Charming Gentlemen

(Contains spoilers for multiple books)

One of the great moral dilemmas I struggle with is my love of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub*. However much I adore it, I’ve never been able to ignore some of the sinister opinions in the text.

Vidal is an attractive young marquis who must flee to France after a drunken duel in which he may or may not have killed his opponent. He decides to take with him a beautiful young woman who he has been attempting to seduce. Unfortunately, her older sister decides to come instead in order to protect the younger sister’s reputation. Vidal is furious when he finds out he’s been tricked, and attempts to rape her. She defends herself by shooting him in the arm; he realises that she must be a nice girl if she’s willing to defend her honour like this; a couple of hundred pages later they are in love and able to marry with parental approval. Meanwhile, the mother and sister of our heroine (whose biggest crime is to be crass and lower middle-class) are never redeemed.

Another Heyer book, The Convenient Marriage, has a charismatic aristocrat try to take revenge on an old acquaintance by kidnapping and raping his wife. The wife in question manages to knock him out with a poker and run away before rape occurs. Later, her husband fights him (with swords), wins, and the two men become friends again. The whole attempted-rape-of-wife thing is forgotten, and one imagines the man will be a valued dinner guest in the couple’s household for years to come. One person who will not be invited to dinner is the husband’s former mistress, who aided the would-be rapist in some of his (earlier, less rapey) plans. That bitch.

Moral: pretty much anything an attractive man does is excusable in some way. Forgive and forget, eh?

Devil’s Cub was published in 1932, and The Convenient Marriage in 1934. Heyer’s politics were not progressive (her anti-semitism in a few places is pretty jarring). And I’m not a historian, so I don’t really know how socially acceptable rape was in the late 1700s or the 1930s.

I’ve spoken before of my desire to finish Stephanie Laurens’ books so that there won’t be any more of them for me to read (this is a perfectly logical reason to do such a thing). Yesterday I read The Promise in a Kiss, a prequel to her Cynster books. It was published in (I think) 2002.
This book features an Evil Guardian who manipulates our heroine into attempted theft by threatening to rape her little sister. Things are sorted out, the hero is heroic, and…it turns out the man wasn’t planning to rape the child after all. The threat (and the whole plot, including the theft) was for the lulz, because what else is there to do for fun when you’re a bored aristocrat?

Sebastian humphed. He looked down on his old foe, knew the wound he’d delivered would cause serious discomfort for weeks. Counseled himself that that, together with all that would come, was fair payment for all Helena had suffered—that he couldn’t, no matter what he wished, exact further physical retribution. “You and your games—I gave them up years ago. Why do you still play them?”

Fabien opened his eyes, looked up, then shrugged—grimaced again. “Ennui, I suppose. What else is there to do?”

And it’s so sad that the Evil Guardian Ennui-afflicted Charming Gentleman has no children! And he’s not an actual rapist. And he ends up being a close friend of the hero and heroine, and they’re genuinely sad when he moves to America. So…that’s alright then, I guess? The real villain of this book is the hero’s sister-in-law: she’s pushy, presumptuous, and will later in the series be blamed for her son’s murderousness and general sociopathy.

I suppose it’s progress – in seventy years there’s been a shift from actual rapists being condoned to people who only threaten rape as a manipulative tool being condoned. Clearly the Laurens book is a massive victory for feminism.

*My life is hard.

9 Comments to “Charming Gentlemen”

  1. I must applaud you for even reading such books. I would have been too repelled to do that! :)

  2. It just kills me to read this of Georgette Heyer… Isn't Devil's Cub kind of a sequel to 'These Old shades'? i haven't read the former, but the latter is delicious.

  3. From small acorns do mighty oaks grow. In another seventy years, fictional 18th century rapists may even be apologetic about it.

  4. Ah yes, indeed, Devil's Cub. Funny, the earlier book (featuring the hero's father, that I've forgotten the name of), was much better, though not entirely un-problematic.

    I also struggled with the Spanish Bride, in which the bride is a mere 14. I read the book through, but couldn't quite recover from that. Yes, it was based on a true story (right?), and the times were such etc., but it wasn't written during those times. There was nothing in the book to suggest that the author thought the girl was too young to get married.

  5. Haha, you said Life is HARD.

    That's when you know you've been talking to me :P

  6. Divya – It's hardly something to applaud, I read them because I genuinely love the genre.

    Puli – Yes, Vidal is Justin and Leonie's son, and a number of the characters from These Old Shades make appearances.

    Aadisht – Indeed! One lives in hope.

    Unmana – I haven't read The Spanish Bride. Isn't it set a couple of centuries earlier, in Elizabethan times?

    The Tall Man – I suspect this comment would make sense if I knew who you were.

  7. I haven't read The Spanish Bride. Isn't it set a couple of centuries earlier, in Elizabethan times?

    Tchah. Spanish Bride is the Harry Smith, Peninsular War, based-on-real-life one. The one you're thinking of is Beauvallet, who is a descendant of Simon the Coldheart.

    Oh, and The Quiet Gentleman condones repeated murder attempts. It's a different code they lived by, ya – all these nice attributes are the mark of a gentleman, like.

  8. Space Bar – Oops. Then The Spanish Bride and The Black Moth are the only two Regencies of hers I've never read.

    Valid point about The Quiet Gentleman. Though the would-be-murderer is packed away to the West Indies or somewhere, isn't he? Presumably to avoid scandal and so that he can make good, but I'd like to think there's also some element of not wanting to live in the same house as someone who tried to kill one.

  9. I love Devil's Cub too, and These Old Shades, and The Convenient Marriage. But you're right. The rape-is-forgivable-and-forgettable is something that I've struggled with too.

    What I really like about Georgette Heyer's books is that the main protagonists don't fall in love at first sight (usually). The women and men actually have personalities, they have reasons to fall in love with each other (beyond the richness, beauty, pretty dress etc).

    Which is not really related to your point about the rape-is-acceptable line of thinking. I think I'm just doing my best to defend her books. I love most of them. :)

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