Constable published Georgette Heyer’s debut novel, The Black Moth, in September 1921. Houghton Miflin brought it out in the USA. Last year I celebrated its centenary with a blog on Who made Georgette Georgian.
Initially, the book attracted perfunctory but largely friendly reviews. Indeed, a cracker in the Boston Evening Transcripts of 23 November even took a stab at imitating the book’s faux Georgian narrative style. Interestingly, Heyer is a whole lot better at it than the reviewer. His delight in his own efforts cannot quite disguise several errors in his account of the story. We forgive him for the entertainment value. And he does make it sound like a good fun read. So it probably wasn’t bad for sales.
Anyway, the book was a commercial success pretty much immediately.
Wot The TLS Said
While I was trawling for The Black Moth’s entry in the TLS’s Fiction list – among the new and reproduced titles not accorded a full review – I noted Ruby M Ayres among the assembled company. It reminded me that Alex Stuart, one of the founders of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in 1960, pointed out that before the 2nd World War, the TLS had regularly reviewed romantic fiction. And ought to do so again!
To be fair, the TLS reviewers do seem to have tried to read genre fiction without undue superiority. Though sometimes the strain shows.
I have to admit I snorted over one impatient review. A Major General had written a science fiction story. Sadly, he forgot to mention that it was set in the future – for 300 pages.
A couple of weeks before the TLS covered Heyer’s debut, there was a paragraph on The Stolen Honeymoon by Marie Connor Leighton, Odhams Press, 2/-. “If it is possible to believe that a blind man who thinks he has married one girl can contentedly go through his honeymoon with another, the rest of this tale is plausible.” (Another hoot from me.)
This sort of eye-popping melodrama emerged from the heavily sentimental end of Victorian fiction and influenced the plots of Ethel M Dell and many of her contemporaries. As it did the silent cinema e.g. The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Hazards of Helen (1917).
Georgette Heyer, even as teenage writer in the middle of her highly adventurous and romantic debut, never strayed that far from reason and good sense.
“Times Literary Supplement, September 22nd 1921. THE BLACK MOTH A romance of the Eighteenth Century By Georgette Heyer 223pp Constable 7/6.
“This stages the eighteenth century with the usual stage business and mystery highwaymen, duelling, gaming and high society in London, Bath and Sussex (Horace Walpole crosses the stage for a moment). The peg on which the plot hangs is a dramatic moment when Richard Carstares, son of Lord Wyncham, cheats at cards and his elder brother, Jack, heir to the title, takes the blame, quits society and takes to the road. Jack’s easy-going, smiling quixotry is almost excessive: but he makes a fascinating hero of romance and it is a well-filled story which keeps the reader pleased.”
Note that this is NOT of that genre which Heyer pretty much created, the Regency comedy of manners.. (The first of those, Regency Buck, wasn’t published until 1935.) It is well and truly set in the 18th century. We see that from the clothes, the nod to the politics of the 1745 Jacobite rising and the off-stage historical characters. Not only Walpole but also George Selwyn appear as probable card-playing companions in the London scenes.
The One About the Highwayman?
Or is it?
The cover designer thought it was about the highwayman. So did the reviewers. But no highwayman is mentioned until page 12 when a nervous “little green-clad lawyer” asks the self-important landlord of The Chequers Inn, Fallowfield if he had had any dealings with highwayman of late. (The landlord is offended.)
It feels to me that, at this stage, the plot is going to be much closer to The Viper of Milan, albeit set in Georgian London rather than fourteenth century Lombardy, than to any of the existing highwayman tales.
Marjorie Bowen’s story is of a family as dysfunctional as it is murderous. It was published in 1906, when the author was 16.
The Viper is strong meat – there is one scene of horrifying emotional manipulation, which I still remember vividly. A woman is told by her brother, the wicked Duke, that he will force her to drink poison. He leaves her alone in her prison, with only the poisoned goblet of wine on the table in front of her. In the morning he returns to find she’s gone mad with grief and fear. Laughing, he downs the goblet of wine. It was never poisoned at all.
Still turns up in my bad dreams, that one, even though I last read it when I was a teenager myself.
And what has this to do with The Black Moth? Well, the title, for one thing. The Viper of Milan is the wicked Duke of Milan. And the Black Moth is London Society’s nickname for Heyer’s first wicked English Duke.
The Duke of Belmanoir is grand, elegant and very expensive. He is notorious for his chilly glamour, his ruthlessness – he has killed his man in a duel – and his strangely hypnotic personality. And he’s the character who starts the book.
Take that, together with the title, and we could be following a true 18th century author into Clarissa territory here. But Heyer veers away just in time.
Publishers initially turned down The Viper because they thought it “inappropriate” for a young woman to have written. Most satisfyingly, it went on to be a best-seller.
Bowen had not had an easy life to up till then. Her family was reduced to poverty when her alcoholic father left home and was found dead in a London street. What’s more, her mother is described as “less than affectionate”. Sounds grim.
Her first husband died of TB, after only four years of marriage, and she remarried. She went on to write 150 novels under three male pen names as well as Marjorie Bowen. It seems that she made a bit of a corner in gothic horror – what one critic called “the more perilous emotions”. Along the way, she garnered several admirers, including Graham Greene.
Colin Wilson, author of the The Outsider, said she wrote “bad adventure stories”. Yet, as recently as 2016, Michael Dirda in the TLS was lamenting that editors “aren’t exactly clamouring for articles about … the eerie stories of Marjorie Bowen.”
Setting aside the indicators of title, prologue and epilogue, the chief character and romantic male lead of The Black Moth is Jack Carstares. He is a highwayman by profession. So what is a highwaymen and what literary models did Heyer have to draw on?
Highwaymen ride. That’s the thing to get hold of. They are thieves who ambush you while you are travelling on the open road. Usually they choose a deserted heath and they can make a fast getaway because they are mounted. This makes them intrinsically superior to footpads who are not. So any highwayman is already a superior class of person. And, as in Alfred Noyes’s 1906 poem The Highwayman, they all love their horses.
Having said that, I contend that there are two basic subspecies of highwayman. First is your working stiff, who does it for the money, lives pretty much hand-to-mouth and looks it. He will come to a bad end on the gallows.
This type of highwayman enjoys himself, cocking a snook at his betters and living free. He may flirt with his female victims. He may even be a bit of a dandy. And if he, too, is caught and condemned, he will wave and jest with his admirers as he travels to the gallows.
Here’s one such celebrity highwayman’s end from a fantastic blog on the Vauxhall History website.
“On the day of his death Abershaw was on full tilt, sporting a sprig of myrtle out of the side of his mouth, his shirt artfully unbuttoned to the waist, and playing with his luxuriant dark curly locks. To his fans he was a Jack-the-lad who went even to his death thumbing his nose at the Establishment.”
Vivid and chilling. Read it!
The Highwayman of 18th Century Literature
The five-times married and multi-partnered Moll Flanders (1722) finally goes to America with her Lancashire husband, Jemy, a professional highwaymen whom she met in prison. This chap is a survivor and a working stiff; also charming and one of her better husbands.
“Captain” MacHeath in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), on the other hand, is definitely a celebrity bad boy. He is the leader of a band of highwaymen and every woman in the play is in love with him. Rivals betray him several times but he escapes hanging “by the Taste of the Town.” In performance, the audience generally joins forces with the female dramatis personae to get him off.
The Highwayman in Heyer’s Contemporaries
Beau Brocade has good manners but he still robs the passengers on the Plymouth Fly and it’s clear that the inn-keeper and his nephew are co-conspirators. But Dolly the Chambermaid confronts him at his next attempt, unmoved by his manners or his “famous gold-sprigged tambour vest”.
He goes to the gallows and…
“Everyone knows the speech he made; swore that he ‘rather admired the Jade!’– Waved too the crowd with his gold laced hat… This was the finish of ‘Beau Brocade’!”
Then in 1907 Baroness Orczy produced an entirely different Beau Brocade, first the novel, then a play and eventually a silent movie in 1916.
I remember reading it in my Scarlet Pimpernel phase. It was a battered blue hardback with the title in gold lettering, long since lost. It inspired one of my favourite games, as a child. I would lurk under the three apple trees at the end of our garden. Then I would burst out, waving my pistol and hold up the carriage in which my playmate of the day was travelling.
Its hero didn’t have quite the panache of Sir Percy Blakeney, however and I had pretty well forgotten it until I started digging into the antecedents of The Black Moth. But, like Heyer’s hero, he is a wronged man; an officer and gentleman, albeit disguised; dashing, chivalrous and a bit of a Robin Hood. He dresses very well and his name is Jack.
There’s plenty of action – much of it, it must be said, borrowed, as a tremendous review by a more recent reader than myself describes. Unlike most highwaymen of fact and fiction, he even gets a happy ending, with his loyal lady love. (She’s not a patch on Marguerite St Just, though. Or Heyer’s heroine, Diana, for that matter.)
Heyer’s Highwayman Hero
So there was plenty of stuff out there for a debut novelist to rework into a swashbuckling best seller, if she gave it some welly. The astonishing thing is that Heyer did more than that. She gave the story a hinterland. Not just a backstory, though the TLS reviewer was right to pick up on that card party incident. She gave the hero a real life dilemma.
I agree with the reviewer that Jack’s taking the blame for his brother’s cheating is quixotic almost to the point of implausibility. But Heyer convinces because 1) it’s on the spur of the moment and 2) his beloved brother needs him to do it and almost subliminally pushes him into it. Furthermore, to some extent the whole incident is being orchestrated by the creepily hypnotic Duke.
After that, Jack is not really quixotic at all. Basically, he’s made his bed and he has to lie on it. That means that he isn’t just a highwayman for the fun of it. He needs the money – a working stiff in fact. Though he does also sometimes mete out justice to the downtrodden. (Both very funny and deeply satisfying. Bliss!)
But when it comes to falling in love – well, he’s a disgraced man and can’t honourably ask anyone to marry him. So it’s out of the question.
The heroine has a truly heroic stab at changing his mind, though. And that is both touching and very funny, too.
To sum up, I think it is a really amazing first book. Flawed, certainly, and with many minor characters who have not reached their full potential. (They return, most notably in These Old Shades, but also, I would argue, in The Masqueraders and other, later, books.)
But, it’s a lively, energetic book, with real problems for the main characters and, like all the best comedies, a genuine possibility that all might not end well. And it already has that wonderful Heyer quality of delivering witty, civilised exchanges that hint at deeper emotion.
It’s so good, in fact, that I’m not even envious. Well, not much.