In my teenage years I was much addicted to the Historical Romances of Georgette Heyer. I guess I can credit her novels with increasing my vocabulary, however trying to work words like divagation or valetudinarian into conversations with one’s High School chums in a small farming town in the middle of the Yakima Valley in the late 60s was somewhat problematic. As you may have guessed, I did not hang with the popular kids.
As a teenager I was
uncritical and unquestioning. That has changed. In a fit of nostalgia I recently reread many of Heyer’s novels. I now have some criticisms and questions.
WHAT DOES SHE SEE IN HIM?
One of my first questions is why so many of her male protagonists (and, indeed, a few of her female ones as well) are actually not that likeable
As indicated in Demeter’s node and also by Wikipedia, Ms. Heyer had two basic types of male lead characters; the first was an arrogant and often rude man–let’s call them “Type A” because it seems fitting. The second (Type “B” just to distinguish) was a younger man, usually a reckless, sporting-mad scapegrace. Wikipedia characterizes this second type as “debonair, sophisticated, and often a style-icon” but I do not agree. Some of them may have been stylish, but generally they were more dashing, impetuous and lively than debonair.
Most of the Type A leads were also sophisticated and stylish (however more in the understated, “Beau Brummell” style of elegance). They were often arrogant and cynical, somewhat short-tempered, and altogether unwilling to “suffer fools gladly.” I think Ms. Heyer considered these traits to indicate a “masterful” man. There was often a disparity in the ages between her Type A protagonists and their female love interests (Daddy issues, perhaps?).
I suppose this age disparity could be explained by the fact that young women were apparently gaveled off at the marriage mart (aka Almack’s Assembly Rooms) at a tender age, whilst the men got to sow wild oats with mistresses, “fair paphians” and opera dancers until they decided to settle down and create heirs with some malleable young thing (whom he hopefully would not infect with a venereal disease!).
SNOB, ANTISEMITIC, and TORY?
Now I’m not going to accuse Ms. Heyer of being an elitist, but whether Type A or B, most of her male protagonists have Titles
or are at least of the gentility, and most are also wealthy. Some of her ancillary
characters are servants, most being of the “devoted old family retainer
” type who, with some few exceptions, knew their “proper place.”
There are many derogatory references in Heyer’s novels to Jewish money-lenders which led to claims that she was anti-Semitic. According to the Wikipedia article on her, her family papers confirmed that she held “prejudiced personal opinions.” There also seemed to be a few small black pages in her works, so make of that what you will.
And why do I think she had libertarian leanings and was likely a Tory? Perhaps this quote Wikipedia provided from a letter she once wrote to a friend answers that question: “I’m getting so tired of writing books for the benefit of the Treasury and I can’t tell you how utterly I resent the squandering of my money on such fatuous things as Education and Making Life Easy and Luxurious for So-Called Workers.”
Unlike the “bodice ripper
” Romances (aka Soft Core Porn) that started to appear somewhere around the 1980s, there were no “tumescent members” or heaving “rose-peaked” breasts in Ms. Heyer’s novels. Sex was not overt, but it was alluded to, because most of the male leads had had the afore-mentioned mistresses with whom to sow their wild oats prior to meeting the heroines of these stories. With few exceptions (i.e. widows), the female leads were mainly young and virginal.
Indeed, the warmest interactions between the leads, usually written about only at the end of the book, consisted of a lip-mashing kiss and a very tight hug (apparently squeezing a woman’s ribs until she can hardly breathe shows a high degree of passion).
Now, some of these protagonists were already married during these stories, so I’ve got to wonder what would cause, as an example from the end of The Convenient Marriage, Horry (short for Horatia) to exclaim to her husband of at least several months that she “never knew he could kiss like that!” It might make one wonder just how satisfying Heyer’s own marriage was.
PLOT or NOT?
were mainly set in the era between 1740 and 1820, and can, I suppose, best be described as “Novels of Manners,” with much of the action revolving around the social mores, attitudes, and actions of the upper classes
of those eras.
In my opinion her better novels had a bit more in the plot department (often some form of mystery) to hang their hats on. Her last Regency Romance, Lady of Quality. had almost no plot: the heroine, an independent (but attractive!) woman who has achieved the advanced age of 29 without being married (in this era to be unmarried at such an advanced age would make her an old maid, or in more vulgar parlance, an “Ape leader”) befriends a young heiress. That’s it–this is basically the main plot point that in turn causes her to meet the Type A guardian of said heiress, known as the “rudest man in London.” Characters visit the pump rooms in Bath, go shopping, horseback riding, etc., but there is actually very little interaction between the two main characters. Yet by the end of the novel they are somehow in love. I do not recommend this book–it is definitely not one of her wittiest.
There are a few other plot devices that have caused me concern. For instance, in The Masqueraders, which is one of Heyer’s livelier novels, is set in 1745, which is apparently a hard-drinking age. The heroine is (for reasons) disguised as a man and has, in this capacity, become friends with the Hero of the novel. While having dinner with him at his abode, she “tips” wine down her sleeve rather than drinking it, so as to not become “bosky.” It is this action which betrays her female identity to him, although he had, of course, suspected. I couldn’t help wondering why she didn’t just say “No. Thank you, but I’ve had enough wine.” And wouldn’t a big ol’ dripping wine stain down her sleeve be rather noticeable?
Another plot element that I question is the romance between first cousins. This was a plot element in both The Talisman Ring (published in 1936) and Grand Sophy (published in 1950!). As a genealogist I’m aware that in the past first cousins did, indeed, marry and that it was not uncommon during the time period Heyer wrote about, but BY the time she was writing, this type of incestuous union had (thankfully!) died out.
IN CONCLUSION / SUGGESTED BOOKS
I realize this piece seems rather excoriating of Georgette Heyer and some of her novels, but for nostalgic reasons many of her novels still hold a place in my heart as solid escapist fiction.
There are good reasons she is considered the “Doyenne of Regency Romances.” She could tell a good story (definitely better than the inane drivel created by Princess Di’s step-granny, Barbara Cartland), and most of her characters are well-drawn; some are even quite endearing. In fact, some of her most appealing characters were minor ones, including some of the canine variety, such as Ulysses in Arabella, Luffra in Frederica, and Bouncer in The Reluctant Widow.
Some of my favorites:
- The Reluctant Widow
- The Talisman Ring
- The Convenient Marriage
- April Lady
- Faro’s Daughter
- The Black Moth*
- These Old Shades*
- Devil’s Cub*
- Grand Sophy
- Friday’s Child
- The Corinthian
- Unknown Ajax
- Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle
- Regency Buck
*These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub are part of a multi-generational trilogy which concluded with The Infamous Army. It contains a very detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo, but is not one of my favorites (this book could also be considered a cross-over, since it also includes characters from Regency Buck).
Strangely, the “hero” (Justin “Devil” Alastair, the Duke of Avon) of These Old Shades is remarkably similar to the villain (Tracy “Devil” Belmanoir, the Duke of Andover) in Black Moth, even though he has a different name. Since many of the other characters also seem to be the same (again with different names) and certain plot elements of the earlier work are also mentioned, I am led to believe Ms. Heyer just recycled the characters from one book to another.
More details of Georgette Heyer's personal life can be found on Wikipedia