Almost Slumming It: Black Sheep

Miss Abigail Wendover, the protagonist of Black Sheep, is under the very understandable impression that she is in a Georgette Heyer novel. After all, she is a sensible young woman in her twenties with a great deal of humor and a small independence, with an older sister, Miss Selina, with an impeccable taste for style and color, and a lovely and very wealthy young niece, Fanny, that the sisters are carefully shepherding through the excitements of Bath society. She has a few decidedly worthy suitors. She has wit and energy. She should be in a Heyer novel.

And yet, when she meets Her Hero, it is evident that something is dreadfully, shockingly wrong for a supposed Heyer novel. For the Hero is a shocking, shocking fellow indeed, who was not only cast out by his family, but, since then, has—hold onto something—worked to earn his money. Not inherited, or married, but worked. And, more shocking still, Mr. Miles Cavendish—are you still holding onto something?—Mr. Miles Cavendish doesn’t care about his clothes.

I know. I need to give you all a moment. And it gets worse. He wears the wrong outfit when he comes to visit Selina and Abby. This later proves beneficial, since this sort of thing helps to convince Selina—at least temporarily—that not only is Miles most certainly not the hero, because no woman could ever fall for him, because, clothes. He wears garments that are not molded to his form. He—he—I’m not sure if I can even type this—throughout the entire novel, he doesn’t seem to have a valet.

GULP.

To be fair, Heyer had somewhat prepared us for this in previous books, offering Hugo, who waited until the middle of the book to get a valet, which was horrifying enough, and Damerel, who could occasionally dress in a slovenly manner. But—and this is key—Hugo, remembering that he was, after all, in a Heyer novel, had prepared himself for this event by obtaining linen of excellent quality, and bowed to the necessity of having a valet. And Damerel had, of course, always had a valet, because, of course, all men—all men of quality, at least—have valets. If you are now thinking, hey, wait, I’ve gone through life without one, you are clearly not a man in a Heyer novel. (And also not watching enough Downton Abbey but that’s another problem entirely.) Men in the world Heyer created always need valets. Always. Unless, like Miles, they just don’t care. And have enough money that they can afford to care.

Mind you, the other men in Black Sheep, fully aware that they are in a Heyer novel, have remembered to engage valets and dress with elegance. These include Miles’ nephew, Stacy Cavendish, who is always dressed with elegance, and, moreover, has an estate—one heavily mortgaged and crumbling into ruins, true, but still, he’s quite proud of it, and of his name. Proud enough indeed that he’s more than willing to do the proper thing, and marry an heiress to save his estate. (I’ll pause again to allow you to contemplate the self-sacrifice involved here.) But not quite desperate enough—at least not yet—to marry just any heiress: he wants one of high birth and beauty. Having completely failed to elope with heiress number one (never named) he has now come to Bath and found heiress number two, the very pretty Fanny. She is, he admits, rather silly, and a little too young (seventeen). Not that he’s overly worried about the age of consent, but he is worried that he won’t gain control of Fanny’s money for a few years (he thinks until she turns 21; in reality, not until she’s 25) and that could prove disastrous. Still, as he realizes philosophically, the world does not offer that many unmarried heiresses, and after his previous failed seduction attempt, he’s not exactly welcome in that many homes. So, Fanny it is. A few carefully chosen phrases, and she’s—almost—willing to elope with him. Almost. Except for the slight problem that it might ruin her aunts’ rout-party.

To be fair, this is not exactly the first time we’ve sensed that Fanny may not exactly be that deeply in love, despite her claims that this is a fairy tale love that will last forever and ever. (She’s rather dramatic.) And if Fanny is convinced, at 17, that she is more than old enough to marry, and Stacy is equally convinced that he can overlook the age gap, Fanny’s relatives are less convinced. Her oldest aunt, the elegant but not exactly clever Selina, has been won over by Stacy’s charm, but the rest have heard enough alarming tales about Stacy to be seriously concerned, and to do what they can to scotch the relationship without forbidding it entirely. They are wise enough to realize that forbidding Fanny to see him might make her run away with him. But still, it’s just enough resistance to make Stacy even worse, and make Abigail turn to Miles for assistance—even if the man does not have a valet.

In Black Sheep, Heyer continued to question the world she had so carefully created in several books. It’s not just that this book does not (gasp) contain a single aristocrat, or dance at Almack’s. More seriously, Heyer was questioning the very social structures she had championed and artificially maintained in previous books. If in A Civil Contract and An Unknown Ajax she had finally brought herself to admit that yes, yes, middle class characters could marry aristocrats and yet not completely ruin their lives, in Black Sheep she took a look at other assumptions of birth and the necessity of marriage.

In her early books, Heyer had insisted on the paramount importance of good, if not noble, birth. Decades later, after another world war, and societal transformation, she had changed her mind. For here Heyer pulls an elaborate joke on her readers: not only does Black Sheep not contain a single aristocrat, but the exquisitely dressed, well mannered young man with an ancestral home and no job other than trying to seduce heiresses is the villain, while the careless, badly dressed man exiled from London’s ton, who has spent the last twenty years working is the hero. Worse, the working man is the one about to rescue the ancestral estate (just so we know we’re still in a Heyer book, although the careful description of everything the women wear certainly helps.) And, not content with saving the estate, he’s the one to enact a brilliant and thoroughly satisfying revenge on Stacy—helped out by a woman.

Strikingly, Stacy the villain is the only character (in a book with many many many characters) who has been part of London’s highest society. Heyer goes out of her way to note that the Wendovers are not (although they could be), and their friends and acquaintances do not include any aristocrats. Indeed, the novel’s second hinted at hero is the son of a not well off mother, who has also had to work for his living—and gotten ill in the process. And in another switch from previous books, the main women of the novel—Abby, Selina and Fanny—are all comfortably well off, able to marry, or not marry. The men are the ones in financial peril.

And then, we have Miss Selina Wendover.

Miss Selina is not, we must admit, the cleverest of women, although she is thoroughly kind hearted, generous, devoted to her family, and has a decided eye for color and style. But that is not her most important quality. It’s not, of course, polite to focus on a lady’s age. But we must admit a sobering truth: Miss Selina Wendover is 40 and unwed, beyond any hopes of marriage.

And yet, she is happy. Thoroughly, completely, happy.

Heyer had, of course, featured other single women in their 40s in previous books as supporting characters. But with no exceptions, these women had either been bitter and resentful, or had been forced to work as governesses, companions, or servants, and were seen as clear social inferiors. Even the younger and superior Miss Ancilla Trent to a certain extent falls into this category. Miss Selina Wendover, however, is a social leader, whose select party invitations are considered to honor recipients. It helps, of course, that she’s independently wealthy, able to hire servants and dress in expensive clothing, and that she has exquisite taste. It also helps that everything she likes to do—dress well, read silly novels, gossip, and entertain friends—is well within the bounds of acceptable social behavior. But it’s still astonishing to see a single woman able to do exactly what she wants to do, and be happy doing it, with no hopes or need for marriage, in a Heyer novel.

Other independent women include a former courtesan horrified enough by Stacy that she agrees to help out with an elaborate revenge; the actress she hires, so disgusted that she adds an additional and very satisfying touch to said revenge; and the various gossips of Bath, who, like the patronesses of Almack’s in other books, hold very real social power—without the benefits of high birth, wealth, or political station.

The social structures described in Black Sheep remain rigorous, indeed: James Wendover does not want his sister to marry Miles based on something that happened twenty years ago that has been so thoroughly hushed up no one remembers it; Fanny is not allowed to walk around in Bath without an escort, and goes into a near panic attack at the thought of meeting Stacy in, gasp, a library; respectable women are most certainly not supposed to be kissing men unless they plan to marry said men; and Abby tells Miles that social structures, not lack of affection, prevents their marriage. It remains a world of unequals, where men can do what women cannot. And yet, Black Sheep provides hints that this world might be more flexible than Heyer had previously admitted. It may not be her most entertaining or funniest novel, but after some of her previous works, it’s a welcome touch of subversion. And the banter between Abby and Miles is among her very best.


Mari Ness is sad to note that this is the last of the good Heyer novels, but will continue to blog through the last few.

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