A confession

I recently read Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades and I must report that the book was a major fail for me. I know many many others love this book, but I did not. I found the authorial voice to be overtly misogynist to the point where it interfered with my ability to enjoy the novel. I very nearly put it down unfinished.

On the other hand, I also recently read Frederica and I loved loved LOVED this book. I would like to know why no one has made a movie of this delightful couple and their love story. Frederica was a major win for me. I think I like it better than Venetia. In these days of Jane Austen remakes, there is plenty of room for Heyer movies. Where the heck are they? The two German movies titled “Frederica” or “Frederika” do not appear to be Heyer’s book.

For those of you who have read These Old Shades, did you like it, and why or why not? What about Frederica?

If someone were to be wise and make a movie out of Frederica, who should be cast? Obviously, Alexander Skarsgard should play the male lead.

Opine in the comments.

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Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Carolyn, I wholeheartedly agree with you about These Old Shades. I just didn’t like any of the characters! But I loved Frederica.

I don’t think it is obvious Alexander Skarsgard should play the male lead. How about Rupert Penry-Jones, as he was in The 29 Steps?

12 years ago

Firstly,I must say I love Heyer’s books. However, like with any author I have my favorite books of her (The Grand Sophy). I can agree with you that someone may interpret These Old Shades as being a bit misogynist. Though when reading Heyer’s books I am not offended by these attitudes in characters because I think it may be accurate of the Georgian times. Heyer does not always write with the politically correct phrase in mind,alas though this does not diminish my enjoyment of her books.

Jenny Brown
12 years ago

I’m with you on These Old Shades. The combination of old fatherly hero and baby-like heroine seemed to me to verge on pedophilia.

I don’t find baby-women heroines in the novels written during the Georgian age. That fantasy is an invention of the Victorians–like Dickens’ Dora. That image becomes more appealing to the society at large as women, in real life, get more power.

Heyer herself was a dominant woman married to a weak man. That may partially explain why she returns so often to the fantasy of the daddy-like hero. A modern woman who has actually BEEN dominated by a “daddy knows best” male may not find it so appealing.

I liked many of Heyer’s books a lot better 30 years ago than I do now. Devil’s Cub is another one that I adored in my youth which currently makes me uneasy.

A Civil Contract and the Grand Sophy are my favorites now.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

Speaking of Heyer….are we thinking of waiting until next March to do another read along? Or sooner? I just ask because I love sitting outside in the sun in the summer and reading. I hope the Riskies feel the same and maybe we could read this summer?

I have not read These Old Shades. I am finding that I really enjoy Heyer’s mysteries though.

12 years ago

Jenny Brown makes an interesting comment that as women get more power in real life the ideal becomes less powerful and more of a child-woman. I think it corresponds to the change in how women were portrayed in movies in teh 1930/1940s versus the 1950s. Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” is very different from the demure post-war heroines, when women were being encouraged to give up their Rosie the Riveter jobs and return home.

As for TOS, it’s also somewhat repellent for its views on bloodlines. The peasant boy who took Leonie’s place is still a slow-thinking peasant as an adult despite having an education and living among the aristocracy. Leonie, on the other hand, is all that is aristocratic despite having been raised in a lower class household — “blood will tell” could have been the epigram at the beginning of the book. I know this is how some people thought back then, but I’m a product of my times just as Heyer was. I do not find such an attitude attractive in the 21st C and it reduces my enjoyment of the romance.

Question: Does the fact that it’s a romance mean that such attitudes bother us more than if it were literary fiction or some other genre?

Susanna Fraser
12 years ago

I loved TOS when I read it as a teenager. At 16 or 17 I had no problem with very young heroines paired with men approaching middle age. As a 39-year-old (and the mother of a daughter) it disturbs me. What kind of man my age would want to be with a woman half his age?

The bloodline issue bothered me even then, though at the time I found it more baffling than offensive–I knew MY ancestors were the very opposite of aristocratic, and I knew *I* was smart and could be sophisticated when the need arose, after all. Now, I can put up with small doses of “blood will tell” in older books, but on the rare occasions I encounter it in current books, it’s a wallbanging offense. (The characters can think that way if it’s historically appropriate–I’m only offended if it seems like the author agrees with them.)

12 years ago

I will have to reread “These Old Shades” before I comment on it–although actually the fact that I haven’t reread it as I have my favorite Heyers probably says it all! I agree. Frederica I do reread from time to time; she’s an adult, which really does make the story. Kat, I agree that Sophy is another of my favorites!

Megan Frampton
12 years ago

I like These Old Shades, but it’s definitely a bit squicky. But maybe that’s because I like the sequel, Devil’s Cub, so, so much.

I’d say not Skarsgard, just because he isn’t as befuddled as the Marquis is by the heroine. I’d suggest Clive Owen, of course, because he can play aggravated and commanding all at the same time.

12 years ago

Thanks for all the great comments. And yes, I absolutely agree that Heyer was expressing opinions of her time. I’m not quite as sure they’re opinions of Georgian time. I don’t think the rigidity about womens’ sexuality that Leonie herself voices was fully in place until Victorian times. But I haven’t made a thorough enough study to say any more than that.

I’m in complete agreement about the classist attitude in the book as well. I groaned out loud when the peasant boy raised as a nobleman was happy to be a farmer instead.

I didn’t, however, have any issue with the age difference. I felt Leonie’s maturity in some areas was fairly well explained and then, she did not, after all, show much emotional maturity, which made total sense.

I will poll the Riskies about another Read Along but I think it wouldn’t be led by me until after my August deadline. That doesn’t mean another Risky might step in.

Rose Lerner
12 years ago

I haven’t read These Old Shades in years because I loved it so much in high school and I’m afraid I wouldn’t like it as much now. Even then, though, I was horribly annoyed by the bloodlines stuff.

I think I was most horrified, though, by the “misunderstanding” at the end–Avon hates illegitimate people who are part of high society, Leonie thinks she’s illegitimate and runs away, so Avon comes after her and says OH NO IT’S OKAY, YOU’RE LEGITIMATE SO WE CAN BE TOGETHER? What if she HADN’T been? Would he have said, “Tough luck, I love you, but marrying you would be tacky so goodbye”? There’s nothing romantic about that.

I was okay with the age difference in the context of the book, but really only because you HAD to accept large age gaps if you wanted to read Regency trads, since probably half of them had very young heroines marrying much older men. I’m glad historicals seem to have moved away from that in the last decade…

Pam Rosenthal
12 years ago

I will admit to resisting These Old Shades at first. But it won me over, partly, in the context of my exuberant enjoyment of another early Heyer, The Masqueraders, which I think is genuinely sexy in its gender play. And which gender play seems to comport with the outrageous elitism. Something about the verrry verrrry problematical notion (though our genre loves it) of natural aristocracy.

When I write, I’m mostly constrained by my own perhaps too uptight PC-ness, but Heyer’s farouche Toryism — and all of Avon’s wonderful mincing, overdressed snobbery… well I find it oddly liberating.

Go figure.

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

I love all of Heyer’s novels, but some to a greater degree than others. I rather like TOS because of the themes that it addresses. I think it may well be about context more than anything else. Each time I reread one it becomes my favorite until I reread the next one. For me it is the music of her prose that gets me every time. And the rhythm of the dialogue. There are symphonies not as well-written as Heyer’s novels when they explore the depths of the human condition of the era about which she writes.

I rather fancy Clive Owen in the role too!

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I don’t think it was the “blood will tell” that bothered me about These Old Shades. I just didn’t find Avon and Leoni likeable. But I do understand why other readers love it.
And I don’t blame Heyer for writing a book I really didn’t like (I probably really didn’t like A Civil Contract more). These Old Shades was an early book and I think her hero and heroes worked much better in later books. Maybe she needed more life experience.

12 years ago

Pam R: I liked Avon for the same reason you did. I did very much enjoy the foppishness which was so often negated by something deliciously alpha. To the point where Avon’s mannerisms became Alpha-male-ish.

Rose, I had the same thought: what if she hadn’t been legitimate? Would he have made her his mistress instead? But maybe our distaste for that is a 21st century sensibility. A man of his social status probably really could not marry a bastard — not without consequences.

Hmm. That’s two votes for Clive Owen. Does anyone know if he can act?


Cara King
12 years ago

I haven’t read These Old Shades in a long time, but I loved it the two or three times I did.

The “blood will out” didn’t bother me — I took it as the author adopting the beliefs of the time, sort of play-acting, like one does at the Ren Faire. (I’ve seen Regencies where this has been used in other ways as well — such as bleeding actually being a great medical tactic!) As I like older fiction, and I like trying to understand the mindset of other times, I find this all interesting.

And the age difference didn’t bother me. I first read the book when I was eighteen or so and, believe me, a guy my age didn’t seem all that romantic…or good husband material!

For me, Leonie just followed in the tradition of Shakespeare’s heroines who dressed as males and were taken for boys — Viola, Rosalind, Imogen. And Heyer loved Shakespeare…

As for the authorial voice being misogynist…that’s something I have no memory of, and will keep an eye out for on my next reread!


Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

“Frederica” is my favorite Heyer of all! But it’s been a very, very long time since I read TOS and I remember almost nothing about it–I was about 12 or 13, and not at all bothered by age differences between heroes and heroines (even an 18-year-old heroine seemed “older” to me then, and like Cara a hero my own age did not appeal at all!). Now I have to go back and re-read it, after seeing all the comments here. 🙂

12 years ago

I have not read either F or TOS, but the way you talk about this reminds me of how I felt when I started ‘Bath Tangle’. It was my first Heyer and I was increasingly mystified at why people sang her praises and what was wrong with my own readerly and obviously majorly screwed up sensibilities. Thankfully, the Risky ladies assured me that Heyer does not always equal Heyer, and gave their blessing to my putting a DNF on Bath Tangle.

Keira Soleore
12 years ago

TOS was my first Heyer, I still have that ancient copy that had been through many hands before alighting in mine. It led me to love her work and read more. In every Heyer book, I always find there’s an aspect of the story, usually character-based, that I fall in love with.

I enjoy reading TOS with every re-read: for remembered nostalgia of first-time pleasure and genuine pleasure of reading it anew.

Those of you who mentioned Avon’s foppish ways: I totally love that aspect of his character. He can be a powerful, strong hero and also have what to modern eyes is effeminate sartorial interests.

I do believe that our current fascination with alpha hunks is far more of an American concept than European. Avon was absolutely an excellent product of his times, and Heyer was gutsy to reach for that and make him heroic.

JoBev achieves a balances with the Georgian mincing and modern hulkiness with her Rothgar (Malloren series).

Megan Frampton
12 years ago


Oh, I am SO short-sheeting your bed at National, Carolyn!

Cara King
12 years ago

Oh, and I agree with Pam and Keira in finding Avon’s foppish ways a delight to read…and interesting in contrast to almost all modern romances.

She has foppish heroes in pretty much all her 18th-century romances — I suspect she was highly influenced by Orczy (in more ways than one) in her Georgians. Perhaps that’s why those who followed her wrote Regencies rather than Georgians — because it seemed more her period? (I’m ignoring Farnol here!)

(BTW, yes, I’m using Georgian to mean “pre-Regency Georgian.”) 🙂

Miranda Neville
12 years ago

Like Susanna, I never had a problem with the age difference in Heyer books when I was a teen. Now it bothers me a lot – The Convenient Marriage for example. Also, even where there isn’t such a disparity, I cringe when her heroes address the heroines as “my child.” I actually suspect this was fairly common at the time she wrote (a precursor of Baby?). Although she was careful about history and language (except for the stuff she made up) her voice, social, and moral attitudes are pure upper middle class, conservative, mid-20th century England.

BTW, I agree with Carolyn about Frederica, one of my very favorite Heyers. I haven’t read TOS for a long time. May have to dig it out and see how it strikes me now. Unlike Jenny I love Devil’s Cub: it’s such a romp.

12 years ago

I love These Old Shades and recently blogged about why here. (I’ll spare you the entire argument, but it’s there if anyone wants to read it.)

I agree that the book’s eugenics theories are absurd, but perhaps consistent with “modern” thinking circa 1926. Who knows, such theories may have been historically accurate, in the sense that people in the 1760s believed that “blood will out” and so the son of the farmer was raised as a Saint-Vire but subtly influenced to behave as a farmer’s son. In other words, if everyone back then believed 100% in “nature,” they might actually have shaped “nurture” to perpetuate their erroneous theories. In any event, without a doubt two children were abused with that baby-switch.

I also liked the foppishness as counterpoint to Avon’s savagery, a savagery that is tamed by his love for Leonie.

But I don’t agree with this reaction that because there’s 20+ years difference in their ages, Avon’s interest in her is pedophilic. First, there’s no sex in the book. None. Go check — there’s precisely four words of sex in the entire book. (“her lips met his”) That’s it. One could argue that it’s inappropriate for a man that old to love a woman that young, but there’s no suggestion that Avon’s primary interest in Leonie is sexual and therefore perverse.

I didn’t like Devil’s Cub as much as a romance. Dominic seems feckless compared to Mary, and definitely in comparison with both his parents! But De gustibus non disputandum est, of course, which is why so many books do well even though not everyone loves them.

12 years ago

I, personally, was not bothered by the age difference, although I didn’t much like Avon calling her “infant.”

Like Cara, I enjoy reading books written many many years ago — there are always some very interesting cultural mores embedded in the stories. I can recall reading a story from the 1920’s to my son. I think it was called “around the horn with Captain Drake” and it was for the most part an exciting tale of a young boy who ends up sailing with Sir Francis Drake. But the racism! Oh my goodness. I had to stop a couple of times to explain to my son that 1) such statements were untrue and that 2) most people don’t think that way now, but that when this book was written, they did.

And then we carried on.

So I can appreciate a lot of These Old Shades and still see that it’s a story written by a superior author. But having read other Heyer’s I can also say there are others I have enjoyed vastly more.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Heyer was influenced by The Scarlet Pimpernel — that guy was the ultimate fop.

Also, I would tend to agree — without evidence at this point — that much of the mores in TOS are a reflection of Heyer’s rather than the period.

Thanks for all the great discussion!

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