When Sylvester, the Duke of Salford, first meets Phoebe Marlow, he finds her dull and insipid. She thinks he is insufferably arrogant. But when a series of unforeseen events leads them to be stranded together in a lonely country inn, they are both forced to reassess their hastily formed opinions, and they begin to discover a new-found liking and respect for each other. But what Sylvester doesn’t know is that Phoebe is about to publish a novel – a novel in which all London will recognize him as the villainous ‘Count Ugolino’.
Rating: A- for content and B+ for narration
Sylvester is another of my favourite books by Georgette Heyer and one that I don’t think has been available in an unabridged version before. Naxos released an abridged recording in 2009, which was very well performed by Richard Armitage. For this unabridged recording, they have utilised the vocal talent of British actor, Nicholas Rowe, and a superb job he has made of it. His speaking voice is a beautifully resonant baritone, his diction and pronunciation are excellent and although I did have a few minor issues, it’s an accomplished and confident performance overall, from an actor who doesn’t appear to have recorded any other audiobooks.
I hope, on the strength of this performance, that fact is going to change.
Our eponymous hero is Sylvester Rayne, Duke of Salford, a young man of twenty-eight who inherited his title at the age of nineteen. At the beginning of the story, he tells his mother, a wonderful lady to whom he is devoted, that he has decided it’s time to look about him for a wife. The dowager is disappointed when he tells her he hasn’t fallen in love, but rather has drawn up a list of eligible young ladies he believes have the right qualities to be his duchess.
One lady who isn’t on the list, but whom his mother mentions as someone she would have liked to introduce to him, is Miss Phoebe Marlow, the daughter of one of her oldest friends. Not having made her acquaintance, or at least, not thinking he has done so, Sylvester decides to “look her over” and manoeuvres his way into an invitation to stay with her family for a few days. Phoebe’s stepmother is filled with glee at the prospect of having a duke as a son-in-law and makes the mistake of telling Phoebe the reason for Sylvester’s visit to Austerby Park, which makes the poor girl incredibly nervous and awkward.
On top of that, Phoebe is horrified at the thought of receiving an offer of marriage from Sylvester but not entirely for the reasons one would think. They don’t know each other, and she certainly isn’t in love with him, but her distress is more due to the fact that she used him as the model for the villain in her gothic novel.
In her panic, Phoebe decides her only option is to run away to London to live with her grandmother, the redoubtable Lady Ingham, who also happens to be Sylvester’s godmother. She is aided in her escape by her good friend Tom Orde, the local squire’s son, but the plan goes badly awry when, due to the inclement weather, they meet with an accident on the road.
By the time this happens, Sylvester has already decided that Phoebe is not the woman for him. She’s small, dowdy, awkward, and has a way of saying exactly what she thinks which he finds rather disconcerting. On learning of Phoebe’s flight however, he sees a way to truncate his visit at Austerby and leaves as soon as he can.
On the road, he comes upon the scene of an accident, and is not really all that surprised to discover Phoebe and Tom at a local inn. Tom has broken his leg and will not be going anywhere for a while nor will anyone else as the snow has made the roads pretty much impassable.
It’s while they are forced into each other’s company at the inn that the relationship between Phoebe and Sylvester begins to take a turn for the better. Phoebe is surprised at Sylvester’s kindness and ready sense of humour, and he begins to realise that she is possessed of a quick wit and intelligence. Relieved of the pressure of an impending proposal, Phoebe is at last able to be herself, and although she doesn’t scruple to tell Sylvester when he’s being high-handed, they become friends.
Bubbling along in the background of the story has been Phoebe’s authorship of a novel called The Lost Heir, in which she has caricatured a number of the members of the ton, not the least of which is Sylvester, whom she cast as the villain, Count Ugolino. Unfortunately, the plot of her book has much more in common with Sylvester’s family circumstances than Phoebe could possibly have known and its publication causes quite a stir.
Sylvester is quite a complex hero by Heyer’s standards. As Duke of Salford, he is well aware of his consequence and his standing but, because he has become so accustomed to having people “toad-eat” him (as Tom puts it), he is all but completely unaware of the lengths people will go to do his bidding and fawn over him. This, however, has led him into a certain kind of arrogance, something about himself he would not recognise. He is unfailingly polite to his peers, those of lower social ranks, and even takes care to thank servants for their efforts. He always arrives on time to social functions and makes sure that he dances with the odd wallflower; he would not dream of putting his own desires above duty and, indeed, at the beginning of the book we see him not wanting to keep his stewards waiting for a meeting even though he would much rather have gone out for a ride.
But what concerns his mother is that his actions in this regard are not taken because of a genuine concern for others, but rather because Sylvester feels that it would demean him to act in any other way. Beautifully understated, but also very clear, is the fact that Sylvester is still grieving for his brother who died four years previously. Without Harry to inject a little levity, Sylvester has withdrawn somewhat, and his natural reserve has become even more pronounced.
Phoebe is not without her faults. The first time she meets Sylvester, she forms an opinion based on his appearance and his aloofness and decides immediately that she dislikes him. She maintains this dislike without any real basis for it and, even with her gift for reading people, she continues to misunderstand Sylvester and misinterpret many of his actions.
Sylvester features one of my favourite tropes – the handsome, arrogant hero and the witty and intelligent Plain Jane. Often, in such a story, the hero is substantially changed, humbled even, as a result of his love for the heroine. But, although Sylvester does make a subtle shift from being a man who treats people well because to do otherwise would be beneath him, to being a man who actually thinks about the feelings and situation of others, he is, in essence, the same man at the end of the book. As his mother says, a wife willimprove him, but will not change his whole character, and it’s certainly true that he becomes warmer and more genuine through the course of his acquaintance with Phoebe. Whenever I read the book, I always feel that what actually happens is that Sylvester, at last, comes to terms with his loss and regains some of the softer qualities he had lost when his brother died. His natural reserve means he will never be gregarious, but I can certainly see Phoebe lightening him up a bit over the years.
As ever with this author’s work, I find myself marvelling at her superb eye for historical detail, social observation, and her spectacular skill at seeking out and exposing the ridiculous. There is a well-drawn set of secondary characters including Sylvester’s charming and intelligent mother and Phoebe’s friend Tom, a lovely young man and childhood friend. It’s refreshing that there are no overtones of unrequited love on Tom’s part; it’s a completely platonic relationship and it’s beautifully written. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Ms Heyer’s splendid portrait of that tulip of the ton Sir Nugent Fotherby, who brings much humour to the latter part of the book. I also have to single out the characterisation of Edmund, Sylvester’s nephew. It’s rare to find well-written children in romance novels. They’re often rather two dimensional and idealised but Edmund comes across as very real.
Nicholas Rowe may not have many audiobooks to his credit but I recognised his name straight away, having seen him in a number of films. He has a smooth, mellifluous voice, which was very enjoyable and easy to listen to, and his upper-crust accent is perfect for this story and this hero.
There is quite a large supporting cast in the book, and Mr Rowe tackles them all admirably. He raises the pitch of his voice only slightly when performing some of the female roles, but he nonetheless voices them clearly and distinctly, using a variety of tones and accents, and I thought the choices he made worked very well. Phoebe’s governess sounds serious and unflappable, her maid is young and breathless, and he captures Ianthe’s penchant for melodrama perfectly.
The male characters are just as clearly delineated. Phoebe’s father is jovial, bluff, and trying too hard to impress. Tom and his father are performed with slight regional accents, which are used accurately and consistently throughout, and Mr Rowe’s performance of Sir Nugent is an absolute hoot.
My one criticism of the performance is that it felt a little rushed at the beginning. I am thinking particularly of the conversation between Sylvester and his mother that occurs in the first chapter, when Mr Rowe switches very quickly between direct speech and dialogue tags, so much so that they seem to run into each other. It’s not confusing so much as irritating though, as the text clearly identifies each speaker. I just wish he had taken a little more time. The good thing, though, is that this problem does not occur throughout the rest of the book, so perhaps it was just a case of settling in.
All in all, this was a very satisfying performance of a well-loved story, and I have no reservation in heartily recommending it.