Georgette Heyer: A Class of Her Own
I was around fourteen years old when I read my first Georgette Heyer – Pistols for Two. And from then began my fascination with Heyer and her Regency Romances (I don’t care much for her historical and detective fiction). After I had devoured whatever I could come across that was written by her, I turned to other writers of Regency England hoping to re-discover the magic of Heyer. Unfortunately, till date, I have never come across a single romance writer about this period who comes even close to writing something akin to a Heyer romance. I assure you, I do not exaggerate. There are none that can hold a match to Georgette Heyer, leave alone a candle!
So then, what makes me claim that Heyer is in a class of her own? What is it that is so special about her that other writers of the genre cannot even compete with? What is the essence of Heyer’s Regency/early Georgian novels? Conversely, what brings Georgette Heyer up short from being considered a literary writer? What makes her works different from that of, say, Jane Austen?
Detail is the key
Georgette Heyer is said to have been a very meticulous researcher. She apparently owned a thousand books relating to her research alone!** She familiarised herself so completely with the times she wrote about that it seemed to be a part of her. All of this is so obvious in the details that she gives of the places, inns, clubs, people, dress and etiquette of that era. And though most of her novels deal with the aristocracy of the early Georgian and Regency Period, she knew quite a bit about the other side of society as is very plainly seen in Arabella with the instance of the chimneysweep boy, and more subtly, in the escapades of Hero in Friday’s Child. Her knowledge of Paris, the leading city in fashion and etiquette in those days, again shows itself in the likes of Powder and Patch and These Old Shades.
I also appreciate the authenticity of her characters. It manifests itself, not just in their dress and manner, but also in their language. Again, with language, it is not just dialects, but kinds of words and phrases used in various classes of society and even between men and women of these various classes of society. One of Heyer’s rather memorable (in my opinion) cant-speaking characters is young Sherry’s tiger in Friday’s Child.
While it becomes apparent to us the amount of research Heyer must have done to make her novels so very credible, we must understand that there was much she did not put into her novels. She never just drew from her own experiences. She weeded a great many things out. It is said that she had been to Scotland for awhile and had loved it.** Yet none of her characters even hail from Scotland, leave alone a novel based in that country. It would seem that this was because Heyer shuddered at the amount of research needed to study the Scottish dialect alone! Shows us how authentic her works really are, doesn’t it?
Variety in plot
In terms of plot, I have always found Heyer to be delightfully original. She is not repetitive which makes each novel even more charming and unique. However, in spite of the variety in plot, some of Heyer’s novels do share certain of the following themes:
an older man helping a very young woman escape her old and undesirable life as in These Old Shades and The Corinthian
a mystery that dominates the story with the romance playing a secondary role as in The Unknown Ajax, The Talisman Ring and The Quiet Gentleman
a marriage in which the hero and heroine learn to love and respect each other as in Friday’s Child and April Lady
the guardian who falls for his female ward as in Regency Buck and Frederica
a matter of mistaken identity or identity theft as in The Masqueraders, False Colours and Arabella
an older woman chaperoning a much younger one as in Lady of Quality and Black Sheep
Then there are novels that stand completely apart from the others such as Venetia where a rake falls in love with a sheltered woman in the country (here, the uniqueness of the story really lies in the personalities of the hero and heroine and the manner in which their love develops). Then there is the rather dark and gothic atmosphere in Cousin Kate, and the marriage that ends, not on a note of passionate love, but in a love that grows from familiarity and respect as in A Civil Contract.
The uniqueness of her characters and pairings
Even in Heyer’s characters one finds a melting pot. All her heroes and heroines vary in age, appearance and personality considerably. Among her heroines one is bound to find that some are young and extremely volatile and romantic or in their early to mid-twenties being sensible and charming or in their late twenties, full of dignity and poise. The heroes, on the other hand, are young and scatterbrained or hot-headed, a little older, sensible charming and trustworthy or jaded and cynical. Throw in all these possibilities and one gets a delightful mix of stories that give you several hours of relaxed and enjoyable pleasure. Surely it is not difficult to see how Heyer is such a favourite!
What stops Heyer short of being a literary figure herself?
Many Heyer fans, including me, have been quite indignant by the indifferent dismissal she receives. Surely her novels are not your ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill historical romances. However, Heyer lacks what it takes to make a work a literary piece. She lacks what Austen’s six major novels have in abundance. She lacks what the likes of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth lacked so that their contemporary, Jane Austen, was the only one among them who would be remembered as part of the literary canon.
What did she lack?
She lacked thought provoking material, ideas, an insight into the human mind and soul. In other words, she lacked the essence of literariness. All her works are pure, unadulterated entertainment, so tastefully and skilfully done. But they do not have the depth and soul that the likes of Austen possess. They do not even deal with any sort of issue, and they lack any kind of commentary like there could have been, for example, in Arabella when the heroine rescues the chimneysweep boy. Heyer’s novels lack a voice and that is what makes her brilliant works non-literary.
So, if Heyer does not fall under the usual genre of historical romance, and she does not come in the league of the literary scene then where does she stand? Heyer simply stands on her own plane. She is a class and genre all her own.
She is Georgette Heyer.
An Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Courtney very much for this opportunity to voice my opinion on Heyer.
Guest Post by Risa at Bread Crumb Reads