Today, August 16th is author Georgette Heyer’s birthday. In celebration of the uncontested Queen of Regency Romance, I thought it quite fitting to read one of her novels this week and review it. However, what I ultimately selected was not based on a plot, or characters, or a recommendation by other Heyer aficionados such as Vic (Ms Place) at Jane Austen’s World, but by pure fangirl fervor. Yes, gentle readers, I do freely admit to succumbing to the charms of a handsome face and sexy voice as quickly as the next fawning female in selecting a Heyer audio book recording of Sylvester solely based on its reader, Richard Armitage.
For those who know of this talented British actor, I need say no more. For the benefit of the unenlightened, (and I am truly shocked by your egregious remiss), he has starred in both period and contemporary television dramas, monumentally as John Thornton in North & South (2004) and Sir Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood (2006-2009). Known for his dark, brooding, bad-boy looks, piercing blue eyes, and hypnotic voice, the good folks at Naxos Audiobooks may have unknowing chosen the one actor who could elevate Georgette Heyer into the limelight that she so richly deserves. He speaks – and half the world swoons.
On to the review … Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle was originally published in 1957, and is one of Georgette Heyer’s more popular Regency novels. The wealthy, arrogant and pragmatic Sylvester Rayne, the Duke of Salford, in his twenty-eight year has taken it upon himself to marry, much to the surprise of his widowed mother, producing a short-list of five suitable debutantes that meet his exacting standards. However, among the list of beautiful and accomplished young women she does not see her first choice, the Hon Phoebe Marlow, granddaughter of his godmother Lady Ingham. Sylvester travels to London to consult Lady Ingham, but he is put off by her inelegant attempt to fix the match solely based on the fact that her daughter, Phoebe’s mother, and his mother were best friends. Meanwhile, word reaches Phoebe’s spiteful stepmother that the Duke of Salford will shortly make an offer for her hand and commands her to accept. Horrified, Phoebe is also put off by the reasons for the alliance and her memory of the cold, proud Duke of Salford from her London season. When they are formally introduced she is shy and dull, and he is unimpressed. In a panic, Phoebe runs away to London, and the sanctuary of Lady Ingham, escorted by her childhood friend Tom Orde. A carriage accident interrupts their journey happened upon by Sylvester who thinks he has discovered a runaway marriage in progress. When a snow storm traps them all together at the local Inn, Sylvester begins to see that Phoebe is actually quite intelligent and interesting, and not at all the young woman of his first impression. Gallantly, he removes any concerns that she may be harboring on his proposing marriage to her. She in turn, is gratefully relieved sharing that nothing could possibly induce her to marry him!
In typical Heyer fashion her independent heroine and staid hero are the most unlikely couple imaginable. How she will bring them together is a humorous and engaging adventure, filled with pride, prejudice and misunderstandings. In addition, Heyer’s cast of secondary characters are predictable, but most welcome: Ianthe the spoilt and impulsive widow of Sylvester’s twin brother who thinks he is a villianous brute, Sir Nugent Fotherby her foppish and absurd fiancé, Tom Orde the steady and trusting family friend, and Lady Ingham the meddling but well meaning older relative among others. Heyer excels at bringing out the eccentric and the ridiculous in her characters played against dry humor like few can. The subplot of Phoebe anonymously writing a Gothic novel mirroring the personalities and physical characteristics of her family and friends is brilliant. When Sylvester’s signature devilish-looking eyebrows show up on the villain Count Ugolino scandalizing the Ton, she unintentionally admits that she was the authoress resulting in a hillarious fallout. As with all of Heyer’s romances, there is a hard wrought happy ending. How all the ill-informed opinions and misconceptions will be resolved, I will leave to the reader to discover.
Richard Armitage’s reading of this Heyer classic was a delight. My only disappoint, and he is certainly not at fault, is in the abridgement of this novel. Not only does the reader deserve all of Georgette Heyer’s witty dialogue and opulent descriptions of Regency finery, furnishing, and social machinations, but every sumptuous and simmeringly seductive word uttered by Richard Armitage possible. Like the narrator who so wisely advised us in Mansfield Park, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer, and read by Richard Armitage
Naxos Audiobooks, USA
Abridged edition 4 CD’s (4 h 51 m)
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