Regency Turns 80 — Black Sheep

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

We have a very special treat in store for us today. Romance author, Cara King, has invited along her particular friend to discuss Black Sheep, one of her favorites among Georgette Heyer’s Regencies. Cara and her friend, Bertie, have rather different views on the characters and the setting of this story. They even differ on whether this tale is a romance richly laced with humor or a dismal tragedy. As you read through the transcript of their conversation, you will have to decide which of them best understands Black Sheep.

Dear Readers, please do favor Cara with answers to her questions in comments to this article.

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A smiling young woman with brown hair in an aqua colored dress lounges on a sofa upholstered with gold damask.

I have a particular love for Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep. I spent my junior year abroad at the University of East Anglia, and when I wasn’t busy freezing, I walked around the ancient city of Norwich and breathed in its beauty. Coming from a part of California where the oldest buildings dated to the 1960s, I was in history heaven. No, even better — I was inside of history.

So picture me, shivering on a bus bench next to the jagged flint remains of Norwich’s medieval city wall, engrossed in Black Sheep. The rain might rain (and rain and rain), but I just could not put that book down.

So because I’ve read the book countless times, I decided to ask someone new to it to read it and join me in this discussion. So here with me today is Bertie the Beau, a Regency exquisite who fell through a time-portal a few years ago and somehow ended up in our era. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

CARA KING:   Thanks for joining me, Bertie, in reading one of my favorite Heyers. Here’s my take on it:   I love how Abigail has her own independent life living with her sister in Bath, guarding her teenage niece from fortune-hunters, socializing with her friends. She’s happy in her golden world, but bored; powerful, but only within strict confines; surrounded by friends and family, but with no one to really understand her. So when Miles Calverleigh shows up, breaking rules, making her laugh, and tempting her out of her safe little routine, for a long time she can’t see that he is the medicine she needs for the illness she doesn’t know she has. Comedy, romance, wit — what’s not to love?

BERTIE THE BEAU:   Dash it! I clearly read the wrong book.

CARA:   Oh, no! Are you sure?

BERTIE:   Wasn’t a comedy, the book I read. Not remotely.

CARA:   Wait — I saw you reading Heyer’s Black Sheep, I know I did.

BERTIE:   Yes, and it’s obviously a tragedy. Love the hero, certainly — handsome, charming, elegant — "the coat appeared to have been moulded to his form; the ears of his collars were as stiff as starch could make them" — how could one fail to love such a man? But fate cruelly prevents him again and again from finding the funds necessary to continue to properly clothe his beauty.

CARA:   But he’s— You didn’t— Ah, Bertie. The hero is not polished young Stacy Calverleigh, but his lanky uncle, Miles!

BERTIE:   Tosh! Miles? He has "harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin." (You see, I have the passage underlined right here. The horror of those words has Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothicks beat all hollow.) Madam, I fear that you may not be fully conversant with the English language (being an uncivilised American), so I will kindly translate for you:   he is ugly. Ergo, he is not the hero.

CARA:   But that’s what’s so wonderful, so original, about Heyer. She perfected the comic romance, and then started playing with centuries of heroic (and romantic) archetypes. In many of her middle and later romances, there are characters who are young, good-looking, high-spirited — the sort who would be protagonists in a traditional story. These characters have plots with traditional romantic elements — runaways, heiresses, secret trysts — but they’re not the protagonists in these books. Instead, Heyer’s focus is on the aunt, or the uncle; the spinster, or the rake who didn’t so much reform his wicked ways as simply grow out of them years ago. And that’s what we have here: Stacy and Fanny’s courtship involves elopements and secret letters and star-crossed romance, but the real love story is with Abigail and Miles, and the romance consists in making each other comfortable, talking quite a lot, and actually listening to each other. That’s what’s so remarkable about the book.

BERTIE:   Ah! I knew your English was poor. The word you are looking for is not "remarkable," but "stupid." Stacy is the hero.

CARA:   Stacy is a liar, a wastrel, a braggart —

BERTIE:   But Miles has "not the smallest air of fashion," which is infinitely worse.

CARA:   [Unintelligible sputtering sounds]. Look, just — let’s agree to disagree on who the hero is. Can we at least see eye to eye on the splendid Bath setting? The Pump Room, the Theatre Royal, the Upper Rooms—

BERTIE:   Bath is for old people, sick people, and dowdies. And far too often all three at once. No wonder it drew elderly and repulsive Miles Calverleigh.

CARA:   Argh! Even if you can’t like Miles, can you at least see that Stacy is a villain?

BERTIE:   My dreaded Aunt Gorgon — beg your pardon, I mean my dear Aunt Gordon — once dragged me to Covent Garden to see that ghastly Kemble fellow play Hamlet. (Decent play apart from the speeches.) My point is — Stacy is Hamlet. Youthful, dashing, only lacks a bit of filthy lucre to be quite happy. But his leathery Uncle Miles? Hamlet’s dreary uncle: ugly, aged, talks far too much, and has all the money that should rightfully be mine. I mean Hamlet’s! Or Stacy’s? Oh, blast it! Now you have me all confused.

CARA:   I’m sorry, Bertie!

BERTIE:   That’s what comes of reading books. They upset one’s calm and cause wrinkles and hunched shoulders. No reader is ever attractive. You have ruined me!

CARA:   Oh Bertie dear, nothing could ever mar your beauty.

BERTIE:   Ah! Good point. Very true. But I still refuse to read another book.

[End of transcript.]

So, what about you, O blog reader? What do you think about Black Sheep, or older heroines, ugly heroes, or Bath? (And if you had a Regency exquisite show up in your kitchen one day, what would you feed him?)

Cara King is the author of the Regency romance My Lady Gamester (NAL), and of several years of film and theater reviews for a now-defunct newspaper. She is currently working on a Regency Young Adult novel, and spends her free time teaching English Country Dance.

Connect with Cara (and Bertie) online at:

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  1. I really like this book. I think Abigail and Miles are perfect together. He understands her and makes her laugh – what more could you ask for? Definitely my idea of a hero. Thanks for this post.

    1. So true, Glynis! He laughs at her jokes, and in turn makes her laugh — that’s hero material right there, in my book. (Wouldn’t it be awful to spend a lifetime with someone who didn’t get your jokes?)

  2. ” the rake who didnโ€™t so much reform his wicked ways as simply grow out of them years ago.” Excellent phrasing and pertains to the hero of Venetia, who hasn’t convinced me that he has grown out of them or will do so upon marrying her.
    I like Miles; he was not a rake, but a romantic (and for his age and experience) a sincere lover of the young lady he ran off with. Now he is older and understands what love is really –not just hormonal charges on the nervous system. He does have Abby’s interests at heart–why should she continue in her rut of sacrificing herself for her niece, who will in a year or two get married and not need such sacrificing guidance–at least until she wants her aunt to babysit. One of Heyer’s best “groups” of novels is her depicting of mature love, with its appreciation of how rare real love can be [Fanny would be shocked that such elderly people as her aunt and Miles could fall in love ๐Ÿ™‚ ]

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      That’s so interesting, Judith! I love it when different readers have different takes on a character. It would certainly be interesting to spy on Venetia’s marriage ten or twenty years down the line and see what happened…

      And I totally agree with you about Miles having been a young romantic, rather than an actual rake. Such an interesting example of someone being stamped with a label when young, and never being able to actual get out from under it. (Though now that he’s back in England and getting married, perhaps he will. Though honestly, folks will probably just say “he’s changed” rather than ever re-examining their assumptions!)

      1. (By the way, Judith, when I wrote “That’s so interesting” in my comment above, I was commenting on your statement about Venetia’s Damerel. I tried to quote what you said, but clearly it didn’t work.)

    2. No, No Judith never say Lord Dameral did not change! And when you compare the two, he and Miles are exactly alike…they “get” each other. Miles does make Abigail laugh, which has to be so in your life’s partner. And Dameral makes Venetia laugh, but she has always laughed at her life and just wants someone to “get” her. Both of these books are wonderful illustrations of the not perfect hero, and both of them are excellent reads on a rainy day with a sincere sigh at the end! Cara, thank you for your interpretation, it explained it all so well, though your friend seems a little confused! ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Thanks, Mary! And yes, Bertie never quite got the hang of the book, did he? I fear he has been confused about a fair number of things ever since he arrived in the 21st century. (Though just between you and me, I suspect he was confused a lot in his own time, too…but I have no proof.) ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. One of my favorite books. I love when the hero isn’t the most gorgeous creature on the planet and when the hero and heroine are not idiots.
    I must confess that if a Regency exquisite turned up in my kitchen, I would show him how to make tea and toast and expect him to do it himself!

    1. Good morning! Bertram St James, Esquire, at your service. (But not literally. I mean in the other way. Laterally? Figurally? I forget.) Just thought I would point out that once you saw just how beautiful I actually am, you would happily make me tea.

  4. Oh, Cara, I want to live in your brain! No, in all probability that would be pretty uncomfortable, two people occupying the same brain. But I’ve always been in awe of how yours operates. This article was priceless, and you can tell Bertie for me that his take on Black Sheep was, well, very interesting! And Miles and Abigail totally deserve their happy-ever-after.

    1. Judy, I’d love it if you did live in my brain! You could keep me calm and cheer me up when I’m stuck. ๐Ÿ™‚ I will pass on your compliment to Bertie (who will accept it with the complacency of a cat.)

  5. Dear Cara,

    Please tell Bertie for me that the mirror can be a lonely and eventually harsh friend or partner in years to come. No starched collar can bring you the joy of someone who can make you laugh, or show up every day through sickness and in health…perfectly styled haircut or rumpled waistcoat. And if you never find the person who you would gladly make tea for for the rest of your lives, you will find yourself poorer than those around you that you currently deem beneath you.

    I so love the Heyer’s mature romance stories. Does anyone here know whether she was writing these stories as a natural progression in her own writing experience…the heroine maturing as she matured? Or was she writing in reaction to what was popular romance fiction being read at the time?

    Thanks Cara for your review, it was perfect and I hope it prompts many others to read Black Sheep.

    1. That’s so beautifully put, Michelle! I love it. And thank you for the compliments!

      And I agree about Heyer’s mature romance stories — they have such real characters and emotion in them. They certainly came after she’d been writing for years, so I’d always just assumed that it was due to the heroines maturing as she matured, but I don’t actually know! I bet there’s a good PhD thesis in age trends in 20th century romantic novels. Someone needs to write it, and then we can read it, and then know. (I know from about the 1980s on, but I’m quite unfamiliar with most earlier romantic works, barring Heyer, Orczy, some early Regencies, and some 1960s/70s nurse romances.)

      1. Oh. My. Gosh. Cara, I read way too many of those nurse romances from the 60’s. Hee hee. You know what, those books (on overload binge mode reading,) are responsible for me quitting romance novels for many many many years. (Boo hoo) But I’ve made up for it now for about the last 8 years. smile. Lucky me.

  6. I, too, love this book! And for purely selfish reasons, I am relieved to think that love is possible even if one is not young and handsome.

    Of course, age is somewhat relative here. I think Abigail is something like 29? I used to think that age was quite mature, but now I’ve slid over to considering it young. ๐Ÿ™‚ Of course, compared to her 17-year-old niece, she is definitely more mature!

    Much though I admire Bertie’s sartorial splendor, he can make his own tea. I’ll even show him how to use the kettle.

    1. Certainly I can make my own tea, sir. What do you take me for, a savage? Merely hire me the proper servants and see how quickly I go about it.

      I will need at least three: one to make the fire, one to warm the pot, and one to cut open each of your silly tea-bags to get at the tea.

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