Georgette Heyer's Realm
by Archana Arampure
Do you want to read about a cross-dresser, or even two? Or would you prefer to solve a kidnapping? Does your fancy lean toward marriages of convenience? Or do you like an adventure story with just a touch of romance? Do you appreciate spirited heroines who are impulsive and enchanting or do you prefer calm, omniscient ones who grow on you? Is your dream hero a man of few words but great mental and physical strength? Or does your taste run to more polished, urbane heroes? Does the thought of a hilarious comedy whet your appetite? Or do you prefer a cerebral mystery? How about a light short story?
Welcome, dear reader, to the world of Georgette Heyer. If you're looking for any of the above or even a combination of some of them, you've found the right place. If you're a lover of the regency, chances are you are already a lover of Heyer's works. If you're an author who writes regencies or ever hope to these books must be your Bible. The Regency Romance has become an accepted sub-genre in the field. It is here to stay. But how many people know that the first writer to write Romances set in the Regency was Georgette? Yes, Jane Austen did write what could be termed Regencies too, but she just happened to be writing contemporaries during the period of the Regency. Jeffery Farnol wrote Historicals but he didn't specifically write Regencies. The elegant wit and the impeccable gallantry that we readers associate with the aura of the Regency all owe their popularity to her usage of them as standard features in her books.
Georgette Heyer had an unusual family background. Her grandfather had been a Russian fur trader who had immigrated to Great Britain in the mid-1800's. There he had established himself by marrying an Englishwoman. His son was named George after him and George (Jr)'s daughter was named Georgette after her father. She was the only daughter of said George and his wife, Sylvia Watkins. She was their eldest child, born a year after their marriage and was followed more slowly by two brothers Boris and Frank. Incidentally, it is Boris for whom she wrote her first novel, The Black Moth, at the youthful age of nineteen. She was fond of her brothers and when Boris fell seriously sick, she came up with the book as a way of entertaining him. For decades, this was the only bit of personal information which her readers heard about her.
For without a doubt, Georgette Heyer shunned publicity. She was a very private person who kept her "real" life apart from her life as a tremendously successful author. It was not until after her death that the general reading public learnt that her married name was Rougier. She had always written as "Miss Heyer" (except for one book, Powder and Patch which she published first under the pseudonym of Stella Martin) and only a privileged few who knew her as Mrs Ronald Rougier also knew her as Miss Heyer. By all accounts, Georgette Heyer was very close to her father and his being something of a scholar must have had a significant effect on her early attempts at writing. He seems to have provided her with encouragement when the general attitude toward female writers, as noted by Virginia Woolf, was that of condescension and an annoying amusement that a "mere" woman should presume to write.
It is during this early part of her career that Georgette did a lot of experimenting with various genres. Yes, dear reader, she did write more than Regencies and Mysteries. She tried a variety of different historical periods as well as a few contemporary novels. She wrote a few books with tragic endings as well as her more popular "high" comedies. Perhaps Heyer found that the Regency genre was what she excelled at but considering the almost derogatory attitude she held toward her own work it is more probable that she gave up an unfulfilled desire for critical acclaim and took to producing the popular comedies and romance-adventures. Who can blame her if she did indeed crave the approval of the intellectual milieu? Or for beginning work on a factually based account of the life of John of Ghent (the patriarch of the House of Lancaster) in My Lord John?
It is interesting to note that the first of her books was not a Regency but a Georgian adventure-romance. The Black Moth contained all the characters necessary for a grande farce; the hero, wrongly bereft of fortune and name, the beautiful and spirited but virtuous heroine and a villain who seeks to kidnap and ravish her. These stock characters are brought to life by her wickedly amusing pen and though this book tends to be melodramatic, it is written in such a way as to make an old tale sound new ... Heyer herself probably blanched when she read this again after the subtle characters she later created. A few years after this, just after her marriage in 1926, she published These Old Shades which uses many of the same characters who made an appearance in The Black Moth. In These Old Shades though, they appear more three-dimensional. Although the names of the characters differ, the flavour of the names are retained. The villain "Devil", the Duke of Andover is transformed into "Satanas", the Duke of Avon. Apparently his love for a "good" woman has some effect on him but it takes the love of a imp named Leonie to completely extricate him. In Leonie, Heyer created the prototype of high-spirited minx (also defined by my computer as a jade, a wench, a snip, a malapert, a saucebox and an impudent female!!) who delighted so many of her readers in her later books. She named this book These Old Shades in recognition of the fact that she was writing about the same people from The Black Moth. This book, her sixth was an instant bestseller in it's hardcover edition. In a rare move, she later wrote a sequel to this and named it Devil's Cub - an appropriate sobriquet for the son of Satanas - which was published in 1933. Another Heyer-heroine prototype appears in Devil's Cub. A humourous, high-principled lady who bears her (dreary) lot with composure and courage and whose love for the hero will not be an excuse from performing her distasteful (but of course!) duty.
It was soon after this that Georgette's first Regency novel was published. It was Regency Buck and it came out in 1935. Both this and the next book The Talisman Ring were definitely Regency and both contain comprehensive Mysteries within the Romance. Regency Buck, in particular has a wealth of period detail which must have been painstakingly gathered. (Remember she was writing pre-pre Internet era!) Just prior to these she published another historical romance called The Convenient Marriage (no prizes for guessing the plot) which was Georgian but which provided the much used marriage of convenience plot. Around this time, Heyer must have been very busy. She was married and supporting her husband while he studied law, she had been supporting her mother and brothers ever since her father's death in 1926 and she had a son in 1933; not to mention the books she had published. Her notebooks bear testament to the research she must have done on the Regency period. She had studied and sketched women's walking dresses, morning dresses, ball gowns for every year, their hats, their hairdos, men's clothes, the uniforms worn by different regiments and she must have read every published history of Regency England. Her historical allusions were almost flawless and her descriptions of buildings, furnishings, battles ( balloon ascents; marital scandals; estate matters; moneylenders; you name'em, she wrote about'em) are as near perfect as can be written 125 years after the fact. Her description of the battle of Waterloo as it appears in An Infamous Army is said to be required reading at Sandhurst for its accuracy and attention to detail.
Regency novelists. Georgette Heyer might have (and does) have a heroine read a passage from an Austen book but she never has said heroine simper a the hero and remark "Aren't Jane Austen's books wonderful?" because she knew that these books were published as written by a "lady". (Thanks, listmembers, for that one!) The dates she uses are not randomly picked out of the years of the Regency but are set in their historical context very precisely. Her hero may write to his beloved from the Congress of Vienna but he will never do so 3 months after the end of the Congress. Her sense of linguistic style is also superb. A large part of the amusement to be derived from a Heyer novel comes from her treatment of the ridiculous. (I know those of you who have never read her are saying "huh?" but I also know that those of you who have are nodding your heads in agreement.)
Georgette Heyer published a Regency practically every year from the mid-thirties onward when she discovered how well they were received by the public. In 1960, when she had been too ill to complete her project (A Civil Contract) she published her only collection of short stories entitled Pistols for Two. "A Christie for Christmas" could very well have been complemented by "A Heyer for the Holidays". She wrote a dozen Mysteries intermittently and had also written 4 contemporaries in the 1920's. One of these seems to be a tad bit (we're guessing this) autobiographical in nature. Helen seems to parallel her life to an extent although there are obvious differences. She later refused permission to reprint these early works, perchance because she felt they revealed too many insights into her mind. The details of her life as a young woman in the 1920's and 30's are scarce. She is reported to have told those who probed into her early life that "she can be found in her books". At an other, less amiable instance she is supposed to have demanded to be told what her life story had to do with her books? (In spite of my curiosity, I reluctantly admit she had a point!)
Be this as it may, it is an unquestionable facts that her books have entertained generations of readers. Many of them are still in print after more than 50 years. How many other authors of "popular fiction" can claim that honour? She is widely read around the world - "Heyerophiles"can be found from Europe to North America to Asia and Australia. I first discovered her books in a pile of old books in India. Indeed, a mailing list run by Eileen Kendall includes people from all over the world. Practically every one of her 57 books is someone's favorite but the members of the listserve agree that there are some which are just more "Heyer" in than others. These include Venetia which was the top winner in our recent poll, closely followed by The Grand Sophy (my personal favourite!) and Frederica. A wonderful web source for those who want to know more about her work or for those of you who'd like a small sample of the inimitable Heyerian humour must visit the Georgette Heyer Homepage maintained by Sally Houghton.
What more can I say? If you've never read a Heyer, you're missing out on a marvelous (and lasting) experience. Her books are most definitely "keepers". (Let me know if you have any you don't want) ... If you know her books, you'll share my sorrow that there can be no more of them. There may be hundreds and thousands of regency romances.... I've read many of them and enjoyed some and tossed others at the wall but there is only one Georgette Heyer and she truly made the regency her realm.