Thursday, November 1, 2007

A Case for Georgette Heyer

By Elaine

I first discovered Georgette Heyer when I was about 14 years old. I remember I was stuck indoors with a heavy cold, nothing to read and feeling sorry for myself. My sister popped home at lunchtime to see how I was and, as she was training to be a librarian and doing her practice in a library just around the corner, brought home a selection of books for me to look at. Amongst these was The Talisman Ring and I settled down to give it a try, not sure what to expect, or even if I would like it.

Three hours later I was on the phone and asked her to scour the shelves and bring home as many others as she could find. She came home with about 12 and that was that. I was hooked and, over the next ten years, read my way through her entire output and eagerly purchased each new Heyer as it was published.

Georgette Heyer suffered all her life from sneering comments from reviewers who thought her books were merely lightweight romances. She felt this very badly, being a serious historian and researcher and throughout her writing career longed to be accepted for something more than the producer of Regency romances. In between each such book which she had to produce in order to support her family, she spent as much time as she could on a more serious work, a life of John of Gaunt (My Lord John). It was not a success, the lightness of touch and wit which flowed in the Regency novels was seriously lacking and her legion of fans was disappointed. Her other non-Regency novel, Simon the Coldheart, was similarly unsuccessful and remained out of print for years as she would not allow it to be republished. When she moved outside the regency period her books became somewhat self conscious, particularly in the speech patterns and they do not flow. Powder and Patch is another example of this, a very early work, which is stilted and mannered. Whether she liked it or not she was more at home in the Regency genre.

Georgette researched scrupulously and her library was full of books on dress, food, wine, slang and patterns of speech used and she never put a foot wrong. Years later when I discovered and read Jane Austen I realised just how accurate Heyer had been in her portrayal of the lives and manners of society at this time. I was sure that she must have been an Austen fan as it is seemed to me that her hero in many of her books was Mr Darcy revisited though, in fact, it would appear that she regarded Charlotte Bronte’s Mr Rochester as ‘the first, and the Nonpareil of his type. He is the rugged and dominant male who yet can be handled by quite an ordinary female; as it might be, oneself’. She categorised her heroes as Model No 1 – ‘suave, well dressed, rich and a famous whip’ or Model No 2 – ‘a brusque savage sort with a foul temper. He is very rich but has not the slightest wish to cut a dash…

My personal recommendation for a first crack at a Heyer would be Friday's Child. Lord Sheringham (Sherry), a rackety young buck about town has proposed marriage to the beauty of the season, Isabel, but she refuses him. Furious at his rejection he stomps out saying if she won't have him then he will marry the first woman he sees. On his way back to town he comes across Hero Wantage, a downtrodden orphan who he has known all his life, sitting alone and crying. He stops and comforts her and when he tells her of his dismissal by Isabel and his threat to marry the first woman he sees, she points out to him that it is her. On the spur of the moment he whisks her into his curricle and takes her to town and they duly wed. Hero is totally unworldly, knows nothing of society or how to behave and romps through the season causing mayhem in her wake as she is fleeced by unscrupulous gamblers and tumbles from one scrape to another. In the end she runs away from Sherry so he can find himself another bride more worthy of him and then, of course, inevitably, he realises that he loves her and tries to find her and win her back. Though the happy ending is never in doubt, he does not have an easy time of it, particularly as he is being ‘helped’ by his friends, a totally barmy bunch who provide humour and warmth to this very very funny story.

I have read and re-read every single Heyer several times and love them all but if I had to name some of my favourites for recommended reading, I think these titles would find their way onto my list:

The Reluctant Widow
The Grand Sophy
The Convenient Marriage
Devil’s Cub

Some of Heyer’s later novels are slightly disappointing and laden with too much Regency slang and cant and I would avoid reading these as long as possible as they might give you a wrong idea of her quality. Charity Girl, Cousin Kate, False Colours and the Nonesuch should perhaps be read when you love her so much that you will forgive the falling off of these later books.

I have one Heyer that, for me stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that is A Civil Contract. When I first read it, I remember being disappointed as it is not the straightforward Regency novel I was expecting with beautiful heroine meeting man of her dreams. It concerns an arranged marriage, the civil contract of the title. Adam Deveril comes home from the Napoleonic wars to discover that his father has died and left nothing but debts. Though he is madly in love with Julia, a society beauty, he marries Jenny, a nondescript, plump daughter of a wealthy city merchant. He gives her his title and, in return, she brings him a fortune to restore his estates and his beloved country seat.

This book repays re-reading. It is not a passionate book but tender and gentle as we see the growing contentment and love between Adam and Jenny. Not a sweep you off your feet love story, but more true to life and, ultimately, very satisfying.

Though Georgette longed to write a serious historical novel and didn’t think much of her Regency books, she succeeded when writing what I think is her masterpiece, An Infamous Army. This contains a detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo, so well researched and historically correct that it is still used at the Military College, Sandhurst during cadet training. It is a superb piece of writing and those of us who appreciate her recognise this. She may not have regarded this as the serious historical novel she wanted to write, but it is, though perhaps more by accident than design.

If you have never read any of Georgette Heyer’s books I envy you. You have a treasure trove ready and waiting to be discovered and enjoyed and hours of contented reading to come as you meet Carlyon, George Wrotheringham, Gideon, Lord Rule, Mr Beaumaris and many more gorgeous masterful heroes just waiting to seduce you. Her heroines are feisty, resourceful and more than a match for any man they meet so in this respect Heyer was well ahead of her time in portraying women with whom we can empathise.

All her books have recently been republished in new paperback editions so should be easily obtainable and if you wish to learn more about the author I can recommend The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge, which has been out of print for a long time, but now available again.



Anonymous said...

I've been wanting to read Heyer for ages but never knew quite where to start - her output is a bit overwhelming. Thanks for the clear guide.

Chris said...

Excellent! I just read An Infamous Army. Cotillion is waiting on the shelf. Thanks for the info on her work.

Imani said...

I think it was Dorothy of "Of Books and Bicycles" fame that recently did a post on Heyer. Now I'll have to bookmark this article when I get around to purchasing some books. Thanks!

Jodie Robson said...

A splendid article on a very under-rated author!

While I was delighted that all Heyer's work had been reissued recently, it's sad that the proof-reading was diabolical and was obviously done by someone who knew absolutely nothing about Regency idiom. But, if you can't get old copies, it's better than nothing, because she is pure delight.

Anonymous said...

I've recently read and enjoyed An Infamous Army and am now reading Cotillion. Her books are very enjoyable and I plan on reading more. Unfortunately not many are in print here in the US, but Sourcebooks has recently published the two I mentioned. Hopefully more will become available over here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful article! I've added Friday's Child to my ever-growing TBR list...I look forward to reading it!

Anonymous said...

elaine what a marvellous article. Post work income could well come from plying your pen.Daphne

Richard said...

Elaine, it was a pleasure to read your comments. clear, clever and direct.I look forward to some more.

Ros said...

Always good to see someone cheering for Heyer!

Just to note that you suggest she only wrote two 'historical' novels. In fact she had several, including Royal Escape (Charles II) and The Conqueror (William I) and then other non-Regency wholly fictional novels including Beauvallet and Simon the Coldheart.

Ros said...

Oh, and technically, novels like The Old Shades and The Masqueraders aren't Regency either. Even Devil's Cub must, I think, be a little earlier, given that their granddaughter stars in An Infamous Army.

Elaine said...

You are right of course, she wrote more than two novels outside the Regency genre. Not quite sure how I mentioned only two. Beauvallet, who has a dashing gorgeous hero, is another example of how the language becomes over egged when GH writes in another period. It is full of 'Gadzooks' and 'insolent varlets' and is way over the top. Enjoyable though.