The moment when the dashing, exceedingly well-dressed, but annoyingly remote Earl of Worth declares “The game is up!” is the moment I finally understood fully that the reason I hadn’t liked him much throughout the rest of the novel is that he’s both the romantic lead and a detective hero–part Regency rake and part Sherlock Holmes.
I had realized before that point (which is very near the end of the novel) that a mystery plot–or at any rate a “someone’s up to no good” plot–was unfolding alongside the romance plot, and that Worth had an instrumental part in it. It’s also not that subtle who he suspects and why: I haven’t read any of Heyer’s actual mysteries, but I hope they are more, well, mysterious! But here it’s the central relationship between the hero and the heroine, Lord Worth’s ward Judith Taverner, that is the real impetus for the novel, not clever clues, red herrings, or other detective devices.
The problem is that a detective plot does by its nature require a fair amount of withholding, both from the reader and from other characters, and the potential problems of this approach to a romantic hero are compounded in Regency Buck by Worth’s individual character. From the beginning of the novel, he is arrogant and controlling, and one of the first things he does early in his acquaintance with Judith is kiss her, against all rules of propriety and, much more important, completely against her will:
Miss Taverner’s hands clenched into two admirable fists, but she controlled an unladylike impulse, and kept them in her lap. She was both shaken and enraged by the kiss, and hardly knew where to look.
Considering that one of the pivotal scenes later in is one in which she is sexually harassed and at risk of much worse from another man who is depicted as very much the villain of that moment, it’s uncomfortable, to say the least, that the eventual hero himself doesn’t show much more respect for her. Then there’s this little speech of his:
‘Do not look daggers at me: I am wholly impervious to displays of that kind. Your tantrums may do very well at home, but they arouse in me nothing more than a desire to beat you soundly. And that, Miss Taverner, if ever I do marry you, is precisely what I shall do.’
If he clearly renounced this intention later on, maybe we could write it off as an unfortunate fit of temper on his part, but not only is he cool (as always) when he says it, but given the opportunity to apologize, instead he doubles down — and this is once they are in fact engaged:
‘I am as disagreeable as you are,’ [Miss Taverner says]. ‘You would like to beat me. You told me you would once, and I believe you meant it!’
‘If I only said it once I am astonished at my own forbearance. I have wanted to beat you at least a dozen times, and came very near doing it once … But I still think you adorable.’
Judith is not in fact particularly “adorable”: she’s feisty even for a Heyer heroine, strong-willed and independent. She’s an excellent driver, preferring to hold the reins herself (clearly symbolic!). She even takes snuff! But because Worth keeps her in the dark about what is really unfolding around her, she is put in a position of relative weakness. He even exploits her vulnerability, “allowing” her to be carried off by the villain as part of Worth’s great scheme for making the case against him.
There are definitely charming aspects of their relationship. Their verbal sparring is often fun, though I didn’t often find it flat out funny, which was a disappointment: usually Heyer makes me laugh more. Overall, in fact, I’d say Regency Buck is one of the darker Heyers I’ve read, with more anger, violence, and threat, including, again, the overt sexual threats against Judith. It also had more, or at least more conspicuous, “period” detail in the form of both literary allusions and references to or parts played by actual people, including Byron, “Monk” Lewis, and the famous dandy Beau Brummell:
The exigencies of his toilet occupied several hours; he had been known to spend as many as two on the nice arrangement of his clothes, to which, however, he gave not another thought once he had left his dressing-room. Unlike most of the dandies he was never seen to cast an anxious glance at a mirror, to adjust his cravat, nor to smooth wrinkles from his coat. When he left his room he was, and knew himself to be, a finished work of art, perfect in every detail from his beautifully laundered linen to his highly polished boots.
We even meet the Prince Regent himself, who is in some sense the eponymous hero of all “Regency” romances. He is a bit in decline by the time of the novel, but “there were still some traces to be found of the Prince Florizel who had captivated the world thirty-odd years before.”
But to get back to Lord Worth, he is in some ways a typical alpha hero. I was hoping his desire to dominate would be blown away by the end of the novel, but Judith is no Mary Challoner. For the reasons I’ve given, I didn’t find him a very satisfactory romance character, and I don’t think Regency Buck is likely to become a favorite of mine. But Worth is a pretty good detective, at least if you like the Sherlock Holmes “I’m much smarter than you and have everything well in hand” kind. The scene in which he finally confronts the villain is a classic “reveal” scene: Worth goes back over everything that has happened and explains what he knew or suspected and how he found it all out. As I said, the case is not particularly subtle, but Judith at least is wholly taken aback by his revelations, and then reassured by his Holmes-like promise that “there will be no scandal.” I just wish that he’d also promised there would be no beatings.