Perhaps one of the greatest literary celebrity death matches has been between Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Heyer and Austen are compared to each other, rather fairly or unfairly; but what sets them apart and makes them unique?
Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously.
In contrast, Georgette Heyer published her first book, The Black Moth, in 1921 and her last book My Lord John in 1975. Heyer wrote a total of 50 novels, twelve of which are detective novels written towards the end of her career.
The main thing that sets them apart is that Austen wrote about the times in which she lived. She was familiar with her subjects because she was able to observe those around her daily. She was familiar with the customs and courtesies of society. This allowed her to exhibit her veiled wit which is imbedded in her carefully crafted pose.
“A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly, therefore, shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, and speedy shall be her descent from it.”
(Northanger Abbey, Chapter 29)
Heyer, known primarily for her Regency novels, spent meticulous hours researching to ensure her novels accuracy. As she didn’t live in the times in which she wrote she sought to ensure that her novels painted a historical picture. She also took great pains with language, writing her works in a formal tone with period correct dialogue, although she was known to make up some things of her own as well.
“He was dressed in the height of the Versailles fashion, with full-skirted coat of palest lilac laced with silver, small-clothes andstockings of white, and waistcoat of flowered satin. On his feet he wore shoes with high red heels and silver buckles, while a wig of the latest mode, marvelously powdered and curled and smacking greatly of Paris, adorned a shapely head.”
(The Black Moth, Chapter 1)
I would argue, however, that Heyer wrote purely for entertainment which makes reading her slightly easier then Austen. Her plots are romantically driven with a singular focus of bringing together the hero and heroine. While there are conflicts and villains they sometimes feel like afterthoughts. Yet, even when they feel like afterthoughts they are still memorable.
‘Lord Lethbridge shut the door and stood for a moment in frowning silence. He was aroused from his abstraction by the approach of his valet, who came up the stairs from the basement to attend to him and remarked with concern that the rain had wetted his lordship’s coat.”
(The Convenient Marriage, Chapter 7)
Heyer’s characters also lack the depth which Austen typically exhibits. Although, I would argue Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s least developed heroines, but I digress. She lacks the ability of Austen to take a satirical look at society and human nature itself. Austen was intricate and sly in her ability to reveal the flaws of human nature.
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and live nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
(Emma, Chapter 1)
While Heyer and Austen are often compared to one another, I think it is considerate of us to remember that both these woman wrote in different times and in their own right they created their own poignant mark on the literary world. Austen delights us because of her ability to remark on society and human nature. Heyer delights us because she entertains us. She gave us some of the most memorable characters and plots.
One cannot go wrong with either, for they are both perfect and unique in their own way.
Guest Post by Kaydee at For the Love of Austen