“Dear Edward has given Fanny a chocolate-coloured coach with pale blue cushions. The wheat is picked out in blue.” He held the sheet at arm’s length. “It seems strange, but no doubt Fanny is right. I have not been in England for such a time…Ah, I beg her pardon. You will be relieved to hear, my dear Hugh, that the wheat still grows as it ever did. The wheels are picked out in blue.”–The Duke of Avon, reading a letter aloud from his sister Fanny
This was a reread on Audible of a book I’ve read so many times I know a lot of it by heart, even though it’s probably been more than 2 decades since my last reading. The quote above, I remember, was when I read the book for the first time, my emotions went from enjoyment and anticipation to sheer delight. Although the incurably romantic and fun story still holds up, it suffers from the narration. Cornelius Garrett does not do well interpreting the suave, omniscient, and mordant Duke of Avon. Justin Alistair is an iconic character in the romance world, upon which many many subsequent romantic heroes by many other authors has been based over the years. I don’t think Mr. Garrett understood his character. He plays him in a voice that is too high-pitched and is sometimes bombastic and querulous. There is little nuance and little comic timing. In my own mind, I hear Avon’s voice as somewhat affected but not effeminate. I hear the unhurried, dry, and quiet tones of the late great Alan Rickman. Cornelius Garrett is no Alan Rickman.
That off my chest, although I was entertained, and enjoyed revisiting one of my old-time favorites, I wasn’t as charmed and admiring of Leonie this time around. Her devotion to “Monseigneur” and her impish spirited antics (“Egad, you wildcat!”) after restored to her true female self were a little much. But the plot, the dialogue, and all of the other characters, including Justin Alastair, as written, if not played, were as entertaining as always. It is no wonder that so many aspects of the book have been so copied, even to this day, almost 100 years later.
Two oft-criticized aspects of the book are the age gap between Justin and Leonie (40 vs. 20) and the other is the emphasis of birth over breeding in the determination of character. As far as the age gap, I do not have a problem with it. It is not all that much more than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Bogie was 45 and Bacall was 20 when they met. Cary Grant was 59 and Audrey Hepburn was 25 years younger when they starred together in Charade. As far as the importance of genetics in the determination of character, the criticism hits home a bit more strongly. Genetics is certainly a factor, but it doesn’t trump everything. Despite 20 years of being raised as a peasant, we are told Leonie never exhibits any coarseness. And conversely, in regards to the peasant with whom she was exchanged at birth, despite being raised as an aristocrat, he is awkward in society and wants nothing more than to be a farmer. Of course in my early readings of this book, I didn’t think a thing about it. And you know, some difference between the two can be explained by the behavior of both sets of parents who knew the truth. But I mustn’t digress.
These Old Shades is a most entertaining read. It has it all: romance, wit, comedy, adventure, suspense, cheer-worthy moments, triumph, and emotion. I love the descriptions of the fashions and toilettes, the glitterati, both fictional and real, and the settings. Although it’s too much to ask any book to recapture the joy it may have first brought once upon a time, it’s good to revisit books that once brought that joy. **5 stars, of course.**
March 2, 2022