Today, we embark on a reread of the originator of the Regency Romance, Georgette Heyer. Please grab your copy of The Black Moth, and join us!
The Black Moth
Setting: Rural England, plus Bath and London
Timeline: In the Year of Our Lord, circa 1750
• John “Jack” Anthony St. Ervine Delaney Carstares, Earl of Wyncham – martyred hero
• Jim Salter – Jack’s devoted servant
• The Hon. Richard “Dick” Carstares – Jack’s brother
• Lady Lavinia Carstares (née Belmanoir) – Richard’s wife
• Hugh Tracy Clare Belmanoir, Duke of Andover – Lavinia’s Machiavellian brother
• Lord Andrew Belmanoir – Lavinia’s scapegrace brother
• Mistress Diana Beauleigh – object of much affection
• Sir Miles O’Hara – Jack’s best friend
• Lady Molly O’Hara – Sir Miles’s wife
• Sir Horace Lovelace – troublemaker
Jack Carstares, wrongly accused but selflessly confessing to a social solecism of the highest order, retreats from Society and sets himself up as a prosperous Baronet… and highwayman! He holds up a coach containing the abducted beauty Diana Beauleigh, and saves her from an uncertain fate at the hands of the dastardly Duke of Andover, getting himself injured in the process. Cared for at the lady’s home, the two soon find love… but the Duke is in no way resigned to the loss of his coveted prize. Meanwhile, painful truths out of the past are revealed, relationships are tested, witticisms are dispensed and buckles are swashed in this very first of Georgette Heyer’s historical romances, published when she was merely—and astonishingly!—nineteen years of age.
A short opener gives us to understand that our Hero, for such we must surely think him, is a perfect cad, the kind of sardonic and seemingly heartless bad boy we love to see redeemed (or, at least, redeemed enough to make him acceptable to our Heroine, but without coming over all milksop). He is a Duke. He has for middle names, if you will credit it, Tracy Clare. He wears only black and silver, and both follows and disdains the expected fripperies of fashion. His letters are written at an escritoire, and signed DEVIL. He writes of duels and whippings and young ladies of perhaps assailable virtue. He is, in short, the very model of a major historical heartthrob.
AT THE CHEQUERS INN, FALLOWFIELD
This sees us visiting with one Mr. Chadber, a self-important innkeeper who’s professed political leanings give us a solid historical background in which to lay our scene. He is a Tory in support of Prince Charlie. He professes a hatred of the usurping “little German” who currently occupies the throne. He gave solace to those loyal to the Crown in "Forty-five.”
Thus, we find ourselves in mid-18th Century, England, where the arrival of a nervous lawyer-type interrupts our ruminations on the complicated affairs of state that ruled Britannia in times past. This lawyer, declaring himself in the employ of someone whom he rather haltingly designates “Sir Anthony Ferndale,” is at once considered a personage of importance to Chadber, despite the latter’s earlier distaste of him; we immediately discern that Sir Anthony must be a personage of passing great importance indeed.
Our first meeting with the gentleman does not disappoint. Dressed in the very latest of Parisian styles, Sir Anthony—who is not, in fact, Sir Anthony, but the infamous Lord John “Jack” Carstares, disreputable son of a furious Earl—greets the lawyer (Warburton, by name) suavely, much to the other’s wondering delight. Sent thither by Jack’s younger brother Richard, who’d had no sight of his elder in six years before having his carriage held up a highwayman who was, gasp! Jack!, Warburton’s business is the death of said furious Earl. With his Lordly father out of the way of both the family and the plot, our Hero (for such we now most assuredly think him, and not that dude with the girls’ names) must assume the title of the Earl of Wyncham. Words like “prodigious” are bandied about, and there’s a fair bit of “’tis”ing. Jack is already established as gentleman of wit and good humor, in addition to being described as “debonair,” and possessed of a “magnetic presence.”
He is also established, in our minds if not in Society’s hearts, as innocent of the crime that led to his banishment—which we must surely have suspected from the outset. It was not Jack who had darkened his family’s honor by cheating at cards (ye gods!), and thereby precipitating his exile into outlawry. The finger is, instead, subtly pointed at Carstares, Jr., who is now, of course, married to the woman Jack had loved and living the lie in probably guilty, but apparently comfortable, seclusion.
Politics comes back into play when Jack’s potential involvement in the Jacobite uprisings, then still a recent memory, is put forth, only to be scorned by our Hero. He declares himself a “good Whig” who is loyal to the current King, and so our estimation of his character is certainly intended to increase.
After some entreaties to his Lord that he abandon his lawless way of life, an excellent repast and a good night’s sleep, Warburton boards the Mail Coach and is sent back to Wyncham vaguely comforted, but not fully satisfied. And Jack, determinedly foolhardy and apparently not one to dwell, orders his horse brought around by his faithful man, Jim, and elects to clad himself in an outfit of apricot and cream. (Men’s fashions of the 18th-Century are truly to be wondered at.) Assured that his cloak, wig and pistols are laid out for him, and promising that he will take a care on the road—as some mysterious “they” are on “the lookout”—our Hero departs our scene, determining to be in Lewes by supper time. After, of course, Crime.
I still remember the first time I read The Black Moth. It was not my first Heyer, by any means (that honor going to A Convenient Marriage; and, yes, I’m aware it’s a wonder I continued with her at all), but it was my first non-Regency Heyer, and as such was something of a revelation. I had not at this stage—in my defense, I was twelve—read Baroness Orczy, Walter Scott or Mrs. Radcliffe, so its plot was startling and fresh to me, its language perplexing and beautiful, its historical setting a complete mystery and its characters immediately fascinating.
A Heyer sentence can say more than a paragraph—nay, a chapter!—poured from the pen of a lesser writer.
“The thin lips curled a little, sneering, as one dead-white hand travelled to and fro across the paper.”
This tells us who Hugh Tracy Clare Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, is beyond any measure of doubt.
“My lord was the gayest and most charming of companions, but talk ‘business’ he would not.”
That tells us all we need to know about Jack Carstares and his state of mind as our tale begins.
Even lesser characters, like the innkeeper Chadber, are given to us almost whole in the space of very few words:
“If he confined his patriotism to drinking success to Prince Charlie’s campaign, who shall blame him?”
This trait would go on to be a Heyer signature as her career progressed, but it is here, in this first display of genius, that we see it in its infancy, and can only wonder at how little maturing this magic required.
That Jack could never have cheated at cards, we know even before we meet him. That his brother Richard is suffering pangs of remorse over his part in the affair, we know too. We’re even clued in as to why Jack took the blame for this event: for love of his brother and the apparently fickle Lady Lavinia. And we get a window into the society of the day: a country divided and ruled by an upper class so steeped in the traditions of honor that the act of cheating in a card game, for Pete’s sake, leads one to become a highwayman. A career, by the way, commensurate to that of a carjacker but one so romanticized here that we see it as both a valid career choice and kind of sexy, as opposed to, you know, creepy and criminal.
But what will Jack’s wicked ways beget him this night? Does he make it to Lewes? And just where the hell is Lewes? Find out next time, in Chapter II!
Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.