Elizabeth Hanbury began writing regency fiction in her spare time while juggling the demands of a young family and a career. She joined the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme in 2007 and, after receiving a glowing report on her submission, finally plucked up the courage to send the typescript to a publisher. When she received the acceptance letter shortly afterwards, she ate a whole bar of chocolate to calm her nerves, knowing she would now have to confess her secret scribbling habit to her family. Her debut novel, The Paradise Will, was published in April 2008 and she was a finalist for the 2008 Joan Hessayon RNA New Writers Award. Elizabeth lives in Staffordshire. Here she writes about Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub.
Elizabeth Hanbury on Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer
Picture, if you will, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl struggling with homework consisting of quadratic equations, gram-atomic weights and analysis of Malvolio's behaviour in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Finding this subject matter boring, she yearns to escape into the pages of a novel. Too young to properly appreciate the subtleties of Jane Austen, too embarrassed to be seen with The Beano, and too old for yet another reading of Five Go to Kirrin Island, she rummages through the bookcase and finds a dilapidated paperback edition of Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer. The cover looks promising so she turns to the first page and is instantly gripped by the opening: a coach is travelling across Hounslow Heath late at night with Lord Vidal, given the sobriquet of 'Devil's Cub' for his wild excesses as well as those of his father, lounging nonchalantly inside. Described as 'dark and extremely handsome', Lord Vidal is en route to Lady Montacute's evening party, but it soon becomes clear he's an atypical hero. When a highwayman stops the coach, pokes his head through the window and demands of the Devil's Cub that 'he hands over the pretties', Lord Vidal calmly shoots the footpad, then orders the coachman to drive on and leave the body in the road, observing in a cool voice that he can't arrive at Lady Montacute's house with a corpse.
Thus began my introduction to the world of Georgette Heyer, and three hours later I was still reading Devil's Cub. It proved to be a seminal moment for me, the start of an enduring affection for Heyer's work - she wrote over 50 historical and detective novels - and the spark for my wider interest in the Georgian and Regency periods. First published in 1932, Devil's Cub has not been out of print since and remains one of Georgette Heyer's most popular novels. Devil's Cub is, in fact, the second in a trilogy of books which feature the Alistair family. It is the sequel to These Old Shades (based on a character from Heyer's first novel, The Black Moth, written at the age of seventeen) and the Alistairs appear once again in An Infamous Army, where Heyer masterfully weaves a fictional love story around real events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo.
When Devil's Cub begins, Dominic, Lord Vidal, is pursuing beautiful Sophia Challoner, the late 18th-century equivalent of an airhead. Sophia believes Dominic intends to offer her marriage, but her sensible older sister Mary realizes that rakish Lord Vidal has no such honourable intention. When the scandal arising from an impromptu duel and his father's subsequent displeasure forces Vidal to flee the country, he asks Sophia to accompany him. Mary, unwilling to see her sister ruined, secretly takes her place, believing Vidal will let her go when he discovers he has abducted the wrong sister. However, she has not accounted for his temper and in a fit of rage, he takes Mary to Paris instead and here the fun really begins. What follows is a highly enjoyable romp, involving misunderstandings, honour, passion, love and, eventually, the requisite happy ending. The dialogue and interplay between the characters are superb and one scene in particular - Mary's conversation with Dominic's father, the Duke of Avon, near the end of the novel - is among the best Heyer ever wrote, in my opinion.
Dominic is the epitome of the tall dark handsome leading man and yet Heyer makes him unlikeable at first. We discover that his life is rather shallow; he's a rake, a gambler and trying to live up to the profligacy of his sire. However, in the best tradition of romance, he's also vulnerable and just waiting for the right woman to tame and reform him.
The heroes in Heyer's later novels are generally older and enigmatic, but in this early work, Vidal is an impulsive, flawed, spoilt bad boy whose inner good comes to the fore through the catalyst of the calm and practical Mary. However many times I re-read Devil's Cub, it's always a pleasure to watch Vidal's character grow as the story progresses.
While Devil's Cub may not match the perfection of Heyer's comedies of regency manners, such as Sylvester, Venetia, The Grand Sophy and Frederica, it is remarkable because it works on several levels. Everything you could wish for in a historical romance is here: that startling opening, a duel, an abduction, a shooting, a flight across France, a sword fight, fast-paced adventure, wonderful humour and a marvellous array of characters. And yet look deeper and it also has very astute observations on human nature and what is necessary for a successful marriage. In Devil's Cub, as in many of her other novels, Heyer plays with our notion of romantic love. There is an underlying no-nonsense view of love and marriage beneath the wit and action-packed adventure. Through her characters, plots and sub-plots, Georgette Heyer propounds that the relationships which are the most satisfying and enduring are those with pragmatism and a shared sense of humour at their core.
What is also fascinating is that reading Devil's Cub at different stages of life evokes different reactions: every teenage girl who reads Devil's Cub swoons over Vidal and wants to be the redoubtable matter-of-fact heroine who captures his heart; every woman over thirty who reads Devil's Cub still admires Vidal, but thinks that Mary deserves a medal for marrying him!
Georgette Heyer has her detractors. Some critics dismissed her novels as lightweight romantic fluff, failing to acknowledge that they are vastly entertaining, well-written and impeccably researched. Some readers think she is guilty of snobbery in portraying almost exclusively the upper classes, and yet in Devil's Cub and elsewhere Heyer makes a subtle distinction between being of noble birth and being a gentleman. Indeed, Mary deeply insults Vidal by observing that he is only a nobleman, not a gentleman.
But Georgette Heyer's fans far outweigh those who denigrate her work. She has been given the title 'queen of regency romance' and, in my view, it's well-deserved. At her best, she could rival Austen for ironic wit and characterization, and her exquisite use of language and intricate plotting are second to none in the genre. She always delivered on style, humour and elegant prose but, above all, she was a consummate storyteller, one of the few able to recreate an entire world away from everyday life, into which the reader could joyfully escape. As a teenager, I immersed myself in the vibrant charm of Devil's Cub and never looked back.