These Old Shades (by Georgette Heyer)

In gradually reading through my large collection of Georgette Heyer novels, interspersed with other books, I reached ‘These Old Shades’. For some reason I did not remember it with any great enthusiasm. I vaguely remembered the plot, and was a tad surprised to find that I have previously read it at least four times, starting in 1987 which is possibly when I acquired it.

The last time I read this book was in 2007, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I had only the outline of the plot in my mind. The story is set in the 18th century. I recalled the opening: the somewhat arrogant Duke of Avon is walking down a side street in Paris when an urchin runs into him. He thinks he is being assaulted at first, but quickly discovers that the child is running away from an unpleasant situation.

On what seems to be a random impulse, the Duke offers to buy the urchin - who introduces himself as Leon, and says he is nineteen years old - from his brother. He then kits Leon out in a page’s uniform, and starts to take him with him, into society, to carry his coat and generally do his bidding.

Leon is a likeable character, unexpected in many ways. Since I had not forgotten the main storyline (and the blurb on the back gives it away) I was not surprised when I learned part of Leon’s story. It would be a spoiler to say much more about that; suffice it to say that the Duke’s impulsive purchase was not made for altruistic reasons, or with any thought of being a rescuer. Yet Leon forms an instant admiration for the Duke, and will see no fault in him. This despite the Duke having a very poor reputation, and being cordially disliked by a large number of people.

‘These Old Shades’ was one of Heyer’s earliest novels, first published in 1926. She was only 24 at the time, yet her writing already shows considerable maturity, and demonstrates her incredible gift for both characterisation, and a cleverly involved plot. Her research was impeccable: she used some real historical figures where appropriate, and the conversation flows realistically, if a tad incomprehensibly at times.

The Duke of Avon is an unlikely hero in almost every respect. He is profligate, selfish, cold-hearted, and materialistic. Yet Heyer endues him with quick intuition, a quirky sense of humour, and also some very likeable friends to whom he is loyal. We see him with Hugh Davenport in the early chapters; Hugh is full of good qualities and it is never explained quite why the two are so close. Their conversations are revealing, showing their contrasting characters; yet Leon’s admiration and devotion are all offered to Avon.

There are other significant characters in the book; rather more than I could keep in my mind, although I very much liked the Duke’s younger brother Rupert, and also his sister Fanny. There’s a delightful curé too. And large numbers of other friends and acquaintances, some of whom may have been based on real people, but I could not keep most of them in my mind.

There’s great excitement in the plot - an abduction, a chase across the English Channel, and a very clever (but unpleasant) exposé at the end. I had forgotten most of the middle of the story, but recalled the climax, though not every detail of the outcome.

It’s not one of my favourite books. I find it a bit too full of vengeance, with some decidedly unpleasant scenes. And yet I found it difficult to put down once I had started. I almost chuckled a couple of times at some of the dialogue, and was surprised to find a little tear in my eye at the poignancy of a letter that is written shortly before the dramatic climax to the book.

I am glad I re-read ‘These Old Shades’, and expect to do so again in another ten years or so.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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