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 shortlist 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
Trade paperback (400) pages
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).
© 2007 – 2011 Laura Wallace, Austenprose