Tue
Nov 20 2012 3:00pm

Badly Channeling Jane Austen: Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck

Badly Channeling Jane Austen: A reread of Georgette Heyer’s Regency BuckAfter publishing eighteen books, ten of them historical, Georgette Heyer finally turned to the period that she would make her own: the Regency, in a book titled, appropriately enough, Regency Buck.

And oh, it’s awful.

Well, maybe not awful. Let us just say not very good.

The wealthy Judith Taverner and her brother Peregrine (his name is but the start of the problems) have decided to leave the north of England for the delights of London. On their way down, they quite by chance meet their cousin Bernard Taverner, a charming if somewhat (by the standards of the British aristocracy) impoverished young gentlemen; several assorted Historical Figures whose names are but the beginning of the many, many, proofs we will have that Heyer has Done Her Research; and a rather less charming young gentleman who sexually assaults Judith Tavener, kissing her against her will and insulting her.

Naturally, by the time they reach London, they find out that the rather less charming young gentleman is in fact their guardian, the (dare I say it) Proud Earl of Worth. Naturally, thanks to the entire assault business, Judith is Prejudiced against him, instead falling, or almost falling, for the charms of Bernard Taverner, even if the Proud Earl of Worth is, to quote Charlotte Lucas, ten times his consequence.

If you are getting uncomfortable reminders here of Pride and Prejudice, well, that’s hardly a coincidence: Regency Buck uses, for all intents and purposes, the same plot, right down to featuring a near elopement in Brighton. The language is deliberately chosen to echo that of Austen’s novel. Judith even uses some of Elizabeth’s phrases in her inner monologues. But Judith Taverner, unfortunately, is no Elizabeth Bennet. She lacks the wit and charm and above all, intelligence of her predecessor, as well as Elizabeth Bennet’s grip on reality. For that matter, Judith Taverner is probably less intelligent and aware than the silly Lydia Bennet, and is the only fictional character I can think of who would be improved by a conversation with Miss Mary Bennet.

Beyond this, she lacks one major feature that immediately makes Elizabeth sympathetic: Judith, unlike Elizabeth, is rich. Very rich indeed. If Elizabeth does not marry, she faces a lifetime of seeking charity from relatives at best; if Judith does not marry, she can buy a mansion and a few extra horses, or head off to Europe with a nice paid companion and plenty of servants. I am leaving out more useful things that Judith could be doing since Judith does not seem to be that sort of person. Judith can, bluntly, afford to quarrel with wealthy people (well, most wealthy people; she doesn’t defy the Regent.) The worst Judith faces is ostracism from London society, and given her money, even that proves easy to avoid.

The money also, naturally, makes things much easier for her all around. She is immediately accepted into society and has several offers of marriage (she finds this depressing because they are mostly fortune hunters). She even attracts the serious attention of a Royal Duke. When she decides to head to Brighton, money and transportation are no trouble. And no one, readers or characters, questions that she is an entirely suitable match in fortune and rank for the Earl of Worth, again in direct contrast to Elizabeth.

Since she has so many fewer obstacles than Elizabeth Bennet, Heyer is forced to up the consequences by making the villain so much, much worse, changing his crime from seduction of teenage girls (and, well, gambling and spending too much money) to attempted murder and kidnapping. Heyer almost manages a creditable job of hiding the villain until the very end (it would work better if she were not at so much pains to quote phrases from Pride and Prejudice, giving Bernard’s role away in the first quarter of the book), but about the only real justification Judith has for not realizing the truth earlier is that, let’s face it, Bernard’s motives for said attempted murder and kidnapping are weak indeed. His motivation is, supposedly, money, and while that’s a fairly standard motive for fictional murders, here it doesn’t work, since Bernard is simply not that poor—and has every expectation of marrying a wealthy woman. Like, say, Judith, but even if that flops, Bernard has the family and social connections to marry well. He is evil only because the plot needs him to be—and because without the revelation of his crimes, Judith would have every reason to marry Bernard, not her Destined Romantic Partner, the Earl of Worth.

After all, the Earl of Worth, whatever his pride, is, to put it mildly, no Mr. Darcy.

Oh, he is rich, certainly, and proud. But where Mr. Darcy starts his book merely by insulting Elizabeth (and then has to spend the rest of that book making up for that lapse), the Earl of Worth starts his book by insulting Judith and forcing a kiss on her—after she has made it plain that she wants nothing to do with him. Heyer details Judith’s shock at this: Judith is prudish in general, and particularly prudish about merely touching strange men, let alone kissing them. Her brother is justifiably outraged. Things don’t improve. Worth humiliates and threatens her. They have several violent quarrels. Frankly, by the end, I was thinking kindly thoughts of Mr. Wickham. And yet I’m expected to believe Judith and Worth have fallen in love.

Well, okay, yes, he does save her brother. But. Still.

Why do I find this so much more irritating here than in Devil’s Cub, where the romance began with an attempted rape? Because although Vidal is considerably worse by all standards at the beginning, Vidal also offers hope that he might change. A little. And because Vidal is responding to a trick Mary played on him and has some reason to be annoyed and believe that Mary’s morals are pretty loose. Judith, when picked up against her will, forced into a carriage, and kissed, is on the road with a broken shoe. Vidal almost immediately recognizes his mistake and attempts to rectify matters, and when Vidal says he realizes he cannot live without Mary, who is the first person to be able to change him, I believe it.

Worth never changes; he takes a long time to recognize any mistake, and when he says he cannot live without Judith, I don’t believe it. It doesn’t help that although they are social and financial equals, they are not equals in intelligence; I have to assume that after a few years Worth would be desperately wishing that he had married someone considerably brighter. Judith manages to misinterpret and misjudge virtually everyone in the novel, right down to the Prince Regent, which in turn gets her into avoidable situation after avoidable situation, irritating or distressing nearly everyone, right down to the Prince Regent.

Not that Worth is much better, although at least he’s a better judge of people. But his rudeness, a character trait that Heyer had turned into high comedy in previous novels, is here simply irritating, especially since we are told that Worth isn’t always rude to everyone. Just Judith. I suppose we’re meant to believe that Judith rubs him the wrong way, or that his attraction to her sets him off balance, but instead, he comes across as emotionally abusive AND rude and arrogant. Heyer later recognized her mistake here: her later arrogant and rude heroes would have these traits used for high comedy or punctured by the heroine. Worth’s emotional manipulations of Judith are not funny, and although Judith quarrels with him, she never punctures that rudeness, making their conversations painful instead of funny. Indeed, humorous moments are few and far between and mostly focused on the Duke of Clarence, a minor character.

The failed romance and the borrowings from Pride and Prejudice are, alas, not the only problems with this novel, which suffers from two other problems: one, it is frequently dull, partly because two, it contains far, far, far, far far too much dropping of historical facts. If a major aristocratic personage of London during the Regency period goes unmentioned here I missed it. We have the careful name dropping of various Royal Dukes; various non Royal Dukes; various writers and poets (with Jane Austen carefully referred to as “A Lady,” as she would have been known at the time, with the other authors named in full); a nice and tedious description of Lord Byron’s arrival in society; every Patroness of Almacks, and various other aristocratic personages, many of whom even get lines. The most notable of these is probably Regency dandy Beau Brummel; Heyer quotes extensively from various anecdotes told of him, or said they happened in this book, which makes Brummel the one fully alive character in the book. It’s meant to create a realistic depiction of the Regency World. But apart from Brummel, much of this rather feels like someone saying, “See! I did research! I really really did!” And it results in something that reads like a dull recital of historical dates and facts, punctured here and there with an unconvincing romance and an equally unconvincing mystery.

Fortunately, Heyer was to greatly improve her ability to create a convincing historical setting (or, perhaps, just regain that ability), and also improve her insertion of mysteries into her Regency novels. But you wouldn’t know that from this book.

#

Heyer could not have known it, but this was the book that would haunt her critical reputation for the rest of her life, and even afterwards. Hearing that the popular writer’s best books were those set in the Regency period, curious critics and readers chose to read the one book with “Regency” in the title—and not surprisingly, wrote Heyer off as a derivative writer too obviously trying to channel Jane Austen, and creating a decidedly lesser effort. The barrage of historical facts and details were, rightly or wrongly, taken as an unsuccessful attempt to add historical verisimilitude, rather than evidence of Heyer’s meticulousness, and the book critiqued as at best inferior Austen, at worst dull and an example of everything that was wrong with popular literature. That Heyer, who dances very close to outright plagiarism of Austen here, later accused two other writers, including the very popular Barbara Cartland, of plagiarizing her work did not necessarily help.

This critical response ignored two factors that could only be discovered by reading other Heyer works: one, she was to completely leave the Jane Austen model, returning to it only slightly in two later books: The Reluctant Widow (which in its mockery of Gothic novels bears a certain resemblance to Northanger Abbey) and The Nonesuch (which follows Austen’s advice by focusing on just a few families in a village, and the social interactions between them.) But although these later books contain a certain Austen influence, and Heyer followed Austen’s example of letting dialogue define her characters, Heyer was never to use an Austen plot again, and indeed was to go further and further away from Austen as she delved deeper into the Regency period. In part this is because Austen created only two heroines who could, before marriage, even consider entering the aristocratic world that Heyer would later create, and neither Emma Woodhouse nor Anne Elliot appear to have much interest in joining the upper ranks of London society. Austen could only provide Heyer with so much inspiration, and indeed, was almost limiting.

And two, Regency Buck, with its general serious tone, is atypical of her Regency novels. Indeed, at least three of Heyer’s Georgian novels (The Convenient Marriage, The Talisman Ring, and Faro’s Daughter) sound more like “Heyer Regency novels” than does Regency Buck. But thanks to the unfortunate title, many readers started here, and went no further, and critics summarized her writing and world building based only on this book. Being a bestseller was already a near kiss of death from (usually male) serious literary critics in the 20th century; being a (seemingly) dull bestseller nailed down the coffin. Later essays by A.J. Byatt did something to push against this reputation, but still led critics and academics to read Regency Buck, flinch, and free. A critical retrospective published in 2001 even noted that more critical and academic attention had been paid to Heyer’s mystery novels, less influencial and less read, than the Regencies that sparked an entire subgenre.

About that subgenre: no one, reading this book, especially after The Convenient Marriage, would have guessed that Heyer would shift the frothy plots and witty dialogue of her Georgian novels to the Regency period, or that she would later convert the world she so dully depicts here into its own universe, complete with its own language and words. Indeed, Heyer would write eight more novels before returning to the Regency period.

Next up: Death in the Stocks, proof that despite this book, she had not lost her ability to write witty dialogue.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida. Follow her Georgette Heyer reread here on Tor.com.

19 comments
Cassandra Cookson
1. cass
I agree with the Austenesque books you mention, but would also make an argument for _The Grand Sophy_ as being Heyer's take on Austen's _Emma_.

This is not a book I reread either although in fairness to Judith and Worth, they both are more intelligent and in Worth's case, courteous, when we meet them again in _An Infamous Army_. Thanks for the review!
Cassandra
Andrea K
2. Andrea K
"Regency Buck" is one of the most frustrating books - the heroine is constantly getting herself into messes (despite thinking herself well able to handle everything) and Worth is constantly having to rescue her, while showering her with condescension.

Impossibly annoying.
Andrea K
3. beths
Its one bright spot is when she rather hilariously meets Brummel. Otherwise, this is definitely one of the lesser Heyers.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@cass -- I hadn't seen that before, but I think you're absolutely right that The Grand Sophy is Heyer's take on Emma -- the managing heroine that knows best. That said, The Grand Sophy at least has a different plot. Regency Buck, up until the kidnapping, is pretty much the same plot as Pride and Prejudice, with weaker versions of the three major characters.

I can't think of any direct Heyer analogues for Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, although Heyer certainly drew on Lady Susan for some of her minor characters.

@Andrea K -- I know! I don't think there's another Heyer heroine who gets into as many disasters/messes -- maybe Barbara Childe from An Infamous Army, later, but Barbara doesn't ask to be rescued and she's under some major stress. (Maybe that's why she and Judith become friends. Their propensity to get themselves into bad situations.) Oh, and Tiffany from The Nonesuch, but Tiffany isn't the heroine, so I don't think she counts. Otherwise, someone like Judith in an otherwise long line of fairly self sufficient heroines is so irritating. The other heroines who need help generally need it because of inept family members, not their own ineptness.

@beths -- Eh, even the Brummel meeting was kinda irritating on this reread, since it just served to show me AGAIN how clueless Judith is, and I spent the rest of the novel thinking, Worth, marry someone with a brain.
Andrea K
5. chrispin
The is the only Heyer I've read, and it is awful. I hated the whole thing. The sections following her brother around to play some sport or other were so boring and pointness.

But my biggest problem is Worth. Judith tries to figure what's going on but makes the mistake of taking her ideas to Worth who lies to her repeatedly, telling her it's all in her head. She's not strong-willed enough to ignore him and find the truth on her own. Nothing like psychological abuse to go with the sexual to build a strong marriage.
Azara microphylla
6. Azara
There are so many things I dislike about this book! I can still remember squirming with vicarious mortification on Judith's behalf when I first read it at the age of twelve. Now, I find a certain flavour of "Ha! You may think you're the clever one of the family, but the real world will soon cut you down to size!" in the way the Heyer treats Judith.

For me, this book shows the nastier side of English Regency life a bit more than the later ones. I've always found it a bit of a cheat that so many Heyer heroes are fine with bareknuckle fistfighting, but don't follow cockfighting, which mirrors acceptable attitudes in 1930s England, where amateur boxing was still popular in public schools, but cockfighting was totally beyond the pale. I think a real Regency buck would have followed cockfights just as much as fistfights, but even here it's only Judith's uncouth deceased father and dim-witted brother who have fighting cocks, and it's a big warning flag to readers that Bernard Taverner is hanging around a cockpit.
Andrea K
7. Caro
I have very mixed feelings about this book. I don't love it, but it was the very first Heyer I read and, having read it, I was wild to read all her others. I bought it on a band trip to Winnipeg in the early 1960s. It's not a book I reread very often, but I have a kind of sentimental fondess for it.

Also, I now live part of the year in Brighton and I keeep a copy in my flat for the descriptions of Brighton and the Pavilion.

It doesn't bother me at all that it's deriviative of Jane Austen. The catalog of historical figures doesn't bother me - it's kind of fun to read what amounts to gossip about them when some of them are so present here in the history of Brighton.

I don't like the main characters, though, and I don't like books where all the drama depends on people not talking to each other or trying to understand each other. And that's pretty much the entire story, here.

But, I can't forget that it was my first Heyer. Followed by The Grand Sophy, and Friday's Child, and The Corinthian (all bought on the same band trip.)

I'm sooooo glad you are going to read Death in the Stocks. I love it.
Andrea K
8. Leni
I think you're confusing literary criticism with plain and simple 'I didn't like it'. If you're interested in excellent literary criticism, I recommend you check out A.S. Byatt's work, who as you point out (At least I assume that's who you mean by 'A.J. Byatt'..?) was an admirer of Austen, and as a Booker prize winner in her own right, might be said to know a thing or two about the field.
Andrea K
9. Leni
Mea culpa - in my snitty comment, I of course meant 'an admirer of Heyer'.
Andrea K
10. Laaleen
I don't agree with your criticism at all. Regency Buck is superbly written. Heyer brought society to life with her vivid details of the ton. Her dialogue is delightful. And I love how she humanises the otherwise enigmatic Brummell.

The only Regency authors (other than Ms. Austen) to date whom I can read without squirming are Georgette Heyer and Clare Darcy, in that order.

However, Heyer isn't infallible; the most tedious of her novels I have ever had the misfortune to read is The Toll Gate. My faves: Regency Buck, Devil's Cub, Friday's Child and Cotillion.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
Hi Leni --

Thanks for your comment.

I own a copy of Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective, which contains a reprint of the A.S. Byatt article. A key phrase from that article (reprinted on page 271 in that book):

"Which brings me back to the "serious" literary-critical dismissal of escape literature."

In other words, Byatt in her essay said EXACTLY what I am saying here. It's not that Heyer was disliked. It's that she was dismissed and ignored by literary critics in the 20th century.

Byatt's article, which did not appear until 1969, was the first serious literary attention that Heyer received. By that time Heyer had been a writer for 48 years and steady bestseller for 25 years (Friday's Child appeared in 1944) and had already spawned multiple imitators and at least two plagiarists (one of whom, Barbara Cartland, also became a bestseller). She was popular and influential. And yet, even after Byatt's article, Heyer continued to be mostly ignored and dismissed by literary critics, as her biographers have documented. And yet she wrote "serious" books.

Heyer's hardly alone in this -- the 20th century is full of women writers attempting to write serious literary works, only to find themselves dismissed as popular, genre, or otherwise "non-literary" authors -- often by male critics. This is something A.S. Byatt was definitely aware of. So it's more than "dislike," something the article you attempted to quote to me was pointing out.

@Laaleen -- It's ok to disagree with me. I just find the dialogue of Regency Buck -- Brummell excepted -- as so stilted, not to mention surrounded by lots and lots of tedious things.

We can certainly agree on The Toll Gate, though!

I think Clare Darcy was one of the better Heyer imitators, although I haven't read her in years.
Andrea K
12. jekni
Interesting how tastes are so different. The Toll Gate (together with Venetia and The Unknown Ajax) is one of my all time favourite Heyers.

The ones I least like are Devil's Cub, A Convenient Marriage, Friday's Child and Regency Buck.
Andrea K
13. bodhimoments
1. From my understanding of the Regency Period, Bernard Taverner was poor enough to need to marry into wealth. Maybe not a pauper, but still poor enough to envy and hunger for Judith's fortune. In the same way, Elizabeth did not need to marry Darcy, a person with much less would have done. She did not refuse Collins because he was not wealthy enough, but because she did not love or respect him. During the time she felt attracted to Wickham, his poverty did not turn her off.

2. Jane Austen's writings were social commentaries. GH wrote to entertain, and provide as realistic a backdrop as possible for her "flights of fantasy" None of her novels were meant to be, nor were, period drama with realistic scenarios. The fact that "literary critics" did not like GH, only shows how narrow their viewpoint is.

3. One cannot empathise with Judith because she is "rich"? and one empathises with Elizabeth because she is "poor"? The fact that Judith and Worth were social matches as well as well matched financially is a plot failing? Bit of a stretch, that, for me.

4. Why must one hate GH in order to love JA? I have spent 35+ years loving both, and I have never had a problem with the two styles, and attitudes.
Azara microphylla
14. Azara
4. Why must one hate GH in order to love JA? I have spent 35+ years
loving both, and I have never had a problem with the two styles, and
attitudes.

I think that loving Georgette Heyer's work is a lot less straightforward than loving Jane Austen's work. Published over a much longer period, and with so many novels in a number of different genres, Heyer's body of work is far more uneven. Given that her serious contemporary novels are so hard to find, I doubt if there's anyone who can say that they've read and loved all of Heyer's works.

My understanding of Austen's novels has certainly deepened in the forty years since I first read them - in particular, I have a much greater appreciation of the character of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. But I still love them unreservedly, and probably always will.

My relationship with Heyer's works is more complicated. Some of the Regency novels I once wrote off as dull are now among my favourites, while some of the more swashbuckling 18th century ones I used to love I now find nearly unreadable. Seeing the level of snobbery and social conservatism in her contemporary mysteries made me reconsider how much of her Regency world reflected the real Regency, and how much was distorted by her bias in what she chose to display, and even more importantly what she chose to leave out.

One thing I reallly enjoy about this series of posts is finding common ground with other readers who, while they love so much of Heyer's work, can still see flaws and problems. The occasions where I disagree with others' views have certainly provided food for thought.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@bodhimoments -- I think you misread me here. My specific statement was "she lacks one major feature that immediately makes Elizabeth sympathetic..." It's not that wealthy characters can't be sympathetic. Heyer gave us several -- Lady Barbara in An Infamous Army; Jenny in A Civil Contract; Annis and Abigail in their respective books; Serena in Bath Tangle (I'm not overly fond of her but I can certainly see where others would be) and more. And that's ignoring various side characters.

It's that Judith isn't.

Regarding Bernard Taverner -- well, sure he wanted to marry up. That was pretty common in his era, both in fiction and real life, and it's not unheard of for someone already well off to want to be still more well off, through marriage if possible. That's fine. At the same time, he's obviously able to move in the upper levels of London society -- the very upper levels. He's hobnobbing with dukes and the sort. He's able to keep multiple servants and live very well. He has plenty of wealthy friends and acquaintances. He's not losing his house.

In contrast, Wickham actually had to get a job (something he whines about). He doesn't have servants; he doesn't have his own home; he doesn't have any income from rents. If the war ends, he's probably in real trouble: as he says, he doesn't have the money or connections for a church position; he has no legal training. Granted, his biggest problem is that he's been running around seducing teenagers which is his own fault. But Wickham's original story (which leaves out the whole I love 16 year olds) is calculated to appeal, and it does, because it's based on the reality that his current financial position is tenuous. Bernard's story is also calculated to appeal, but it's based on a "feel sorry for me! I'm not as wealthy as these SERIOUSLY wealthy people!"

"None of her novels were meant to be, nor were, period drama with realistic scenarios."

An Infamous Army, the follow-up to this, is period drama with realistic scenarios. So is The Conqueror, Royal Escape, and The Spanish Bride. All four of these were carefully and extensively researched to be as historically accurate as possible.

Later, in the middle of her escapist period, Heyer created realistic scenarios in A Civil Contract, and less obviously in Bath Tangle, Venetia, and Charity Girl. (Charity Girl provides an unrealistic ending to that, but the situation faced by Cherry is real.)

The better question is why, with the arguable exceptions of Venetia and A Civil Contract, did her escapist novels sell so much better? My argument is that her real gift was for comedy. But in her desire to be taken seriously by the literary establishment -- and this was a very, very real desire, well documented -- she ignored her comedic gifts as she tried to write serious novels. And some of these serious novels, including this one, hurt her critical reputation. (You can see this in Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective.)

Oh, and I certainly enjoy both Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen; I'm recommending many of the Heyer books in this reread. Just not this one :)

@Azara -- I was with you right until the defense of Fanny Price!
Andrea K
16. MMinNY
You know, one of the reviewer's earlier points was the fact that Judith was an heiress unlike Elizabeth Bennett who had to make a good marriage. The need for women to marry well, or at least acceptably is a main theme of P&P. The fact that Judith has first rate matrimonial prospects takes RB completely out of the running for P&P look alike.

The reviewer latched on to the animosity between Judith and Worth and saw nothing else! Even the fact that Worth had been in love with Judith from the get go and was prevented from acting on it out of honor rather than pride seems to have escaped her.
No doubt Heyer was a fan of Austen but this review goes too far and reveals a very limited understanding of both authors.
Andrea K
18. JMH
Interesting, well informed and perceptive review.
Slightly off topic, picking up on one of your comments, even at fifteen, when I read of that rape threat in 'Devil's Cub' it disgusted me with the man. Even while accepting that the views on rape and threatened rape in Heyer's era were very different from the ones current now - the idea that a rapist or potential rapist could turn into a romantic love object and an 'OK' guy to its victim was horrible to me.
Andrea K
19. Beatrice
An interesting post. While I agree with many of the points raised, I can't help but love Regency Buck. It was my second Heyer (read at an impressionable age) and I adore books that bring social history to life, so I found the excess of detail impressive and exciting rather than dull.

Judith is spoiled and headstrong and often unlikeable, I won't argue with that. Many find her insufferable, but I'm convinced she does change over the course of the novel, especially after her horrible encounter with the Prince Regent. People don't ever seem to sympathise with her about that event, which I find confusing. Considering her lack of sexual experience, his much higher rank and her attendant confusion, and the constraints of contemporary society, it must have been acutely traumatising. Fainting was the best thing she could have done, and that dawns on her in the carriage later when she cries. As I've had a similar experience, I can't dislike Judith, I simply can't.
Andrea K
20. Abbi
Another great review - being a GH obsessive, I'm so enjoying reading your pieces. I totally agree that the plot is pants: if Bernard wanted to marry money, Judith's fortune alone would be more than enough. He doesn't need to murder her brother to add his fortune on top. It makes no sense at all that he goes from being a pleasant, well-mannered man into a raving psychopath.

Whereas Worth starts off so unpleasantly and doesn't change at all, so why should he be allowed hero status?

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