05 February 2007

Book Review: Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

Sylvester Sylvester Rayne, Duke of Salford, has decided to marry before his nephew and ward Edmund gets old enough to feel put out by the loss of his position as heir presumptive. To the despair of his romantic mother he approaches the exercise in coldly business-like fashion, but he does unbend enough to allow his godmother to add her granddaughter to his shortlist. Unfortunately on visiting her family estate he discovers that Phoebe Marlow is not duchess material: a shrinking violet when in the presence of her autocratic stepmother, and a regular tomboy when not. And Phoebe, after meeting Sylvester the previous Season, quickly pegged him as aloof and proud to the point of arrogance; so much so that when she wrote her first novel (a Gothic), she cast him as the villainous Count Ugolino.

Desperate to avoid being railroaded into marriage, Phoebe runs away to her grandmother in London, delivering quite a blow to the duke’s ego in the process. And things only get worse when the novel is published and becomes a sensation. Thanks to Sylvester’s - and Ugolino’s - distinctive and devilish-looking eyebrows, the unflattering portrait is instantly recognisable, and the original is furious. Then there’s his spoilt sister-in-law Ianthe, who wants custody of her son regardless of the terms of her late husband’s will, or the fact that her fiancé is a ridiculous fop whom Edmund loathes. She found Phoebe’s novel quite inspiring - especially the part where the heroine kidnaps Ugolino’s ill-used nephew to safety. And Phoebe’s talent for getting into trouble is such that she finds herself right in the middle of it, much to Sylvester’s horror.

Of course you know from the start that there’ll be a happy ending, but most of the fun is in getting there and Georgette Heyer can always be counted on to make the journey enjoyable. She has a wonderful way of bringing out the eccentric and absurd in her characters, particularly the ones who deserve it. In this book that’s Sir Nugent Fotherby, Ianthe’s foppish fiancé, who in one scene brags to Phoebe about his perspicacity in selecting his recently-purchased horse, a horse she knows was sold to him by her father for way too much money. There were a lot of moments where the poor girl had a hard time restraining her giggles (and the same can be said for this girl).

This book gave me something to think about, because I have faint hopes of one day writing the Great Australian Mystery Novel, and can think of a few former acquaintances who would make wonderful villains. But since none of them are happily-ever-after material like Sylvester, I’ll have to make sure they’re sufficiently disguised. But not too much. That would take the fun out of it.

Rating: B

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776