After 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.