Georgette Heyer has been on my mind – and my bedside table – an awful lot recently, partly because her delicious novels are always the perfect antidote to depressing headlines, and partly because Jilly Cooper chose Devil’s Cub as one of her Books That Built Me. Devil’s Cub is the sequel to These Old Shades, the novel that made Heyer’s reputation as a historical novelist, in which the deeply attractive, irredeemably badly behaved Marquis of Vidal, every bit as rakeish, reckless and shockingly loose in the haft as his father, plans to run off to France with one girl, but finds he has absconded with her sister instead. Vidal is a marvellous literary badboy, and meets his match in the fearless, sharp-witted Mary Challoner in a novel where screwball comedy meets satisfying historical romance.
Vidal spoke softly: “Come here.”
“I have something to say to you first, my lord,” returned Miss Challoner calmly.
“Good God, girl, do you suppose it was to hear you talk that I brought you to France?” Vidal said derisively. “I’ll swear you know better than that!”
“Perhaps,” admitted Miss Challoner. “Nevertheless, sir, I beg you will listen to me. You won’t pretend, I hope, that you are fallen in love with me.”
“Love?” he said scornfully. “No, madam. I feel no more love for you than I felt for your pretty sister. But you’ve thrown yourself at my head, and by God I’ll take you!” His eyes ran over her. “You’ve a mighty trim figure, my dear, and from what I can discover, more brain than Sophia. You lack her beauty, but I’m not repining.”
She looked gravely up at him. “My lord, if you take me, it will be for revenge, I think. Have I deserved so bitter a punishment?”
“You’re not very complimentary, are you?” he mocked.
She rose, holding her pistol behind her. “Let me go now,” she said. “You do not want me, and indeed I think you have punished me enough.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” he said. “Are you piqued that I liked Sophia better? Never heed it, my dear; I’ve forgotten the wench already.”
“My lord,” she said desperately, “indeed I am not what you think me!”
He burst into one of his wild laughs, and she realized that in this mood she could make no impression upon him.
He was advancing towards her. She brought her right hand from behind her, and levelled the pistol. “Stand where you are!” she said. “If you come one step nearer I shall shoot you down.”
He stopped short. “Where did you get that thing?” he demanded.
“Out of your coach,” she answered.
“Is it loaded?”
“I don’t know,” said Miss Challoner, incurably truthful.
He began to laugh again, and walked forward. “Shoot then,” he invited, “and we shall know. For I’m coming several steps nearer, my lady.”
Miss Challoner saw that he meant it, shut her eyes, and resolutely pulled the trigger. There was a deafening report and the Marquis went staggering back. He recovered in a moment. “It was loaded,” he said coolly.
I asked Jilly Cooper why she had chosen Devil’s Cub –
“I went to a boarding school. I was so miserable. The only men we ever saw were lorry drivers and very ancient gardeners. Desperately frustrated we were, and Georgette Heyer wrote these marvellous novels and they had the kind of amazingly glamorous heroes we dreamt about. It’s a heavenly read – she writes very, very well and characterises very well and the loveliest thing, the Devil’s Cub’s father appears in a previous book [These Old Shades] where he marries a girl and twenty four year’s later in this one, he’s still married to her and still desperately in love. We like love. [Vidal] is horrible, not a nice man at all, but he’s very good looking and he’s terribly nice to [Mary Challenor] later when she’s sick on the boat…I think people can be reformed by love, in fiction anyway.”
Heyer’s model of the literary badboy – aristocratic, arrogant, maverick and privileged, a great horseman and incorrigible hell-raiser, an inveterate womaniser, broad of shoulder and long of leg, effortlessly beautifully dressed and capricious yet noble, loyal, and, deep-down, kind-hearted – has powerful echoes in Cooper’s great fictional hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. It’s interesting to see with what great skill both authors construct a hero who is at once extraordinarily badly behaved, and yet also utterly irresistible.
Heyer has a huge cult following – and has been chosen by several Books That Built Me guests: Sarah Churchwell, India Knight and Sasha Wilkins amongst others- I recently recorded a podcast with author Sarrah Manning to talk about our shared passion – you can listen here on soundcloud, or subscribe to the Books That Built Me podcasts on iTunes.
I’m also a huge fan of the Backlisted podcasts – the latest is a very enjoyable and erudite look at Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in the company of Cathy Rentzenbrink and Una McCormack. Very much worth a listen.