The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer

Review by Hayley Anderton

I’ve been reading The Black Moth along with the Georgette Heyer Readalong on Twitter, where we have very mixed feelings about it. I’m in the enjoying the book for what it is camp, and what it is, is quite remarkable; Georgette Heyer was 19 when she published this, her first novel. Written to entertain a brother whilst he was ill, it was presumably told rather than read to begin with, which I think might have some bearing on how certain parts read now. I’m also assuming that it was based on books, plays, and films that were Heyer family favourites. The Black Moth has remained in print for all its 100-year life span.

It isn’t Heyer’s best work – it hardly could be given that she went on to write for another 50 years – it certainly isn’t her worst (I have a feeling that might be the suppressed The Great Roxhythe of which I once read a few pages online and quickly gave up on). For a first book by a teenager, it’s amazing though, full of prototypes that would later become Heyer standards and indicators of how very good a writer she would be.

The plot is lightweight and thoroughly over the top – the lost heir to an Earldom is terrorising the roads of southern England disguised as a highwayman (though he will not attack women, children, or old men) after everybody thought he cheated at cards. His younger brother is feeling bad about it and dealing with an expensive and capricious wife. His wife’s brother is merrily plotting to kidnap and rape every nice young woman he meets (when he’s not trying to borrow money) and somehow it all works out happily after a comedy Irishman turns up in deepest Sussex.

The Irishness of Sir Miles O’Hara JP is one of the things that was probably amusing read in a family circle in 1921, but which doesn’t work particularly well in a book group discussion now. Apart from anything else it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when Sir Miles gets particularly Irish, I remind myself that Heyer was 19 when she wrote this. There are other issues that I’ll come on to in a minute.

First, it seems worth spending a moment considering the excellence of this centenary edition. I would love to see all Heyer’s books get this treatment, I’m old enough to appreciate the larger type, I adore the handsome cover which nicely sets the mood and tone of the book with the balance somewhere between action and romance. The big thing is having a thoughtful introduction and a couple of good afterwords to read though. There are enough issues in Heyer that she both needs and deserves this kind of appraisal to consider why she’s still worth reading.

There’s also a helpful breakdown of her titles into various categories which should help the new reader negotiate her work, which is a particularly nice touch – pro tip, the classic adventures (Beauvallet, Royal Escape, An Infamous Army, and the Spanish Bride) and the Medieval Classics (Simon the Coldheart, The Conqueror, and My Lord John) are best left to the committed fans. Or in the case of An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride, to people with a real interest in the Peninsula Wars and the battle of Waterloo. 

Phillipa Gregory’s introduction covers a lot of ground, and mostly I agree with her points, but some I’m not so sure about. Gregory makes the distinction that Heyer is creating historical fantasy rather than historical fiction (fair) and discusses how she doesn’t write about the terrible poverty that followed the industrial revolution – but does have a heroine take a chimney sweep to the dentist amongst other examples (in another book). In The Black Moth there’s an almost throw-away reference to a character being given a black page boy – a fashion statement in employees.

First edition cover

The book is set in the 1750s, so we know this probably means slave – later what I think is the same page boy presents her with a pet monkey which reinforces that perception – but Heyer makes no other comment about it. The result is we’re left to do our own research and draw our own conclusions. When I first read this aged around 13, I knew very little about slavery, but it’s a detail that niggled until I learnt. We’re better acquainted with the history now and the country as a whole is considerably more diverse than it was in the 1980s which makes these episodes much more disturbing to read.

I believe that the lack of explanation or context still works. In this case I now read it as a comment on the compromised morals of particular characters, their skewed ideas about honour, and hypocrisy. Other readers may well find it so unpleasantly offensive that they do not want to read the book, or conversely may not notice it as they race through looking for the next bit of adventure. All of these responses, and more, are valid given the material we have, and in reading group terms it’s good for discussion, but I’m also all for a content warning so that nobody is caught unawares.

Gregory also says that Heyer is categorically not a feminist, and this is where I might argue with her. She’s not a feminist in the contemporary sense, and while she pushes the boundaries of what a romance novel is, her heroines still always meet a man that we hope they’ll live happily ever after with. But even here in her first book there’s a masterly description of the heroine (around Heyer’s age) being pursued by a predatory older man that is instantly recognisable and could very easily have been a Me Too statement. It’s also offered without comment, but in a story a teenage girl was telling her brothers.

This will be a constant theme in Heyer’s writing, in book, after book, she describes the limitations imposed on women and exposes the double standards her heroines have to deal with. In her own life she ended up supporting her mother, brothers, and for a long time her husband, with her writing. Heyer and her heroines worked within the constraints of her society, but I think she’s pushing against its boundaries every time she points out the inherent unfairness of a situation and with the type of agency she gives her heroines. Maybe she wasn’t a feminist, but she certainly made me into one, and that seems like an important point to make.

On the whole I have no hesitation in recommending this – it’s fun on its own terms, although very much of its time – so judge if that’s for you or not. It’s fascinating to see how Heyer starts, to understand the elements that were always present in her writing, and to see how she will develop throughout her career. She was a remarkable writer with a tremendous gift for comedy and characterisation amongst many other things. There’s a reason she’s still widely admired and has never been out of print and you can see it all here at the very beginning. Also, and this bears repeating, this is the Most Lovely edition so do consider buying it for the Heyer fan in your life who already has a complete collection just because!

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Georgette Heyer, The Black Moth, (William Heinemann, 2021) 978-1785152399, 310pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! Without ever having read Heyer’s Medieval or Adventure classics (I totally agree with you that for most readers they aren’t her most appealing works), I’m an enormous fan of her “historical fantasies.” (very helpful terminology BTW). I’ve read the Black Moth a couple of times, first because it’s a great escapist story and, second, because (as you point out) it’s so fascinating to see how Heyer developed these prototypes in her subsequent work, particularly IMO in These Old Shades. Thanks for the news about the lux edition; I’ll be checking it out!

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