Review: Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle (book & audio)

Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle
Georgette Heyer
Harlequin Books, 2004 (original copyright 1957)

Abridged audio version read by Richard Armitage
Naxos Audiobooks, 2009

Silence fell. Miss Marlow sat gazing abstractedly at a Buhl cabinet; and his grace of Salford, unaccustomed to such treatment, eyed her in gathering resentment. He was much inclined to pick up the newspaper again, and was only deterred from doing so by the reflection that disgust at her want of conduct was no excuse for lowering his own standard of good manners. He said in the voice of one trying to set a bashful schoolgirl at her ease: ‘Your father tells me, Miss Marlow, that you are a notable horsewoman.’

‘Does he?’ she responded. ‘Well, he told us that you showed him the way with the Heythrop.’

He glanced quickly down at her, but decided, after an instant, that this remark sprang from inanity. ‘I imagine I need not tell you that I did no such thing!’

‘Oh, no! I am very sure you did not,’ she said.

He almost jumped; and being now convinced that this seeming gaucherie was deliberate began to feel as much interested as he was ruffled. Perhaps there was rather more to this little provincial than he had supposed, though why she should utter malicious remarks he was at a loss to understand.

At first glance, Sylvester is not the usual sort of book I like. I’m not a fan of romance novels, the Regency period holds no historical interest for me, and Georgette Heyer’s punctuation style, with its excess of dashes and exclamation marks and inadequate use of commas, drives me crazy. In fact, having been subjected to numerous recommendations of her work, I attempted to read Cotillion a couple of years ago and barely made it beyond the first chapter.

I am a fan of the British actor Richard Armitage, however, and he happens to have narrated abridged audiobooks of three Heyer works, among them Sylvester. After comparing synopses of the three novels, I settled on Sylvester, and downloaded it from iTunes.

Was I instantly hooked? No, not really. I enjoyed it, to be sure, but it was more the appeal of Armitage’s voice than the story itself that had me listening to it over and over. In time I purchased the audiobook of Venetia, also read by Armitage, and though I enjoyed that one as well, I kept going back to Sylvester. Curious to see what had been cut from the original, I checked Sylvester out of the local library.

That’s what finally hooked me. The idiosyncratic punctuation is as annoying as ever, but I was able to look past it and enjoy the lively and frequently humorous budding romance between Sylvester, the arrogant duke of Salford, and Phoebe Marlow, whose quick pen and quicker tongue get her into more trouble than she can handle.

Sylvester is a young, handsome, wealthy, and very eligible bachelor who has decided that the time has come to choose a wife. When his godmother hears of this, she contrives to arrange a meeting between Sylvester and her granddaughter, Phoebe Marlow. Sylvester and Phoebe had already met, however, and neither had been left with a good impression of the other; Sylvester found Phoebe utterly forgettable, whereas Phoebe, piqued by Sylvester’s apparent arrogance, was inspired to write a pseudonymous novel whose villain she modeled on him.

Dreading the thought of a marriage proposal from Sylvester, Phoebe persuades her friend Tom Orde to help her flee to London in the midst of a snowstorm. An unfortunate accident maroons them at a wayside inn, however, where they are discovered by none other than Sylvester, himself fleeing Phoebe’s dreadful family. Sylvester cannot help taking pity on them, and soon the enforced togetherness has both Sylvester and Phoebe re-assessing their opinions about each other.

Just as things seem to be heating up between them, however, Phoebe’s book is published, and though her name is not attached to it she is quickly revealed to be the author of the scathing satire. Then Phoebe finds herself an unwitting accomplice when Sylvester’s young nephew is kidnapped, and once more Sylvester must come to her rescue.

A romance novel wouldn’t be a romance novel without the payoff, the happily-ever-after ending, and Sylvester is no exception; there’s no real doubt that Sylvester and Phoebe will find a way to put their differences behind them and confess their true feelings for each other by the end of the book. Sylvester’s appeal for me, therefore, comes from elsewhere. Anyone who reads this blog regularly probably won’t be surprised to learn that what appeals to me the most are the main characters themselves, particularly as they are revealed through the eyes of the other. For all his cold aloofness, Sylvester is shown to be a man of deep sensitivity and compassion, who does not hesitate to aid Tom and Phoebe when Tom’s leg is broken during Phoebe’s escape attempt. I thoroughly enjoyed observing Phoebe’s gradual reconsideration of her first impression of Sylvester as she gets to know him better:

[I]t could not be denied that [Sylvester] was a delightful companion; and one, moreover, with whom it was not necessary to mind one’s tongue. His sense of humour, too, was lively: often if a fatuous remark were uttered, or someone behaved in a fashion so typical as to be ludicrous, Phoebe would look instinctively towards him, knowing that he must be sharing her amusement. It was strange how the dullest party could be enjoyed because there was one person present whose eyes could be met for the fraction of a second, in wordless appreciation of a joke unshared by others: almost as strange as the insipidity of parties at which that person was not present. Oh, no! Miss Marlow, though fully alive to his arrogance, his selfishness, and his detestable vanity had no intention—no immediate intention—of repulsing Sylvester.

Sylvester, for his part, while Phoebe’s flight from his anticipated proposal merely wounds his ego, he is cut to the bone when he discovers how she satirized him in her novel after he has started to develop feelings for her. The girl he once dismissed as a mere country dab, dowdy and unmemorable, soon becomes his pet “Sparrow,” and he finds himself smitten with her quick tongue, lively humor, and generous heart; as his mother observes:

[A]lthough Sylvester had said that Phoebe was not beautiful she had not expected to find her a thin slip of a girl, with a brown complexion and nothing to recommend her but a pair of speaking grey eyes. If Sylvester, who knew his own worth, and had coolly made out a list of the qualities he considered indispensable in his bride, had decided that only this girl would satisfy him, he had fallen more deeply in love than his mother had thought possible.

In addition to the principals, many of the supporting characters are likewise appealing and contributed to my thorough enjoyment of this book. Of particular delight is the comically foppish Sir Nugent Fotherby:

Beside Sylvester’s quiet elegance… Sir Nugent presented all the appearance of a coxcomb. He was a tall man, rather willowy in build, by no means unhandsome, but so tightly laced-in at the waist, so exaggeratedly padded at the shoulders, that he looked a little ridiculous. From the striking hat set rakishly on his Corinthian crop… to his gleaming boots, everything he wore seemed to have been chosen for the purpose of making him look conspicuous.

Sir Nugent seeks to marry Sylvester’s widowed sister-in-law and become stepfather to his young nephew, but he is no match for a mischievous and stubborn six-year-old. The comical scenes between Sir Nugent and Edmund are among my favorites in the whole book, highlighting Heyer’s flair for comedy. Phoebe and Sylvester’s verbal sparring is great fun to read (and listen to!), but the encounters between Sir Nugent and Edmund reveal a more visual style of comedy. It’s a pity that Sylvester has never been filmed, because I have no doubt the entire interlude in France would be hilarious to watch.

Two characters appear in name only, but their influence is nonetheless unmistakable. Verena Marlow, Phoebe’s mother, and Sylvester’s twin brother Henry, both died before the events in Sylvester (Verena when Phoebe only an infant), yet Phoebe and Sylvester owe much of their respective characters and personalities to them. Phoebe’s tomboyish, forthright nature (as well as her reputation as a formidable horsewoman), which get her into so much trouble, are traits inherited from her mother, who happens to have been a dear friend of Sylvester’s mother. As for Henry Rayne, Phoebe comes to realize that his sudden death caused Sylvester, as his mother says, to “liv[e] in some desolate Polar region,” which contributed to the apparent arrogance she initially finds so detestable.

Finally, I have to express my appreciation for Heyer’s gentle touch with the burgeoning romance between Phoebe and Sylvester. I tend to like love stories where the principals fall in love almost despite themselves, or where the realization sneaks up on them without their knowing it. When Sylvester proposes to Phoebe at last, even though the whole book has been leading up to that moment, it’s almost as much of a surprise to the reader as it is to him. When he subsequently blurts out that he never meant to propose in the first place, even while sharing Phoebe’s indignation it’s hard not to sympathize with Sylvester at the same time. As his mother remarks, falling in love with Phoebe has clearly unhinged him:

‘I daresay you had no intention of reducing him to this sad state, but I feel you ought, in common charity, to allow him at least to explain himself. Very likely it would settle his mind, and it won’t do for Salford to become addle-brained, you know! Do but consider the consternation of the Family, my dear!’

I’m still not a fan of romance novels, and find the Regency period as uninteresting as ever, and I’m in no rush to read any more of Heyer’s work. That said, however, Sylvester is now probably one of my favorite “comfort read” books.

As for the audiobook, apart from the incentive of Armitage’s reading (does there need to be any other?), the abridgement unfortunately omits many of the more comical elements from the latter third of the book, after Edmund’s kidnapping, and so Sir Nugent’s role is greatly reduced. In addition there are some nuances of character, Sylvester’s in particular, that have been trimmed. I did not really miss these omissions until after I had read the complete book, however, as the plot remains largely intact, but it was discovering them that made me enjoy Sylvester even more. Armitage is a wonderful narrator, and does an excellent job modulating his voice to bring each character to life. It is certainly worth the investment if you’re a fan of audiobooks, and I hope Armitage can be persuaded to do more, once he’s finished filming The Hobbit.


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