To date I dont know why the book is called by this particular name. But it is an enthralling book. Though Heyer is known as a Regency author, this is one of her few books that are pre-Regency.

This book is set in the late 1700’s, and mainly in France. This was the time France and not England was the main center for fashion and relations between France and England were not strained yet – the Napoleanic Wars had not yet started (they started in 1803). Thus the British still travelled a lot around Europe, partied in France and frequently stayed for long durations in France/ Paris if they were well-off owing to the aggregation of high-society and better food as well as social entertainments.

Fashion was opulent and men as well as women decked out in loads of jewellery – diamonds, emeralds, sapphire etc. in every form possible. Right from shoe heels to scarf pins. This was the time faces were covered in white paint and rouge, and extravagant powdered white wigs were worn by all, if the hair was not powdered. Womens clothes had hoops and mens clothes had whaleboned skirts. Lace was popular, and cravats and hessians as we read in other books, is totally absent.  Beau Brummel had not yet entered the fashion scene and any colour, design and extravagance was allowed to both sexes. It was the time when all was well, or so it seemed.

These Old Shades - G HeyerOne such upholder of fashion, Lord Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is found residing in Paris and on a certain evening picks up a boy Leon from the streets and saves him from his brothers beting. Leon has big violet eyes, red hair (‘Titian’ as Heyer calls it) , aristocratic features, good bearing and is small for his age. Avon buys “his soul for the sum of a Diamond” from the lace at his neck. And Leon certainly gives him his soul, and not just thanks or appreciation.

Avon likes Leon’s unconventional looks and makes him his page decked out in black with a sapphire necklace and is taken to all places around Paris to show off his red hair and blue eyes, even to the court where he observes The King. Everyone, of course, is curious and startled by the unusual picture this sober small person painted, expecially when the reader considers the highly colourful dressed-up people with powdered white hair.

Soon Avon realises Leon is a She, i.e. Leonie. And then the mystery begins. Avon takes up her guardianship and sends her off to London, to his beautiful sister Fanny, where she is ‘taught to be a girl again’. But why is Avon doing all this? Avon, the person who is called Satanas because of his absence of any humane-ness. Avon, the man reputed to have lost all his fortune, and re-made it by gambling another man till the other man lost all of his and committed suicide. Avon is all that is proper in society, and all that is evil. He is heartless and passionless. He is extremely shrewd (known to be Omniscient) and does not believe in anything except himself and fashion.

“I never have intentions. That is why mothers of lovely daughters eye me askance. I am constrained to return to England.” He drew from his pocket a fan of dainty chicken-skin, and spread it open. “What constrains you?” Hugh frowned upon the Duke’s fan. “Why that new affectation?”

So why is he going into all this trouble for a boy/girl he picked up off the street? Avon is known not to care for anything but the nobility, hence this particuar indulgence is even more marked.

What is the ulterior motive guiding Avon? Is he in love with her? But then Avon has no heart, and even more than that, he will never marry beneath his rank. Why is the family of Sain-Vaire so interested in Avon’s new page?

Meanwhile, Leonie is reconciled to being a Lady but is still a spitfire, charmingly French and unusually beautiful. Living in the country residence of Avon she strikes up friendship with her neighbours – people whom Avon has not been on speaking terms with for years. She also becomes close to Avon’s younger brother. On returning to France she shows her more feminine side, indulging in dressing and going to all lengths to ensure she is admired. Of particular mention is the time when she prepares for her first ball, ensures that all the men are waiting at the bottom of the staircase and makes a Grand Descent, only to see no one notices her. In her characteristic style she then says:

“But Look at me!

And is rewarded. Leonie thus we see is someone who demands, and gets what she wants. Except from Avon. Almost.

The plot twists and turns as Avon tries to uncover the real identity of Leonie and prove it to the world, and Leonie meanwhile braves a kidnapping and murder attempt.

With lots of action, deception and acting the main cast reach back to Paris where the final drama unfolds. And what a drama. This book keeps one on tenterhooks, never knowing what the next page will bring. Will social proprietery manage to keep Leonie safe? Or is the villain bad enough not care about what is acceptable?

Leonie’s devotion and unshakeable faith in Avon is irritating and endearing at the same time. The only person to see him as human, and in fact better than anyone else in the world makes him undergo a change and turn less selfsih. The villain is everything a villain should be yet only human.

The book is as grand and stylish as the setting allows it to be. Excesses define the book and all its characters. No one is mild, and no one is boring. Not even the poor tenant of Avon whose horse is ‘borrowed’ for a chase sequence. The dialogue is entertaining and short. Unlike other Heyer novels where some characters tend to talk in paragraphs, here there are short sentences full of meaning.

“Remind me one day to teach you how to achieve a sneer, Hugh. Yours is too pronounced, and thus but a grimace. It should be but a faint curl of the lips. So. But to resume. You will at least be surprised to hear that I had not thought of Léonie in the light of a beautiful girl.”

“It amazes me.”

“That is much better, my dear. You are an apt pupil.”

The end is all that one could wish for.  And the book totally re-readable.

Here are my Ratings:

Protagonists: Larger than Life. Even the villain.

Side Characters: Few and all of them wonderful!

Plot: Interesting, complicated, and full of intrigue and action! It is the true story of a villanous Hero, a true-blue villain and an enchanting girl who is almost a tomboy.

Environment: Intrigue, action and suspense!

Regency Information: The book touches upon the pre-Regency customs and dresses. It gives a good idea of the social entertainments available (poetry parties, court parties, gambling excesses etc) as well as country environment in England and France. Fashion is well described including the introduction of Fan usage for men and importance of powdered hair. Economic occupations of all strata of society is covered, right from countryside to town to the rich. In short, it is rich in historical information.

Recommendation: Recommended for any book reader who likes a light mystery and a throwback to Olde England.

Rating: Five on Five!