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

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

Originally published in 1957, Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle is one of Georgette Heyer’s more popular Regency Romance novels. Its protagonist (or maybe antagonist) is the wealthy, arrogant and pragmatic Sylvester Rayne, the Duke of Salford. In his twenty-eighth year he has taken it upon himself to marry, much to the surprise of his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Salford, producing a short-list of five suitable debutantes that meet his exacting standards of an accomplished woman! (Mr. Darcy was more generous in his assessment of the female sex. He allowed half a dozen ladies “in the whole range of my acquaintance, which are really accomplished.”) ;-) However, among the list of beautiful and well-bred young women his mother does not see her first choice, the Hon Phoebe Marlow, granddaughter of his godmother Dowager Lady Ingham.

Sylvester soon 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 Ingram, escorted by her childhood friend Tom Orde. A carriage accident interrupts their journey happened upon by Lord Rayne 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 villainous 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 hilarious 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, but Sylvester stands as one of my favorite Heyer novels and worthy of moving up your TBR list.

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer
Harlequin (2009)
Trade paperback (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0373773855

On a whim, Laurel Ann Nattress created Austenprose, a blog celebrating the brilliance of Jane Austen’s writing and the many offshoots that she has inspired. As a bookseller at Barnes & Noble she delights in selling her favorite author’s works to the masses and in her spare time, she is currently deep into her editing duties for a Jane Austen short story anthology to be published in 2011 by Random House. An expatriate of southern California she lives in a country cottage near Seattle, where it rains a lot. You can follow Laurel Ann on Twitter as Austenprose.

Celebrating Georgette Heyer – Day 14 Giveaway

Enter a chance to win one copy of Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer (Harlequin, 2009) by leaving a comment stating what intrigues you about the plot or characters, or if you have read it, which is your favorite character or scene by midnight Pacific time, Monday, September 6th, 2010. Winners will be announced on Tuesday, September 7th, 2010. Shipment to continental US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

Upcoming event posts

Day 14    Aug 23 – Review: Venetia
Day 15    Aug 25 – Review: The Unknown Ajax
Day 15    Aug 25 – Review: A Civil Contract
Day 16    Aug 27 – Review: The Nonesuch

Celebrating Georgette Heyer   •   August 1st – 31st, 2010

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer, as Read by Richard Armitage – A Review

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer, Naxous Audiobooks (2009)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 First edition cover of Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer (1957)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 as John Thornton in North & South (2004)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)
ISBN: 978-9626349250 

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