I recently read a book by Mary Burchell called Ward of Lucifer.
It was a prescriptive Harlequin from the 40s/50s and I don’t mean anything bad by prescriptive. It was sweet, and appeared to have everything: with the ingenue ward; the malicious and cold-but-learns-to-love-someone-else-better-than-himself guardian; the artless speeches of love; nice descriptions of clothes; there was even a prim-mouthed housekeeper as the moral compass.
But as I read it, I just felt
It wasn’t terribly written, in fact, I would go as far to say that it was better written than most of the trite crap being churned out as category romances these days. It had an engaging plot, and I have read hundreds of similar books with similar plots, and didn’t feel badly about them…
What was it, I pondered (as I ate a Ferrero Rocher – or three…), that turned me cold? That made me feel like the book had missed the mark? That differentiated it so distinctly from the dozens of other romances, that were no better written or plotted, and yet I enjoyed more?
I ate more chocolate.
I was on my second glass of red wine, when I realised something. I had read this before. Only it was better – much much better; I remember reading this plot and thinking it delightfully nuanced, with multi-faceted characters, wit that sparkled, and a happily ever after that made my 11yr old princess self squee with joy.
I remembered that this was a Georgette Heyer book.
I remembered that anything compared against the mighty Heyer may as well pack up and go home; because that woman got S**T DoNE;
Yes – EXACTLY like Joan Cuscask in jewels, with a pump action.
I remember being 11 yrs old and reading These Old Shades and immediately wishing/realising two things:
1) That I could speak (or better yet, swear) in French
2) That I really needed to learn how to fence.
This in turn has lead me to this post: Carbon-Copy Companion Reading. Dedicated to that feeling of disappointment when you realise what you have just read, has already been done, better-er; clever-er, funnier; and probably 50-100 years earlier.
And when you start to delve into it – there are significant ones out there. I’m not just talking about re-using plot tropes and story-arcs – because lets face it; pretty much every category romance writer would be listed on that wall of shame (Lucy Walker, Betty Neels, Barbara Cartland, anyone?). That is a different thing altogether. In essence, the very thing that makes their romances, THEIR romances, is because of their inherent plot/character interchangeability, and sameness – (and who doesn’t want to read themselves some Neels?)
As always – I present EVIDENCE because
Item 1: The Carbon Copy: The Ward of Lucifer
The Ward of Lucifer, (WOL) was the aforementioned book that triggered this musing – so it seems fitting that it is the first one pushed off the diving board…
Written by Mary Burchell in the late 40s. It’s my first Burchell novel – but after this? I think she has made it onto my black books list… It is one of MANY romances that Burchell wrote for Harlequin/Mills&Boon. Its original cover features the bobbing heads they were so fond of, and the story itself was nothing too terrible: Orphaned, almost adult Innocent (17 – she turns 18 during the story – so I guess that makes it alright (!)) whose parents died and was placed in her Aunt’s care, who promptly sent her off to boarding school and never saw her again – but then had the inconvenience to plunge off the mortal coil; leaving poor orphan (Norma) cast into the care of her only (distant) relative – the cold, calculating Justin Yorke; rich, selfish and desperate to reclaim a large estate the family had lost. Norma turns out to be just the ticket to achieve this and he sets out to marry her off for this purpose. Unfortunately, Justin didn’t take into account Norma’s complete and utter artless ingenuity… her clinging, her gushing happiness at the smallest thing, her declarations of love; her constant need for affirmation; her determined idolatry of Justin. Thus the cold, cold heart began to melt, like a frosted meadow in the rising sun.
Yes – you may sense a slight jaded tone.
I mean please – this novel just completely DEFIED belief – whilst so sweet I think I have cavities – it was just so unrealistic, I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t ultimately take the bait Burchell offered so tantalisingly – because I felt ridiculous passively participating in such a farfetched and self-serving charade.
Sure it ended happily – Justine was a changed man from the strength of an unhealthy love from a teenaged girl – but really all I could think whilst reading this was – would I let some teenaged girl read this?
Emphatically no – I would not – whilst reading this book – I could feel the women’s movement reversing like a semi.
It went from a nice healthy response to rigid, dominating control:
‘She was not naturally a rebellious type. But the idea of blind obedience, for obedience’s sake, revolted both her commonsense and her natural independence.’
‘But you must let me ask my guardian first if I may take them…he’s a better judge than I am of whether I can be allowed to take them or not,” Norma said, in a placatory tone.’
“But it’s I who am going to wear the clothes,” protested Norma rather indignantly over something which she specially wanted.
“It’s I who will have to look at them,” he retorted cynically. “In any case, I want you to look your best, and I intend to have you properly dressed for the occasion.”
“Don’t put it like that!” cried Norma, both distressed and angry.
“Like what?” he inquired, looking genuinely surprised.
“As though I were a slave, to be dressed up for the market place.”
For a moment she saw the surprise replaced by real anger, and she instinctively drew back from that, almost literally, and put out her hand in protest.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean that.”
Then she saw that either his anger went, or he controlled it. Because he caught her out flung hand and laughed and said lightly: “Rather a pampered slave, surely?”
“Yes, I know. I’m awfully I mean, I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know quite why I did.”
“Oh, I think I do,” he retorted easily. “You thought you saw signs of my playing the heavy guardian, and decided you would put a stop to that in good time.”
“No I didn’t,” Genuinely distressed, she came close to him and slipped her arm into his. “I was just being peevish and ungrateful.”
He laughed and touched her cheek lightly, and the subject was dismissed. But she remembered, rather wonderingly, afterwards that he had got his own way completely, and it was she who had been left feeling slightly in the wrong. And, later still, when she saw the disputed dress as he had wanted, she was fain to admit that he had been right and she had been wrong. It could hardly have suited her more exquisitely well.’
What irks me about this is that Norma’s aware of the manipulation, accepts it passively and explains it away by saying the dress suited her better anyway – YES – that makes EVERYthing acceptable.
To top it all off – there is very little redeeming about Justin as a character anyway – he’s cold, self-serving, manipulative and controlling – not just with Norma, but with everyone and everything.
He’s mean about people:
“Grandeur is always pointless unless there is some big personality to give it significance,” her guardian said coldly. “Inworth, though a good fellow is mediocre. Whatever Munley Towers requires, it is not a mediocre master.”
He’s mean to Norma (in between being carelessly affectionate):
“I tell you I’m not in Inworth’s confidence,” her guardian said, actually laughing at her distress. “But don’t take it so seriously. You’re too young to take anything very seriously just yet, and I dare say Inworth knows that as well as anyone else.”
Yes – my ambition is to be in a relationship with a man who LAUGHS at my distress – because that is equal, balanced and healthy!
The change of heart at the end? Sure – Justin is nice to Norma now – but what about everyone else? I could see no evidence that there was going to be a flow on effect – and even the – I-almost-had-to-die-to-see-the-light cliché? It’s just wrong!
Actually the more I think about this book – the more incensed I become – GRRR.
Now on the other side of the scale, is a book, similar in story arc, but so far removed from this miniature turd masquerading as a book, it’s like comparing a cat to a capybara…sure they both make good pets…but I know which I’d prefer to have staring at me from the end of my bed at 2am in the morning…and hint? It’s not the world’s largest rodent.
oh grandma…what big teeth you have…!
Item 2: The Louis XVI Original: These Old Shades
I am giving fair warning here now: My reading of These Old Shades, (TOS) by Georgette Heyer, is completely biased, partial and I can not and will not hear a word against it. I have to restrain myself from reading the negative reviews of it on GoodReads, because they only serve to make me angry, and I want to shake the people who say such mean things.
The problem with These Old Shades – is absolutely nothing – and I realise this is an impractical, and unrealistic point of view. But you try telling that to my inner 12yr old.
TOS was THE book that was my entrée – not just into Georgette Heyer’s world, but the entire world of historical fiction. Up to this point, I had lived in a world of clubs – secret and not-so-secret, consisting of Trixie Belden’s Bob Whites, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton’s Fives & Sevens and had quickly tired of the Babysitter’s Club (really what sort of inane club idea is that?). It was the book that I first picked up, and discovered that there was an entire other world at my fingertips, that was well-dressed, had amazing adventures, and always ended happily-ever-after.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t discovered Heyer’s world first, because it set me at a distinct disadvantage: I would be forever destined to compare all regency and historical romance authors to Ms Heyer… The problem with that being, there really is no comparison – nothing ever comes close. Jane Aiken-Hodge, Clare Darcy, and a myriad of others containing that elusive recommendation: ‘Heyer fans will enjoy…’ which I probably would have been satisfied reading, and working my way through, were avoided like the plague. And just as suddenly as the world opened up to me – The door clanged back shut again, as I realised that there was a complete difference between a harlequin/masquerade regency romance – and a PROPER (i.e. Heyer) Regency Romance.
Now TOS has all the similar elements to WOL:
- Ingenue Heroine – Leon/Leonie = Norma
- Cold rakish Hero – Justine/Duke of Avon/Alastair = Justin Yorke
- Nickname of said Cold Rakish Hero – Satanas = Lucifer (hmm I am sensing something slightly copy-cat-ish here…)
- Moral Compass Character – Hugh = Mrs Parry
- Careless Charming Young Man who may/may not set up as a love interest for Ingenue Heroine – Lord Rupert = Paul Cantlin
- Enemy who needs to be revenged upon by Cold Rakish Hero – Comte de St Vire = Sir Richard Inworth (although in WOL’s case it was more a property/monetary/sell off in marriage type thing than a cold-hearted revenge for past misdeeds…but nonetheless – plot police!!)
I could go but on…
The thing that I find so incensing about the whole thing, is that Heyer does it RIGHT – there is never a point in time that Leonie isn’t quick, smart and ready to rescue herself (with varying degrees of success). She is clever, funny, and despite readily admitting to idolising of Justine – it never blinds her to his less-than-stellar character traits.
In comparison, Norma is bland, beige and ridiculously naive, clinging and obvious in the worst possible way. In fact, I would go as far to say that it feels like Burchell read TOS and then set out to write an inferior and far less interesting version of the same story.
But I can hear you asking, what’s so different about Alastair? Isn’t he also cold, self-serving, manipulative and controlling?
Well – yes, he is. But he does it with style. Also, he is funnier, cleverer, and, unlike faux-Justin, I never get the feeling that he ever stares out the window and thinks about how fabulously cold and calculating he is.
TOS is a delight to read – whilst WOL is – well – more like Chinese takeaway – not a strain to eat, but the inevitable preservative-induced-headache, along with that empty-I-never-really-ate-anything-in-the-first-place-feeling that follows, kills all enjoyment.
Shall I tell you about These Old Shades? (spoilers follow)
Its like Revenge, Cinderella, Princess and the Pauper all mixed up as seasoning for a bag of potato crisps.
The Duke of Avon buys a youthful urchin off the streets as a means of revenge against a mortal enemy (because all DUKES have mortal enemies…). He takes him home, to be his page, but discovers (or intuitively KNOWS, because Alastair could be nothing less than omniscient…); that LEON is really LEONIE.
Thus he decides to carry on with his revenge plot, but makes Leonie his ward instead. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Leonie is less than proper, even when trained and taught society manners; so plots, shenanigans and adventures ensue, whilst Justine, who starts the story seeing Leon as a means to an end, topples irretrievably in love with Leonie.
Sure there are some ridiculous, even eye rolling parts to the novel: Justine is at least 20 yrs older than Leonie; He spends a good 80% of the novel calling her ‘mes enfants’; Leonie turns out to be a well born member of nobility/high society swapped at birth, which is VERY convenient.
BUT – and this is a very big BUT – the writing is so fabulous, the humour so sparkling, the plots so ingenious and the wit so evident – that I forgive all – because I love curling up on the sofa and whiling away a cold, rainy, windswept and grey day with a couple of hours of Georgian Escapism; where hi-jinks, carriages and velvet-lined cloaks sweep across the page; where chicken skin fans and lace ruffles are the height of masculinity; where honour is decided at the point of a foil; where revenge is a dish best served cold; where true love does conquer all, and where happily-ever-afters are possible for repentant rakes.
“M’sieur, I am as a slave to my wife.” He kissed the tips of his fingers. “I am as the dirt beneath her feet.” He clasped his hands. “I must bestow on her all that she desires, or die!”
“Pray make use of my sword, ” invited his Grace. “It is in the corner behind you.”
“Wonderful!” said the Duke. “We progress!”
“We…? Progress? You said we? Progress?”
“It seems I erred,” Avon sighed. “We remain at the same place.”
“John is in the country because the town air does not suit him. Now, is John her lap-dog or her parrot?”
“Her son,”said Davenant.
Now tell me – which would you prefer to read?
Although, perhaps I do WOL a disservice. Coming from Georgette Heyer to it – it is definitely a let down; but discovering there is something better than that it after reading? Priceless.
So, if you’re new to the world of Heyer, and you really want to appreciate it, read Ward of Lucifer first and then you will see what a complete and utter difference there is, between a book, and a story.