“Set in the Georgian period, about 20 years before the Regency, These Old Shades is considered to be the book that launched Heyer’s career. It features two of Heyer’s most memorable characters: Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, and Leonie, whom he rescues from a life of ignomy and comes to love and marry”.
If you meet Satanas in a dark alley in the middle of the night and you are desperately seeking escape from a wretched life of violence and harassment, maybe you’d be as happy as young Leòn at becoming his, body and soul, bought for a diamond pin. Very happy to become his page and wear good clothes, to follow him wherever his libertine life led him without complaining, without questioning.
Especially if Satanas is just a nickname for a rich, elegant, fascinating nobleman: Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon. And mainly if he appears to you like this:
“ He walked mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose-lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast”.
Leòn’s new life as Avon’s page will lead the youth from a murky Parisian backstreet to the corrupt splendours of 18th century Versailles and the dignified mansions of England. If you were the young boy saved by the illustrious man from a horrible life of ill-treatmments, wouldn’t you admire him immensely, though everybody else considers him selfish, arrogant and even cruel?
This is precisely what Leòn starts doing. The child’s worshipping admiration for the Duke - Monseigneur, as he calls him – becomes amusement to the libertine’s old friends and, strangely enough, a menace to his old enemy, the Comte de Saint-Vire. In fact, the reason why the Duke bought Leòn was that he was struck by the boy's unusual colouring, which reminds him of his enemy's red hair and dark brows.
When Leòn is revealed to be Leonie , the story gets even more intriguing with the Duke making her his ward to be introduced at Versailles … (read this brilliant page online)
This is the beginning of an incredible series of enticing fast-paced adventures mingling intrigue, romance and the unmistakable Heyer mark, her incredible wit. A real romp to read all in one go to the very end.
What is incredible is that we have these incredible gripping characters taking shape under our eyes through their delightful dialogue exchanges and the incredible pressing flow of actions; all of them, even the secondary ones (i.e. Mr. Manvers, the Curé or Madame de Saint-Vire) are very neatly connoted , though only with a few thorough brushstrokes.
The two protagonists are outstanding and peculiar, though they have the trademark Heyer clearly printed on themselves. Justin Alastair is …
” known by the soubriquet Satanas, for his cold exactitude and prescient understanding of what his opponent will do next, as well as a certain elasticity in his moral fiber. The Duke has restored his family’s fortune through gambling; he is, as one would expect of one of the first peers of the realm, an arrant snob, careful, although certainly flamboyant, in his dress, and punctilious in manner” (from Vic Sanborn’s review at Jane Austen’s World).
Leonie is possibly - as my Heyer- expert friend K/V told me - Heyer’s least admired heroine. This sounds so impossible to me. However , I read that she is one of the characters Heyers herself loved most and I myself loved her immensely. Leonie is as loveable as flawed, a whirling personality, an oddly naïve female rogue, an irresistibly charming - though very little accomplished - young lady, ravishing beautiful and disarmingly stubborn, brave and fragile at the same time. If she can wrap the formidable Duke of Avon around her little finger with a smile and a gaze full of admiration under her lashes, how can we resist her ?
The plot is very well designed but readers need a great fix of … suspension of disbelief, of course. As for me, I’ve gone through the story with a constant smile on my face and making a great effort to put it down from time to time.