Or, The Wicked Uncle
Things are busy at the moment and I don’t have much brain space to spare, so I turned gratefully to the next novel on my Georgette Heyer pile. This was Sylvester, which several people have picked out as one of their favourites. And it’s no wonder: it’s vintage Heyer, the literary equivalent of crumpets by a roaring fire on a winter’s night. From the moment our arrogant but misunderstood hero meets our stubborn, bookish heroine, there’s no doubt what’s going to happen, but that’s not the point. As they lock horns over the course of a book stuffed with warmth, wit and adventure, the question isn’t ‘what?’ but ‘how on earth?’. In my current state, it was exactly what I needed and I might even go so far as to name this my favourite Heyer after the nonpareil These Old Shades.
The eponymous Sylvester is Duke of Salford, an eminently eligible nobleman in his late twenties, who has finally decided to settle down. But who should he marry? He’s used to women falling over their feet to win his attention, and he has a shortlist of five potential wives who would meet his exacting standards. He doesn’t really love any of them, but he doesn’t particularly expect to. Then, during a chat with his beloved mother, he hears about a match she once planned with a friend’s daughter. Sylvester’s interest is piqued. Leaving the other five young ladies on ice (so to speak), he manages to get himself invited to the home of this Miss Marlow, somewhere in the depths of Wiltshire, in order to look her over to see if she might be suitable.
What Sylvester doesn’t expect is that Phoebe Marlow would rather throw herself headlong out of a window than marry him. She doesn’t particularly want to marry anyone: her dream in life is to set up home in a little cottage, with her former governess as company, and to devote her life to writing. For Phoebe is that newfangled and alarming thing, a novelist (in the greatest secrecy, of course). Unknown to her parents, she has submitted her debut novel The Lost Heir to a London publisher. Its characters are satirical pen-portraits of the aristocrats Phoebe met during her London season, but its dominant figure is the evil Count Ugolino, based upon the owner of the finest pair of satanic eyebrows in the ton – none other than the Duke of Salford. And so, when Phoebe hears that the prototype for her very own villain is coming to solicit her hand in marriage, she decides to make a run for it.
But, as Phoebe and her best friend Tom (the local squire’s son) make their bid for freedom, disaster intervenes. When an accident leaves them stranded, Phoebe knows that it’s only a matter of time before her furious father comes to drag her home in disgrace. But then the impossible happens. They’re helped by the most unexpected person imaginable: none other than Sylvester himself, who’s both intrigued and stung by her impetuosity. Phoebe realises, with alarm, that the Duke of Salford isn’t such a villain after all. But how can she possibly learn to like someone who treats the world with such condescension? And, even if she did like him (which she doesn’t, obviously), what will happen when he finds out about her book?
And that’s only the half of it. There are warm-hearted rustics, doughty servants and very, very silly nobles – the geese and gudgeons of Heyer’s Regency slang. The quickfire dialogue bubbles with enough pride and prejudice to impress Jane Austen herself and, as always, Heyer captures the voice of the period perfectly. There was, however, one slightly infelicitous phrasing to modern eyes. I nearly choked on my tea when Sylvester turned urbanely to Miss Marlow and said, ‘Will you let me mount you while you are in town?’ I couldn’t help thinking this a rather direct approach, even for an arrogant duke, but to my great relief it turned out that he was offering to lend her a horse.
Honestly, I absolutely loved this, despite the ghastly cover (the 1976 edition). Yes, there are moments of absurdity, it’s completely unbelievable and the characters are all too good to be true, but it’s the most glorious fun. If you have a weakness for Heyer but haven’t got round to this one yet, hurry up! You’re in for a treasure.