Wow! What an experience! I’ll confess, I’ve never read any Georgette Heyer before, which is madness considering she’s one of the mothers of the modern Romance genre. My friend, Felicity, has been telling me about this book for years though, so I finally bit the bullet and read it. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed by These Old Shades in the least!
But at the same time, I have to say that it was a curious experience that left me with a pile of mixed emotions. I liked the book. It was clever and well-written with gobs of vivid characters and an exciting plot. There were things I didn’t like about it though. Although maybe “didn’t like” is too strong of a statement. It’s not that I didn’t like certain things, it’s more like they didn’t sit comfortably on my reader’s or writer’s minds.
What I find most interesting is that These Old Shades was published in 1926. That was, of course, the height of the Roaring 20s. It was a wild, permissive time, reflective of the Georgian era that Heyer was writing about. The 20s were far more liberal than the decades that came during and after the depression and the war, and there were several things that I felt were hinted at between the lines of the book that makes it a fascinating period piece on several levels.
Of course, all of that and my observations and instincts about the story and its characters comes from a unique commentary on modern reading habits. I didn’t read any sort of blurb or back cover copy before I started reading. I read the book as a recommendation from a friend and didn’t bother to check any teasers first. Yes, I entered the story completely and utterly blind.
Hereafter follow spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, I invite you to whistle and turn the other way.
When I started reading, I didn’t have a clue that Léon was actually a girl. Not a clue. So as the attraction between her and the hero, Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon, began to grow, I was floored that Heyer had gotten away with that kind of homoeroticism in 1926! And then when it was revealed that Léon was actually Léonie, well, my instant visceral reaction was anger and betrayal!
Let’s pause for a second to explore that (because I did at the time). I love twists in novels. They’re awesome. But this one kind of pissed me off. And for the longest time I sat there and stared at the wall thinking “why does this bother me so much?” When I explained it to my friend Felicity, she said it was because I’d been so distracted by the supposed homoeroticism (which she does not see at all) that it threw me for a loop. She has a point. Not knowing anything at all about the story before I started reading, the revelation that “he” was a “she” absolutely did throw me. I felt not as though I was in on the author’s secret, but that she had pulled the wool over my eyes and had a laugh at my expense. Again, that’s a fascinating reaction to have. Note to self: when revealing a major plot twist, make the reader feel as though they’re in on it, not being jerked around.
Oh, and I still think that Justin is bisexual—something else that Felicity violently disagrees with me about. My reasons? Heyer is vague enough about his past “evils” and “indiscretions” that it would fit. The guy in Venice? Sorry, but there was totally something going on there! It would also fit with the burgeoning social consciousness in the world Heyer lived in and a lot of other literature of the time. I happen to think it adds to the complexity of Justin’s character and makes his eventual transformation that much more notable.
On the other hand, as I read These Old Shades, knowing it is an early classic of the Romance genre, I was struck by how different its plot and character structure is from what Romance is now. The rules of modern Romance dictate that the story must be character driven and have an emotionally satisfactory ending. They also strongly suggest that the heroine be strong and the hero be likable.
Frankly, I thought Justin was anything but likable. He was a jerk. A clever jerk, a witty jerk, but also a vindictive jerk and a selfish jerk. And Léonie, bless her heart, may have been an impish little scamp, but her attitude towards Justin was so subservient that if there had been sex scenes in this novel, they would have rivaled 50 Shades of Gray!
And that’s when it hit me. These Old Shades is indeed a progenitor of modern Romance, but also of modern Erotica. All of the elements of Erotica seem to be there except for the vivid and unusual sex scenes. The emotion of that sub-genre is definitely there though. Very, very interesting.
The other curious thing to me was the sheer volume of really top-notch secondary characters. I absolutely adore Rupert! And Fanny too. In fact, they were more likable to me than the protagonists. And considering the era in which Heyer wrote this, to me Rupert was a wonderful Georgian Bertie Wooster. I love him!
Anyhow, the long and the short of it is that I liked the book … I think. I have a lot of mixed opinions about it. I’m going to have to put this one aside for a while then come back and read again in a few years to see if I still feel the same way. All I know is that it was a wonderful history lesson to go back and read something from the dawn of my genre. Romance is so different now! In good ways and in bad ways.
Next up in the queue is something vastly and entirely different….