Black Sheep (by Georgette Heyer)

Re-reading gradually through my Georgette Heyer books, I came to ‘Black Sheep’, which I last read in 2008. I had mostly forgotten the story, although it gradually came back to me as I reached the latter part of the book. As with most of Heyer's novels, this is set in Regency England.

The main character is Abigail (Abby) Wendover, a young woman of twenty-eight who feels herself past the age of falling in love. She is comfortably off, and lives in Bath with her much older sister Selina, and their orphaned niece Fanny. Fanny is seventeen and has not yet had a London season, but has fallen in love with a handsome young man called Stacy Calverleigh.

When the story opens, Abby has just returned from six weeks staying with her other sisters. She is shocked to learn about Fanny’s infatuation and her determination to marry Stacy as soon as possible. Abby’s brother James is Fanny’s official guardian, and will not give consent; so as Fanny is under age (by four years) Stacy tries to persuade her to elope with him to Scotland.

In the meantime, Stacy’s uncle Miles arrives on the scene. Miles has been living and working in India for the past twenty years, and some scandal is attached to his past. He meets Abby and they don’t much like each other at first, but quickly discover a shared sense of humour, and a willingness to defy some of society’s conventions. Miles has not seen Stacy since he was very small, and has little interest in him.

Abby is quite rebellious against some of the restrictions against women of her era. She is also extremely fond of Selina, who is not very intelligent, but rather a stickler for society’s rules. So she generally wears a pleasant mask, and puts up with considerable boredom in her daily life. So she very quickly starts to appreciate the verbal sparring she can indulge in with Miles as well as his honesty, even if it sometimes makes him seem abrupt, even rude.

As with all Heyer’s novels, the writing is just the right pace for my tastes. There are well-developed main characters, and minor ones nicely caricatured so as to make them memorable. Some of the conversation is quite amusing; she had a gift for satire, and I very much enjoyed some of Abby and Miles’ exchanges. The story is partly about Abby’s growing realisation that she feels a lot more for him than friendship, despite his complete unsuitability as a potential husband. It’s also about their attempt to separate Fanny from Stacy - who only wants to marry her because she is an heiress - without breaking her heart.

I liked Abby very much and could appreciate her internal battle to stay in harmony with those she loved, while not necessarily following society’s expectations. However I didn’t much like Miles; he has a good sense of the ridiculous and was very much in rapport with Abby, but his former way of life, and his total disregard for his relatives - and anyone else he didn’t like - didn’t appeal to me at all. His eventual help in Abby’s problem is amusing, but also rather sordid; it seems very odd that Abby would not recoil from becoming involved with him.

I also felt that the ending was a bit disappointing. Circumstances intervene before Fanny has a chance to do what she might regret, and then Miles takes action in a way that feels very overbearing, even if done in an amusing way.

It’s still a good book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did last time I read it. Widely available second-hand, regularly re-printed, and also available in Kindle form.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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