This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “classic” romance – classic books, authors, themes, whatever. I thought I might do a classic trope like “amnesia” or “secret baby,” but in browsing through my TBR list, I found the perfect choice – a Georgette Heyer historical romance!
I was a latecomer to Heyer; I think I read one of her books in college, as an “Austen homage” (there were a LOT fewer of those before Colin Firth). When I started reading romance again (a little more than six years ago), Heyer’s name kept cropping up. I soon realized that some of the readers/bloggers/reviewers whose opinions I most valued were big Heyer fans, so I went to the library and checked one out. The book was Faro’s Daughter, and I got about four chapters in and hated it. But a few months later, I tried again – I think it was The Foundling – and I realized what all the fuss was about.
Since then, I’ve read quite a few Heyer novels, the mystery novels as well as the romances. I’ve liked some, loved others, hated only one (The Grand Sophy), and never finished Faro’s Daughter. I buy a bunch every time they go on sale, and I was pleased to find one that I hadn’t read lurking on my Kindle.
Beauvallet is unusual amongst Heyer’s historical romances, because it is not set in the Regency. Beauvallet, the main character, is an adventurous Elizabethan; when the book opens, he and the crew of his ship are defeating a much larger Spanish ship in naval combat. On that ship are a deathly ill Spanish nobleman and his beautiful daughter, Dominica, with whom Beauvallet falls in love. He agrees to return them to Spain, rather than leaving them somewhere to be rescued with the rest of the ship’s crew and passengers, even though it is risky for him to land his vessel on Spanish shores. More audaciously, he vows to return to Spain within a year to claim Dominica as his bride.
“El Beauvallet,” as he is known among the Spanish, is a larger-than-life personality. He believes absolutely in his personal good fortune, boldly taking risks and chances in the belief that he will not fail. He enjoys the life of a privateer (having previously been an explorer, sailing with Sir Francis Drake), and he has built up quite a reputation for reckless bravery and success in his ventures. He laughs always, even in the face of danger, and even when he knows he is taking a risk, he presents a brave and bold face to the world. For the most part, this is the face the reader sees, as well. The narrative voice rarely gives you a glimpse of Beauvallet questioning or uncertain, with the result that he is almost too perfect and rather inaccessible.
Dominica, on the other hand, is full of doubt and uncertainty. She has trouble reading Beauvallet; since he’s always laughing and joking, she doesn’t know when to take him seriously. She finds him charming and infuriating, and of course very attractive. Even though she doesn’t really believe that he can and will come find her in Spain, she can’t help being impressed by his determination and bravado in claiming that he will. When he actually shows up in Spain (in disguise), she loses her heart completely over his fidelity and willingness to risk his life to marry her.
As is the case in some other Heyer novels, all the character growth and development in this book is the heroine’s, making her a more interesting character to me. She’s young and somewhat sheltered, but she’s also spirited and intelligence – she has been raised in the West Indies, not Spain, so she is used to more freedom of both thought and action. She also has “heretical” (Lutheran) sympathies, making her even less suited to life in Spain and more suitable as a match for an English Protestant such as Beauvallet. She gets stronger and more sure of herself as the novel goes on, determined by the end to be a woman worthy of a man like Beauvallet. I was glad that the narration was fairly evenly divided between their two perspectives, since they spend most of the book separated.
There’s a lot of swashbuckling and adventure in this book – Beauvallet’s masquerade in King Philip’s court, followed by his escape and his elopement with Dominica, are a series of close calls, clever plots, and feats of agility and skill with a sword. The romance is the central motivation for the action, but this is definitely a story about overcoming external obstacles. The Elizabethan setting gives Heyer some new elements to play with, and as an adventure the book was fun to read. But as a romance, it was less satisfying to me than some of her other novels.