Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle – Georgette Heyer

It’s been a busy sort of week starting off with some energetic box shifting and winding down with a course on presentation skills and the welcome chance to catch up with not one but two other bloggers. Passing through London on Thursday I managed to catch up with Claire Paperback Reader who made me go the Primrose Bakery and eat cake. (I went with a malted marshmallow affair which was so good I’ve bought some Ovaltine to experiment with. Malt – if it’s good enough for whisky it’s good enough for cake.) Today I met up with Elaine Random Jottings who very kindly passed on a copy of Jennifer Kloester’s new Georgette Heyer Biography.

We had a really satisfactory chat about our respective love for Heyer and bemusement at how reviled she seems to be in certain quarters. The rest of my day has been spent nose buried in Kloester’s book and slightly regretting that I’ve separated myself from my Heyer collection for the weekend. After the first flurry of conversation around the new bio a couple of weeks ago I thought about having a re-read of at least one Heyer (but I have no self control over things like this; one will not be enough) ‘The Castle of Otranto’ made me want ‘Sylvester’.

Without precisely having favourite Heyer’s ‘Sylvester’ is undoubtedly one of the books I’ve read most often over the years – I have no idea how many times now – and which has stood the test of my aging and changing tastes. She is a fairly consistent writer – I don’t think there are any real duds amongst the fifty or so titles still in print; though this does make me more curious about the books she suppressed, consistent too in her reworking of a handful of plot devices some of which will appeal more than others according to mood.
For me the appeal of Georgette Heyer is a combination of knowing exactly what you’ll get (romance in a swish setting), humour, and impeccable research. What makes her special is the way she handles her material, my problem with most historical novels that have come way since Heyer is that the details feel like window dressing with an overall effect that lacks cohesion. Heyer creates a world that feels complete and real after its fashion. After Heyer it had to be the classics for me – which is another debt to chalk up to her.

As for ‘Sylvester’ – I imagine anyone reading this is either already a fan and knows it or never will be (which is fair enough, we can’t all like the same things) but just in case the plot is something like this: Sylvester is the Duke of Salford, young, rich, and not bad to look at despite some unusual eyebrows – clearly he’s in need of a wife. Phoebe Marlow is the shy daughter of his mother’s dearest friend (who died in childbirth) so he decides to look her over. There is a wicked stepmother who’s bullied Phoebe into submission but failed to beat the imagination out of her so after one not very glittering London season Phoebe has returned home and penned a gothic romance – using Sylvester as the model for her villain because she found him insufferably arrogant.

Marriage to the villain in your novel probably never feels like a good idea so Phoebe runs away with her friend Thomas in the teeth of a snow storm, all hell breaks loose behind her. Somehow Phoebe and Sylvester find themselves trapped by the snow in an isolated country inn where he gets over his anger at being humiliated and she realises he’s quite nice really. After that things get complicated – her novel comes out but life has imitated art in the most embarrassing ways and the path of true love is threatened by misunderstandings. All comes right after a mad chase across France for a missing nephew and we can imagine they live happily ever after.

It could be awful but Heyer’s trademark charm and lightness of touch make it fun. She’s a careful observer of human nature – certainly enough so to keep her characters clear of parody as they play out there roles and she’s funny. The book is full of crisply delivered one liners that even after the umpteenth time of reading can make me laugh out loud. The weather has been grotty and work has been exhausting but what does that matter when you have the perfect book to escape into (and good friends with whom to share your enthusiasms).


  1. Sylvester is one of my favourites Heyer novels and I love that, no matter how many times I read it, it is always just as entertaining (though I become more and more fond of Tom each time). I can't wait to get my hands on the Kloester's biography, which I'm sure will send me start me off on a rash of Heyer rereads, if I don't start in anticipation.

  2. One of the great appeals of Heyer, I think, is her characters, like Tom - not the focus of the story, but not a minor character either. I am also looking forward to the Kloester biography, and like you I can't understand the hosility that some authors & critics have toward Heyer!

  3. The Captive reader - I've spent all weekend immersed in at and am finding it fascinating so far.

    Lisa May, reading the biography I'm beginning to form some ideas about where that hostility was coming from. I'll see what I think when I finish. As for me - the more I read about her the more I respect her.

  4. So glad you are enjoying the biog Hayley and lovely to see you. Have not read Sylvester for a while but feel I may now have to. Gosh, how dreadfully hard that will be.....

  5. Do it Elaine, it'll make you happy - had a lovely time with you on Saturday - thank you so much for making the time.

  6. sharing knowledge with others