In April, Miss Bates followed a discussion about the question of a romance canon. The debate began with a thorny Salon article which, nevertheless, inspired interesting responses. For Miss Bates, said article was of minimal regard: its noblesse oblige attitude towards the genre ensured she stop reading by first paragraph’s end. The responses, however, were a boon: the always fearlessly incisive Vacuous Minx, no-nonsense sharpness and smarts of Wendy the Superlibrarian, perspective of Love In the Margins, take of Romance Novels for Feminists, and Jody at Momentum Moonlight. Miss Bates, though agreeing with these points of view, found Jody’s stance the most helpful because it summarized the problematic nature of canon setting/launching/exploding and offered an alternate term and means of pointing to seminal texts in the genre. Jody defines “iconic” texts as those which “affect the genre in a meaningful way.” Simple, direct, flexible, and workable. Miss Bates borrows Jody’s term “iconic” to identify “affective/effective” romance texts, such as Heyer’s, subject of her present post. Jody’s definition implies that iconic romance texts are those to which other romance texts accrue. They represent something important to the genre, not that they are necessarily meritorious in and of themselves, though they may very well be. They’re a hub; other texts are the spokes. They’re texts around which discussion occurs. (Sometimes, they may be denigrated, or rejected texts, representing things we don’t want to see in the genre, such as elements found in Old Skool romances.) They may change; more may be added, or forgotten, as the genre develops, grows, or regresses. Time is the only given. Miss Bates also thinks that the genre benefits more from pointing to an author, rather than individual texts, to identify an iconic moment in it. Heyer would certainly be present in such company.
When Miss Bates read her first Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, she wasn’t aware of Heyer’s iconic status for romance readers. On reading her second, Devil’s Cub, published 1932, a sort of sequel to Shades (not 50!), educated somewhat in the genre (though by no means is she done, nor does she purport to be an expert), it’s evident that Heyer contributed iconic texts. Heyer’s tropes echo in every duke, rake, and plain-Jane; nonetheless, reading Devil’s Cub was alienating. That may be because of a narrative shift in more recent romance that Miss Bates’ refers to as the main characters’ endless internal ruminations. In that sense, Heyer appears quaint vis-à-vis character development and an excess of madcap plot; she forewent modernism. Yet, Miss Bates found something refreshing about a romance narrative where reader has to decode gesture and pose rather than thinker-tells-all of characters’ internal worlds in close point of view. Ye shall know them by their gesture … this is her subject. Bear with her: bodies in Heyer, what do they tell us? How does she establish character through the physicality of gesture, pose, tone, and gaze?
The “devil’s cub” is Dominic, Marquis of Vidal, son of Justin, Duke of Avon, and Léonie of These Old Shades. Vidal inherited his parents’ worst qualities: his father’s arrogance and mother’s impetuousness. He’s wild, wealthy, privileged, amoral, and too handsome by far. He’s smarter than any of his opponents at cards, or dueling. He can drink any man under the table, seduce any woman he fancies. At novel’s start, Vidal is at his worst, near lost to dissipation. Bad cards and blood conspire to exile Dominic to France (he duels at his club and kills a foolish antagonist, though we learn later he survives). Before setting sail on his yacht, he sends a note to his latest almost-seduced, Sophia Challoner, to join him in his exile. His missive, however, is intercepted by her wiser, older, plainer, more sensible, more cultivated, more intelligent sister, Mary, who, under cloak and darkness, meets Vidal as his future paramour in her sister’s place! Enraged at being foiled, Vidal kidnaps Mary and carries her to France. His attempted seduction results in one of the most outrageous and memorable scenes in romance … she shoots him! She conquers his heart, mind, and body because, though it goes against her nature, she is as bold, daring, and smart as he.
Vidal is wild, but upbringing ensures he value and uphold honour. Once he realizes that Mary isn’t a flibbertigibbet, but a girl with education and upbringing to match his own, he decrees they are to marry. Mary refuses him: she won’t marry a man who doesn’t love her, nor one she’d bring down in the world … she loves him. He loves her too, but doesn’t know how to name love, only that he can’t live without her. Much of the novel is farcical: Mary runs away from Vidal; he chases after her. There is a secondary romance chase, as well as false proposals and various madcap adventures. In the mean while, Léonie and Uncle Rupert arrive in France in search of Vidal and the scheming female who’s trying to ensnare him. Justin, the Duke of Avon, makes a marvelously delicious appearance; our rake is tamed, and our irrepressible, loveable heroine gets her man. What was of especial interest to Miss Bates is how characters’ personalities are conveyed through mannerism and gesture. The dialogue is a strength, but Miss Bates will save that for another Heyer post.
The narrative device that struck Miss Bates initially is Heyer’s propensity to telescope appearance to tell us, most economically, everything we need to know about character. Vidal is introduced in chapter one:
There was only one occupant of the coach, a gentleman who sprawled very much at his ease, with his legs stretched out before him, and his hands dug deep in the capacious pockets of his greatcoat … light from an occasional lantern … made a diamond pin or a pair of very large shoe-buckles flash … His long body swayed … his chin was sunk in the folds of his cravat, and not even the worst bumps in the road had the effect of making him so much as grasp the strap that swung beside him … raised his head, yawning, and leaning it back against the cushions … a gun spoke sharply, and a stabbing point flame flashed in the darkness … crushed the charred and smouldering portion of his greatcoat between very long white fingers … His lordship had raised a pinch of snuff to one classic nostril … A gleam, possibly of amusement, stole into his eyes …
What is conveyed via Vidal’s physicality? Vidal’s size, so tall he has to stretch his legs, even his pockets are “capacious.” His wealth: a diamond pin, or shoe buckles flashing. His body projects size and ease; he is languid, controlled … until his leonine nature is aroused (very much like his mother; the son’s body language echoes the parents’). We never see a whole man, but we learn him in his parts and possessions. He appears lackadaisical, lounging or yawning, but he is lethal, wild, and powerful. Though the coach sways on rutted roads, he is able to remain still where an ordinary man would clutch the strap. He is dangerous and without a conscience: the “point of flame” is indicative of his ability with firearms, killing the highway robber in cold blood, concerned solely with damage to his greatcoat. We have a glimpse of large white hands and long legs. In society, later that evening, we glimpse “one classic nostril” and espy a “gleam of amusement.” Parts are pieced together to make a whole. Body is puzzle pieces; it is up to the reader to mix and match to assemble for the entire picture.
Heyer introduces heroine’s, Mary Challoner’s, physicality in contradistinction to that of Vidal: where he is languid and then lethally quick, she is calm, controlled, and knowing. Heyer establishes the opposites-attract trope by focusing on characters’ appearance, manner, and gesture. In chapter three, Mary Challoner is everything Vidal isn’t:
… always stated in her calm way … Those fine eyes of hers had a disconcertingly direct gaze … twinkled in a manner disturbing to male egotism … elegance of deportment … humorous inflexion in her calm voice … Mary’s matter-of-fact voice … she was of medium height and very neat figure. There was a sparkle in her eyes and her voice took on a certain crispness … She began to nibble one finger-tip, pondering her problem …
Heyer’s descriptions of Mary are more conventional, more familiar to the romance reader. They echo Austen’s Lizzie Bennett, for example, going so far as endowing Mary with “fine eyes.” Yet, in noting Mary’s physical qualities of control, poise, alertness, directness, elegance, above all, serenity, the reader discerns how she and Vidal fit together like puzzle pieces, matching grooves and curves, concave to convex, creating a complete picture. Miss Bates found the “nibbling of the finger-tip” of particular interest because therein Heyer mitigates Mary’s perfection and humanizes her so cleverly and well. Later, we learn that Mary, in moments of stress or sadness, will place her hand on her cheek. We know in those moments that Mary is vulnerable, even though her appearance emanates calm and control. In contrast, Vidal’s ease and languid pose are frightening: calm sustained only to feed storm. Miss Bates was mesmerized by gesture, such as Mary’s, where internal states are divulged in physical mannerism, quirks of personality expressed in body language.
Stemming from and building on Vidal’s initial hyperbolic description, he continues as Super-Man, impervious to fatigue, alcohol, discomfort, pain, lack of sleep, and any man who dares cross him, which makes him callous and as near a villain as his father was in Black Moth and Shades. His sang-froid is impenetrable, except in his parents’ presence. And, rendering the romance delightful for this very reason, when in Mary’s. She makes him lose his cool because she never loses hers. While there is some question of a discrepancy in their social status (patly dismissed by novel’s end because this is a ROMANCE, after all), they are physical equals in the complementarity of their bodies; perfect bodies they are too. But they have to be human, taken down a notch to make them believable and loveable: he’s a little nervous around his father, his cravat suddenly tight; indulgent and soft around his mother, his “saturnine” face softens when she enters a room. Mary is near tears at times and, hand at her cheek, indicative of how vulnerable she is to him, to her feelings for him, but she never gives way to expressing any weakness.
The key romantic moment occurs when Mary sees through what Vidal projects physically to who he is truly. He convinces everyone of his larger-than-lifeness and invincibility, including himself, but she sees past that. Her power and strength lie in how well she reads him, pegs him, identifies what he is and needs, even while acknowledging her feelings for him:
‘So that’s the truth, is it?’ said Miss Challoner severely to herself. ‘You are in love with him, and you’ve known it for weeks.’
But it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love ; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake. [Bold emphasis Miss Bates’]
‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’
This is still fairly early in the novel, but it IS post-shooting. Maybe Mary is inclined to be indulgent of Vidal in light of she near killed him, but she understands and can certainly handle him. She manages him very well in the sickroom: soothes him, lets him think he’s got the upper hand. She outmanoeuvres him, outsmarts him. She’s smarter and more mature. She also has something he wants: self-possession. Vidal recognizes in Mary’s body language what he needs: “She folded her hands in her lap; it occurred to him that she was a very restful woman.” Rest, ease; Vidal is a young man a schoolmarm would hate. He’s in constant need of stimulation (hence, drinking, dueling, love of fast horses and vehicles, and womanizing) and when he doesn’t get it … watch out. Miss Bates’ instincts were to say to Mary, “Forget it, honey, he’s a cold-blooded murderer,” but Miss B. persisted with the narrative and it delivered. Miss B. suspended her disbelief in any redemption for Vidal and allowed the novel to both charm and elude her. She preferred to read bodies rather than events … that’s the only way she could get past the first scene.
By the end of the narrative, Vidal is more like his mother, Léonie. Control over his emotions and reactions, thanks to his love for Mary and her thwarting of his imperial will, deteriorates in quick gestures and expressive glances, even while at seeming rest. Vidal was dangerous; now, he is petulant, evidence that whatever Mary is dominates. Mary possesses the single quality Vidal lacks, she is “mistress of herself” while milord’s “temper is extremely fiery and uncontrolled.” By the end of the novel, Vidal hasn’t drunk through the day and night, nor killed anyone, nor raced his horses in killer speed chases: he is certainly less colourful, but more palatable hero material. Did Miss Bates love this iconic romance text? She’s conflicted. This is post by ellipsis: swiping aside the unsavory conscienceless hero, the upholding of the notion of “blue blood” and the honour to tribe it entails, she’s ignoring these things to read an iconic romance text. She didn’t love it, for these reasons. On the other hand, she loved it for Mary, her ethics and will to self-determine undermined and subverted the worst needing-of-reform rake in romance history. Yet, Heyer sketched Mary vulnerable and engaging, a young woman self-possessed and, by the HEA, possessed of lion, lair, and pack. Miss Bates says that Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub may not be a great romance, but it is an iconic one … in every difficult duke we meet in the pages of a romance novel and the unflappable composure of the heroine who leads with the lift of an eyebrow, folding of hands, equanimity, and presence of mind. In Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, Miss Bates detected “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Credit to the Sourcebooks Casablanca edition (2009) of Devil’s Cub from which Miss Bates gleaned her quotations; to Goodreads for all but the final Devil’s Cub cover; and, Wikipedia for the final, original Devil’s Cub cover.
Miss Bates would love to know your thoughts about Devil’s Cub, and/or any Heyer title, and/or Heyer’s importance to, or influence on, the romance genre.