Georgette Heyer: A Class of Her Own

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.

**http://www.georgette-heyer.com/bio.html

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

17 Comments

Filed under Adult Books, Georgette Heyer, historical fiction

17 responses to “Georgette Heyer: A Class of Her Own

  1. Wow, who wouldn’t love Ms. Heyer after that endorsement :)! I definitely think there is no replacement for thorough research. You can always tell the authors who really take the time to research what they are writing about from those that are writing from the cuff. Thanks for this information!

  2. stilettostorytime

    Thank you so much Risa…what a wonderful and informative guest post. I can’t thank you enough for being part of the event. You can tell you know your Georgette Heyer. I seem to be of the same mind by the way- so far I enjoy her regency romance over her other works too!

    • I really enjoyed writing this post. I’ve always wanted to run on about Heyer without having to write a review. So thank you so much for the opportunity, Courtney!:D

      Having said that she isn’t all that repetitive with her romances, I’ve realised that she is very much so with her mysteries. I’ve read three of them, and I found them very disappointing.:(

  3. I agree completely with Colleen – thorough research makes a huge difference when you are reading a book. If someone doesn’t do their research and just kind of makes it up as they go, it really does show. Every time you have to stop and say “What?! Where did they come up with that?,” it totally breaks your flow and makes reading the book much less enjoyable. I’ll tell you, after reading all your posts on Ms. Heyer, I went to my local library website and requested a few of her books! Thanks for all the great info🙂

  4. Rosiland Webb

    I think would like to read some of her novels.

    • I would recommend you start with either of the following: Friday’s Child or Venetia or Cotillion or Sylvester or The Corinthian….:D I hope you enjoy her!:)

  5. I think this is a fantastic post. I agree that Heyer is one of the most well researched authors I’ve read. I remember the first book of hers I read (also one of my favorites by her) The Masqueraders, I checked the back cover and then looked her up because I thought she sounded so much more convincing than any contemporary author. That book was wonderful by the way. I still have many to read — and I look forward to it.🙂

  6. Very good guest post! Thanks so much for this information. I also think that she’s not literary but much, much better than a Mills & Boon / Harlequin story.

    • Thank you, Leeswammes! :D…. and definitely yes! One really can’t compare her to those works. The person who comes closest to what Heyer used to write, and still used to fall terribly short was Barbara Cartland.

      Interesting fact: Barbara Cartland stole a couple of plots in their entirety from Heyer’s novels. Heyer filed a case against her and Cartland never copy catted again!

  7. I love the books by Heyer, that I have read, and agree that research is part of their appeal. I, also, love her unique voice.

  8. What a great post!

    I love Heyer, and have read almost all her books, but you are right about her lack of “literary voice”. I have never thought about it like that before!

    • I know. It always puzzled me why Heyer wasn’t given her due. Until I started re-reading quite a few of her stuff recently and understood where she was lacking as a “literary voice”….🙂

      And thank you!😀

  9. Mary Preston

    I agree Georgette Heyer is a class and genre on her own. Great post. I love the fact that she had so many books to reference from.

    marypres(AT)gmail(DOT)com

  10. Marvelous guest post — I hadn’t realized how varied her plots were and I loved the summary of the various stories (I’m going to have to get Venetia since this is one of umpteenth raves I’ve seen for it) — and I appreciate the critique about why Heyer isn’t seen as more of a literary force.

  11. Chitra

    You’re right on all scores, but she is still my most beloved author. Her reputation with me was a bit tarnished when i realized that the Regency world wasn’t quite as sanitized as her portrayels in “The Grand Sophy” or “The Reluctant Widow”. But give me a rainy day, a tasty snack and a cup of tea, and who wouldnt want to lose themselves in that world!! It also makes me appreciate all the little joys of my mundane life and world🙂. No one will remember me in a hundred years, but i will enjoy the view from my window, and i will smell the crispness of the autumn air. So there!

  12. Chitra

    If i could add to my earlier comment. I also think the characters are a lot richer than most other historical novelists, and the comedy is to die for. Love it!!

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