Heyer, Georgette. Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle.

NY: Putnam, 1957.

Among other works, Georgette Heyer wrote nearly three dozen “Regency romances.” They have various things in common — a romance (naturally), humor, and an especially well-researched milieu — but they’re not all alike. Far from it.

Some of the books, like Cotillion, are light and frothy, a species of literary meringue. Others, like The Grand Sophie and An Infamous Army, display much deeper plot development and much rounder characters. With only a couple of exceptions, though, they are all very well written and vastly entertaining.

In this one, Sylvester, the Duke of Salford, is pushing thirty and still single, but he knows he’s going to have to marry soon and has essentially drawn up a list of specifications. Having held the title since he was nineteen, he never had the experience of being trained into his role and has always had everything entirely his own way. In fact, his mother, the Dowager Duchess, is becoming rather worried over signs of unthinking arrogance in her son, such as the assumption that any girl to whom he proposes will, of course, accept. All he has to do is make his choice. The Dowager has an old friend (the Duke’s godmother, in fact), who has a granddaughter who has just come out and the two of them would love to arrange a match. Miss Phoebe Marlow is presentable, though not astoundingly attractive, but there’s very little she doesn’t know about horses. So the Duke goes down to Somerset to look her over, to see if perhaps she meets his requirements — unaware that the previous year he had blithely snubbed her at a ball. However, it happens that Phoebe is also a fledgling author. And she knows just how to get even for that earlier cavalier treatment. Her first romantic novel features a number of characters based on real members of society and especially a villain who bears a striking resemblance to Salford himself. When her controlling and thoroughly disagreeable stepmother tells her the Duke is sure to make an offer for her, she flees her home in a panic in the dead of night, accompanied by her lifelong (non-romantic) friend, Thomas Orde, son of the local squire. She intends to seek refuge with her grandmother in London — but this is the middle of a severe winter and their vehicle ends up in a ditch, with young Orde breaking his leg. Salford, heading back to the city himself, comes upon them on the side of the road and takes on himself the responsibility of finding medical attention for Thomas and a maid for Phoebe, in order to protect her reputation.

You can see where this is going, right? Well, that’s actually just the beginning of the complex plotlines Heyer weaves. There’s also Sylvester’s five-year-old nephew, son of his late twin and now his heir and ward. And there’s his sister-in-law, the boy’s mother, contemplating remarriage to a known idiot, though an exceedingly wealthy one. She’s so totally self-absorbed you just want to slap her a few times. No way is the Duke going to relinquish his guardianship. And there’s that novel of Phoebe’s, about to appear in print to the scandal of all who read it (and perhaps appear in it). Will Salford get hold of it? Will he recognize himself? Phoebe has revised her opinions of his character and wishes she had never written him into the book — but his reaction is far worse than she expects.

These are some of Heyer’s most memorable characters and the writing here is some of her strongest, especially in the dialogues between the often indifferent Sylvester and the frequently outraged Phoebe. The plotting is close and not at all predictable in its details. I would rank this one among her top five novels.

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