Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Black Moth - Georgette Heyer

I've been reading this book as part of the Georgette Heyer Readalong on Twitter, where we have mixed feelings about it but have raced ahead to the end because I wanted to write about it today - the publication day for the centenary edition hardback. 

I'm in the enjoying the book for what it is camp, and what it is, is quite remarkable. Georgette Heyer was 19 when she published this, her first novel. Written to entertain her brother whilst he was ill it was presumably told rather than read, to begin with, which I think might have some bearing on how certain parts read now. I'm also assuming that it was based on books, plays, and films that were Heyer family favourites. 'The Black Moth' has remained in print for all of its 100-year life span.

It isn't Heyer's best work - it hardly could be given that she went on to write for another 50 years - it certainly isn't her worst (I have a feeling that might be the suppressed 'The Great Roxhythe' of which I once read a few pages online and quickly gave up on). For a first book by a teenager, it's amazing though, full of prototypes that would later become Heyer standards and indicators of how very good a writer she would be.

The plot is fairly lightweight and thoroughly over the top - the lost heir to an Earldom is terrorising the roads of southern England disguised as a highwayman (though he will not attack women, children, or old men) after everybody thought he cheated at cards. His younger brother is feeling bad about it and dealing with an expensive and capricious wife. His wife's brother is merrily plotting to kidnap and rape every nice young woman he meets (when he's not trying to borrow money) and somehow it all works out happily after a comedy Irishman turns up in deepest Sussex.

The Irishness of Sir Miles O'Hara JP is one of the things that was probably hilarious read in a family circle in 1921, but which doesn't work particularly well in a book group discussion now (apart from anything else it doesn't make a lot of sense). When Sir Miles makes an appearance I remind myself that Heyer was 19 when she wrote this. There are other issues that I'll come onto in a minute.

First, it seems worth spending a moment considering the excellence of this centenary edition. I wrote a post about this when I first got the book, and further acquaintance with it has only improved my opinion. I would love to see all of Heyer's books get this treatment. I'm old enough to appreciate the larger type as well as the handsome cover. I really appreciate the introduction, after-words, and the classification of her other titles. 

The latter is a particularly nice touch if you're newly navigating these books - pro tip, the classic adventures (Beauvallet, Royal Escape, An Infamous Army, and the Spanish Bride) and the Medieval Classics (Simon the Coldheart, The Conqueror, and My Lord John) or best left to the committed fans. Or in the case of an Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride, to people with a real interest in the Penninsula Wars and the battle of Waterloo. 

Phillipa Gregory's thoughtful introduction is probably my favourite thing (after the cover which I think is delicious) about this edition though. There's a lot to unpick, most of which I agree with, and some I'm not so sure about. Gregory makes the distinction that Heyer is creating historical fantasy rather than historical fiction (fair) and discusses how she doesn't write about the terrible poverty that followed the industrial revolution - but does have a heroine take a chimney sweep to the dentist amongst other examples (in another book).

In 'The Black Moth' there's an almost throw-away reference to a character being given a black page boy - a fashion statement in employees. The book is set in the 1750s so we know this probably means slave, later what I think is the same page boy presents her with a pet monkey which reinforces that perception, but Heyer makes no other comment about it. The result is we're left to do our own research and draw our own conclusions about the actual history, which is one of the things that really work about her books for me. When I first read this aged around 13 I knew very little about slavery, but it's a detail that always niggled, nothing could more effectively get me to learn. 

Gregory says Heyer is categorically not a feminist, and this is where I'm not so sure. She's not a feminist in the contemporary sense, and while she pushes the boundaries of what a romance novel is her heroines still always meet a man that we hope they'll live happily ever after with - but even here in her first book there's a masterly description of the heroine (around Heyer's age) being pursued by a predatory older man that is instantly recognisable and could very easily have been a Me Too statement. It's also offered without comment, but in a story a teenage girl was telling her brothers.

This will be a constant theme in Heyer's writing, in book, after book, she describes the limitations imposed on women and exposes the hypocrisy in the double standards her heroines have to deal with. In her own life, she ended up supporting her mother, brothers, and for a long time her husband, with her writing. Heyer and her heroines worked within the constraints of her society, but I think she's pushing against its boundaries every time she points out the inherent unfairness of a situation and with the type of agency she gives her heroines. Maybe she wasn't a feminist, but she certainly made me into one.

So on the whole I have no hesitation in recommending this - it's fun on its own terms, although very much of its time - perhaps don't read it if you find old-fashioned attitudes about race offensive (there are some dodgy bits about what it's acceptable for rich men to get away with too). It's also fascinating to see how Heyer starts, understand the elements that were always present in her writing, and see how other things will develop through out her career. It is also, and this bears repeating, the Most Lovely edition.

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