Sylvester: Georgette Heyer Book Club no. 24

(37 Posts)
LadyIsabellaWrotham Tue 09-Jul-13 22:08:39

"A VERY nice book this time, with a New Plot!" (Georgette Heyer on Sylvester)

The thing that I like most about Sylvester is indeed the fact that it has a fresh plot. Lovely though it is to see Heyer shuffling the deck of her existing cards, and seeing all our favourite characters, tropes and motifs played with in subtly different combinations, it's great to see new characters and situations (mixed in with some old favourites like the scandalous old ladies, and the immature but adorable teenaged boy who keeps getting into scrapes).

Specifically, the novelist heroine and the fatal roman-a-clef is unique to Sylvester, and gives it a special and very Regency quality, and I don't think we've been overseas since Devil's Cub and Infamous Army, have we?

I found this from the Journal of Romance Studies, about an experiment using Sylvester to embed Georgette Heyer in a standard undergraduate Eng Lit degree as part of a module on historical fiction. The particularly interesting section comes in Fletcher's lecture at the end of part 3. I would recommend you reading it yourself, but, briefly, she discusses the way in which Sylvester is portrayed metafictionally as the victim of the "plotting" of Phoebe, Ianthe, the Duchess, and Lady Ingham, who between them enravel him in a Romance despite himself, and hence of course act as proxies for Heyer herself.

Because Phoebe is (I think) Heyer's only writer character, it's tempting to try to spot her own character and views reflected. Until reading Sylvester I think I'd have seen the more grotesque Heyer characters as pure fiction, but after it, I do wonder how many of her acquaintances ended up recognising themselves on the page - or failing to do so.

Questions for the Club:

Am I wrong in seeing a hint of inner vulnerability in Heyer revealed in the characterisation of Phoebe (and hence some of her other "shrinking" heroines as well)? Could she write an inner portrayal of those feelings if she didn't know them herself? She's always portrayed as such a strong person that it seems strange to think of her as socially vulnerable, but she was notoriously private.

Am I alone in seeing Sylvester as Heyer's only real Darcy-ripoff hero, both in his Fatal Flaw, and the way his true loveability is revealed through his relationships with his close family?

According to the Jane Aiken Hodge biography:

"Sylvester was running long, and she could not decide whether to cut it or let it rip. In the end she cut it and was sorry afterwards. 'It could and should have been better.And it was better until I got cold feet and cut out what wouldn't please the Fans."

Neither JAH or Jennifer Kloester give any detail as to what she cut. I would happily read a version of Sylvester that was 25% longer, but I'm not sure what is missing. What, or who, would you like to see more of? Which sections coul be expanded?

And lastly, has anyone actually read Glenarvon? Plot summary in attached link shows that it's totally the model for The Lost Heir. I'm a big Byron fan, and have read around the period a fair amount but I've never been able to face it. Apparently Lady Jersey cancelled Caroline's Almack's vouchers in retribution for the way she was portrayed in the book, and that alone almost tempts me to give it a try, but it is notoriously rubbish.

Marking place, ridiculously excited.

Great start!

MooncupGoddess Tue 09-Jul-13 22:45:51

Excellent opening, Isabella, and I am v. impressed by your scholarly references!

I've always felt that Sylvester and Phoebe embody pride and prejudice just as much as Darcy and Elizabeth do. As in P&P, there is a disastrous first meeting, they're thrown together against their will, and the hero totally muffs up his first proposal.

And yes, they are both unusually vulnerable. When we meet Sylvester he is thinking about his dead brother, and although Phoebe's mother died soon after her birth, her loss is felt throughout the book, by her own mother (Phoebe's redoubtable grandmother) and her dear friend the mother of Sylvester; it's made very clear that Phoebe would have been much happier and more confident had she grown up under her mother's care rather than with her horrid stepmother. (Female friendship is not a major theme in GH, but in Sylvester we have not only the friendship between Phoebe's and Sylvester's mothers but that between Phoebe and Sylvester's nice cousin Georgie - and of course the more complex relationship between Phoebe and Ianthe.)

Phoebe is an unusual GH heroine in that she is not remotely beautiful and thoroughly lacking in social skills. (Jenny in A Civil Contract is the only other heroine of whom this can be said, and for various reasons she is a special case.) Her relationship with Sylvester develops through a mutual sense of humour - a common theme in later GH, but particularly touching here.

Sylvester himself, though he pretends to be suave, is actually dreadful at dealing with his emotions - the scene in which he loses it with Phoebe on the dancefloor because he is so hurt and miserable is agonising to read, but utterly convincing. GH spends much more time analysing Sylvester and Phoebe's emotions than she usually does that of her heroes' and heroines' feelings, and the book is the better for it.

Finally, of course, it is very funny. GH is always good at small boys, but Edmund is particularly convincing, and the scenes between him and Sir Nugent are pure joy. The Ghastly Family Dinner scene, a GH favourite, is as good as the one in The Quiet Gentleman, and there are innumerable wisecracks and moments of beautiful irony.

If only we could find the lost 25% in GH's papers!

MrsFrederickWentworth Wed 10-Jul-13 00:00:07

There are bits of Silvester I love, some I find touching, and bits I find frankly tedious. It is a funny mix.

What would my 25 per cent be? A bit more of the social scene, probably, a longer session at the beginning with her father.

I would have less of Phoebe's thoughts in the first proposal, which change the authorial stance uncomfortably, less of her dreadful squabbling.

It is not one of my favourites, despite wonderful moments, because I find it too bitty and fragmented. I suspect that is because they keep going to a different place.. and I suspect it detracts from the concentration on the comedy.. there are probably more changes of scene than we have had since Gilly went on his travels and I find it uneven.

And while I can see the Darcy comparison, it does not really strike a chord with me.

The Dowager, now, I want more of her. It is rare to find a sympathetic intelligent well read ill person in GH. There is an element of tenderness about her, and a fondness. In fact, I can't think of another. So I am interested in what was going on in GH's mind.

No, not read Gkenarvon.

HowGoodIsThat Thu 11-Jul-13 13:13:53

Lovely analysis so far - I can't believe the P&P parallels had escaped me to date blush

What I like about this one is the absence of any villain. The tension comes from the restrictions of the social niceties and polite mores of the day. It may be that I generally prefer a more domestic-based drama anyway, but all of my favourite GH novels are of this ilk. I think it gives room for her light-touch humour and her affectionate portraits which I value more than the mystery driven plots (all those chuffing missing necklaces).

I agree that we see far more female relationships then hitherto - and there are more female characters than many of the novels that we have read so far. Lady Ingram and the Dowager make a lovely pairing, as do Georgie and Ianthe - two very different sides of the society coin. I find them all believable women - and have know variations of them in real life. I also think that Tom & Phoebe's friendship is warmer and more real than the adolescent boy/girl friendships we have seen to date.

I like the tongue-in-cheek melodrama of the The Lost Heir sub-plot and she makes Edmund a sufficiently-believable child that his predicament is genuinely touching.

Phoebe is still too much of an ingenue to make this one a top-flight favourite - I prefer my heroines with a bit more savoir-faire. And try as I might, I can not picture those eye-brows or imagine them ever bring attractive.

HowGoodIsThat Thu 11-Jul-13 13:14:13

And I too have not read Glenarvon - not my idea of fun!

My first thoughts:

One of my favourite ever minor characters is in this book, Alice Scaling "I'll go if I bust!" - the episode with the gobblecock and the overpriced pig is exquisite.

Phoebe I find unconvincing. Heyer again uses the road as a liminal space where conventions are relaxed, coincidences abound, and magic happens - here she does it once in the snow and once in the Forrin. Phoebe unbends to Sylvester too fast; she relies on him too soon. My 25% would be a longer resistance and slower capitulation by her and by Tom. They both seem by far too young for their undertaking - Sylvester comments on it IIRC but it makes her London confidence/independence the less credible. Ianthe is scarcely older but is made to seem so by her town polish. I think she is much more of a realistic character and it jars that Phoebe is both less and more mature than her at once.

I like that The Lost Heir is rubbish but popular anyway, because of its accuracies. I'm sure that that was a charge levelled at Heyer in her time (and forever since)! so I feel it is a kind of tongue out at the critics.

Hope to come back with more.

My first thoughts:

One of my favourite ever minor characters is in this book, Alice Scaling "I'll go if I bust!" - the episode with the gobblecock and the overpriced pig is exquisite.

Phoebe I find unconvincing. Heyer again uses the road as a liminal space where conventions are relaxed, coincidences abound, and magic happens - here she does it once in the snow and once in the Forrin. Phoebe unbends to Sylvester too fast; she relies on him too soon. My 25% would be a longer resistance and slower capitulation by her and by Tom. They both seem by far too young for their undertaking - Sylvester comments on it IIRC but it makes her London confidence/independence the less credible. Ianthe is scarcely older but is made to seem so by her town polish. I think she is much more of a realistic character and it jars that Phoebe is both less and more mature than her at once.

I like that The Lost Heir is rubbish but popular anyway, because of its accuracies. I'm sure that that was a charge levelled at Heyer in her time (and forever since)! so I feel it is a kind of tongue out at the critics.

Hope to come back with more.

whoops... blush

iismum Thu 11-Jul-13 20:27:18

Can I join in? I've recently discovered all the GH threads and have been reading through them. I haven't actually read Sylvester for a while, but I've read it several times, so hopefully can remember enough to comment! I do like it - though I agree with others that the ones with older heroines are better.

The P&P comparisons are interesting, though I can't see much comparison between Lizzie and Phoebe except superficially.

For me, the big problem with this book is Sylvester's treatment of Ianthe. Ianthe is made to be so ludicrously silly and self-centred that the reader is - I think - supposed to understand that it really isn't a hardship for her to have her child taken away, but I find that pretty unconvincing. It was a terrible fate for such a young woman - to spend her whole life as a lonely widow living with her in-laws, or to lose her rights to her child. I know this is true to life for the period, and that it is essential for the plot both that this happens and that Sylvester - who is really creating the situation - is seen to be in the right, but I find the presentation of the whole thing - as if there's really no problem - a bit jarring. In other books, GH is quite good about presenting the helplessness of women of the period and the terrible situations it can place them in, but here I feel we're supposed to follow the early-19th-century line of "it's really for the best to have the men in charge because the silly women are only really interested in dresses and shopping". Phoebe's early sympathising with Ianthe is shown to be naive and misplaced. A devoted mother who had to choose between her child and any kind of life of her own would have made an interesting story - but a completely different story!

I also don't really like the way Phoebe gladly abandons her writing career because Sylvester didn't like it - again 21st feminist attitudes coming into play, but I feel other heroines remain much more true to themselves. But I suppose she wasn't a very good writer, and she did kind of owe him after what she did to him in her first book!

My favourite bits are the early scenes when Sylvester comes to visit.

I agree about Ianthe. She is young - 24 or so - and very sheltered. And what other choice does she have, in a society where children are the property of the father (or male guardian) who can prevent them ever seeing their children on a whim, let alone from living with them.

HowGoodIsThat Fri 12-Jul-13 13:54:29

How maternal were women of that class and time actually encouraged to be? Kids were whipped off to wet nurses and relegated to the nursery upstairs, only to be brought down in to pose for the family portrait in their best frocks.

Actually, it is an interesting thread to explore - GH's portrayal of motherhood. We have:

Mothering of older children - Sylvester's mother, Arabella's mum, False Colours, The Quiet Gentleman

Absent/dead mothers - Venetia, Frederica, Lady of Quality, Black Sheep, Talisman Ring, Grand Sophy (Actually there are a large number of Mother-Stand-Ins - guardians or aunts! Even Miss Beccles in the Reluctant Widow might be seen as a mother-substitute.)

Loopy mad mothers - Cousin Kate.

I am trying to think how many mothers-of-young children we see - maybe there are so few because of the romance element of the novels - romance usually dies a death at the birth of the first child.

Jenny is touching with young Giles and is even seen BFing. Ianthe couldn't give a monkeys. Is there a reference to an offspring for Miles and Molly O'Hara in the Black Moth? There is the illness of Amabel in TGS but her mother doesn't really shine there.

Hmm... might need to do some more thinking.....

EJbooklover Fri 12-Jul-13 22:16:51

For me the success of Sylvester lies with its range of minor characters,from Miss Battersby through Georgie and her husband, Sir Nugent (who was a 'loose fish' remember so maybe Sylvester is justified in not wanting his nephew to live with him) to the Duchess they all play a part in bringing the story to life. just asi in 'the lost heir' it's the cast of minor characters whose 'swift unerring sketches' raised TLH 'above he commonplace' . I would like to think that Phoebe continued to write -she only promises Salford not to write a sequel to TLH or a book featuring him as the hero, not to give up writing completely.
GH 's lost 25%- given that she didn't think much of her romances (or her fans) and considered My Lord John as her masterwork, she could have been wrong about the merit of the part she cut!

MrsFrederickWentworth Sat 13-Jul-13 09:12:39

Arabella's mother still has the dire child, Eliza? In the nursery. Because she is poor middle class she has quite a lot to do with them. Whereas Lady thingy in The grand Sophy, with as many children but servants , is a breeding machine and then a social person. And limited maternal instinct, can't get involved in the illness.

Looking at my DM's family in the 20s, and thinkong of Heyer, if you had the servants the children were dumped.. unless you were v unusual. There is a heart breaking book by one of the Fairfax Lucys called the children of the house which showed this too for the children of the aristocracy pre WW1. I seem to recall that Prince Albert was considered v odd and rather bourgeois to like playing with his children. Ok, that's a father, but casts a light on the English view. And Jane Austen's mother seems to gave been capable, running the school, but not maternal, at any rate to her daughters.. a bit like Mrs Price.

So no, not maternal generally..

Surely Jenny bfing is another proof of her background, and the first indication really that Adam can find something valuable in it.

Sickly child is Betsy - "typical of her" grin

Eliza is the sickening telltale in this one. Becky sees through her!

Also Jenny is particularly interesting because, without getting too far off topic, her father is a Cit but IIRC her mother was from farming stock, and it is that side of her that is most useful to Adam.

Can't wait for Civil Contract.

MooncupGoddess Sat 13-Jul-13 21:30:31

Can't say I have much sympathy for Ianthe. GH puts quite a bit of effort into demonstrating the reasonableness of Sylvester's case: Harry wanted Edmund to be brought up at the ancestral home; Ianthe will have him all the holidays and is welcome to visit at any point; Ianthe is totally unable to put Edmund first, meet his material or emotional needs, or determine and enforce suitable boundaries, and Sir Nugent is a loose fish (and also hopeless with Edmund). OK so a modern family court wouldn't give Sylvester primary residence, but Edmund will clearly grow up better and happier with Sylvester and Phoebe than with Ianthe and Nugent.

Sylvester's mother, by (not unintentional) contrast, is an absolute delight; we see through her eyes at a few points (very unusually), she is instrumental in bringing the lovers together, and I particularly like the bit near the end where she summarises Sylvester's character to Phoebe: he doesn't care about many people, but those he loves he loves very deeply. It's a surprisingly candid analysis of the hero of a romantic novel.

Yes, Ianthe is comically awful, but it is unfair to judge her by C21 standards.

I mean, she doesn't even have Mumsnet...shock

HowGoodIsThat Sun 14-Jul-13 10:33:08

Ha ha Horry

What would Ianthe's A.I.B.U. post be?

My BiL has effectively taken ownership of my only child,not long after the death of my DH. I am trapped with DH's family, on my own, and none of them understand me. I have no access to money and am isolated from everyone I know. A.I.B.U. to run way with my child?

sarahtigh Mon 15-Jul-13 08:44:00

Ianthe visits her own parents regularly who also do not like nugent fotherby

Ianthe is definitely the type that views child as a trophy, dressed in matching clothes for cute portraits like the "virgin and child" no real indication of any genuine affection, while she happily accuses Sylvester of not looking for Edmund at bottom of lake she is not inclined to look for him herself, she repeats the lies so often that she has actually convinced herself they are true; definitely narcissistic tendencies

while it seems that Edmund really likes uncle vester, obviously the toddler talk is a bit unrealistic for a child of 6

in early 19th century it would have been fairly normal for Edmund to be left in guardianship of his uncle rather than his mother and certainly rather than a potential stepfather, he will be sent to Eton or harrow anyway at about age 10/11 it was not considered good for boys to remain in nursery with too much female influence his attachment to Button at age 6 is acceptable

I don't know that Edmund is babyish - he doesn't know any other children, after all. I think modern children are too sophisticated too young nowadays anyway ::hoiks bosom:: grin

That said, Phoebe remarks that he needs a more suitable teacher who doesn't mind about torn clothes and so forth, so her more childcentric view is allowing for a lot of childish play whilst at the same time drawing him out from the nursery. Maybe she should speak to Mr Gove.

Anyway I think Ianthe is the product of her own upbringing rather than a monster. Structurally she is there as the opposite of Phoebe (stunningly beautiful v plain, vain and silly v clever and considerate, socialite v wife).

On another topic, is it just me who gets annoyed by S calling P "sparrow"? It just doesn't seem as natural as eg Hero being called Kitten.

HowGoodIsThat Mon 15-Jul-13 12:26:58

No its not just you. It just doesn't work. I think her bird nicknames are ill-conceived. Gervaise calls Drusilla a robin in TQG, which also doesn't work, imo.

sarahtigh Mon 15-Jul-13 14:40:17

I do not think edmund is babyish in terms of behaviour but some of his speech is a bit toddlerish there are very few bright 6 year olds that can not pronounce regular words correctly this maybe Heyer not really getting a 6 year old though

I agree that 6 year olds are often too old for their years considering normal toys somehow babyish, sylvester considers him old enough to play in the woods by himself without his nurse/tutor

MrsFrederickWentworth Tue 16-Jul-13 18:17:40

Ianthe

WWYD.

Ds needs male influence badly after DH died tragically ( see previous threads). DH's brother had offered to provide home for him and me with grandmother. She is badly disabled. DHbro has v busy life which will take him away a lot. Only other adult old and v silly. Home miles away from anywhere, no children his own age. DHBro might get married idc ( tho' only a gold digger would have him - shudder at his views on marriage and who he would end up with) but there would obv be a significant age gap between Ds and any dcs. Would be completely dependent on DHBro. Married young so no cv.

Have been seeing someone. Still love DH to bits, but am single parent and he offers security for both me and Ds. Before I get flamed, yes it is a v different sort of relationship from the one I had with DH as am older now, but a very loving one. And Ds would have both me and OM..

Only problem is that DHBro does not get on with OM. Says if I marry him, I will never get custody of Ds.

Am torn in bits. Love OM and Ds. Ds needs me ( only 6, FFS) and male presence who is there, not an absent man and load of aged crones.

Sorry long. But WWYD?

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