Flailing to Find the Right Historical Niche: Georgette Heyer’s The Conqueror

The Conqueror was Georgette Heyer’s attempt to return to serious historical fiction after the fluff and romance of These Old Shades and her contemporary novels, and her attempt to find a historical period that would fit her. Retelling the story of William the Conqueror, it is a meticulously researched and carefully written book that proves, if nothing else, that the medieval period was not it. Nonetheless, as a work that helped move Heyer towards genres she could work in, it turns out to be a rather important book for her development as a writer, even if it can be very dull for most readers.

The book begins with, for Heyer, an extremely unusual shift into near fantasy. Heyer would continually write about strikingly improbable events, but rarely magical ones. Here, however, she begins by recounting the dream of the mother of William the Conqueror, which correctly prophesized that the bastard boy would rise to take control of both Normandy and England. (These sorts of prophetic dreams were frequently recorded after the fact; dreams that did not quite prove as prophetic were just quietly excised from the historical record.) After this, the book shifts to the story of Raoul, a young man appalled by the violence and rape that is spreading throughout Normandy, who decides to join William in the hopes that William can do something about this, and to the story of Edgar, a Saxon hostage, and the friendship that slowly grows between them despite their Vast Differences. (Many of you reading that sentence in the context of the Conquest can probably guess exactly what happens here, and you are completely right.) And a sado-masochistic whipping scene, complete with voyeurism.

This last is surprising, not so much for the content (tame by current standards), but that it appears in the work of a novelist who, as I’ve noted, in general avoided much discussion of sex. The other small issue is that the woman who is whipped only “asks for it” in the sense of insulting the man, and although Heyer more than hints that Matilda wants to provoke violence and is turned on by it, this is not exactly a consensual relationship, although it later sort of becomes one. This would not be the last time Heyer would suggest that a woman asked for the violence she receives, although it is rarely as strongly suggested as here.

At least in these scenes Heyer is following that old writer’s dictate of show, not tell; later, when confronted with wartime violence, something she had not quite grappled with yet in her fiction, she chooses not to show us the agony of medieval warfare, instead telling us about it. At length. In one case, a hideously brutal scene where a French city and its buildings are burned while the inhabitants are still inside is conveyed through dialogue, not through an actual scene. It almost serves as a model for just why writing workshops now squawk, “Show, not tell!” I can only assume that Heyer did this under the growing realization that dialogue, not narrative, was her strength as a writer, but in this case, it greatly slows down the book, and distances the reader still further from the book’s events.

And that’s hardly the only the problem with the dialogue. Heyer continually throws in bits of medieval English phrasing, and the problem is not just that these bits sound awkward, but they’re in the mouths of people who would have been speaking Norman French or Old English, and thus wouldn’t have been saying anything of the sort. I suppose she felt all the “Nay, nays” and “haro haros” and so on helped add a sense of authenticity, but in fact it does the opposite, proving at best distracting.

This also results in some seriously clunky romantic dialogue, and I’m not necessarily thrilled when Matilda finds herself thrilled that William, in pressuring her to wed him, has left bruise marks on her arm. (It would be one thing if this had happened in the throes of passion, but it’s part of an intimidation campaign.) That in turn leads to the aforementioned whipping scene, followed by the marriage which in turn produces the various children. Heyer, knowing the fates of all of them, has fun with a little artistic license here—her description of William Rufus as a problematic, fretful, overly dramatic infant speaks volumes.

The limits of her historical research also appear in an odd conversation between William and Raoul and others regarding archery, when William suddenly decides that he wants to start using bowmen, and thus, “I will change the whole way of war!” Raoul and several others, incredibly enough, appear to have never heard of this. I say incredibly, because although archery fell in and out of favor in medieval warfare, depending upon the year and the type of bow involved, archers had been used in warfare since at least ancient Egyptian times, and Raoul should have at the very least been aware of Biblical examples, if not considerably more recent ones. I have no problem with the concept that William decided to reintroduce archery to battles, and I don’t question that archery may very well have been one of the deciding points of the Battle of Hastings, but that doesn’t mean that no one would have said, ah, yes, just like the …insert ancient or early medieval battle here.

A considerably more legitimate argument is addressed a few paragraphs later—that putting bows and arrows into the hands of peasants could end up causing severe problems with their barons, but even now Heyer, for all her sharp observations about societal behavior, could not bring herself to believe that the lower and clearly lesser (in her view) classes could be any real threat. Aristocracy, in Heyer’s view, brings not merely superiority but a certain level of safety.

I dwell on this not because the archery is important in itself, but because it addresses one of the chief problems with Heyer’s historicals – including her Regencies. Heyer was only able to think in whatever period she was writing of, not going forward or back. The Conqueror is perhaps the best example of this, since nearly every character and even occasionally the narrator, seem unaware and uninterested of the past history of France, Normandy and England. (A rather unpleasant scene—deliberately so—with conjoined twins does predict the Hundred Years War.) This would be less noticeable if the characters weren’t, at the same time, running around fighting about the past history of France, Normandy and England, and also creating the later history of England. But Heyer does not have that vision of the tapestry of the past—er, apologies; I slip in the word tapestry whenever I talk about William the Conqueror—stretching into the past as well as the future.

Nor, for the first half of the book, does she have particularly interesting writing. I don’t expect all of my historical novels to Provide Illumination Into the Human Condition, or At Least One Period of It, but I do expect them to be interesting, which the first half, except for maybe the whipping scene, really isn’t. As I noted, Heyer falls too often into the trap of telling, not showing (often literally; several battle scenes and their aftermath are explained through tedious conversations filled with that jarring meant-to-be-medieval phrasing.)

The book does improve as the Norman Conquest approaches, and the various entities move into place, testing loyalties, friendships, political skills and beliefs in the holy power of relics. Unfortunately this is also the same place where the ebook I got from the library for this reread began having major but major formatting problems, with quote marks transformed into all kinds of Interesting Symbols and words engagingly transformed into fake Greek, which may have distracted me from other issues. (This is one of the few Heyers that I don’t own a copy of, partly because it was out of print for years and thus difficult to find, partly because my sole previous encounter with it had not encouraged me to buy my own copy.)

But for all that, both plots—the Norman Conquest and the Raoul/Edgar story remain utterly predictable. Okay, yes, I knew how the Norman Conquest would end, which makes it all the more irritating that this was one of the few battle scenes that Heyer did attempt to show, not tell—since it’s also the one battle scene where yes, we do pretty much know what happened.

But the fundamental problem is Heyer’s very meticulousness, her need to be accurate. The details are there, overflowing at times, all to prove to readers (and the critics whose attention she still desperately wanted) that she was a Serious Writer. But the very research restrained her from turning the medieval world into her own. She is depicting, not creating, and without that creation, she often fails to bring the medieval world to even false life.

She may also have needed something that the medieval world just could not bring her: more documents. Heyer was always less interested in filling in the blanks than seeing how people reacted to the historical events around them; the problem, of course, in dealing with the life of William the Conqueror, or many other medieval figures, is that any writer or historian will need to fill in a lot of blanks. This would cause her problems again when she returned to the medieval period much later in life, to the point where she was unable to finish that book. When she had documents to work with, she could write with more assurance.

The Conqueror showed that straightforward historical novels were not Heyer’s strengths: as I mentioned, she lacked both a grand historical sense and the ability to create a compelling narrative out of purely factual materials, even something as seemingly compelling as the Norman Conquest. She needed not reality, but a world she could create and play with, a world based on facts, but in her firm imaginative control. Her need for approval from serious literary critics meant that she was never to abandon the idea of serious historical novels completely (and we’ll be looking at one more, An Infamous Army). But this book did not give her the recognition or the money that she craved, and it would be years before she turned to the medieval era again—and even then, she would not be able to finish that book.

I cannot recommend this book to anyone but Heyer completists, most of whom will find it tedious going, but if you want to read every Heyer book, it is back in print.

Heyer’s next book was Footsteps in the Dark, important only as Heyer’s first entrance into the thriller/mystery genre. Both the mystery and the romance are fairly weak—the romance in particular, between two people who barely interact during the entire book, seems suddenly shoehorned in in a rather “wait, I need a romance here” sort of way. The book sold decently, however, encouraging Heyer to start a consistently lucrative secondary career as a minor detective novelist.

Next up: Devil’s Cub.

Follow the Georgette Heyer reread here.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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