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Knowing I was going to be driving up to Lancashire, a journey I always dread, I decided to check out what the library had on offer in the way of audio books which I thought would make a change from music or the radio. I glanced at the recordings of Georgette Heyer novels and was about the pass them by when I spotted that several of the newer recordings were narrated by Richard Armitage. Be still my beating heart! I chose to borrow Sylvester which is one of my absolute favourite Heyer novels and I listened to it on my journey north.
Sylvester, Duke of Salford, is looking for a wife and on the recommendation of his mother, visits the Wiltshire home of the Honourable Phoebe Marlow, to see whether she meets his rather high standards. He's taken aback to discover that the lady in question is completely tongue tied in his presence and it soon turns out that the thought of marriage to him results in her running away from home. When he meets up with the runaway on the road in the company of her childhood friend, Sylvester delivers her to her grandmother's house in London, and it seems that will be the end of it other than meeting in Society ballrooms. But Phoebe has a very good reason for wanting to keep well away from Sylvester and when he discovers, along with the rest of the Ton, that she's written a book entitled The Wicked Uncle, casting him as the villain and with a plot that bears striking similarities to his family situation, he's furious and Phoebe finds herself fleeing once again, this time with Sylvester in hot pursuit.
This is one of Georgette Heyer's most intricately plotted romances filled with a panoply of characters from Regency life which takes the reader, or listener in this case, from rural Wiltshire to high society London and then to post-war France and back again. It's a journey of discovery for the main protagonists who begin the book with very different views about each other and I suppose, at a pinch, the story could be regarded as a sort of reworking of Pride and Prejudice. It's certainly true that the hero, Sylvester is a very proud and arrogant young man, and Phoebe is more than prejudiced against him. However, unlike Jane Austen's blockbuster, there are some real laugh-out-loud moments in this story, generally caused by the actions of one of the secondary characters, a foppish aristocrat who is engaged to Ianthe, Sylvester's sister-in-law and the widow of his younger brother.
I don't want to give too much of the plot away because it would spoil the pleasure readers or listeners would derive from this story but Sylvester is the guardian of his brother's child, Edmund, whose mother is a vapid and silly woman engaged to marry one of society's biggest dandies and when they read Phoebe's novel, they decide that life should mimic art, after which absolute mayhem ensues.
This is a romance, of course, but Georgette Heyer has created a love story which is subtle and believable and which would appeal to even those people who eschew reading romantic fiction because not only is this a love story which develops over a period of time but it's also an adventure story, too, with a couple of farcical moments thrown in for good measure. You won't find the main protagonists jumping into bed with each other, either; their romance is conducted in exactly the manner it would have been in the early nineteenth century and besides, Georgette Heyer never needed to include such tricks to build romantic tension between her characters.
It's always a worry when listening to a much loved book that the narrator might not do justice to the text and as Richard Armitage is voicing all the parts on this recording, which means giving voices to characters ranging from a six year old child and an innocent young debutante, right up to a prize fop and a couple of Regency dowagers, I did wonder whether he would be up to the task. All I can say is that he must have trained at a very good drama school because his narration is superb. He managed to pitch his voice just right for every part and surely it must be difficult for any man to convincingly play a female role even those verging on something of a caricature. Sylvester is one of my favourite fictional heroes, up there with Mr Darcy, and much as I like Richard Armitage, it was going to be a challenge for him to impress me but, again, he had just the right amount of superciliousness and arrogance tinged with vulnerability in his voice to satisfy even my exacting standards. I really shouldn't have worried; after all this book was being read by the man who managed to turn the role of Guy of Gisborne from a cruel and heartless baddie into someone every woman wanted, me included!
Although, for me, this recording could never take the place of the book, it can't be denied it's an excellent interpretation read by a master of vocalisation. It's an abridged version and I would obviously encourage anyone to read the entire book but I have to admit that, despite having read this novel more than once or twice, I couldn't discern where text had been left out. It certainly didn't seem as though any of the major scenes had been tampered with and if they have, it's impossible to tell where because the narration flows smoothly and faultlessly.
The cost of audio books always seems to be a good deal higher than the printed version and this recording is no exception, currently selling for around £10, although I'm sure mine can't be the only library which has this in its catalogue. This recording published by Naxos comes on four CDs each lasting approximately an hour, so it was the perfect length for my trip from Berkshire to Lancashire and it turned a long and tedious journey up the M6 into an absolute delight.