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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/02/2008 Archived Entry: "Novel review: Black Sheep"

Black Sheep
By Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca
An imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Ah, the joy of reading an old-fashioned romance, with no explicit sex, no lewd language, and no political correctness! All that and more can be found within the covers of a Georgette Heyer romance. The late Ms. Heyer, a charming Englishwoman who died in1974 at the age of 71 (God bless her!) was a lady through and through, who wrote about real ladies during the Regency Period of England, when mad King George III's throne was kept warm for him by his son the Prince Regent, who later became George IV. She was known as the Queen of Regency Romance, who knew how to tell a tale as elegantly as Jane Austen did. Indeed, Publishers Weekly once commented, "Reading Georgette Heyer is the next best thing to reading Jane Austen."

Everything I know about romance, elegance, honor and duty I learned from Georgette Heyer. Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City, my family was far from wealthy; we were lucky if we could afford new clothes for Easter, our diet was limited to whatever cheap meat was on sale at the supermarket, usually chicken or chuletas (pork chops), and we drank rum instead of wine or champagne. Being a Puerto Rican female during the late 60's to early 70's wasn't easy, especially if you were intelligent and wanted to go to college. A nice girl was supposed to get married and have babies by the time she was eighteen, and as for college, that was for rich white girls looking for rich white boys to marry. Not being into drugs or alcohol like so many of my peers, most of whom wound up pregnant and on welfare, I sought escape from this dreary existence by reading anything I could get my hands on.

My teachers liked me because I was a nice, quiet girl who always did her homework and came to school on time. My peers hated me for the same reason. The popular girls always wore short skirts and mucho makeup, smoked marijuana and made out with every boy they dated. No boy would touch me because my skirts weren't too short, I wore very little makeup as well as coke bottle eyeglasses, and refused to smoke even tobacco. Not only that, I dared to think I was just as good as a man and deserved the same rights. No wonder I preferred the romantic fantasies written by Georgette Heyer, where all the heroines were not great beauties, just nice-looking, intelligent girls who longed for independence from the stuffy rules of conduct for young ladies of the Regency Period. The heroes were always handsome and kind, and looking for a woman with brains and spirit to marry. None of the boys I knew wanted a girl with brains, and the only spirits they liked came in a bottle.

I also loved reading about the beautiful, elegant clothes they wore, the men as well as the women, described in exquisite detail by the author, as well as the scrumptious meals they ate and the chivalrous deference always shown by the men to the women. That meant a lot to a painfully shy Puerto Rican girl whose only experience with males was the kind who grabbed their crotches and said something nasty whenever you walked by. Enough of my depressing adolescence; let's get to the story!

"Black Sheep" is about an intelligent, independent lady of gentle birth named Abigail Wendover, who at the age of 28 is already considered an old maid. She lives in Bath, a fashionable resort town during the Regency Period, with her older sister Selina, who is "on the shady side of 40" and a dedicated hypochondriac, as well as an incurable romantic, and their lovely 17-year-old niece Fanny. Selina and Abigail are the oldest and the youngest members of the Wendover family, Fanny is the daughter of their late eldest brother, who left his only child well provided for. That's where Stacy Calverleigh comes in. Abby comes home from an extended visit to her married sister to find that Fanny has fallen in love with Stacy, a charmer in debt up to his ears, looking for a rich bride to help him settle down--his creditors, that is. Since her sister Selina has been so conned by the young man's charms that she refuses to believe the unsavory rumors about him, Abby decides to take matters into her own hands and confront the young blackguard herself.

By a strange coincidence peculiar to romance novels, this young man has an uncle who is also visiting Bath at the same time. Miles Calverleigh, an older gentleman in his 30's and still unmarried (which was considered perfectly normal for men in those days) is considered the black sheep of his family because of a romantic scandal he was involved in back in his teens, for which he was exiled to India by his stern father. When Abby goes to Stacy's hotel to confront him, she arrives at the same time that Miles is checking in. When she hears him referred to as "Mr. Calverleigh", she assumes that he is Stacy and starts telling him what she thinks of unscrupulous fellows who dangle after naïve young heiresses. The ensuing conversation is one of the funniest bits of mistaken identify ever written. The mistake is finally cleared up, after Miles learns that Abby is the sister of the man whose fiancée he ran off with all those years ago, namely Fanny's mother. Since he hasn't seen his nephew since he was a toddler, he is indifferent to Abigail's pleas that he use his influence with his nephew to stop him from romancing Fanny. However, he does begin to develop a fondness for Abby.

Stacy continues to woo Fanny despite the discouragement he receives from her Aunt Abby, as well as her Uncle John, the stern older brother of Abby and Selina who is trustee of his late brother's estate and of Fanny's fortune. He comes posthaste to Bath on the first mail coach from London (he's also a bit of a cheapskate) to warn off the young blackguard. Even after both Abby and John inform him that Fanny will not inherit the bulk of her fortune until she is twenty-four years old, even after she is married, Stacy continues to pursue her. Made overly confident by his scandalous uncle's seeming indifference to his plans to bag an heiress, Stacy succeeds in convincing Fanny to elope with him to Gretna Green, the Scottish border village where all eloping couples fled to in those days.

Fortunately for Fanny, before she can ruin her life with this romantic error she comes down with the influenza, or the flu as we call it nowadays, and is forced to take to her bed. While she is convalescing, a beautiful and wealthy widow comes to Bath; she and her impressive entourage check in at the same exclusive hotel where Stacy is staying. She immediately attracts Stacy's attention and he abandons his plans to elope with Fanny so he can woo the rich widow. Little does he know that it's a setup, arranged by the last person he would suspect, to make him reveal his true colors to poor little Fanny.

Sure enough, when Fanny recovers from the flu and finds out that her darling Stacy has been wooing a rich widow while she was sick, he's history, much to her Aunt Abby's relief and softhearted Aunt Selina's disappointment. The fun part begins when the young fool actually proposes to the widow and gets a good set down; she not only refuses him, she tells him she knows all about him and that poor little rich girl he's been seeing, and thinks he should be ashamed to be dangling after a schoolgirl one minute and a rich widow the next. With his creditors demanding payment and no other way of settling his debts, Stacy is forced to swallow his pride and turn to his uncle the black sheep for help. Uncle Dearest proceeds to relieve him of the heavily mortgaged family estate in return for settling his debts, after which Stacy is glad to leave town on the first post to London, right after the rich widow's own departure, causing all the gossips in Bath to speculate that he's run off after her in an attempt to persuade her into matrimony.

Now all that's left is for the black sheep to convince his own lady, the redoubtable Miss Abigail, to accept his hand in marriage so that he can carry her off to the now redeemed family mansion and its neglected lands, both of which he is already putting in order. There is a happy ending for Abby, but I'm still not sure what happens to Fanny; does she end up marrying that nice boy who's secretly in love with her, or going to stay with her married aunt in London for her coming out, which was traditional for young English ladies of good birth back then.

At least it ends happily, like most of Miss Heyer's romantic novels, unlike most modern romances that usually have a tragic ending in which the heroine is rescued and redeemed by the hero, or he is rescued and redeemed by her. However, our Abby is in no need of rescue or redemption; she was a perfectly contented single woman until the right man came along, and now she will be an equally contented wife, despite being considered an old maid by the standards of the day. A lesson to all single women not to be so quick to give up on love, despite your age; it may be waiting around the corner for you. Hope never dies in a Georgette Heyer novel, and love is always triumphant.

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