Regency Turns 80 — These Old Shades

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

In today’s article, romance reader and author, Mimi Matthews, shares her views on one of the most popular of Georgette Heyer’s novels, These Old Shades. It is not a Regency, yet, had it not been her first best-seller, Heyer might never have gone on to write all those Regency novels which remain so popular even today. It is an important milestone in Heyer’s body of work. As Mimi explains, These Old Shades, for all its delightful and witty dialog, is the antithesis of a Regency romance. Do you agree?

Visitors are welcome to share their thoughts on this novel in comments to this article.

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Three-quarter portait of a dark-haired woman in a peach colored 18th-century dress trimmed with white lace.

Whereas with these old shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word of line
They cannot well indict me…

—"Epilogue to Eighteenth-Century Vignettes"
    by Henry Austin Dobson

When one hears the name Georgette Heyer, one generally thinks of her Regency Novels. Books like The Grand Sophy, Regency Buck, and Frederica. Books where gentlemen drive curricles drawn by match-bays and ladies wear sprigged muslin gowns. It was therefore a bit of a surprise to me when I first picked up These Old Shades and discovered, within the opening paragraph, that instead of striding down Bond Street garbed in pantaloons, an elegantly folded cravat, and Hessians polished to a mirror-shine, our hero, Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, was "mincing" down a side street in Paris, wearing:

A long purple cloak, rose-lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast. A three-cornered hat, point-edged, was set upon his powdered wig, and in his hand he carried a long beribboned cane.

These Old Shades is, in fact, one of Heyer’s Georgian novels. Set in Paris in 1756, powdered wigs, face paint, and patches were the norm and there was nothing at all out of the ordinary about a hero wearing high-heeled shoes and wafting himself with a chicken-skin fan. But you mustn’t let the affected foppishness of the Duke of Avon fool you. Beneath his fashionable façade lies a cold, calculating anti-hero possessed of "a merciless strength." As his own valet says: "The Duke, he is not human. Some call him Satanas, and mon Dieu, they have reason!"

When a young, red-haired boy charges into Avon as he is out walking, he recognizes at once the opportunity to avenge himself against his bitter enemy the Comte de Saint-Vire. He purchases the boy (in a chapter aptly titled ‘His Grace of Avon Buys a Soul‘) and makes him his page only to learn that the boy, Léon, is really a girl, Léonie. He sends Léonie off to the country to become a lady and, when her metamorphosis is complete, he introduces her into society. All the while Avon is falling in love with her. And all the while he is working toward his ultimate vengeance, maneuvering, manipulating, and outguessing his opponents with the consummate skill of a chess grandmaster.

Published in 1926, These Old Shades was Georgette Heyer’s third novel. It was also, as the title hints at, a novel that contained shades of characters from her very first book, The Black Moth. The Duke of Avon is a better version of The Black Moth’s villainous Duke of Andover. But unlike the cruel and selfish Andover, the Duke of Avon is capable of love and self-sacrifice, his feelings for nineteen-year-old Léonie ultimately transforming his epic quest for vengeance into a righteous pursuit of justice for his wronged beloved.

These Old Shades has the classic witty Heyer dialogue and the typical laugh out loud Heyer moments. And it has romance. A subtle, redemptive romance so loved by Heyer herself that the characters of Avon, Léonie, and their various offspring would appear in two additional books. But at its heart, These Old Shades is less a romantic comedy of manners and more an intricate tale of revenge.

Personally, I love nothing more than a good revenge saga. The colder and more thorough the revenge the better. Heck, I was quoting The Count of Monte Cristo in grammar school. But good revenge is hard to come by. It often suffers from one-dimensional villains or descends into cringe-worthy camp. These Old Shades is guilty of neither charge. The characters are well developed, the dialogue layered with subtlety, and the story itself — although containing some pretty farfetched elements — manages to feel more like a historical than a comedic farce. It is no wonder that it was Georgette Heyer’s first bestseller. And even less wonder that after reading most everything else Heyer has written, it is still one of my all-time favorites.

Mimi Matthews is an author of contemporary and historical romance as well as young adult fiction. She is currently under contract with a New York literary agent. In her other life, she is an attorney with both a law degree and a BA in English Literature.

You can find Mimi at:
Twitter: @MimiMatthewsEsq

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  1. Delightful post, Mimi.

    This is one of Heyer’s more dramatic books, and I can’t help thinking of the title as slightly ambiguous. Yes, the shades are those of a long-vanished past, but also the dark, swirling, atmospheric shadows of the dangerous Paris these characters inhabit.

    1. Thank you Lillian! The novel is dramatic. And it certainly has a lot of atmosphere. There is just something about the setting that lends itself to dark dealings, mystery, and intrigue.

  2. This remains my all-time favourite Heyer. I love dark tormented heroes and I adore heroines who disguise themselves as boys. What more can I say except thank you for a lovely and thoughtful post.

    1. Thank you Ann! It is one of my all time favorites too. I like anything where a villain gets his comeuppance in the end – even if it takes years and years. And I love tormented heroes, too. Especially these sorts of almost omnipotent ones who are up to every trick, outguessing the villains and thoroughly understanding the heroines. The Earl of Rule was a bit like that in The Convenient Marriage, I believe.

  3. This may have been the first Heyer I ever read — and after this, how could one not love Heyer?

    I love how her Georgian romances have swashbuckling adventure and larger-than-life escapades (reflecting the period, perhaps? or following in the steps of Orczy?), while her Regencies were much more civilized and verbal and unmurderous (from the Austen influence, perhaps? Or just her view of the heart of the period?) It’s like two authors for the price of one. 😉

    1. I agree! There is something about the Georgians. Kidnappings, disguises, duels with actual blades instead of pistols. And despite their wigs and frilly clothing, it has often struck me that Heyer’s Georgian heroes are far more dangerous than her Regency ones. Just think of The Earl of Rule in The Convenient Marriage and the Marquis of Vidal in Devil’s Cub. These are men not to be trifled with!

  4. Mimi,

    Thanks for you sharp insights into my favorite novel by Georgette Heyer!

    I first read These Old Shades in high school, and it is interesting to me how my view of the story has changed upon subsequent readings as I have gotten older. Upon first reading, Avon seemed almost too old for Leonie, at 38. Yet at the same time, it was thrilling that such a young woman could attract what my teenage self saw as a much “older” man. But when I read it yet again, that time, long after my 40th birthday, Avon did not seem at all old to me. Rather, I realized that since Leonie was such a wild child, only a man of his maturity, and reprobate lifestyle, would truly appreciate her and give her the space she needed to enjoy life as his Duchess, without squashing her spirit by trying to turn her into some prim and proper matron.

    My teenaged self was rather annoyed by Rupert, but now, I find him one of the most interesting of the secondary characters. The merry dance which Leonie led him helped me to see that Avon would be a much better match for her. But also, over the years, I have come to see his quiet courage and steadfast nature, not to mention more fully appreciating the wit and humor he brings to the story.

    If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one book, or only one Heyer, These Old Shades would most definitely be my choice. It would take a long time to get tired of re-re-re-reading it!



    1. Thanks Kat! I agree about the age gap. Leonie definitely needed someone older to balance her. If she and Rupert had ended up together, they would have run amuck! And ditto for the desert island read! Though I have to admit, Friday’s Child is a very close second. There are some of Heyer’s books that really seem to improve with every subsequent read.

  5. Yes this is one of my favourites as well. Although I could probably say that of whichever I am reading at the time. But this was the first one I bought when my library never seemed to have enough copies of Heyer novels. The revenge was certainly sweet!

    1. It was sweet! I find, even in regency romances written nowadays, I really look for the villain to get some sort of comeuppance. When it doesn’t happen, I feel terribly shortchanged. But Heyer was good for tying up loose ends with her villains. Whether it was dramatic, like in These Old Shades, or even just a sharp set down, like in the Nonesuch.

  6. Mimi – great review – I was looking for my next Heyer read and I think this is it! I too love the revenge motive and am looking forward to an enjoyable time.

      1. I agree, Mimi! I was introduced to Heyer (and, in fact, the entire genre of romance fiction) by my exceedingly wise college roommate, Heather; she had a small selection of romance novels she would lend to non-romance readers to lure them in to the delightful life of reading romance (that does sound shocking, does it not?) And “These Old Shades” was one of the two or three Heyers she would use for her nefarious purposes. It, in turn, it became one of my go-to Heyer recommendations for folks who wanted to try out Heyer and see if she suited them. It’s such an amazing book!

  7. I believe I read this–and owned my own copy–when Herself was stil alive in the late 60’s.

    Still love it. For the joys of the speech and descriptions of clothing, especially.

    1. Leonie had so many great bits of dialogue. Her pig person remarks are hilarious!

  8. I heartily agree with Kathryn’s comment. I, too, found Alastair compelling as a teenager and now, years later, he seems less remote, but no less compelling.

    1. Thanks for the comment Angelyn! The funny thing (at least for me) about Alistair is that except for his clothes and his often mentioned “beautiful, white hands”, I never had a clear visual on what he looked like. Heyer says more than once he is handsome, but there is not much else.

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