Very 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.