phoebe is still too conventional to conduct such affairs personally. Miss Battery, a mere governess, can do so without risking a social uproar.

Still, featuring two professional women authors as sympathetic characters represents a significant change for Heyer. She had featured the occasional hopeful (and untalented) male poet here and there; supporting characters in The Quiet Gentlemen had written some non-fiction feminist books and liberal histories; and most of her Regency books had contained offhand references to Jane Austen, Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron, and Coleridge, among others. But that was about it, and the aspirations of the male poets were generally greeted with scorn.

In describing Phoebe’s lurid novel and publishing career, Heyer was somewhat inspired by the examples of Lady Caroline Lamb and her aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who had both published scandalous novels featuring not particularly veiled caricatures of their aristocratic acquaintances. But Phoebe’s story has some marked differences. For one, Phoebe is still unmarried; for two, she plans to make a living at writing books, something few women in the Regency period aspired to. Those that did (for instance, Mary Shelley, Lucy Aiken, and Mary Russell Mitford) often found themselves turning to nonfiction to pay the bills. Many contemporary writers can sympathize. But a few women (Regina Maria Roche) did earn a living writing thrilling, horrid novels of the sort adored by Miss Catherine Morland, thanks in part to publishers such as the Minerva Press (referenced in this book) who fed off a large public appetite for such works, whatever Miss Austen might have thought of them. Or, for that matter, Miss Heyer.

But Heyer was also somewhat inspired by her own life. By the time she wrote Sylvester, she had been a steady bestseller for years, but none of her fans knew the name she used in real life, Mrs. Rougier. In part this was because she, like Phoebe, could be witty and comfortable among friends, but shy in real life. In part because although unlike Phoebe she did not draw her fictional characters from real life, like Phoebe it was assumed that she did. It was, in a way, an unseen consequence of her historical research: the details and the cameo appearances by historical characters were so authentic that some readers assumed the fictional characters were real as well. Given that many of these characters are treated comically, it is perhaps not surprising that Heyer shrank from these conversations; Phoebe’s discomfort at hearing people talk about her novel—not always approvingly—feels very real. As does her astonishment that anyone—even silly Lady Ianthe—could take her plots seriously.

The ending of Sylvester, with the young author being given the financial freedom to write whatever she pleases, as well as a certain social protection thanks to her position, reads a bit more as wish fulfillment than reality, and we can certainly question Phoebe’s rapid literary success. But Heyer had also been quite young when she had written a well-received book, and when she had written her first contemporary novels, based on the people she knew in real life. For all its farce, Sylvester has a very real underpinning. If, like Jo Walton, I have certain doubts about the long term viability of this relationship, I can at least read its beginnings with enjoyment, and think that maybe these two, despite their broken pasts, might just have a chance. Plus, cute dog. Always a bonus.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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