We spent last weekend visiting the beautiful city of Bath. We stayed in a hotel that was once owned by the Duke of Wellington and walked into town to hear a friend’s choir sing in the stunning fifteenth-century Abbey. It seemed as though everywhere I went, I followed in the footsteps of a much-loved Regency romance. Sometimes it was Jane Austen; more often it was Georgette Heyer.
Most of the time it was Black Sheep. It isn’t my all-time favorite Heyer, but I think it has one of the best settings.
By the time of the Regency, Brighton had become the fashionable place to spend the summer and Bath, which had once been the ton’s favorite resort, had become a kind of posh backwater inhabited by invalids and those who couldn’t afford the expense of living in London. Which makes it the perfect choice for Black Sheep.
The heroine, Abigail, who’s in her late 20s, is still single despite being beautiful, well-born, wealthy and intelligent, thanks to her unfashionably independent mind-set. She lives in Bath with Selina, her needy hypochondriac spinster sister, and Fanny, her gorgeous, temperamental heiress niece. Abigail loves and manages both of them, follows the social rounds of Bath society, and expects no more from her life until she meets the hero.
The hero (really more of an anti-hero) is Miles, a disgraced rake who was sent away to India by his family, where he discovered that he had a head for business. Years later he has returned, older and wealthier, but otherwise unchanged. He does exactly what he wants, speaks his mind with unvarnished honesty, and doesn’t give a fig for the rigid social protocol imposed by polite society.
Abigail and Miles cross paths thanks to Stacy, Miles’s nephew, a slippery but superficially charming fortune hunter who’s set his sights on marriage to Fanny. We also learn of a long-ago minor scandal involving Miles and Fanny’s mother, which was hushed up by Abigail’s fanatically respectable family.
Bath is the perfect setting for this story. It’s a beautiful city, all honey-colored stone and sweeping Georgian crescents, but it’s small. Everything is within walking distance. It’s only a few steps from the Pump Room, where Selina goes every day to drink the waters, to the Assembly Rooms, where they spend their evenings dancing. Milsom Street, with its fashionable shops, is just around the corner, and the Abbey, where odious Stacy proposes a runaway marriage to impressionable Fanny, is even nearer. A member of Bath society would have met the same group of people in the same places every day. It’s easy to imagine how comforting Selina found the narrow boundaries of that world, and how claustrophobic it felt to Abigail.
I love the premise—will Abigail save Fanny from the clutches of smooth operator Stacy while scandalizing society and her family by falling for disreputable rough diamond Miles? It’s not much of a spoiler to say of course she will. I think the book’s great strength is in the physical descriptions of Bath and the portrayal of the stifling rules and routines of the gentility, especially for women. There’s also a nice depiction of the tensions between the posh but poor upper classes and the newly wealthy East India traders.
I don’t love Black Sheep as much as some other Heyers because although this is Abigail’s book, when push comes to shove she lacks agency. She’s smart and funny, and she’s brave enough to admit her love for Miles, to him and to her wildly disapproving family, but at the critical juncture she succumbs to emotional blackmail. Fortunately Miles isn’t having any of it. He solves the problems for her and saves the day, but for me that makes the book a whisker less satisfying than Devil’s Cub (heroine shoots the hero with his own pistol), Faro’s Daughter (heroine has the hero kidnapped and locked in a cellar), or Masqueraders (heroine is an escaped Jacobite passing as a man).
I do love the fact that Heyer chose such a great setting for the story, and described it so vividly that the book sprang to life in my memory when I visited the city.
Have you ever visited the setting of a favorite book? How was it for you?