First of all, I love the dual title (though it doesn't appear on the cover) of this acerbically amusing tale of love and manners. So, going in, I was already disposed to liking whatever Georgette Heyer had up her sleeve. I'm happy to report that SYLVESTER or THE WICKED UNCLE more than lives up to its 'tongue in cheek' title. It is a light-hearted tale of convoluted romantic hi jinks set in the excruciatingly well-mannered English Regency years - Jane Austen's time.
I don't know why I held such an idiot prejudice against reading Heyer for so many years. Jeez, am I a reading snob or what? Of course not. I love a good story no matter who writes it. But I had somewhere picked up the notion that Heyer's books were simple-minded.
Obviously I couldn't have been more wrong. So here I am, making amends. 2012 will be my Georette Heyer year. I'm making up for lost time - with a vengeance.
I've already read most of Heyer's Christie-like mysteries (not exactly up to Christie level, but really quite good enough to make me wonder why Heyer didn't write more of them). Then last year I read two of her Regencies and lost no time in apologizing to the shades of Heyer for having ignored her all these many years. I am now an unabashed fan and am ready to sing her praises to the high heavens.
Hey, I never do anything by halves.
Sylvester, Duke of Alford is our titled hero and I must add that I especially love it when the hero is a Duke. (Or at the very least, an Earl.) That's when I know I'm in for some high end posturing and devilishly strict good manners.
Not to mention all the fabulously ritzy accouterments - houses, estates, phaeton carriages (low and high perch), fine horses by the dozen, dogs, servants, jewels, a wardrobe of elegantly cut jackets and trousers, silks, fluttering neck-ties, gold pocket watches, jeweled stick-pins, rings and other assorted aristocratic whatnot - that were deemed necessary for a rich and titled bachelor in stiff-necked Regency society. And topping it all off, of course, is that little wonder of wonders, the quizzing monocle dangling on a ribbon. Pretty darn near irresistible if you ask me.
The Duke is at the age (past thirty) when he must consider wedding a well brought up lady of style, quality and excellent family. So, he turns to his mother the Duchess for advice. I do like that in this story, the Duke and his invalid mother have an especially warm relationship based on love and respect. Very pleasant.
Sylvester claims that anyone of five or so different ladies he's met here and there, will do nicely. They're practically interchangeable.
But what about love? His mother asks, aghast at his seeming cold-blooded approach.
He shrugs off love. He hasn't fallen yet and doesn't expect to.
Not that Sylvester is an unlikeable stick. He is anything but. It's just that, after all, he IS a Duke and well aware of his consequence. He has a good heart, but he has been his own master since the age of nineteen and his stand-offish manner needs a bit of warming up. All his mother wants is for him to be happily settled in the right alliance. To that end she recommends he go down to the country and check out the Hon. Phoebe Marlow, the daughter of a friend, BEFORE he decides which of the five or so society names might do as a future Duchess.
Sylvester says he'll think about it.
The Duke already has an heir to the title - his young nephew Edmund, the son of his deceased and much beloved twin brother. His brothers scatty wife, Lady Henry is resentful that Sylvester was left guardian of her son and is determined to take him away with her. She has plans to marry one of the Pinkest of the Ton, the exceedingly rich and foppish, Sir Nugent Fotherby who is as awful as his name implies. Sylvester will never allow Fotherby to raise Edmund.
The Dowager Lady Ingham is Sylvester's godmother and it is to that good lady that he applies for guidance as well. Lady Ingham is the grandmother of the Hon. Phoebe Marlow, the country miss his mother has recommended as a possible marriage prospect. The young woman doesn't live with her grandmother in London, but with her father and wretched step-mother in the country.
"Phoebe's not one of your beauties." said the Dowager, almost as if she had read his mind. "She don't show to advantage with her mother-in-law, but to my way of thinking she's not just in the ordinary style. If pink-and-white's your fancy, she won't do for you....She's not an heiress, but her fortune won't be contemptible."
Certainly something to consider. Not that Sebastian needs any more money, he is quite rich enough. His home, Chance, is looked upon - with envy - as one of the great houses of England.
So, under the pretense of buying some horseflesh from Phoebe's malleable, indiscreet father - heavily under the thumb of his boorish wife - off goes Sylvester, Duke of Alford, to the countryside.
The problem is, the Hon. Phoebe is well aware that the game is afoot. The Duke is coming to look her over. Her wretched step-mother has made sure to let Phoebe know she must behave in the manner that a Duke would find acceptable - or else!
Vexed by the prospect, but afraid of her step-mother's cruel distemper, Phoebe turns to her lifelong friend, young Tom Orde, son of the local squire, for help. You see, Phoebe can't abide the Duke.
He'd snubbed her in London, once upon a time, and the humiliation ran deep for Phoebe. In fact, she'd thought him such a cold fish that she'd featured him as the villain, Count Uggolino, in the soon to be published Gothic novel - THE LOST HEIR - she's secretly written under a pseudonym. Very prominently displayed on the Count's villainous countenance are the Duke of Salford's well recognized satyr-like eyebrows.
Now, here are the questions we must ask ourselves:
How will Phoebe avoid a marriage proposal from the Duke, supposing he should be so inclined though she can't see why on earth he would be. Not for nothing is Salford a high stepper and society snob of the first water.
How will Phoebe turn him down should the occasion arise, without incurring the wrath of her wretched step-mother and the rest of her family as well as society in general?
How will the Duke react when he, in the unlikely chance that an offer should be made, finds himself refused by a mere chit of a gawky country girl? And not even a beautiful one, at that.
More importantly, how will the Duke react when he recognizes himself as the villain in a romantic novel? Will he be made a laughing stock? How will society deal with the Hon. Phoebe should her identity as the author of a roman a clef be discovered?
Unfortunately, Phoebe's opinion of the Duke doesn't change on the first night of their meeting so she decides to run away the next morning with Tom Orde, her complaisant friend. Of course, everyone assumes they've gone off to Gretna Green for a ramshackle marriage, but the truth is that neither Phoebe nor Tom desires marriage, they're off to London where Phoebe can seek refuge with the grandmother who was instrumental in sending the Duke down to the country. (Phoebe doesn't know this.)
But on the run, the carriage is upset on the road and Tom breaks a leg. The two runaways are forced to find lodging in a nearby ale house.
Okay, so we can see where all this is going. Though Heyer gives us the expected romantic complications, she also has a surprise or two in store for us which is what makes this story so intriguing. The course of true love ne'r did run smooth. Phoebe and Sylvester encounter complication upon complication, including a scurrilous sea going kidnapping and a moment in time when Sylvester is forced to ride a public coach - gasp!
And once Phoebe learns that the Duke ain't such a bad fellow, she is desperate to keep him from finding out about Count Uggolino of the malevolent eyebrows. Sylvester, on the other hand, has learned his own lessons from this tangled adventure and made a revelation or two about his own Duke-ish persona.
Read the book if you want to know what happens next to the Hon. Phoebe Marlow, Tom Orde, the Duke of Salford and the wretched step-mother. It is a very enjoyable, not to mention humorous,. voyage back in time to a world that was probably never as wonderful as Heyer invented. But since when has reality ever stopped us from having a bit of fun?