‘Monseigneur, I do not think that I can live without you. I must have you to take care of me, and to love me, and to scold me when I am maladroite.’
I had met the Duke of Avon and the irrepressible Léonie, the hero and heroine of These Old Shades, before, in Devil’s Cub — but there they are the long-suffering parents of the Marquis of Vidal, who in that novel follows his own madcap course to true love. I had heard that the full account of Avon and Léonie’s own romance was delightful, and it is, from start to finish, but especially once Léonie has thrown off her initial disguise as Léon (it’s a complicated story) and begun the vexing transformation from pert page to elegant lady.
Léonie is very entertaining during this transition, and I enjoyed the way Heyer uses it to highlight restrictions on women, from their literal freedom of movement (Léonie especially hates trading in her breeches for layers of skirts and petticoats) to their inhibited speech (“Bah!” as Léonie would say). Léonie insists on learning to fence, hates riding side-saddle, and rather likes the idea of shooting villains dead: her hot temper is something she passes on to her son, Vidal.
Léonie actually isn’t my preferred kind of heroine — I usually like the more severe bookish ones (I wonder why), like Mary Challoner in Devil’s Cub. But Léonie is splendid, subversive fun. I wasn’t so sure about Avon: he’s very controlling; the plot turns on his determination to get revenge, which he does, with particularly nasty results (though Heyer does her usually brilliant job putting all the pieces together, not to mention sustaining the action); and from start to finish he calls Léonie “infant” or “child,” which got me thinking again about my objections to Hero and Sherry in Friday’s Child. I was particularly sensitive to the issue of child brides when reading These Old Shades, in fact, because of a recent comment left on my post about “Hero as Kitten,” arguing that my discomfort in that case was both anachronistic and culturally narrow-minded.
As I wrote in my reply to that comment, I’m not convinced by the argument that marrying very young was just normal “in those days” (and I am convinced by the U.N. arguments against child marriage). But my key dissatisfaction was with the maturity of the sixteen-year-old heroine in that novel: she just didn’t seem marriageable to me, which is another way of saying I had trouble imagining her transition from being adorable to being sexual.
In These Old Shades, however, despite the age gap (the Duke is forty, Léonie is twenty), I was quite reconciled to the romance by the end, and not just because twenty is older than sixteen. Avon protests too much about Léonie’s youth, for one thing; as one by one the other characters perceive the romantic potential in their relationship, he keeps insisting that it is a strictly platonic one, even declaring more than once that she sees him as a grandparent. “Infant, it’s madness!” he exclaims about the possibility of her marrying someone as decrepit as he.
But his real concern, we realize, is not her age, or his own, but his belief that his own scandalous past makes him an unfit husband. Literal age doesn’t matter in this novel as much as experience and perspective — as one wife says sagely, “all women are older than their husbands,” and Léonie herself has experience that makes her, somewhat sadly, wise beyond her years. For all her playfulness and zest for adventure, she has, as Avon observes,
a certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.
Avon’s family believes Léonie will save him from his own bleakness — they are thrilled to see the rare tenderness in his eyes when he gazes at her, and perhaps even the absence of obvious desire is a good sign, as it distinguishes his feelings for her from his previous amours. (“You are not the first woman in my life,” he cautions her; “Monseigneur,” she boldly replies, “I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”) She transforms his ancestral home, letting in light and air; she adores him but isn’t afraid of him — and, perhaps most important, she makes him laugh. The disparity in their ages comes up over and over in the novel, so clearly we are meant to be aware of it, but it turns out not to define either their characters or their romance. Even though Avon still calls Léonie “infant” after their marriage, her response only highlights her spirited independence:
“My infant,” he said, “duchesses, do not dance on chairs, nor do they call their brothers ‘imbecile.'”
Léonie twinkled irrepressibly.
“I do,” she said firmly.