These Old Shades was delightful. I really didn’t know what to make of it when I first started reading. I love foppish heroes that are deceptive, perspective and dangerous and it was clear from the first page Justin Alastair would be all three.
“He walked mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose-lines, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast. A three-cornered hat, point-edged, was set upon his powdered wig and in his hand he carried a long beribboned cane.”
The book opens with Justin, the Duke of Avon buying a young man from his abusive older brother to turn him into his page. The boy, Léon, is slavishly grateful, to the consternation of everyone but the Duke. The Duke of Avon is known to all as Satanas, He has a terrible reputation for heartlessness and selfishness. In his youth he recklessly lost one fortune and won another and since then has cut a swath through polite society, careening from one scandal to another. He is untouchable, crowds part for him, and he floats through parties being coldly superior. He does have one good friend, Hugh Davenant, who is both kind and sober and hints that Justin is redeemable hero, but even he is concerned about what Justin might be up to with the boy.
Of course, Léon does turns out to be Léonie. I am not actually a fan of most “girls in boys pants” books. Too often the books end up having homophobic or transphobic passages where the hero is discomfited by his increasing attraction to the young-man/heroine or angry at being mislead. However this is not just a girl-running-around-in boys-clothes-for-a-lark story. Léonie has been living as as boy for all of her adolescence and is loathe to return to being a girl. Although she changes her clothes and grows out her hair, she never quite let go of her boyishness. And Avon never goes around objectifying her when she wears her trousers. Although she is much admired as Léon the page, it is accepted as a matter of course that one’s page should be decorative. It is only Rupert, Avon’s clumsy and sometimes boorish brother that ever makes an overt comment about Léonie figure in her trousers.
I did love how Léonie’s “boyish habits” are marked contrasts to Avon. Her impulsive physical responses, her blood-thirstiness contrast against Avon’s cold planning and reserve. She is forever threatening people with guns or chasing them around with rapiers, while he defeats the villain not by physically overpowering him but by outmaneuvering him through insinuation and storytelling. Léonie is forever chasing or running and Avon is just there at the right time and place looking completely unruffled, his only weapon, his fan. He is masterful and powerful without the over-used masculine signifiers.
I was amused and a bit surprised by the blatancy of the D/s dynamic in play in Justin and Léon’s interactions. Their is not merely a master-servant relationship as Heyer loves to contrast how Avon’s employee’s respond to him versus how Léon does. No other servant thirst for Avon’s approbation in the same way and he certainly does not pet them. Maybe it is all the BDSM themed novels I read in the last few years talking, but I couldn’t unsee once I did.
(Sidenote: Heyer does a fabulous job humanizing the servants both in their scenes below stairs and in their reactions to the many ridiculous tasks they are asked achieve and I particularly like the subtle ways Léon/Léonie interacts with them)
I was worried early on that Heyer wouldn’t address the very real power-differential between them so I could accept Léonie’s ability to fully consent, since he had literally bought her but she managed to do while not abandoning their dynamic. Instead it morphs, Léonie becomes his ward, he informally adopts her and refers to her as his Infant. Thankfully she never calls him Daddy or Papa, Justin is always her “Monseigneur”. Avon largely removes himself from Léonie’s life, sending her to stay in his country estate and entrusting her to care of his sister and cousin. Under this arrangement Léonie grows in confidence, and tests out her assertiveness. While she was Léon, the page, Avon had already given her more leave to question and be contrary than he did with the rest of his employees, but as his ward, she test out her power against her new guardians, Avon’s sister Fanny, her poor duenna and Rupert.
Avon delights in spoiling Léonie, and letting her have her way, and she delights in provoking him into chastising her. His friends and family don’t fail to notice the dynamic is as much romantic as it is paternal and they debate whether the 20 year age gap in their ages is a pro or a con. Avon persists in thinking of himself as unworthy of her because of those tarnished years till the end but for Léonie all younger men seem to be merely boys at play, when she only has eyes for him, her protector and provider.
I didn’t grow up re-reading dog-eared hand-me down copies of Heyer novels but I have really grown to love her wit and love for understatements to show the depth of emotion. The “Not entirely’, he said, and forgot to drawl.” nearly killed me in that climatic scene, his cool demeanor collapsing as he tries convince Léonie she shouldn’t waste her love on him.
I also continue to be enchanted with her narrative voice as it is both indulgent & lightly sarcastic and her ability to creates a crowded yet vibrant cast of secondary characters. In this novel I particularly loved the little solo scenes she gives to the Marlings and Merivales. Their relationships are incredibly different than Léonie and Avon’s, but they are no less loving. And best of all when I finished These Old Shades I had to immediately re-open Devil's cub and re-read that first chapter again, now that I know who all those people are.
Every year in Aug Not-a-Book-Club (#notabc) reads a Heyer novel. I was not a founding member of this book club but I crashed their discussion of Venetia that first year and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since. Our pick for this Aug is These Old Shades, if you have read this novel and want to discuss it please join us on Aug 20th (8PM EST) when we will discuss it on Twitter.