Abigail Wendover thinks of herself as a spinster aunt, though she’s not, really. She’s a charming and witty woman in her late twenties, and she lives in Bath with her older sister Selina and her niece Fanny

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Abigail Wendover thinks of herself as a spinster aunt, though she’s not, really. She’s a charming and witty woman in her late twenties, and she lives in Bath with her older sister Selina and her niece Fanny. The latter is a teenage heiress, who has unfortunately fallen under the spell of a handsome but calculating fortune-hunter, Stacy Calverleigh. Abby is sure that the infatuation will pass, but in the meantime, she’s having a devil of a time keeping an eye on her strong-willed niece, who might even be young and foolish enough to elope. The situation is further complicated by the arrival, from India, of Stacy’s estranged uncle Miles Calverleigh: the ‘black sheep’ of the title, a man with a supposedly scandalous past and seemingly not much to recommend him. But for some reason, he and Abby share an instantaneous rapport. And why shouldn’t they be friends? Abby has an independent mind, and she doesn’t care what other people say. . . or so she thinks.

There are some echoes of Sense and Sensibility, but with Heyer’s own twist; Sense doesn’t even want to win, it just wants to nurture Sensibility and modify it so that it can survive in the real world.

Black Sheep has some of my favourite characters, oodles of wit, and a vivid Regency Bath in the background, but the plot is sadly a bit underdeveloped and the structure of the novel lacking. This might be slightly unfair, as I find the book a thoroughly enjoyable read; but as was the case with The Foundling (which has my favourite central couple of all time), I was left with the frustrating feeling that there was potential for so much more.

‘I could slap Fanny for being such a wet-goose!’ cries Abby at some point, and she is undoubtedly right to think so, but I found Fanny considerably less annoying than Heyer’s other naïve ingenues. I don’t know if I’m just mellowing with age, but I even wished there had been more of Fanny in the novel. A potential secondary romance was introduced in such a promising way. . . but I shan’t spoil it here.

The central romance is somewhat unusual: one might argue it’s more powerful for its healthy dose of common sense, but the carefully built, gradual tension that’s usually found in Heyer’s novels just isn’t there. How could it be? This is the story of two reasonable, mature people who fall in love, and don’t beat around the bush about it. The love itself is beautifully described. There’s an ‘understanding behind the smile’, and ‘an intangible link between them’. . . it’s not precisely tension: it’s simply an understanding that they both love each other, and this understanding comes around very early on.

I had high hopes of the (potential) secondary couple providing the ‘real plot’, but unfortunately this didn’t quite turn out to be the case, either. What do you do when you find yourself enjoying a Heyer novel that doesn’t have the usual elements of a Heyer novel?

In this book, the hero is a reflection of the book’s central theme: healthy selfishness. Heyer never comes across as a priggish writer, but the conventions of the Regency period (or I should say, her Regency period, for Heyer’s historical universe is very much her own thing) are normally a major driving force in her novels. The main characters are usually level-headed and non-judgmental, but they generally find ways to conform to other people’s expectations of them. Irregularities of conduct are explained away, common boundaries of propriety are respected; one always finds a respectable relative somewhere to shield a heroine’s reputation.

Being so late in her career – and, apparently, written in times of financial trouble and health problems – one is almost tempted to read Black Sheep as a sort of antidote to the constraints of these earlier novels. (It’s interesting that Heyer’s last novel, Lady of Quality – which I have yet to read, myself – appears from the plot description to be very similar, though I have no idea how similar it actually is.) Calverleigh has a kind heart, but not even a passing respect for the idea of sacrificing one’s happiness at the altar of propriety. In this novel, there’s nothing romantic about potential renunciation or longing for something that might be out of reach. If two people belong together, the commonsensical thing to do is to be together. End of story. It’s a more sober take on romance, but ultimately none the less romantic for that.

Amidst all this, I find it interesting how much effort Heyer goes into to emphasise that Miles Calverleigh is a physically unattractive man. Not all of her heroes are conventionally handsome, but when I think of the typical Heyer hero, he is definitely dashing. The ‘typical Heyer hero’ also has either a steely gaze or a sardonic wit; he is masculine, but not irritatingly so; a bit arrogant, but gentlemanly. Calverleigh doesn’t fit in this mould. He is kind and self-deprecating, but not gentlemanly; he hasn’t got an ounce of arrogance in him, and not a single drop of in-your-face masculinity either. He is, in fact, the antithesis of the ‘typical Heyer hero’. But then it occurred to me that I could say the same about The Foundling, The Unknown Ajax, The Quiet Gentleman, Cotillion. . . I could go on and on. Now that I think of it, the ‘typical Heyer hero’ is something of a rarity. In a chronological list of her novels, one kind of hero is almost always followed by a very different kind of hero, and the only thing they have in common is that they’re perfectly matched with the heroine. So why do I have a specific idea of a ‘typical Heyer hero’ in my mind? Truth be told, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m delighted whenever that mould is broken.

Heyer’s heroes are not written as fantasies, but as the perfect counterparts to her heroines. And that, I think, is where Heyer’s genius lies. She was remarkably good at making observations about different kinds of people and how they fall in love – what makes them ‘click’ as couples. Her novels are not carried by a wave of sentiment, but by a strong foundation of mutual understanding and respect. This and a great sense of humour are the main elements I look for when I want to read a romance, but so rarely find them. Heyer, on the other hand, has never disappointed me thus far.
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