Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rereading the Classics (and some more thoughts about sex)

In the course of researching my keeper contemporaries I finally found my copy of Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades.  I'd been missing it, in the sense that when someone mentioned it a few weeks ago, I went looking for it and couldn't find it.  So, in that odd quirk we readers have sometimes, when I found it on Friday, I had to reread it.  Immediately.

Understand, I have read this book several times already.  Mine is a Bantam edition from 1970 or thereabouts.  (It cost 75 cents -- there's a clue how old it is.)  It's my favorite Heyer and it's a joy to reread.  Knowing the plot ruins nothing.  (Oh, which reminds me.  I'm going to discuss this book pretty thoroughly, so if you don't already know it and don't want the surprise (if there are any) to be ruined, stop reading pretty soon.  There be spoilers ahead!)

But first, a word about sex.  Or, to be precise, four words:
. . . her lips met his.
because that's all the sex there is in this book.  Worried I left the good bits out with that ellipsis?  Here's the entire passage:
  His Grace looked deep into her eyes, and then went down on one knee, and raised her hand to his lips.
  "Little one," he said, very low, "since you will stoop to wed me, I pledge you my word that you shall not in the future have cause to regret it."
  An insistent hand tugged at his shoulder.  He rose, and opened wide his arms.  Léonie flung herself into them, and they closed about her, and her lips met his.

There you go.  There's lots more hand-kissing elsewhere, but it's all gallantry and thus not sex, just as Avon's kissing Léonie's hand here is not sex.

Ah, but we know they are going to be sexually compatible.  His Grace the Duke of Avon is sans doute a Duke of Slut.  Léonie has a ferocious temper (red hair, you know), so we know she's not frigid.  But there isn't a bulge, peaking body part or discreet rearrangement of equipment in the entire book.

The absence of sex is consistent with a book originally published in 1926.  Heyer's not unaware of the sexual peccadilloes of the historical period; but she's a creature of her time and one simply didn't write of such matters.  Today, we do.  But if you read These Old Shades anytime soon, ask yourself this as you finish the last page:  did you miss the sex?  Was the book flawed without the sex?  Anemic?  Tepid?  Boring??

I personally don't think so. I think this is a wonderful romance, well-deserving of its classic status.  I get something new every time I read it.  For example, this time I noticed that the POV is close to omniscient.  We are being told a story, but not from inside anyone's head.  We learn what a character thinks in just a couple scenes, but those thoughts are presented as equivalent to dialogue.  Again, I don't think we miss it; Heyer does a wonderful job of telegraphing what our protagonists are thinking and feeling.  Lots of showing as opposed to telling.

Here's another thing I noticed.  This book is sublimely constructed.  Let me give you an example.  The Duke of Avon "buys" Léon to be his page because he recognizes her family resemblance to the villain, the Comte de Saint-Vire, a man Avon has his own reasons for despising.  At some point, Avon's desire for revenge strengthens because he learns what Léonie was subjected to as a result of Saint-Vire's villainy.  We don't see it right away, but gradually his icy rage at what Léonie suffered supplants Avon's original reason for seeking Saint-Vire's downfall until finally, when someone mentions the original 20-year-old grudge, Avon has completely forgotten it.

That's a subtle point, but necessary for us to see how Avon has come to love Léonie.  He no longer wants Saint-Vire's destruction for himself, but as justice for his beloved.  Of course, rumors swirl about that Léonie is Saint-Vire's base-born child -- both inside the inner circle of Avon's household, but also in society.  But Avon doesn't seek an admission that Léonie is legitimate so that she will be a suitable duchess, he does it so that the life stolen from her will be restored.  He is so certain that he himself is not worthy of her that he becomes blind to all evidence that her devotion is not a passing whim.  

I read the penultimate scene -- the one with our one chaste kiss, above -- with admiration for Heyer's understanding of human psychology.  Avon goes rushing off to find Léonie, but when he finds her, all he can think to do is deliver her to her biological family and renounce her in his own life.  It's actually pretty selfish on his part although he thinks he's being selfless (for once!) -- he is so wrapped up in his own insistence that he must give her up that he can't see how she only wants him.  A more generous person might have found it easier to give Léonie what she really wanted and said, "well, I'm a bad bet but if you are sure . . ."

The irony that Avon's beau geste -- in which he selfishly denies her what she wants solely because it is also what he wants -- makes sense because he knows self-indulgence has too often been his besetting sin and thus one of the many things that keeps him from being good enough for her.  

He gives her several jewels and trinkets (not to mention a fabulous array of frocks) during the time she lives in his household, first as his page and then as his ward.  When he finds her and explains that she is Mademoiselle de Saint-Vire, she asks why he didn't tell her sooner.  He says,
  "I thought to use you as a weapon to -- er -- punish [Saint-Vire] for something -- he had done to me."
  "Is -- is that why -- why you made me your ward, and gave me so many, many things?" she asked in a small voice.
  He rose and went to the window, and stood looking out.
  "Not entirely," he said, and forgot to drawl.

(emphasis added.) Now, if you're like me, you don't even read the speech tags.  But that one, "he said, and forgot to drawl," is so sublimely simple and eloquent.  It sums up everything about this man -- his deliberate manner and intentional rudeness -- and strips it away to reveal his heart.  He loves her but can't have her.  Giving Léonie gifts was permissible; marrying her would not be.

I'm not sure if I made the connection before now, but Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon (surely the granddaddy of all romance novel dukes!), is another in the Sherlock Holmes / House / Detective Goren school of omniscient heroes.  In fact, when I picture him, he comes out a bit like this:

(only twenty years younger, of course -- this photo might serve well for one's image of His Grace around the time of Devil's Cub).

That's Thomas Blanco White, my first father-in-law (technically my only father-in-law; he died before Brit Hub 1.0 and I divorced, and Brit Hub 2.0's father died in 1982, long before I met his son).  Thomas was a Sherlock Holmes-ish sort of fellow; at least he wanted you to think he was.  Here's his obituary in the Times of London; there's a sense in there of how Thomas might have reminded someone of the Duke of Avon.  (I stole the photo from here -- don't think the humor of stealing intellectual property from the IP Hall of Fame website is lost on me.)

Thomas was an impressive man to meet, but my favorite memories of him are from 2005 when Brit Hub 1.0 and I stayed in London for about three weeks while Anne was in hospital to have her hip replaced.  Thomas was nearly deaf at that point, so I would write him notes.  Turned out, that was the only time in the 35 years I knew him that he ever understood what I was saying; I learned after he died that he couldn't understand my American accent, not even when his hearing was fine.  Being American, I could ask him all sorts of questions no one British (which is to say, polite) would dream of asking him.  He was quite poignant talking about his love for his wife, even though I never saw them even touch each other.

They do fall in love, these Holmesian ducal types.

[I hesitate to state this explicitly, but just in case anyone got thinking too hard about this: Thomas may have been a bit ducal in his demeanor but his widow is not and never was anything like Léonie, neither Brit Hub 1.0 or his brother was anything like Dominic in Devil's Cub, and I never shot anyone.  Just saying.]


  1. I've been wondering this for a while, because of the surname, but I didn't want to sound overly curious. Having seen the photograph, though, I'm seeing a visual similarity too. So, I'll just have to risk seeming overly curious and ask whether these Blanco Whites are in any way related to Joseph Blanco White. The page I linked to has 3 portraits of Joseph Blanco White, and the first and third ones look rather like your father-in-law. At least, I think they do, but I have a habit of seeing similarities which are apparent only to me, so maybe I'm doing it this time too.

  2. Not overly curious at all. I'll tell you what (I think) I know, and invite Henry to come comment if I get it too hideously wrong.

    There is no relation (that I've been told about) between my former in-laws and Joseph "Holy Joe" Blanco White. But there is a connection of sorts.

    As I understand it, Thomas's ancestors were lawyers, and before that innkeepers, all named White. Around the time that Holy Joe got really famous, particularly as a Lutheran, one of Thomas's forebearers -- a lawyer -- had a son and gave him Blanco as a middle name. The idea, I gather, was that the son should go into the family law business, and if Holy Joe was still famous, the son could use both middle and surnames as a lawyer to attract potential clients. I gather they lived in a town with a substantial Lutheran population.

    So it was long-range legal advertising, and it stuck. Thomas's father, Rivers Blanco White, was a Q.C. in general litigation. Incidentally, Rivers married Amber Reeves when she was pregnant with H.G. Wells's child, Annajane, who just celebrated her 100th birthday. My grandmother, Beryl, was Amber's younger sister. Which means (just to spare you getting a pencil and some scrap paper) that I married my second cousin.

  3. Ah, according to the article you linked to, I should have said Unitarian instead of Lutheran. I told you I would get it wrong!

  4. I love this book. Yum. I cried inside when it ended because I didn't want it to - like ever. So good!

  5. Be careful: as I understand it, English and American Unitarians are totally different.

    Ac-tu-al-ly, my personal opinion is that my great-grandfather Thomas's profiting from the "Blanco White" name was pure opportunistit luck. I think that Thomas was given Blanco as a middle name in hono(u)r of his grandfather Thomas White who, as an inkeeper on the road from London to the naval base at Portsmouth could very easily have picked up the nickname "Blanco" from soldiers and sailors returning from the Peninsular War against Napoleon. (Thomas Blanco's elder brother was given the even more cumbersome George Knight White after the elder Thomas's father in law.)

    I do not agree with the statement that "one simply didn't write of [the sexual peccadilloes of the historical period]." There are both mistresses and prostitutes in Heyer's regency works: the only difference is in how much detail is provided about their activities.

    PS:- M, I dare you to send my mother the link.

  6. I just read The Grand Sophy by Heyer. It was good but I didn't get a chance to enjoy it as it should be with a deadline looming. I will have to try another Heyer soon and this looks like the winner!

  7. Thanks for the details and clarification, Magdalen and Henry. It does seem rather amusing for a lawyer to have a name which suggests that he's whiter than white (or, perhaps strictly speaking, double white). If only George could have been named (Saint) George White Knight, and done lots of pro bono work!

  8. I emailed -- at Henry's urging! -- the link to this post to his mother (my former mother-in-law, who has known me for very nearly 40 years and seems to like me nonetheless). She wrote back these remarks:

    "We reckoned that she [Georgette Heyer] had a sort of happy families pack with the various, but un-named, characters delineated on the cards. When a new book was due she dealt out a hand and worked from what the fates gave her which accounted for one or two of the dimmer ones. If necessary as in any other game of poker she could deal out another card to break the deadlock. The system worked with her thrillers too.

    "Thomas was a nice man; I'd rather have kept him.

    "And I dunno - you and Henry between you - it's perfectly obvious that the origin of our 'Blanco White' was a straight passing off to cash in on the Unitarian real estate purchases for their nice new chapels. Good money there. Pity that Rivers's father [Thomas's grandfather] had a taste for slow horses and fast women which led to no money."

    Anne is obviously quite sharp in her 80s (she's the same age, I gather, as Queen Elizabeth, who was to have attended the same boarding school as Anne until the headmistress learned about the security detail -- all men! -- and respectfully declined). Here's a photo of her from my wedding to Ross in 2008. Not only did Henry attend, but so did his mother and two family friends.


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