Black Sheep, Georgette Heyer
After tracking a psychopathic killer through the streets of Lafferton in A Question of Identity, I wanted to read something calm and soothing. Georgette Heyer has been on my mind lately after reading various reviews, like Katrina's of Detection Unlimited and Claire's of the recent Heyer biography by Jennifer Kloester. The Heyer listserv I belong to just finished discussing one of my favorite books, The Talisman Ring, and is now looking at her wonderful minor characters, like Sir Hugh Thane. I've also realized that I need to get any re-reading done this month, before the TBR Double Dog Dare kicks off on January 1st.
Black Sheep is a story set in Bath. As it opens, Miss Abigail Wendover is returning home after several weeks spent caring for an older sister during her confinement and the illnesses of her other children. Still unmarried at 28, she shares a home with her eldest sister, Selina, and their 17-year-old niece Fanny, who has lived with them since she was orphaned in infancy. The only child of their eldest brother, Fanny is heiress to a considerable estate. Abby returns to find that in her absence, and under Selina's laxer surveillance, Fanny has met and fallen head over heels in love with a recent arrival in Bath, a young man named Stacy Calverleigh. Though of good family, he is known to be a gambler, and an unlucky one, whose family estate is mortgaged to the hilt. It is a matter of common gossip that he is hanging out for a rich wife, having already attempted like George Wickham to elope with one heiress. But Abby finds it impossible to break the spell that he seems to have cast not only over Fanny, but also over Selina, whose romantic heart yearns to see young love triumph.
Then a second Mr Calverleigh arrives in Bath, Stacy's uncle Miles, who was packed off to India twenty years ago after one too many scandals capped a disreputable career, one that saw him first expelled from Eton and then sent down from Oxford. He has returned now having made his fortune in trade. Careless in dress, casual in manner, he has none of his nephew's good looks or easy charm. Yet Abby finds herself drawn to him, to his ready understanding and even more to his cynical sense of humor (for Heyer's couples, a shared sense of humor is the most important element in a successful relationship). She hopes to enlist him in protecting her niece from his nephew, which becomes her excuse for spending so much time in his company. Though Fanny, caught up in her own love affair, is oblivious to her aunt's, Selina watches their growing intimacy with the gravest apprehensions. No well-brought-up young woman, and certainly not a Wendover, could possibly marry such a black sheep.
In the perennial discussions of which Heyer books are the best introductions for new readers, I would include this one. The Bath setting evokes Jane Austen, as the Wendovers from their house in Sydney Place visit the Pump Room, shop on the South Parade, and attend concerts in the New Assembly Rooms. It is not overloaded with Regency slang, as some of Heyer's books are, though I sometimes find the details on fashion equally confusing (Circassian or Cottage sleeves for a morning dress?). Unusually for Heyer, the narrative shifts between the different characters' points of views, which gives the reader insight and information not shared with the other characters. And this is one of Heyer's more romantic stories, centered around the two couples, Abby and Miles, Stacy and Fanny. Often in her books, the hero and heroine fall in love over the course of shared adventures, but we get only hints of it before a declaration in the last pages, as in The Talisman Ring or The Quiet Gentleman. I've actually read complaints about the lack of romance in Heyer's books! Here the focus is on the developing relationships, particularly between Abby and Miles. I much prefer the books where the hero and heroine genuinely like as well as love each other, in contrast to the books where they brangle and brawl their way to a happy ending, like Bath Tangle or Faro's Daughter. Published in 1966, Black Sheep has some similarities to Lady of Quality, Heyer's last novel, from 1972, but the two are not carbon copies, and I enjoy each for its own story.