Review: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

Posted February 12, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 6 Comments

Well. What can I say? This book and these characters are greatly beloved by some Heyer aficianados, and I can somewhat see why. The hero, the Duke of Avon, is the sort of aristocratic, world-weary, domineering older man so common in Heyer, which is my least favourite kind. The heroine is another style typical of the author — young, innocent but sparky, ravishingly beautiful. Again, not my favourite. But the adventure is good, once it gets going, and there’s some of that trademark sparkling banter, and by the midpoint things were looking up. And then there was the dramatic finale. Oh dear.

Here’s the premise: the duke is out one night in Paris when he comes across an urchin running away from someone. The urchin looks oddly familiar, so the duke buys him from his pursuer and takes him home, making him his page. The page is prostrate with gratitude, and falls instantly into undying devotion for his saviour. He, of course, is completely unworthy of said devotion, having a reputation as one of the most debauched and cold-hearted characters in either Paris or London, who doesn’t have his new page’s welfare at heart at all. In fact he has a cunning and fairly horrible plan to use his new page to get his revenge on an old enemy. For the page is not a boy at all, but a girl, and the legitimate daughter of the enemy, set aside at birth to be replaced with the son of local peasants.

Now Leon/Leonie, the page who is also an aristocratic lady, is quite a sparky character, so it’s hard to dislike her, but this does throw into relief one of the problems of the book. She’s been raised as a peasant in fairly dire circumstances, and although she’s been given the basics of a good education, she’s still a peasant through and through. The peasant’s son, however, has been raised as an aristocrat, so he’s all manners and delicate good breeding, right? Well no. He’s still a peasant, who wants nothing more than to retire to the country and have a farm. Whereas Leonie has only to be put into long skirts and taught how to curtsy and wield a fan and she’s aristocratic to the core. I know this was written almost a hundred years ago, but is everything really to be set down to blood and nothing to upbringing? All nature, no nurture? It really grated on me.

As for the duke, I just don’t like that kind of hard-edged hero. If he softens the instant he meets the heroine, then maybe, but in this case he’s plotting his nefarious plots, which involve exploiting Leonie horribly, right to the end, so no. That’s a hard pass from me.

The book plot, such as it is, takes a sharp turn in both action and atmosphere about the middle to become a rollicking adventure, and once I’d got over the abrupt change, I found it good fun. It reminded me a little of The Talisman Ring with elements of Sprig Muslin thrown in for good measure. And then we get to the denouement, where the duke’s devious plans come to fruition, and I have to say it’s all pretty horrible. Maybe that was what passed for justice in 1926 but I didn’t like it at all.

And then the forty year old duke decides he will marry the nineteen year old heroine, with her puppy-dog devotion, after all. No. Just no.

On the plus side, it’s Heyer, so the writing is glorious, the banter in the adventure phase is sparkling and the settings, particularly Paris and Versailles, are magnificently evoked. I didn’t enjoy it, so that keeps it to three stars, but I realise I’m in a minority here, so don’t let my opinions put you off.

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6 responses to “Review: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

  1. Mrs. H. Meyer

    It’s funny, I’ve never quantified exactly why this one isn’t a favorite – but I still go back to it for the fun. I’m willing to swallow all the outdated conventions…maybe it’s simply that the period doesn’t have the same appeal? But an interesting exploration of why it hasn’t worn as well as others – perhaps less a fault of the novel than of the fact that attitudes have changed so radically and we’re less willing to make allowances.

    • Mary Kingswood

      I think that’s a very good point. Heyer’s earliest books are getting on for 100 years old now and the cultural milieu in which she wrote is vastly different from ours.

  2. Leonie

    I’m in the midst of a Heyer-reread atm, but this is one I haven’t revisited. I first read it when I was a teenager (many years ago!) and even then I found the nature/nurture thing didn’t really work for me. Now, I find that aspect works even less well, so I agree with you very much on that. Also the power imbalance between Avon and Leonie on the personal level is something that really doesn’t appeal – particularly when compared with the much truer meeting of minds that some of Heyer’s other couples enjoy.

    That said, it’s still Heyer and so of course I love the meticulous historical detail and a lot of the dialogue. And, also, this book also has a special place in my heart because I think it’s still the only book I’ve ever read with a heroine who has my name!

  3. Elizabeth

    I read this last year and it wasn’t one of my favorites. I thought the central plot and settings were entertaining but the born aristocrat/born peasant aspect hasn’t aged well. I didn’t care for the romance as most of it seemed to consist of Leonie worshipping the Duke like a star-struck adolescent.

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