“The drawing room was tacitly regarded as our private domain and there we acted play after play…all dialogue completely impromptu, of course, but the plots always produced by Georgette…I can still recognize some of the plots in her books, particularly Beauvallet and The Masqueraders and The Black Moth!” – Jane Aiken Hodge, quoting a childhood friend of Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer published her first book, The Black Moth, when she was 19 years old, as she said, “First crack out of the bag.” It is a remarkable feat for any writer, all the more so because in Heyer’s case it was the fulfillment of an ambition to write, though in perhaps an unexpected way. She didn’t set out to write a novel when she came up with this tale, but she produced a cracking good read anyway.
Like Jane Austen, Heyer received little formal education (though more than Austen) and was taught at home by her father George. He was an enthusiast for history and taught French at a boys’ public school, and the Heyers briefly lived in France in 1914 until the burgeoning war with Germany forced them to return to England. George Heyer encouraged his daughter to read as her fancy led her and discussed books and history and other cultural subjects with her. In 1920, 17-year-old Georgette, with her fertile, well-read mind, went to Hastings with her family while her younger brother Boris was recovering from an illness. “To relieve my own boredom and my brother’s,” she made up a serial story about a nobleman in mid-18th-century England with a secret identity as a highwayman. Her father insisted that she work the story into a proper novel, and in 1921 the book was published as The Black Moth.
Hearing that the hero of the book is a highwayman, the reader could be excused for assuming the title of the book is that character’s nickname. The Black Moth–what a great name for a highwayman! But in fact the “black moth” of the title is the villain, one Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, known to his friends as Devil: wild, a gambler, a besmircher of female virtue, dressed all in sober black in an era of extravagant, brightly colored clothing for high-born men and women alike. Devil Belmanoir is a malevolent presence throughout the novel, always hovering in the shadows, seeing and understanding and knowing everything–and knowledge in a man like Devil is always a dangerous thing.
Our hero, Jack Carstares, the Earl of Wyncham, couldn’t be more unlike that Devil. Six years before the story begins, Jack and his younger brother, Richard, were playing cards at an evening party, when Belmanoir discerns that someone has marked the cards. Suspicion immediately, and properly, descends upon Dick*, who was winning; he was desperate to pay off other debts of honor (that is, gambling debts) so that he could marry Lady Lavinia Belmanoir (yes, Tracy’s sister), with whom he was very much in love. As gambling debts were closely tied to one’s honor, cheating at cards was considered something very much outside the pale, and anyone caught cheating would be outcast from society. Though he knows Richard is guilty, Jack refuses to let his brother take the blame, and confesses to marking the cards. Slowly, Jack’s friends in the room turn their backs on him, and he knows he must leave England.
First he makes his way to France, where he teaches fencing and picks up mad swordfighting skillz; he makes his way through the Continent, gambling to support himself and winning enough to live very comfortably. He makes his way back to England, but since he can’t go home (his father, the Earl, has made it clear that his cheating carcass is unwelcome), he drifts around the countryside on his gorgeous mare Jenny, occasionally holding up coaches to entertain himself. He never robs women or the elderly, only rich people who can afford it, and gives the proceeds away to the poor. To the landlords of the inns where he stays, he is known as Sir Anthony Ferndale, always gorgeously arrayed in colorful silks and brocades, as far away from a highwayman as anyone can be. One fateful night Jack actually stops Richard’s coach, which amuses him excessively. Naturally he sends his brother on his way, telling him where he may be found and under what name. When the Earl dies, Dick sends for Jack, who refuses to come home, and tells his brother to make what use of the proceeds of the estate as he will. To Dick’s credit, he is miserable, though married to his beloved Lavinia and the father of young John. He finds it difficult to live with himself, and his brother’s refusal to return home and allow Dick to confess weighs upon him.
That’s a lot of backstory, but this is about where the main story actually begins, and there’s lots more packed in here. Jack encounters a coach stopped in the woods and a beautiful young lady being dragged from it by none other than his brother’s brother-in-law, Devil Belmanoir. (This is the part where Catherine Morland sighs with delight,) Jack pulls his highwayman’s scarf over his face and, speaking with a French accent, pulls out his sword and challenges Devil. After a lengthy and thrilling swordfight, Jack doesn’t manage to kill the Duke, but does chase him off, just before collapsing himself. Diana and her aunt bundle Jack into their carriage (reverse abduction?) and take him back to Diana’s father’s house, which happens to be very close to that of Jack’s childhood best friend, Miles O’Hara.
You can probably see where this is going–Jack and Diana fall in love, Devil is still determined to have her however he can, Dick is still miserable and engaged in a serious misunderstanding with his Lavinia, and it ends in yet another thrilling swordfight (I am not kidding–they really are well-written and exciting) between our adversaries. I won’t spoil the story any further–if you want to know how it comes out, you’ll have to read it yourself.
I think The Black Moth is overlooked by many Heyer fans, and that’s a shame. It is a first novel, but an accomplished one, written with confidence and bravura and not a little melodrama. Joan Aiken Hodge wrote that it was “obviously influenced by Baroness Orczy and Jeffery Farnol**,” and that is true, but I also sensed influences of some favorite authors of Jane Austen’s, Frances Burney and Samuel Richardson. One of Lady Lavinia’s flirts, with whom she nearly elopes, is named Harold Lovelace, a surname shared by the villain of Richardson’s Clarissa; and Devil uses the pseudonym Sir Hugh Grandison, echoing Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, which Austen family legend holds was a favorite of Jane Austen’s. Both of those novels were published around the time that The Black Moth is set. (Heyer rarely comes out and says the year in which her novels are set, leaving it to the reader to ascertain the year from various historical hints dropped. Georgette-Heyer.com sets The Black Moth in 1751, using two clues from the novel.) Clarissa is unrelenting melodrama and ends in tragedy. I haven’t read Grandison, but a quick perusal of the Wikipedia page reveals there is a lady rescued from an abduction in the plot. While there is plenty of melodrama in The Black Moth, it’s leavened by a bit of fun, and a wink to the reader to not take it all too seriously. Like Jack Carstares of the laughing eyes,*** we need to be able to laugh a bit at the most ridiculous parts. Even Diana, our fair victim, and her aunt find it a bit silly. “One would say we were living in the Stone Age!” exclaims Miss Betty, indignant over the attempted abduction. These lighter bits, and some amusing minor characters such as Jack’s valet Jim Salter, feel more like Burney than Richardson–and, let’s face it, like Austen, who wrote such a loving parody of Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey. It’s clear Austen enjoyed Gothics, even while she couldn’t help but gently mock them. I feel like Heyer could have written a Richardsonian melodrama if she wanted to–but she didn’t want to. Even in this first book, she went for the lighter side of it, and certainly a happier ending than Richardson provided for poor Miss Harlowe.
One thing that must be mentioned is that Heyer’s legendary historical research lets her down a bit here. She incorrectly refers to Jack Carstares as “Lord John” — yes, before his father dies and he inherits the earldom, but the eldest son of an earl is never Lord Firstname (actually, none of his sons are). John might use one of his father’s courtesy titles, a viscountcy or barony, and would be Lord Title. Richard would be the Hon. Richard Carstares. (I’m pretty sure that’s right, but please correct me if not.) And the bit of text quoted above about the Stone Age felt a little odd out of the mouth of a character in 1751, but for all I know maybe it was okay. Heyer overdoes it a bit on the Georgian slang–“Tare and ‘ouns!”**** cry several of the male characters, more than once; the characters use “an” in place of “if,” for example “An it please you”; and Miles O’Hara’s Irish accent is way overdone. The poor man actually uses the phrase “miserable spalpeen” twice. I point these out only so that the reader is prepared! Please don’t hold it against the teenaged Miss Heyer. She’s pretty good at this novelizing thing for a younker, and she’ll only get better, I promise.
Up next, The Great Roxhythe. I feel a sense of impending doom for some reason.
*Don’t look at me. I didn’t name him.
**whose books I totally need to read
***why yes, Gentle Readers, he has LAUGHING EYES. Paging Tom Hiddleston, Mr. Hiddleston, please pick up the white courtesy phone; oh, and tell your pal Cumberbatch that he’s wanted in the Belmanoir Suite
****According to a book about Irish political melodramas (!) I found on Google Books, that exclamation is a corruption of “(God’s) tears and wounds.” I learned something today!