Georgette Heyer's first novel. Published in 1921 by William Heinemann
The Black Moth was written by a teenaged Heyer as entertainment for her invalid brother. Set in England in the middle of the eighteenth century, the novel introduces many of the themes and characters Heyer continued to explore through her writing career.
The central character is in fact the villain, Hugh Tracy Clare Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, referred to as the black moth. The story follows the Duke's obsessive love for the young heroine, his attempts to win her, and his eventual defeat by the swashbucklingly stereotypical hero. Despite the slightly gothic drama of this story arc - which involves kidnapping, piracy, cheating, debts of honour, love triangles, duelling, long lost heirs, and very expensive stockings - the real stars of the show are the eccentric and self-absorbed Belmanoir family. The Duke is the head of a family that includes his feckless young brother, his very silly sister, and the sister's remarkably dull husband. Already in this first novel, Heyer shows a remarkable talent for creating likeable secondary characters, memorable dialogue, and a deft touch in having her characters take their situations seriously even as the author and reader enjoy the ridiculousness of it all.
Heyer's attention to historical detail stands out even this early in her career. The dialogue of her characters is peppered with class-appropriate slang; their dress and manners are impeccable. Heyer shows an easy intimacy with the personalities and pasttimes of the era, with the niceties of social intercourse, and the mores of upper class England.
The Black Moth is a standalone novel, as are almost all of Heyer's romances (the seven part series not having reached the romance industry yet), but she returns to these characters and plots several times in later books. Most obviously, the Duke of Andover is the prototype for the Duke of Avon in These Old Shades. Both are intelligent, urbane, well-dressed and have a reputation for 'uncanny omniscience'. Each has a supporting cast of characters that include a wild younger brother, a silly sister with a dull husband, and a best friend notable for being younger, kinder, wiser and mysteriously devoted to his ducal friend. In The Black Moth, the Duke of Andover abducts the heroine, who is rescued by her gallant lover, and the devoted best friend remarks that, "she would not take you, but she has, I think, made you." In These Old Shades, Avon and his own devoted best friend discuss how he had, ten years before, abducted a lovely young lady, who was rescued by her gallant lover. The devoted best friend remarks that he said at the time that 'she had made you'. In this way Heyer is able to transform Andover/Avon from villain to hero, and follow his story through several more decades.