For the Love of Heyer: Snapshot Reviews #1 (books 1-5 in publication order)

I have read nearly everything Heyer wrote, and these are very short bagatelles rather than deep reviews of what I’ve read. Where I haven’t got to a book yet I will say.

1. The Black Moth (1921) read twice as of 2021

This was Heyer’s first book, published when she was 19. It would read like a photocopy of an Errol Flynn movie to many, but it was a template for such scripts. It’s a simple, surprisingly nuanced story of a disgraced young Earl, a wicked Duke who goes by the nickname Devil and of course a beautiful and innocent young girl both of them want to marry.

Much of the nuance comes less from the love story of the disgraced Earl and more from the family dynamics of the Earl’s family and the Duke’s family. The Earl’s brother is the reason for his disgrace and is consumed with guilt about it, and he’s married to the bad Duke’s sister. Yet the bad Duke is rather a good brother in his way, and his relationship with his sister and other brother (a side character) are part of how the teenaged Heyer makes him an object of some sympathy despite his badness. He is quite ill behaved with women and is a mischief-maker in general on top of that.

But he does show signs of possible salvage. Again, one would have to be told a young girl wrote this (she originally came up with the story at 15) to really believe it, the book is well formed and carries some assurance more common to older authors with longer publishing histories.

2. The Transformation of Phillip Jettan (republished as Powder and Patch with slight edit) (1923) read twice as of 2021

This is very light and fluffy. A country mouse of a young squire finds his childhood friend and future wife drifting from him because he’s not got town polish and is cloddish and overproud about it. Phillip, the namesake clod squire, responds to the rebuff of his sweetling by heading off to France to learn to dress, to converse and to duel. The results impress the girl and all ends happily for both, but with some obstacles both intentional and unintentional along the way to overcome. This was republished without the last chapter many years later. Interestingly, the last chapter is heavy on the Francais, which had more than a little to do with that. That chapter does shift the tone of the ending a bit, but this is such a light little book one can get a complete ending out of either version.

3.The Great Roxhythe (1923) read once as of 2021

Some books Heyer wrote and requested be suppressed. This is one of them. It is an interesting book because again, this is a very young woman really stretching herself artistically and thematically. It’s a love story, but not in a homosexual sense. It is about a man (Roxhythe) with perfect hero-devotion to his king, and the young man serving as Roxhythe’s secretary who is imperfectly devoted to him for a time. It is a book set during the exile of Charles II, and Heyer would return to this period fifteen years later in a book called Royal Escape. The fascination arises because Roxhythe is ruthless and cunning, but remarkably charming and she succeeds in selling the reader on it, just a remarkable accomplishment in youth. Many Heyer fans feel this book was rightly suppressed, but I think they shew merely a distaste for a book entirely about male bonding and its complexities.

4. Instead of the Thorn (1923) read once as of 2021

This book is so aflame with erotic charge I am nervous about picking it up again for a second read, yet I will inevitably do so. A virgin girl hardly past 20 with no dating/courting experience wrote this book and somehow she managed to write one of the most intense depictions of two married people learning to desire each other I’ve ever read. And people have the gall to complain about this book as sexist or dull. I can’t even understand that.

The story is about a girl raised strangely and sexlessly, brought up by a man-hating spinster, who drifts into a marriage with a writer who is enchanted beyond anything by her sheer, pristine beauty. Her family loves the social climb, his family is terrified his heart will be broken by a confused and spoiled ice maiden. What happens is not quite what one would expect, but it ends as it should. This is a book that captures certain tensions between a man and a woman that, frankly, are most understandable to women who have lived life without chemical birth control and who have some experience in pastoral life for extended periods of time, actually caring for animals.

That is to say, women who are, such as it may be, less altered by modernity. It’s not a requirement, but the book is more likely to make sense if you have that background. There are reviews of this book around and about and they mostly denigrate the husband, who is basically Saint Bohemian. He gives his cameo-perfect wife all the space she needs and the dance they undertake has slips and shuffles, but the book draws you into their world and their navigation of her neurosis. The wife makes a lot of mistakes, but nothing fatal. Out of all her early work, this is radical, beautiful and sweet. I suspect but cannot prove that she might have been influenced by the slightly older Margaret Kennedy, who wrote a book the same year on pretty much the same topic. I have not read it, but these sorts of coincidences aren’t exactly unheard of.

This is set in the 1920s, so was a “modern” for its time, and was also among the books Heyer requested be suppressed.

5. Simon the Coldheart (1925) read twice as of 2021

To end this first set of reviews, we have a book that introduces a topic that was to flicker throughout Heyer’s oeuvre for a good 15 years: a young beautiful girl dressing as a boy to escape…whatever. This early work is again, on the “suppressed” list, but she reconsidered this particular one later in life. It’s a medieval, set during the Hundred Years War. The hero, Simon, is known for his stonelike heart regarding the ladies. But he is gentle and extremely patient with children.

Anyway the book is again a remarkable exploration of a young girl writing with some true insight about a young man seeking to establish himself in a rough and tumble world where the sword’s gifts can take a man very far, as can sheer strength of will. Her upbringing by a history loving father reaped many rewards in the form and structure of her fiction.

Along the way as Simon the Coldheart rises in power and status, he finds a woman to melt the ice. A willowy, slim-built one…who dresses as a boy to escape…whatever. To say more spoils much of the joy of the book, it’s very charming to go in reading it knowing very little about the boy and the girl.

I like Heyer’s early work quite well, for the most part, even, as I go through her backlist, several books I didn’t expect to like.

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