‘Devil’s Cub’ was probably my first favourite Heyer, both for it’s humour, and the moment when the heroine shoots the hero to avoid being raped. How I understand that scene has changed over the years, but it has never lost its power for me.
I did wonder what I’d think of the hero this time round, especially in a post Me Too world. What I found was a novel that feels like it’s very much about consent, and an even further conviction of how subversive Heyer is as a romance writer even at the beginning of her career.
The plot of ‘Devil’s Cub’ was easier to swallow as an uncritical 13 year old than it is now, but it throws up more interesting questions now than it did then. The Devil’s Cub is the Marquis Of Vidal, the book opens with him blowing the brains of a highwayman across the road before casually resuming his journey to a party (when it’s pointed out that the ladies might object to the sight on the way home, servants are sent to clear up the mess). Within a chapter or two he’s drunk and shooting someone in a duel. As this character isn’t a common criminal there’s every possibility the Marquis will be had up for Murder, it not being the first time he’s got into this mess. He’s 23.
As well as a budding career as a serial killer, Vidal also has a thing for the ladies. He’s perusing Sophia Challoner who’s very beautiful. She has some idea of marrying him, but makes it quite clear that she’d be equally prepared to be his mistress if the price is right. He hasn’t really noticed her older sister, Mary, but Mary (20) is rather more in love with him than Sophia, and so when she gets a letter meant for Sophia planning an elopement she swaps places with her sister.
This is where the plot falls down a bit. Heyer needs to get Mary to France, and to do it she has her behave in an absurdly reckless way. Simply destroying the letter would have scotched the elopement. Disguising herself as her sister, and keeping up the pretence until they’ve reached the coast where she further pretends to be more or less up for anything is not the obvious course of action.
At this point Vidal, declares one woman is more or less as good as another, forces her into his yacht and threatens rape. Mary holds him off with a severe bout of seasickness, and once in France by shooting him with his own pistol (handily pocketed from his coach, loaded. Miraculously it doesn’t accidentally go off before she needs it). This is the point that Vidal falls in love, and Mary starts to feel guilty.
I thought the threats of rape and violence would bother me more, but Mary consents to get into the coach, she opts to stay in it, and when she reveals her identity she does it in a way designed to provoke anger and possibly expectation. To make sense of her it’s hard not to think that part of her wants to be carried off and relieved of the responsibility of decision making. Heyer could have turned this into a rape fantasy along the lines of The Sheik, but instead she gives Mary a gun, and a determination to find a job.
Nor is it enough for Mary when she comes to believe that Vidal might love her. She needs his family’s consent to any marriage, for the entirely realistic reason that a family rift is a poor start to a relationship. Vidal in turn has had to come to terms with his behaviour, which he does with surprising honesty - he doesn’t gloss over the threats of rape, and it’s noticeable when the couple finally kiss that he’s paying attention too, and respecting her responses.
None of this is as black or white as I might have expected it to be, through both the main plot, and the various sub plots around it Heyer is either poking fun at romance conventions, or undermining them. Despite the way the plot unfolds the way the main characters behave rings true in all their stupid decisions, and so the issues at play are surprisingly complex and relevant.
As a footnote it seems apt that Heyer’s son, the judge Sir Richard Rougier, is on record expressing that women have a right to dress provocatively without fear of being attacked.