Tue
Jun 26 2012 11:00am

Welcome to the Georgette Heyer Reread

Photo of Georgette HeyerVery few authors can say, with confidence, that they developed an entire subgenre, spawning hundreds of imitators and creating a line of novels still immensely profitable today, or boast of never being out of print for what is now close to a century. Georgette Heyer is one of these authors. Not entirely by design, she ended up creating the Regency romance, making her name synonymous with the subgenre, and if her later followers have added considerably more sex than she would have approved of, they have very carefully followed the world she created.

And the key word is just that: created. Georgette Heyer did, indeed, use very real places and things to create her Regency world and make it feel as real as possible. But the most casual reading of, say, a Byron poem or Austen novel and any of Heyer’s Regency works shows how carefully Heyer created the world she chose to write of, and how far apart this world was from the reality of Regency England, however exact and correct her details. The Regency world Heyer presents (with the possible exceptions of her novels The Infamous Army and A Civil Contract, very different from her usual work) is in no way historical, however accurate its details of clothing, gloves and cant; it is instead a secondary world as carefully crafted as any fantasy series – and more than many of them. It was a highly artificial concoction that allowed her to play with comedies of manners, assert her conservative beliefs, and allowed her readers the comfort of returning to a familiar world.

Perhaps because of the strength of that world-building, Heyer’s Regency England was also a world with a surprisingly strong influence on contemporary fantasy writing. Several contemporary fantastists have mentioned a love of Heyer or her dialogue, and others have gone so far as to create worlds of their own filled with magic (that is, magicians) that claim to be based on Jane Austen, but contain more than a touch of Heyer. The classic example is perhaps Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and even more so, its sequel Magician’s Ward, both of which use several Heyer staples: a cross dressing heroine, a London season, Regency cant and witty dialogue, and even final confrontation scenes featuring all of the major, minor characters, reminscent of similar scenes in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and Cotillion. Sorcery and Cecelia, cowritten by Wrede, even includes a cameo appearance from Lady Jersey, a staple minor character (based on a real historical personage) from Heyer’s books. Few other fantasy books go that far, but the Heyer influence can still be seen.

In this series of posts, I’ll be looking at the individual books in part to see just how this world was created—and in part to examine some of Heyer’s other works, to give an idea of the imagination behind her legacy. Fair warning: I will not, as I did with the Oz series, be covering every single one of Heyer’s novels, leaving out works that either contributed little to her world building or are deadly dull or both. This includes the work that Heyer hoped would be her masterpiece, My Lord John, which serves mainly as an illustration that authors are often terrible at determining which of their works is actually a masterpiece. My Lord John, absolutely not. The brilliant, dazzling Regency world, with its cant, dandies, Corinthians, and Almacks, that became its own character in multiple novels, absolutely yes.

Since I’ve mentioned these other works, however, I should note their importance in Heyer’s writing development. Nearly all of these were straightforward historical novels, carefully researched, and written to be true to the facts and the period, illustrating various parts of history that Heyer found fascinating or important. And they showed, if not immediately, that Heyer had no gift for writing straightforward historical novels illustrating various parts of history that Heyer found fascinating or important. The true astonishment of Royal Escape is how anyone, and most particularly Heyer, could make the sexy Charles II and his flight across England dull, but dull, dull, it is.

These dull historicals, however, are part of the reason Heyer is less known to American readers. Her “serious” fiction was not very good, and the very good books were dismissed as popular romances, and continue, at least in the U.S., to be shelved in the romance section. This is disservice to both Heyer and romance readers: many people (particularly men) who would be delighted by Heyer are unfortunately put off by the romance placement and the often unfortunate book covers (I lost count of the male friends who protested, “but it’s a chick book!”). Meanwhile, romance readers looking for a more typical romance book are not going to find it in Heyer, and if they end up with one of the dull straight historicals (most now available in reprints) they may be turned from Heyer for life.

Romance novels are, after all, supposed to bring the sexy these days, and although Heyer included the occasional kiss in her novels, she usually left out the sex. Indeed, it can be difficult to tell if the couple is sleeping together or not, even when they are married: for the record, I think not in The Convenient Marriage and probably not in April Lady, and although it’s clear that Adam and Jenny are sleeping together in A Civil Contract, it’s also fairly clear that they are not having great sex during the book. Maybe after the end of the book. Given that Heyer’s most sensual prose appears in Helen during descriptions of Helen’s relationship with her father, we are perhaps justified in wondering certain things, but, perhaps not; Heyer could be, in some ways, very Victorian, believing that decent people and writers just didn’t talk about those sorts of things.

Or, for that matter, much about their personal life. Heyer’s readers did not even learn her married name until after her death. Jane Aiken Hodge, an early biographer and great admirer of Heyer’s work, found it difficult to obtain much more: Heyer’s friends, smiling, would not say much under the justified belief that Heyer would not have liked it. (Odd, perhaps, given the love for gossip shown in some of her books.) A more recent biography by Jennifer Kloester gained access to some additional material, but still found it difficult to penetrate that reserve. (I do recommend the meticulously researched Kloester biography, with the caveat that readers should not expect to learn any scandals.) Heyer herself insisted that she was only to be found in her books.

Those books, however, do tell us something—not simply the ones she later attempted to suppress (possibly because she thought they were too revealing)—but the later ones as well. They show us a woman who was deeply conservative, who longed for the days of the vanishing aristocracy (still around when she wrote her first books, but fading rapidly after World War II) and who saw herself as part of that aristocracy—although her own birth was only what her characters would have called “respectable,” and she married a mining engineer turned shop owner turned barrister, not a member of the aristocracy.

None of this, however, stopped her from being a deep snob, a trait that greatly grew as World War II approached, only to fade off (but not quickly) in the post war years. The majority of her lower class characters are of distinctly lower intelligence, superstitious, over emotional and helpless in a crisis (the exceptions tend to be men) and her descriptions of lower class folk can sometimes border on the offensive. And if her more negative comments about other races and nationalities are generally put in the mouths of questionable characters, well, they are still there. And, typical of her period and time, her cast of characters is almost uniformly white; this is not a series of books to read in hopes of a nuanced discussion of racial or class issues.

But social and economic justice was not a concern of Heyer’s (except when yelling at British Inland Revenue). Her focus was comedy, and the trivial, and in that she succeeded, often brilliantly. We’ll see how she got there, and created a world while doing so.

Housekeeping note: this reread is a supplement to, not a replacement for, the rereads of children’s books, which will be finishing up the rest of the Freddy the Pig books before continuing on to other works, including Edward Eager and Roald Dahl.

 

Let’s start with her first novel: The Black Moth


Mari Ness would not mind going briefly to the Regency period if she could be guaranteed the life of a duchess. Given the unlikelihood of that happening, she has put off time travelling to that era for the moment.

24 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
I lovr Heyer- okay, I love some Heyer. As with Kipling, I came to the books through SF- enough of the writers I loved enjoyed her books, so I investigated. In general, I'm one of the 'I don't read romance' people.

What I love is the world-building- even if this isn't really Regency England, it's at least as real as Pern or Arrakis. Plus, we get spunky heroines!
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
I may be one of the few SF readers who didn't come to Heyer through SF -- I picked up Charity Girl at the library where I worked back in high school, mostly because I kept noticing that I had to reshelve it frequently, and any book checked out that often had to have something going for it.
Alice Arneson
3. Wetlandernw
I've loved Heyer's books since I was a kid, mostly because my adored older sister liked them. It's only in more recent years that I even noticed how many SFF fans are also Heyer fans; now I'm starting to realize why that is.

Lucky for me, my dad wasn't put off by the "unfortunate" (!!) cover art, and encouraged us to read and enjoy the wit and humor in them. My sister and I used to bring them home from the library, and he read - and enjoyed - every one of them. I never did make it more than a few pages into any of the "historical" books, though. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who found them dull.

I hadn't really thought about how much Heyer's "Regency England" is a fantasy world, but I guess in many ways it is. I look forward to the reread!
Jo Beverley
4. Jo Beverley
This should be fun. Thanks!

However, it's silly to try to slide Heyer out of the romance genre simply because some people have an irrational phobia about it. Most of her novels are wonderful historical romances, beginning to end.

I am glad we're starting with an acknowledgement that she invented a Regency world (the Georgian one was arguably more based on reality, perhaps because they are earlier works.) Reading the novels of the time, especially the Minerva Press, can be a real eye-opener!

My first Heyer was Powder and Patch, at aged 11.
Jo Beverley
5. Ali @ Very Berry
This is a really interesting read and not something I had thought of before. My lovely dad introduced me to Georgette Heyer when I was 13 (A Convenient Marriage), and I was hooked. My dad was also a huge SF/Fantasy fan (I'm not). What I particularly like about her work (now I am (much) older and a more discerning reader) is her excellent plotting, her extremely good style, her humour and her eye for detail. Although as you say, it is an invented Regency world, when I studied late 18th and early 19th century history at school, it was not unfamiliar to me, with its cock fights, gambling, drinking, mills, balls, Corinthians and Dandies..
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@Jo Beverley - Thing is, I'm not sure that many of Heyer's Regencies actually work as romances. I think the romances that she inspired DO work very well as romances (like yours!), but with many of the Regencies the romance plot is either shoved well to the side (The Foundling, The Quiet Gentleman) or is not particularly believable (Arabella, and, much though I love it, Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.) I think some of the works she wrote as romances (These Old Shades) do work as romances, which is why the later books, which tend to be more comedy of manners, still get shelved in the romance section.

Powder and Patch is coming up next week.

@Ali@Very Berry Oh, genuine historical elements pop into the Regency world Heyer created, one of the reasons they read so well. On the other hand, reading Austen, Byron and others makes it fairly clear that not everyone in the Regency shared that obsession with vouchers for Almack's. On the other hand, Heyer was very familiar with the life of Byron quite well, and I think she is doing something with her portrait of a world where women could not step out of line but Byron could be Byron - someone she mentions far more than the almost as scandalous Mary Shelley.
Jo Beverley
7. Another Janice
MariCats said "Thing is, I'm not sure that many of Heyer's Regencies actually work as romances."

Umm...do they have to? Does everything have to fit into a rigid genre box now? It seems to me that's marketing talking, not the artist.

I speak as one who can't stay interested in many contemporarily-written romances because the only two characters who get attention are locked in a bottle of their own emotions and seem completely isolated from the rest of the world. It's tunnel vision time.

I much prefer Heyer's broader canvas, in which characters act within a context of other lives and relationships and the era they live in. Life is a rich tapestry; in the era in which Heyer wrote her books, you could follow more than one thread without some guy in marketing screaming at the editor that they need hot stuff that will sell, so get that author to drop that dopey ambiance stuff and get to the next sex scene.

But don't get me started ;)
Karen Simley
8. Simka
Mari, I'm tickled to death you're doing this. I've loved Georgette Heyer since my English lit teacher in high school recommended her to us. And I've loved your blogs since The Wizard of Oz. Combining the two -- can't be better! Many thanks.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@Another Janice -- No, her books certainly don't have to fit the romance genre, especially since by her own statements that wasn't what she was writing. But that's where she's shelved in the United States.

According to both of her biographers, Heyer absolutely did follow trends of what would or would not sell, since she needed the money -- she was supporting her mother and from time to time her husband and at least one brother. Her major motivation for writing detective novels/thrillers seems to have been her knowledge that they sold, and sold very well, and most of her books were quite deliberately written to please a large audience.

Her era did include bestsellers with racy scenes, or suggestive scenes, or near rape/suggestive scenes (think Gone With the Wind), and she once tried to write in this vein, with a contemporary romance mostly about sex in marriage, with sensual and explicit moments, in Instead of the Thorn. But Simon the Coldheart, a historical written at the same time, received better reviews, and These Old Shades, a romance with no explicit sex, sold far more copies. She paid attention to these things.


@Simka -- Welcome! I think the only major connection between Oz and Heyer is that they can both be very funny, but that's about it, although I suspect Heyer was probably familiar with the movie -- her contemporary novels mention various American movie trends.
Jo Beverley
10. Tehanu
You might have also mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign which is dedicated to "Jane , Charlotte , Dorothy , and Georgette".
Pamela Adams
11. Pam Adams
I find her detective novels dull and formulaic. The historical romance was defiinitely her sweet spot. I may find some of her characters annoying- but she did readability very well.
S Cooper
12. SPC
I'm looking forward to this too! I just discovered Heyer a couple of months ago (via the A Civil Campaign dedication, Jo Walton's Cotillion discussion, and knowing how much my mom loves them) and have been thoroughly enjoying them. I've been relying on the recommendations of others for which to read, and this will be a great help!
Shelly wb
13. shellywb
Most of Heyer's Regency era books are much like the traditional Regency romances that she inspired. I've read all of them any number of times, and according to the comments that I keep on each she has 28 Regency era books, and only 7 have little to no romance. She may not have considered herself to be a romance writer, but we know that writers are often the worst judges of what they write. Her books and the like are what I look for when I look for romance. Though these days those kinds of romance are mostly found coming from ebook publishers rather than paper ones. I'd love to see this style of story come back into fashion.

Oh, and Steve Miller and Sharon Lee's Liaden books, especially those set on the Liaden homeworld owe a large debt to Heyer.
Beth Friedman
14. carbonel
This is good timing for me -- I bought just about all the Heyer historical romances last year as e-books for $2 each from Sourcebooks, and am about halfway through reading my way through them. Mostly rereads, but a couple of them are unfamiliar.

I'll be interested in seeing your take on them.
Phyll Griffiths
15. phyll
I've been a fan for 50 yrs and still reread them. My favourites have changed over the years (I found Sylvester and Foundling rather dull on first reading but Foundling is now one of my favourites) but I often find Heyer lines running through my head and have to read the appropriate title - latest was Cotillion a few weeks ago.
Phyll.
Jo Beverley
16. Jim D
Don't ask me how it happened, but I came home from the library once with two Heyers: Faro's Daughter and A Blunt Instrument. I giggled my way through both of them, and never even suspected the killer in the mystery. Over the years, I have collected all her books--including the suppressed ones--and even wrote a long article on the crime stories. I look forward to seeing which titles are covered in the re-read...
Jo Beverley
17. phoebesmum
Some of Heyer's detective novels may be a little humdrum, but I will defend 'Envious Casca' to the death. To the death, I tell you!!

I can't say the same for 'Powder and Patch', which I tend to leave out of my own rereads - and, in fact, I think I've only read 'The Black Moth' once or twice. But when she is good, she is very, very good. And even when she's bad, she's better than many.
Jo Beverley
18. Ros
I agree with you about The Convenient Marriage (and I also think the same about Friday's Child), but I'm reasonably sure they are having sex in April Lady - she's disappointed not to have had an heir yet.
Jo Beverley
19. MarthaE
I just saw this and have downloaded The Black Moth to read. I am afraid I may not be able to fit one in a week with my review schedule but I will follow along and read behind if need be. :-)
Thanks for hosting the reread.
Jo Beverley
20. JoBeverley
Sorry for coming back late to this, and for responding to the other thread with another id. I got confused and created two!

The trouble with saying that some or all of Heyer's Regency and Georgian novels aren't romances is that it can only be justified by defining "romance novel" in a very restrictive way. Rather like saying a muffin isn't a muffin if it has chocolate chips in it -- with which I'm inclined to agree, actually!

A romance novel doesn't have to be constrictively focussed on the couple. It doesn't have to exclude real people and events. It doesn't have to exclude important moral and philosophical questions, though I think Heyers do. The closest I can think of is A Civil Contract, which IMO is thereby less of a romance.

Nearly all her historical books have one or more developing love stories and the developing love story is present on most pages, even if the couple are apart. People falling in love do not easily become focussed on other matters for long. (See Why We Love, by Dr. Helen Fisher, or just remember your own experiences.)

During the course of the story the couple overcome challenges, both internal and external, and thus bring their story to a triumphant ending, winning their future together with a good chance of it being joyous for both of them. It's my thesis that any novel proves its genre by its ending.
Jo Beverley
21. MovableBookLady
My first Heyer was "Venetia," found on a friend's table and I laughed out loud on page three. Well, that did it. I've now read them all, most more than once, and, of course, I have my favorites (Civil Contract is one of the best, as is the one whose name I've just gone blank on -- Lady Barbara and Charles Audley, Brussels, Waterloo--that one). I really don't like her historical ones; she doesn't seem to have a feel for those periods and her characters never quite come alive.

As to her mysteries, I will admit that "Envious Casca" is a tour de force but I don't want to reread it. I'd much rather hang out with Ermyntrude et al in "No Wind of Blame" or the smart young things up against the bible-thumping bobby in "A Blunt Instrument."

I particularly love the way she can describe a character's personality, tearing it to shreds in the most genteel way. Great stuff.
Jo Beverley
22. Colona
If you can get hold of A.S. Byatt's article, "The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer" (in Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective by Mary Fahnestock-Thomas), you'll find much that relates to the comments in this thread. That collection includes another piece by Byatt called "Georgette Heyer is a Better Writer Than You Think." By the way, Byatt's Possession (novel), which either influenced or was influenced by Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (play), is a wonderful romance crossing centuries. Arcadia is terrific, too.
Jo Beverley
23. Evelyn Finklea
My first foray into Heyer's world was with The Grand Sophy; I was an instant devotee. When I was sixteen, Heyer opened a world of civility for me that I've been looking for ever since. Even when I reread Heyer, the magic immediately returns and I'm swept away. The Regency window Heyer provides is rich, vibrant, meticulous, and to my mind, unmatched. If Stephen King's name now represents the genre of 'horror', then Georgette Heyer was a trial blazer in creating the genre of the Regency.
Jo Beverley
24. Carma
I am really enjoying reading through your GH reread! But please, either update the posts so that the end of each gives an actual link to the next book, or add a list of links to each review on this page or a stand-alone page.

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