Thoughts about Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester

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I recently listened to Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle on audio, narrated wonderfully by actor Nicholas Rowe (there is also an abridged version narrated by Richard Armitage).

Warning: total spoilerage below the cut

Sylvester, published in 1957, is set in Regency England. It begins with Sylvester, Duke of Salford, deciding it’s time to marry and devising a list of eligible women. His mother, dismayed that marriage is solely a matter of duty to Sylvester, and concerned that he seems to lack true warmth towards anyone not in his immediate family, mentions that she had once hoped he would marry Phoebe Marlow, the daughter of her late friend.  After a visit to his godmother, Lady Ingham, Phoebe’s grandmother, Sylvester adds Phoebe to the list — why not? —  but when he visits her at home (in Austerby, 90 miles from London), he finds her to be sulky and indifferent. Phoebe, a writer whose first novel, The Lost Heir, a “stirring romance,” is about to be published, has no plans to marry the arrogant duke, who cut her during her one, unfruitful London season, but knows her stepmother will force the match if the duke asks for her hand.

She runs away with her best bud, Tom Orde, to take refuge — irony of ironies! — with her grandmother, Lady Ingham. They get sidelined by weather and an accident and who should come upon them in an out of the way inn but Sylvester. Phoebe and Sylvester, stuck together for some time while Tom recovers from a broken leg, reach a kind of detente, and he agrees to get her to London. As their relationship grows, and they begin to reevaluate their first impressions of one another, Phoebe regrets her fateful literary choice: to give Sylvester a “set down” by patterning the villainous Count Ugolino, he of the slanted eyebrows, after him.

One of the things I like best about Heyer is how specific and detailed she is in describing moral character. This conversation, in which Phoebe tries to describe what she doesn’t like about Sylvester with her confidante and governess Miss Battery, is typical:

‘Oh, no! He isn’t villainous at all—at least, I shouldn’t think he would be, but I’m not even acquainted with him! I only chose him for Ugolino because of the way his eyebrows slant, which makes him look just like a villain. And also, of course, because of his—his crested air, which made me long to give him a set-down!’

‘Self-consequence?’ said Miss Battery, a little at sea. ‘Thinks too much of his rank?’

Phoebe shook her head, frowning. ‘No, it isn’t that. It is—yes, it is worse than that! I think it is so natural to him to have all that consequence that he doesn’t give it a thought. Do you understand, Sibby?’

‘No. Oughtn’t to give it a thought.’

‘It is very difficult to explain, but I am persuaded you will understand, when you see him. It is as though being a duke is so much a part of him that he takes it perfectly for granted, and quite unconsciously expects to be treated everywhere with distinction. I don’t mean to say that his manners are not what they ought to be, for he has a great deal of well-bred ease—a sort of cool civility, you know, towards persons who don’t interest him. I believe he is very amiable to those whom he likes, but the thing is—or so I fancy—that he doesn’t care a button for what anyone may think of him. To be sure, that isn’t wonderful,’ she added reflectively, ‘for the way he is courted and toad-eaten is quite repulsive! Why, when Lady Sefton brought him up to me—she is the Baroness Josceline in my story, you know: the affected, fidgety one!—she introduced him as though she were conferring the greatest favour on me!’

‘That doesn’t signify,’ interrupted Miss Battery. ‘Did he behave as though he thought it so?’

‘Oh, no! He is so much accustomed to such flattery that he doesn’t appear even to heed it. Being civil to poor little dabs of females who have neither beauty nor conversation is one of the tiresome duties his exalted situation obliges him to perform.’

So, it’s not quite that he gets too much pleasure out of flattery, or thinks too much of himself. It’s more that he is out of touch, in different, uncaring. As Phoebe puts it, his own station in life is so natural to him that he pays it no heed, and while I don’t see Heyer offering any kind of class critique whatsoever, there is a sense of human connection Sylvester lacks that, if he had it, would impress upon him both his own good fortune and, just possibly, the value of others less fortunate in station, charm, or ability. I think if you don’t enjoy careful investigations into character, you would find Heyer interminably boring, because they make up a good chunk of her books (she says, after having read exactly two.)

Anyway, one of my favorite romance tropes (trope in the TV trope sense, not the English PhD sense) is the starched hero coming undone by strong emotions aroused by the heroine. In today’s romance novels, this usually means sex, but it could be any kind of out-of-character loss of emotional control.

Sylvester never behaves truly badly (although, now that I consider it, chasing Phoebe down when she escapes Austerly with the intention of making her love him so he can reject her comes hair-splittingly close. But maybe we can put that down to unacknowledged desire, not true character.). His worst sin is indifference. Until — that is — he finds out about Count Ugolino, star villain of the novel that is taking the ton by storm.  At a ball, it all comes to a head. (Hopefully I won’t get in trouble for posting the whole scene, but it really has to be read in toto):

He led her on to the floor, and into the dance. She hoped he could not feel the flurry of her pulses, and forced herself to speak. ‘I did not know you had returned to town, Duke.’
‘Didn’t you? I came back from Chance yesterday, on purpose to attend this party. I am glad you are here—and admire your courage.’

She knew that her hand was trembling in his light clasp, but she tried to rally herself. ‘Oh, I am not now so shy as I was used to be!’

‘Obviously you are not. You must allow me to offer you my compliments, and to felicitate you on having made so notable a hit.’

‘I cannot imagine what you mean!’

‘Oh, I think you can! You have written a romance that has set the ton by the ears: a feat indeed! Very clever, Miss Marlow, but could you find no better name for me than Ugolino?’

‘You are mistaken—quite mistaken!’ she stammered.

‘Don’t lie to me! Believe me, your face betrays you! Did you suppose I should not guess the truth? I am not a fool, and I have a tolerably good memory. Or did you think I should not read your book? If that was so you have been unfortunate. I might not have read it had my mother not desired me to do so. She wished—not unnaturally—to know what I had done to arouse such enmity, whom it was I had so bitterly offended. I was quite unable to answer the first of her questions. The second, I must confess, found me equally at a loss until I had read your book. I could have answered it then, of course, had I chosen to do so.’

‘Oh, I am sorry, I am sorry!’ she whispered, in an anguished tone.

‘Don’t hang your head! Do you wish the whole room to know what I am saying to you?’

She raised it. ‘I tried to alter it. It was too late. I ought never to have done it. I didn’t know—never dreamed—Oh, how can I explain to you? What can I say?’

‘Oh, there is a great deal you might say, but it is quite unnecessary to do so! There is only one thing I am curious to know, for tax my memory as I may I cannot find the answer. What did I do, Miss Marlow, to deserve to be set in the pillory?’

‘Nothing, nothing!’

‘Nothing? I am aware that you took me in dislike at our first meeting; you have told me that I did not recognize you when we met for the second time. Was that all your reason for making me the model for your villain? Did you, for such small cause, put yourself to the labour of discovering the affairs of my family so that you might publish a spiteful travesty of them to the world?’

‘No! Had I known—oh, how can you think I would have written it if I had known you had a nephew—were his guardian? I had not the least suspicion of it! It was coincidence: I chose you for Ugolino because—because of the way your eyebrows slant, and because I thought you arrogant! I never dreamed then the book would be published!’

‘Doing it rather too brown, are you not? You can’t really suppose I shall swallow quite so unlikely a story!’

She looked up, and saw that while he talked to her, between his teeth, he was smiling still. The sensation of moving through a nightmare threatened to overpower her. She said faintly: ‘It’s true, whatever you believe. When I found out—about Edmund—I was ready to sink!’

‘But not ready to stop the publication of this sad coincidence.’

‘I couldn’t do so! They would not even let me alter it! the book was already bound, Duke! When I reached London it was the first thing I did. I went immediately to the publishers—indeed, indeed, I did!

‘And, of course, it never occurred to you that if I were warned I might prove more successful than you in arresting publication,’ he said affably.

‘No. Could you have done so?’ she asked wonderingly.

‘Oh, that is much better!’ he approved, his eyes glinting down at her. ‘That innocent stare is excellent: you should cultivate it!’

She flushed vividly. ‘Please say no more! Not here—not now! I can’t answer you. It was wrong of me—inexcusable! I—I bitterly regret it!’

‘Why, yes, I imagine you might well! How many people have cut you tonight?’

‘Not for that reason!’ she answered hotly. ‘You know I didn’t mean that! Do you think I am not fully sensible of your kindness, when you found us—Tom and me—and did so much for us?’

‘Oh, don’t give that a thought!’ he replied. ‘What a stupid thing to say!—you didn’t, of course.’

She winced. ‘Oh, stop, stop! I never meant to do you an injury! I might as easily have made you the model for my hero!’

‘Ought I to be grateful? Is it beyond your comprehension that to discover myself figuring in a novel—and, if you will forgive me, such a novel!—in any guise is an experience I find nauseating? You might have endowed me with every virtue imaginable, but I should still have considered it a piece of intolerable impertinence!’

She was beginning to feel as physically sick as she had so often felt when rated by her stepmother. ‘Take me back to my grandmother!’ she begged. ‘I don’t know why you asked me to dance with you! Could you not have chosen another occasion to say what you wished to me?’

‘Easily, but why should I? I shall restore you to Lady Ingham when the music ceases: not before! You are ungrateful, Sparrow: you shouldn’t be, you know!’

‘Don’t call me that!’ she said sharply, stung by his tone.

‘No, it doesn’t suit you,’ he agreed. ‘What will you have me call you? Jay?’

‘Let me go! You may ignore me—you need not insult me!’

His clasp on her hand tightened unkindly. ‘You may be thankful I haven’t ignored you. Do you know what would have happened had I done so? Do you know how many pairs of eyes were watching to see just what I should do? I asked you to dance because if I had not, every suspicion that you are indeed the author of that book would have been confirmed, and you would have found yourself, by tomorrow, a social outcast. You would have been well-served, and I own I was strongly tempted. But I should think myself as contemptible as your villainous Count if I stooped to such a paltry revenge! You may be sure of my support, Miss Marlow. What I may choose to say to you you will have to learn to accept with a good grace. I’ll call in Green Street tomorrow to take you driving in the Park: that ought to convince the doubters!’

It was too much. She wrenched herself out of his hold, heedless alike of her surroundings and the consequences, and hurried off the floor to her grandmother’s side, so blinded by the tears she was unable to keep back that she blundered into several couples, and did not see how everyone was staring, first at her, and then at Sylvester, left ridiculously alone in the middle of the ballroom floor, his face white with fury.

Ouch! Those cutting words: ‘That innocent stare is excellent: you should cultivate it!’ and, ‘if you will forgive me, such a novel!’ The narrator read “such a novel” with every ounce of disdain he could muster. I winced listening to that entire scene. Sylvester was as wretched to Phoebe as he could possibly be. I could only go back to it after I was assured their relationship would recover. But I absolutely loved it, and it made the book for me, I think because Sylvester was shaken loose from the tight hold he had on his emotions, because he was connecting with Phoebe, even if it was in anger. And — although this is arguable — while Sylvester is “extra” mad (maybe “over” mad) because the portrait has a ring of truth to it, I think the reality of how hurtful it was hadn’t truly sunk in for Phoebe until she was called to account directly by the person she hurt. And it was just damn good drama.

Now, as readers of the novel know, Sylvester has a Tragic Past: he lost his twin brother. Although Heyer doesn’t push as heavily on this as I think some historical romance writers of today might (which is to say, thuddingly often), it does play an important role in their eventual reconciliation. At the end of the novel, Sylvester’s beloved mother explains to Phoebe:

When Harry died—Sylvester went away. I don’t mean bodily—ah, you understand, don’t you? I might have been sure you would, for I know you to have a very discerning eye. Sylvester has a deep reserve. He will not have his wounds touched, and that wound—’ She broke off, and then said, after a little pause: ‘Well, he kept everyone at a distance for so long that I believe it became, as it were, an engrained habit, and is why he gave you the feeling that he was aloof—which exactly describes him, I must tell you!’

I think another one of the differences between Heyer and today’s romance novels is that the hero himself would come to this realization and share it with the heroine, probably after a passionate encounter. That never happens in this book (Sylvester is forced to realize his character flaws, but not, I think, the way his brother’s death helped them take root). Instead, Phoebe has a new understanding of Sylvester which allows her to go forward with him:

‘It—it is—I assure you—quite unnecessary, Duke, for you to make me any—any explanation of—of anything!’ she said.

My feeling with the Heyers, both of which I first listened to, is that I am going to a place I like to be. I’m never waiting for the next exciting thing to happen: the exciting thing is just being in that world. I’ve truly enjoyed Frederica and Sylvester, and am on to The Grand Sophy next. The very nice thing about starting with Heyer is there’s practically no end.

16 responses

  1. I listened to the abridged version because: Richard Armitage but I would have listened to him read the entire book had there been an unabridged version. The Nicholas Rowe narration has been highly praised by my audiophile friends so I have wishlisted it. I have a number of Heyer books in digital format but I’ve only listened to Venetia, A Convenient Marriage and Sylvester so far – all abridged and all narrated by RA.

    My first ever audiobook was Regency Buck but the female narrator was so… old-fuddy-duddy and it was all so boring. I’ve since been told that RB is not the ideal book with which to start Heyer. Live and learn! :)

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    • Oh, I’m sorry to hear the narrator of Regency Buck is no good. I love “reading” Heyer on audio: it;s so immersive. But Venetia is at the top of my list, too.

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  2. I love Georgette Heyer’s books, and re-read them constantly, but I tend to avoid Sylvester because it makes me so miserable! That is of course an indication of how well it is written, and you have made me feel that I must give it another read (probably in audio, by Nicholas Rowe because I can’t read an abridged book). I’ll have Frederica lined up to rectify the angst.

    I think from your last paragraph that you’re only just starting to read Heyer? I do envy you! I suggest that you avoid what her fans call “the historicals” – Lord John, The Spanish Bride, etc., including An Infamous Army – as they just don’t work as well as her Regencies. I couldn’t love her Regencies more but I can’t finish An Infamous Army, which has such an accurate account of the battle of Waterloo that it was used to teach battle strategy/tactics at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy.

    I have so many favourites that it’s difficult to choose, but you have selected some of them already. I also recommend The Talisman Ring, The Reluctant Widow, and Venetia.

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    • Yes, it’s too bad that Sylvester and Phoebe have a few more brutal exchanges, and only really make it up in the last pages. But I also found the book very funny, especially when it came to Sylvester’s sister in law and her new husband. So that helped.

      And yes, I am just starting out on my Heyer journey. Thank you for these recommendations.

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  3. I really enjoyed this post (and not JUST because you quoted so much of the novel that was fun to reread). Your point about moral character seems spot on to me; so far at least I don’t think I’ve read a contemporary historical romance that spends as much time on this kind of thing. Sylvester was one of the first Heyer novels that I read (and I’m not very far ahead of you in my own Heyer journey) — and I didn’t really like it at all on the first read. I reread it recently after reading not just more Heyer but (partly thanks to you and Liz, of course!) a lot more romance novels generally, and I enjoyed it thoroughly — though I get a bit tired of the tortured backstories. Even here it did seem a bit “thuddingly” reiterated.

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    • Oh, glad you read it and liked it too. Yeah, Heyer rival Aristotle in her attention to all of the factors that make up a virtue. It’s so careful, and what fascinates me is that it is not merely her concern as a writer but a central concern of her protagonists as well.

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  4. What a fun post! I don’t reread Sylvester that often either, perhaps because a lot of it is uncomfortable to read. But I think he is a marvelous creation.

    I hadn’t really thought about it until I read your post, but the way you juxtaposed Phoebe’s assessment of Sylvester with the ballroom scene made me realize that she was doing the same thing to him that she’s accusing him of doing to others, i.e., not seeing him as a person. He was dismissive of her (and others), so she reduced him to eyebrows and arrogance and put him in a novel. She never bothered to find out what else he was about until she had to, even though she was caricaturing him in a very recognizable way. I do wish some of today’s authors had even a bit of the astringency Heyer brought to her characterizations.

    On the audiobooks: I listened to two abridgements of favorite, many-times-read Heyers because of Richard Armitage, The Convenient Marriage and Venetia. I don’t buy or listen to abridgements otherwise. I was OK with TCM because there weren’t too many favorite bits that were left out that I noticed. But Venetia was deeply unsatisfying because there were lines and scenes I know by heart, that I reread for, which were gone. I tried An Infamous Army (unabridged) but couldn’t get past the narrator.

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    • Yes to Phoebe, and I think reading it today as a blogger, the first thought that came to me was writers who take vengeance on perceived reviewer slights by writing them into their books. In some ways, Phoebe was doing the same childish thing as those authors, so I had a strong negative reaction to it. If he hadn’t slighted her, then I’m not sure I would have had an issue with her using a real person as a loose model that way. Then again, it might depend on how likely it is that the model would read the book and recognize himself in it.

      Of course, Phoebe needed to come clean much much earlier. I’m at least clear on that point!

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  5. Let me echo that: what a fun post! Sylvester is not actually one of the Heyer books that stands out for me, but reading this post brought a lot of the book back.

    That said, this part in particular interested me.

    Although Heyer doesn’t push as heavily on this as I think some historical romance writers of today might (which is to say, thuddingly often), it does play an important role in their eventual reconciliation. At the end of the novel, Sylvester’s beloved mother explains to Phoebe:
    [quote]

    I think another one of the differences between Heyer and today’s romance novels is that the hero himself would come to this realization and share it with the heroine…

    It made me think of entirely different kind of book: The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale. Completely different (and perhaps more thudding) backstory (I adore the book, btw). But in it, also, the mother explains the hero’s past to the heroine, and you know as a reader that the hero is never, ever going to discuss this with the heroine. There can be HEAs I believe in where not everything is necessarily hashed out (or makes sense to be hashed out given the characters) between the h and h.

    I do wish some of today’s authors had even a bit of the astringency Heyer brought to her characterizations.

    Love this comment!

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    • You know, I love Kinsale but SaTS is not one of my favorites of hers, which makes me an outlier. I may want to read that again actually. Thanks for making that connection — interesting!

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      • It’s just come out on audio – Nicholas Boulton narrated (brilliantly) all the Kinsales – so far there are about 6 available. I’ve listened to Flowers From the Storm, Midsummer Moon, The Dream Hunter and they’ve all been excellent and I have the others on my TBL. If SaTS didn’t work for you that well in print, maybe the audio will make a difference?

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  6. One of the things I like best about Heyer is her ability to swing from comedy to tragedy from one beat to another and back again, glancing past farce on the way. I agree, Sylvester does this particularly well.
    Have you read Frederica? It’s possibly my favourite Heyer (doesn’t have the unfortunate anti-semitic passages present in Grand Sophy) and has the same inerrant but amused eye for class, foibles and privilege. And “Pork jelly!” will never fail to make me smile. It also has one of the funniest set piece denouements in the business – although I think Stella Riley has one to rival it.
    Mind, I could also make a case for Venetia, Ajax or Sprig Muslin so…

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    • That’s a great point about the tone swings. I hadn’t thought of it before you wrote it, but I agree.

      Yes, Frederica is the only other Heyer I have read. I listened to it, and yes, it shares that sense of preoccupation with pinning people’s characters, understood really broadly, not just in the moral sense, but in the class sense. I’m listening to TGS now, and prepared to be upset by the anti-Semitic characterization, but enjoying it immensely in the meantime.

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  7. Oh, I enjoyed reading this. Those eyebrows! And I did love the fun of the wixked uncle in Phoebe’s book and the exasperated, put-upon real one.

    I envy you, starting on Heyer. There are so many excellent ones. I loved The Grand Sophy, Devil’s Cub and Friday’s Child as a teenager but more recently, A Civil Contract (very bittersweet and honest) and An Infamous Army ( her Battle of Waterloo tour de force) have been my favourites. If you asked me to recc just one, it would be A Civil Contract, for so many reasons.

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