These Old Shades was the third novel Georgette Heyer ever published, but the first of her novels I ever read, and it made an impression. On re-reading it, I can see why.
The basic storyline is thus: Justin Alastair, nicknamed Satanas, otherwise known as the Duke of Avon, picks up Leon, a young peasant boy, saving him from the persecution of his cruel brother for the price of a diamond. Leon becomes his page – the most devoted page a man could ever have, he will not hear a word against ‘Monseigneur’- however, Leon bears a remarkable resemblance to the Duke’s greatest enemy, the Comte de Saint- Vire, and Satanas is hatching plans of his own… Then Leon is discovered to be Leonie, and the story becomes a battle of wits, with a cross-country chase, a kidnapping, and a dramatic ending, of course with a little love story thrown in as well.
I forgot how immensely enjoyable Georgette Heyer’s novels are. I was introduced to them as a pre-teen by my mother, and to this day every book she’s ever given me to read has made me feel hugely comforted and at rights with the world. These Old Shades has such brilliant characters, and I especially loved Leonie – she was immense! She spends the novel standing up for herself and for her master, and even when she is kidnapped, she doesn’t wait until someone comes to save her but saves herself. That’s the kind of girl I’d love to see more of in literature, and I’m so thankful to my mum for giving her to me. She is unbothered by social niceties and doesn’t care what she says to whom. She wants to learn to fence, so she puts on her faithful breeches and convinces ‘Monseigneur’ and his brother Rupert to teach her.
A lot of Heyer’s women (as I remember them, but I admit that with the exception of this novel, it’s been a while) have a lot of spirit and are disinclined to be ruled over unquestioningly by men. I was wondering if it’s because of the era she was writing in – although her books have an Austenesque feel to them, she was writing about 115 years after Austen, after the first world war during which the traditional role of women in society had been turned on its’ head – women had the vote, and had begun to take a much more active role in society. I do tend to get obsessed with the way women are portrayed in novels, and I think it’s interesting that in a genre such as romance, which I admittedly don’t read a huge amount of, but which is generally viewed as subscribing to stereotypical submissive views of women, there can be such a strong central female character as Leonie.
All of the characters surrounding her in the novel are in some way changed by their interactions with her. The villain of the story,Henri Saint-Vire has a long-standing grudge against the Duke of Avon, and Leonie is unwittingly part of a secret he doesn’t want to get out. The basic point of the story is the development of Saint-Vire’s secret, and the lengths he and the Duke of Avon will go to in order to destroy each other. Of course, this isn’t really the point of the story, it’s just a sideline which allows space for the love story to unfold, and it is brilliantly done. Throughout the novel, Justin Alastair is to Leonie an affectionate guardian providing almost fatherly guidance, turning up unexpectedly and somehow knowing exactly how to deal with situations. Of course she is in love with him – her frenzied defence of him from any and all criticism leaves no room for doubt of this, but she is so modest that she has no notion of him ever feeling the same way, and so when he eventually does it lends a wonderful artlessness and sweetness to the ending.
I’ve ended up writing much more about this book than I intended to, so apologies for the rambling! It speaks volumes for the book though, that as a person who really doesn’t read much romance I was so thoroughly engrossed even on the third re-read!
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