(Note: This is an older entry, from my first few months of blogging, and contains spoilers. Reader beware.)
Normally I’m not a fan of setting foot in Barnes and Noble without a set list of books to look for; letting me wander about like a free range chicken is liable to leave my companions with a fat chicken…if that makes any sense. It’s like going into a grocery store when you’re hungry: you’re likely to buy all kinds of trash that you’ll never eat and is bad for you anyway.
So it was with some trepidation that I wandered into my store of choice last week. The reason for this lapse of judgment was twofold: (1) I didn’t have another book to review for this blog (I’m in transition between hometowns, and most of my books are currently five hours away); and (2) Best Friend offered to take me out on a Date Night — and what bookworm can resist a hot guy who wants to take her to a bookstore?
While wandering around, my eye landed on what seemed like an interesting book — and you can guarantee that it is indeed interesting, because it is this week’s spotlighted book: The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer.
A bit of background
When I first picked up this book I thought, “Oh awesome, a new author who’s into Historical Romance!” Turns out Heyer’s been around for a long time: her first book, The Black Moth, was published in 1921, and starting in 1932 she published one Romance novel and one Thriller per year. This amounts to an astonishing body of work:
- 6 historical fictions
- 38 Romances Novels
- 1 Short Story Collection (containing 11 short stories)
- 5 Short Stories
- 12 Thrillers
Please do not confuse these genres with the Harlequin Novel, which contains enough silly plots, cheesy lines, gender stereotypes, and (fairly) explicit sex to make it border on soft-core pornography.
I’m a huge fan of Historical Romance. It’s got everything: history; descriptions of finery/dancing/large, grand rooms/tiny, squalid rooms; mystery; feats of daring; swashbuckling and swordfights; people in disguise; and (best of all) swoony awesomeness. The language in such novels is also very complex, and one can at times become bogged down in the language. Which makes total sense, because one of Heyer’s biggest influences was — drum roll please — Jane Austen, and people have been puzzled by her writing since 1811.
As the reader may have guessed, Heyer’s novels required lots of research. The Masqueraders, for example, was published in 1928 but set in around 1746. She was called “the Queen of Regency” and (according to the book jacket) “was legendary for her research, historical accuracy, and her extraordinary plots and characterizations.”
In short, she is apparently the best writer ever, and the fact that I’ve never heard of her is a crying shame. But better late than never, so here we go.
Anyone here a fan of Shakespeare? Read Twelfth Night? Liked Viola? Then have I got a book for you!
Enter Peter and Kate Merriot. Or is it Robin Lacey and his nameless companion? Or Robin and Prudence, who do not seem to have last names? And just which is Peter, and which is Kate? Who are these people? Welcome to The Masqueraders.
Robin and Prudence are the children of what might be called a “con artist.” Following a sound trouncing at Culloden (the giant uprising/battle mentioned in my review of Outlander several weeks ago), the trio is forced to disappear from Scotland. The father, Robert, vanishes into the mist, while his children make their way to England. There they take on the aliases of Peter and Kate Merriot, but with a very Shakespearean twist: Prudence becomes Peter, and Robin becomes Kate.
While resting at an inn on the road from Gretna Green, the pair saves young Letitia Grayson from an unwanted elopement (gasp!), with the assistance of Sir Anthony Fanshawe, a man Robin/Kate refers to as “the mountain.” Although he is often described as looking vaguely sleepy, Anthony is much more awake than he appears (egads!), and seems to be studying the siblings — especially Peter/Prudence — very carefully (zounds!).
Even after the pair makes it to London and the home of Lady Lowestoft, someone they know from…somewhere, Sir Anthony keeps in close contact, even sponsoring Peter/Prudence’s membership into White’s (a prominent gentlemen’s social club in London), and taking her under his wing — all the time watching like a hawk. In the meantime, Robin/Kate ends up as Letitia’s confidante.
A woman acting as a man ends up as the friend of a certain tall and intelligent gentleman; a man pretending to be a woman acts as confidante to a young lady…anyone else see where this is going?
While I was almost certain from the beginning of how the story was going to turn out (at least for Prudence and Robin), what I didn’t know was how the characters would arrive at my predicted ending. There were plenty of fun moments, as well as several nail-biting moments, throughout the novel, so what does it matter that I already “knew” the ending?
My favorite character — although it’s hard to choose — is Sir Anthony Fanshawe. He is very much like Percy Blakeney (of Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series), although Percy tends to act foppish while Fanshawe usually plays the unobservant fool. But he’s deceptively intelligent, and quite dangerous in his protection of Peter/Prudence. I’m a sucker for a sword-wielding, protective, intelligent, funny dude whose nickname is “the mountain” (he’s a big guy). All I need to do is give Best Friend a sword, and it’d be perfect!
I am also really impressed by Peter/Prudence. She is intelligent — as well as quick-witted — and she is made even more impressive by a comparison to Letitia Grayson, who is relatively the same age, but empty-headed and less mature.
The heroine-as-intelligent theme is a common one in Historical Romance; in fact, the genre is known for heroines who exhibit anachronistic characteristics, such as being highly educated/intelligent, and wanting to marry for love (shocking!). As a feminist, I enjoy reading about strong females — although the fact that Fanshawe “saves” Peter/Prudence from having to duel is rather irritating to my Inner Feminist (she’s not as nice as I am).
To add even further confusion, Robin/Kate falls madly in love (that’s the only way one can fall in love in such books) with Letitia, and ends up as her companion — in his female guise. He obviously can’t woo her while in petticoats, so he uses an oh-so-conveniently timed masquerade ball hosted by Lady Dorling to sweep his young love off her feet.
A man who’s dressing as a woman…dresses as a man in a mask, and kisses (oh the scandal!) Letitia at the party. And he promises that if she ever needs him, he will appear. Boy does that promise come in handy. Calling himself “the Black Domino,” he later saves Letitia from a (second — she’s rather unlucky) forced elopement. He then duels Letitia’s kidnapper in a multi-page swordfight that genuinely had me on the edge of my chair.
A few down sides
Of course, very few stories can be considered “perfect.” And there are some difficulties with Heyer’s novel.
First and most obvious is the language. Most interactions between characters are not terribly complex, but the language can throw the reader for a loop if he or she is not ready for it. I’ve spent the last several weeks reading novels that are written in considerably more modern language, so it took a couple of chapters before the language and writing style became easier to digest.
There were also lots of questions that I was unable to find answers to. This is perhaps intentional on the part of the author, but the reader is left wanting to know more about Prudence and Robin than was told in the book. The book detailed a certain portion of time in the characters’ lives, and although previous actions and situations were alluded to, it was at times very confusing because the reader couldn’t understand the references.
It was almost as if this novel were a sequel, and in that first book was discussed more of the siblings’ history, and their exact reasons for the life they lead. Their father’s previous scrapes are also mentioned, but with no concrete…anything to connect them to, one was often lost for reference points. For example, the reader surmises that the trio knows Lady Lowestoft from Paris (maybe?), but an exact relationship is never cemented. It’s little stuff, but it doesn’t have to be big in order to turn some readers off.
The last difficulty is really one of my own making. Reading the jacket or back of a book is a great way to get a taste of plot and style, but it can sometimes lead a reader into making assumptions. Upon starting the book, I already knew the siblings were pretending at playing a gender different than their given one; therefore when chapter one opened with the pair arriving at an inn, I was distracted trying to ferret out clues as to whether they were already cross-dressing, or if it would happen later.
The more distracted the reader becomes, the more confusing the chapter is, and eventually I had to return to the beginning and re-read. Sometimes going in with absolutely no knowledge of the plot can be helpful. (For the record, they’re already masquerading as their opposite genders at the novel’s opening.)
The Masqueraders is definitely worth reading. If you’re worried about understanding the language, I suggest using the Shakespeare technique: reading aloud, clearly and slowly. It might make people on the subway stare at you funny (unless you’re in New York), but you’ll understand the story better. If you like the novel, know that there are seventy-one more tales where that came from!
And if anyone runs into the Black Domino at their next masquerade ball, give him my number.
“She was a widow of no very late date; indeed she had interred Sir Roger Lowestoft with all decency little more than a year back, and having for a space mourned him with suitable propriety she had now launched upon a single life again, which promised to be very much more entertaining than had been the married state.” (p. 35)
“Robin folded pious hands. ‘I believe my sense of propriety is offended,’ he quoted maliciously. The shot glanced off her armour. ‘You’ve none, child, rest assured.'” (p. 63)
“Mr. Belfort went hurrying off to confer with Mr. Devereaux, whom he found writing execrable verse to a lady of uncertain morals, and bore him off straight to Arlington Street.” (p. 156)