I have several Georgette Heyer books on hand and make sure to read at least one per year; she seemed the perfect last hurrah before the school year starts again. I decided to start with her earliest book, The Black Moth, from 1921.
Six years ago Jack Carstares, Earl of Wyndham, accepted an accusation that he cheated at cards. Though his sacrifice preserved his younger brother Richard’s honor and hopes of wooing the lovely Lavinia Belmanoir, Jack himself was disgraced and fled the country. Now he has returned to England and passes his time roaming the countryside as a highwayman. He is only Robin Hood by half, which I find less charming; he steals from the rich and…keeps it for himself. [But this is okay, because he has been unfairly denied access to his inheritance, and needs to stay solvent somehow. Besides, those odious people don’t need their money anyway.]
Though Dick did win Lavinia, he has never forgiven himself for allowing his brother to take the fall. Recently, however, it all but consumes his thoughts. He convinced his father to still will the title and estate to Jack before his death. He told Lavinia the truth right after they married and she cares not that she married a cheater, only that her social standing be maintained. His fear of losing her is the only thing still preventing him from revealing the truth. Well, also the fact that he is slightly intimidated by her brother Tracy, Duke of Andover, who just might have manipulated the whole card affair in the first place.
In one week, Jack has two roadside escapades that change events entirely. First, he accidentally holds up a friend from his former life, Miles O’Hara, a justice of peace who discovers his identity and is determined to see him restored. Second, he foibles “Devil” Belmanoir’s attempt to kidnap and marry the lovely Diana Beauleigh, and is wounded in the process. While recuperating at the Beauleigh manor, he tries to convince Diana he is not worthy of her, and she tries to convince him of the opposite. Neither quite succeeds, and they might go on fawning at each other indefinitely if the Duke doesn’t have other plans to win Diana for himself.
The Black Moth does already have a lot of the elements that make a Georgette Heyer book great: multiple couples (happily married, unhappily married, and courting), likable chaperones, extremely fashionable gentlemen, and non-traditional females. Diana pretty much threw herself at Jack several times, even going so far as to propose to him, but he was too noble and self-sacrificing to accept (can you sense a theme with his character?). The writing was great, and if wit was lacking she made up for it with humor. For some reason, though, I just didn’t totally buy into the story of Jack and Diana. I liked the plot with Richard and Lavinia much more, and those were the parts I reread when writing this review. Perhaps its because they had weaknesses and regrets, and therefore more tension, whereas the main couple came off as a bit flat.
The Duke of Andover as a complex “villain” had the potential to be the best aspect of the book, but never quite achieved it. He was never friendly and often acted out of selfish ends, without caring if anyone else was hurt; if fact, he seemed to pride himself on his resolve and reputation. However, Lavinia adores him, and his closest friend Frank, who seems to have a good head on his shoulders, is also quite fond and often pities him. We are not given a reason for his being likable by those two characters, other than the length of their acquaintances. I was almost sorry for the Duke myself at times, but realized I never really had cause to be. He is neither likable enough to be an anti-hero, nor despised enough to be a true scoundrel.
Georgette Heyer doesn’t use any exact dates, but from all the fashions this seems to be set in the mid to late eighteenth century. The women wear silk dresses with wide skirts, and the men wear patches and tight jackets. Powder is even more prevalent than snuff. I love the American colonial era, but some of the European upper class fashions are a bit much for me. I prefer my men without fountains of lace and embroidered satin waistcoats, thank you very much.
All in all I don’t think The Black Moth will ever be among my most favorite Georgette Heyer romances, but it’s the book that started it all, and quite an output for a girl who was fifteen at the time!