This was the first novel by Heyer, and also it had its share of problems, it read very well, showing the hand of the future master of the romance genre.
The novel is set not during Regency – that period will be introduced into Heyer’s fiction later – but vaguely in the middle of the 18th century. Traveling to the continent is still sort-of a fashion for British aristocracy, and no one heard of Napoleon yet. Life is peaceful, except for our hero, Jack.
Seven years ago, Jack and his younger brother Richard participated in a card game. Richard cheated. When the cheating was discovered, Jack, who loved his baby brother dearly, took the blame and became social pariah. Now he roams the English countryside, occasionally posing as a highwayman and robing fat merchants. He misses the society and his ancestral home but bravely refrains from fixing his situation, ready to sacrifice everything for his brother’s happiness... until he meets Diana, the heroine, and falls in love. Then his sacrifice becomes an unbearable burden, but what can a noble hero do?
Sadly, neither Jack nor Diana are really the protagonists of this tale. The book’s title actually refers to the bad guy, a cynical and slightly sinister Duke of Andover. With his nickname Black Moth, he is the antagonist of the story. That’s in a nutshell the problem of this book. It lacks focus and the clearly defined lead characters.
More often than not, the author concentrates not on Jack or Diana but either on the sardonic black-clad Duke or on Jack’s brother, weak but squirming from the pangs of conscience Richard. Or even on Richard’s wife, capricious and empty headed creature Lavinia. Hardly any time or page space is given to our sympathetic but or-so-honorable hero and heroine.
Eventually, good guys prevailed, of course, and love triumphed, but the entire book has a feel of Victorian fiction much more than the 20th century literature, which is understandable. It was published in the transitional period, in 1921, and Heyer herself still needed some experience to rise to the heights of her talent and become the founder of modern romance genre. She was still learning the craft.
What struck me in this book was the double standards exercised by British aristocrats. I don’t remember reading about it in any other Heyer’s novel, but here it’s naked and repulsive.
After the card cheating incident, Jack spent some time in Europe, making his living as a fencing teacher. That time is behind him now, but he still bemoans it bitterly: that he, a British earl, had to teach fencing. It was a horrible time for him. I read about it and thought: why? It was an honest occupation. But obviously not for a nobleman, right?
The Duke of Andover (the villain, remember) once fought a sword duel with a commoner, or at least a man he thought a commoner. After the faux commoner won, the duke accepted his defeat, gave up his sword, and then, after his adversary turned away, he shot him.
Afterwards, the characters discuss this episode and come to the conclusion that the duke definitely didn’t know that his opponent belonged to the aristocracy too. He would never have shot him otherwise. Not even Black Moth would stoop to such dishonor.
And again, I wonder. It’s dishonorable to break your word to another aristocrat but it’s okay to betray your word to a commoner? Some honor!
Still, I enjoyed this book. For all its flaws, it was an entertaining tale and definitely a must-read for all Heyer’s and historical romance fans.