Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

Our hero is 28, wealthy, with vast estates and dependents, and head of his house, having come into his inheritance at a young age.  He was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit; but to be fair, he is no more villainous than any other young man of large fortune used to getting his own way.  He needs an outspoken heroine to teach him a lesson about his self-consequence and pride.  Sound familiar?

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle is one of Georgette Heyer’s most delightful novels in the genre she invented.  Set in 1817-18, for Austen aficionados it provides not only engaging characters, period manners, and lively dialogue, but what could be considered an exploration of one of Austen’s most beloved characters:  Mr. Darcy.

Not that this is fan fiction:  Sylvester’s character, though clearly inspired by Mr. Darcy, is fully developed, arguably more so than his literary progenitor.  The novel explores how a young man in such circumstances could be anything other than arrogant.  And Heyer heaps the (dis)advantages on Sylvester to the limits of possibility:  Sylvester is a duke.  This rank elevates the story from Austen’s genteel world to Heyer’s mostly aristocratic one, firmly in the London social scene as well as country house drawing rooms.

The novel opens with a leisurely exposition showing Sylvester in his natural setting:  at his country seat.  How delightful would it have been to be introduced thus to Mr. Darcy:  to see first not his selfishness, but his kindness to his servants, his cheerful undertaking of duty above pleasure, his childhood memories of playing across the vast demesne visible from a window?  He visits his invalid mother, with whom he has a relationship based in mutual and genuine affection, and here we learn the difficulty:  he has never been in love, but has decided to take a wife.  He has a short list of candidates (which he presents to the appalled duchess) and no doubt that any one of them is his for the asking.  And sadly, he is probably right:  not many young women would refuse the Duke of Salford.

But if Sylvester is a story-book hero, Phoebe is anything but a story-book heroine.  She is neither beautiful nor accomplished:  she is small, thin, awkward in company, and looks her best on horseback, where she is intrepid and nearly fearless.  But she is afraid of shouting and remonstrating, and she is also an ugly duckling who doesn’t fit in, the child of her father’s first marriage who finds no sympathy or understanding from her father, stepmother, or stepsisters.  Her one solace is writing:  she has written an absurd gothic novel in the style of Mrs. Radcliffe, peppered with caricatures of people she encountered in society during her first London season.  The roman-à-clef novel-writing heroine has become a trope of Regency fiction today, but Heyer may have invented it here.

Heyer sketches in these characters and their respective milieux deftly, and then plunges them into adventure.  Much of the rest of the novel is a “road book,” with encounters while traveling providing opportunities for the characters to meet and get to know each other within a comparatively short period of time.  There are also scenes set during the social season, including a pivotal one in a London ballroom.  How Sylvester and Phoebe come to an eventual understanding is as well-crafted and satisfying as that of Mr. Darcy and Lizzie.

But it is the cast of secondary characters that make this book a truly delightful read.  From Phoebe’s childhood friend, Tom Orde, to her stepmother, Lady Marlow, to Alice, the landlady’s daughter at an inn (who tells Sylvester that he is more important than a gobblecock), to Sylvester’s vain and stupid (but beautiful) widowed sister-in-law, Ianthe (Lady Henry Raine), with her six-year-old son, Master Edmund Raine, who is Sylvester’s ward, and her dandified suitor, Sir Nugent Fotherby, every character is well-rendered, memorable, and often very funny.  They, with Heyer’s skill, elevate the novel from being merely a love story to highly developed comedy, with elements of melodrama sneaking in to poke fun at genre conventions, all showing Heyer to be a mistress of her craft whom many have tried to emulate, but none equaled.

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle is the latest re-issue of Georgette Heyer’s oeuvre by Sourcebooks Casablanca.  It is the first one of these which I have read, and overall it was a pleasurable experience:  nice size, lovely cover art (which actually resembles Phoebe!), smooth paper, and easy-to-read typesetting.  My only complaint is that I found half-a-dozen “stealth scannos” (as they are termed over at Project Gutenberg’s Distributed Proofreading site), most of which are new errors that were not present in my 1995 HarperPaperbacks edition.  Although I suppose this is inevitable, it is still disappointing.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (400) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238802

© 2007 – 2011 Laura Wallace, Austenprose

16 thoughts on “Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

  1. I LOVE Sylvester! It’s one of my favorite Heyers and favorite Heyer Heroes! I’m happy to hear Sourcebooks is re-releasing it. Thanks for the review!

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  2. I listened to Sylvester on my recent trip to England. Aside from the charming story, I also had Richard Armitage’s voice to keep me company as I took the train from Stratford-upon-Avon to Bath. If that isn’t enough to make one fall in love with a book, I don’t know what is.

    I absolutely loved the story, though I felt the beginning was a little slow. After the 3rd or 4th chapter, the action picked up and I was carried away by the utter absurdity of it. I loved the way Heyer did a double or triple play on the Gothic novel. Of course, there is Phoebe’s own tale, which I wish I could actually read. More subtle however is the shading Heyer’s own tale takes. The various meetings between Sylvester and Phoebe are delightfully ridiculous, and yet handled in a manner so deft as to make them utterly realistic.

    Thanks for the review, Laura–I’m glad to see one of my favorites treated in such glowing terms.

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  3. I read this, along with all of the other Heyer regency romances, about 2 years ago. Now I’ve got the Richard Armitage version and I can’t wait to listen to it this summer.

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  4. I too have listening to the Armitage version and reviewed it when it came out in Aug 2009 and loved it. My one reservation was that the story had been abridged.

    https://austenprose.com/2009/08/16/sylvester-or-the-wicked-uncle-by-georgette-heyer-as-read-by-richard-armitage-%E2%80%93-a-review/

    Laura’s great review points out the close comparisons to Pride and Prejudice. Phoebe and Sylvester share main personality traits with Lizzy and Darcy. His pride, her prejudice. Watching how Heyer has them spare and overcome them is perfection.

    Of the Heyer Regency romance novels I have read this is definitely in my top 3 so far.

    Richard Armitage fans (which I count myself among) might have to wait a while for another Heyer Naxos audio recording since he is so busy making big movies. *sigh*

    Thanks for this eloquent review Laura. I think you sold me on reading this again soon.

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  5. I havent yet read the book but recently finished listening to the Audiobook (read by the lovely Richard Armitage) and really enjoyed it. I look forward to reading the book now and seeing what was left out of the Audio version.

    Cotillion will always be my favourite Heyer (I just love Freddy) but this one is not far behind.

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  6. one of my favorite Heyer’s of all time. I think I called it Northanger’s Cathy meets P&P’s Darcy. Hilarious…delicious, I can read it again and again!

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  7. I’ve never read anything by Georgette Heyer before, although I do have a few of her titles on my to-read list. This sounds like a wonderful story full of all kinds of interesting characters! Adding it to my list ;)

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  8. I just listened to the audiobook of this while driving to and from St. Louis. Richard Armitage’s voice is a wonderful bonus to the story, even though the audiobooks which he reads are all abridged. Sourcebooks has also released Sylvester on Kindle, so I added that to my Kindle, so I now have the book, the Kindle version and the audiobook. I should be set up forever!

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  9. Oh dear. Still another Georgette Heyer offering to place on my “must-read” list. I’ve read approximately 10 of her delightful works and would be remiss if I didn’t eventually read ALL of them. Our library system (bless them) has virtually all of Georgette Heyer’s works which saves me a great deal of $$$$. Thanks for letting me share…..

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  10. I so enjoyed Richard Armitage’s reading of Venetia that I instantly requested Sylvester from the library. I can hardly wait to hear him do the voices of all the characters you mentioned! I’m sorry to know that it’s an abridged version, though. I could listen to his voice for hours.

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  11. I had a simultaneous double experience reading Heyer’s Sylvester and listening to the abridged audioversion in the same period in September 2009 . I so enjoyed it! Thanks for this thorough review.

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  12. Thanks for the comments!

    Valerie, you are in for a real treat. I envy you and Jeffrey the experience of reading any Heyer novel for the first time!

    I want to make a note for the sticklers out there: I misspelled the surname of Sylvester’s family. It’s “Rayne,” not “Raine.”

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  13. A little late to the party here, but I am a big fan of Sylvester — I bought Venetia first to listen to because of Richard Armitage, and then got the CDs of Sylvester. Of course, like a true addict, I had to go for more and bought the books. The books add so much that is not in the abridged recordings.

    Like the reviewer, I appreciate the greater information about the “Darcy” character Sylvester. I do want to emphasize, however, that after the slow start, I think Sylvester is laugh-out-loud funny as a book.

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  14. Will I be voted off the island if I disagree? This book was my first Georgette Heyer, and although I found much to admire in it, I was completely thrown off by the very modern speech patterns of the characters, the effect of which I fear ruined what otherwise might have been a most enjoyable read.

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    • No Karen. You have not been voted off Georgette Heyer Island.

      The modern speech did not jump out at me. I thought in comparison to other historical fiction produced today, it seemed much more true to the era. I don’t think Heyer was trying to emulate Regency era speech or fiction written in the style of Austen, Scott or Burney. She does use a lot of cant or slang straight from the era though. I find her historical research amazing. I would try reading another of her works. Some of my favs are Venetia, Friday’s Child and Sylvester. They make me laugh. I love her energy and character development.

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