The Grand Georgette Heyer

Oh, you’ve never met Georgette? Come with me and I’ll introduce you. You must get to know her.

She’s given me more hours of reading bliss then any other writer, living or dead.

I’m not comparing her to other, greater writers I love: she’s no Balzac or Trollope, Dickens or Pelecanos, , Raymond Chandler or Mark Twain. But none of these giants ever had the power of Heyer to transport me to another real time and place and hold me there, turning pages as the plots twist through the landscape of Regency England.

Heyer can be dismissed as Jane Austen for shopgirls.  That she was not a genius of the  likes of the  Divine Jane shouldn’t be held against her. Austen glows gold, Heyer sparkles like sequins.

She invented the Regency Romance genre still filling shelves at Borders — all those titles like “The Sinister Baron” or “The Seduction of Samantha.” I don’t read romance fiction, and after a bit of browsing I especially don’t read Regency Romances. Heyer is the lightning, all those other lady writers are the lightning bugs.(Thank you Mark Twain.) I read through this shelf every dreary winter:

This is not her complete oeuvre, though I’ve read it all. Between 1921 when she was nineteen and her death in 1974 she wrote one book a year, and for many two books: her police procedurals are excellent in the style of Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh.

The device that drives her plots is, like those of Balzac and Austen, not romance but money. Estates are lost at the gaming hells or race tracks, poor girls and young men must marry for money to restore family fortunes, jaded rich men and heiresses struggle to meet a true love, not a fortune hunter. Lucky speculation on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo brings relief from debt and disgrace for one worthy young nobleman.

These are no more bodice rippers than Persuasion. (I remember that one bodice got ripped, but is was the result of a duel, not sexual assault.)They’re novels of manners, adventure and wit. Buckles are swashed, cravats are tied, light nuncheons are eaten ( the n is correct,) dancers twirl to that risque new dance, the waltz, family members drive you nuts, and Venetian Breakfasts are attended.

The characters are fresh, the heroines spunky, the heros manly and the ending is always happy And these books are funny! I’ve read The Talisman Ring fifty times and I gurgle at all the old familiar places. What’s my fave Heyer?  You’d need to waterboard me for a month before I decided. It is: The Grand Sophy, which was the first of her books I read. Sophy arrives in the repressed household of her cousins, attired in a riding habit tailored like a Hussar uniform with an entourage that includes a monkey and Arabian horses. She sets up her own stable, introduces light and levity into the stuffy household, saves the life of a little cousin and ends the engagement of her cousin to the horrid Eugenia. Of course she gets her man.

Things Georgette taught me:

  • The battles of the Peninsular War
  • Five ways to tie a cravat
  • The Bow Street Runners — the precursor of Scotland Yard
  • All about George III and his children
  • The rules of the duel
  • Fashion fashion fashion
  • The elegant way to take snuff
  • The order of the British nobility
  • Regency food, all those “removes” that feature ten or twelve sweet and savory dishes at a time
  • When I visited Bath I already knew its geography
  • When I first saw Wells Cathedral it was familiar
  • The sensational bodice-ripping thrillers of 1815
  • That a lady would never walk down Bond Street, to be ogled by the rakes and roues of the clubs
  • How a trip in a  badly sprung coach could leave you bruised, battered and all shook up
  • That pawning your jewelry is always a bad idea
  • Ratafia

That’s the edumacational stuff for my male readers, who’d rather be caught with an issue of US magazine in their hands than an historical novel. But I wish all of you this: 275 pages of character, plot, wit, frivolity and the great happy sigh of turning over the first page of a novel by Georgette Heyer.

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10 Comments

Filed under Books, Food, History, Into the Mystic, Library Card

10 responses to “The Grand Georgette Heyer

  1. Great Day in the Morning!!! You’ve enlightened me on a NEW thing—a new author recommended by one who KNOWS and is enamored of the stories and the tellings.

    I’ve seen her bits and pieces at Goodwill, in used bookstores, on other folks’ bookshelves, and, I suppose, even in Half Price Books, for the name and the covers/blurbs/aura felt so bodicerippery that I simply turned away. (And three detours would I take, to avoid any aisles marked “Romance,” with a blind stagger past “Harlequin,” eyes closed and breath held.

    I think of them all as beginning, “She came to the castle, little knowing . . .” And downhill from there.

    And your say-so will send me out tomorrow for a few of my own—I trust your taste and your feel for things, and so I look forward to the first look, the enjoyment and the delight of discovery, as I would love to open some of my own favorites for the first time.

    How have I missed these all this time? I vow to be more open-minded in future. And thank you.

  2. Rachel, I hope to make you a convert. I detest “Romance” and Bodicerippery but the Great Georgette is nothing like that. Buy one and report back.

  3. Lloyd

    M-

    Are you and Angela Thirkell fan as well?

    L

  4. Lloyd, I must be a fan because I’ve read most of her books. But she’s a tad too Tory for me to love.

    E.F. Benson: now we’re talkin’!

  5. Thanks for turning me on to Georgette Heyer! Pure pleasure – kind of like Wodehouse.

    I love reading about the cravats and clubs and various slang words and then looking everything up online. Hoping “good tonne” comes back in style.

  6. Freakyfrites, although Georgette and Wodehouse wrote about different centuries and different people, your analogy is perfect. You know you’re in for pure pleasure.

    Vive le bon ton.

  7. Kim Shook

    So glad that you posted this, Maggie. I somehow missed Heyer my whole life and just recent stumbled across “Footsteps in the Dark”, which I loved. Then I read “Why Shoot a Butler” which I loved a little less. The next Heyer threw me for a loop: “The Toll Gate”. My review on goodreads.com read as follows: “I somehow thought that Heyer was a mystery writer. I reserved it at the library and was dismayed to discover on reading the back of the book that she’s actually a Regency Romance writer. A genre that I would gladly stick pins in my eyes to avoid reading. The language is excruciating – I didn’t know most of the words and sometimes wished for a “Regency Romance” dictionary. Jane Austen’s novels take place even earlier than this book and her language is completely understandable. I mean, these people all but say “Odds Bodkins”. It’s just not my style, I guess.”

    So obviously tiptoe-ing through the Heyers is chancy for me. I’ve just put a hold on The Grand Sophy at the library – that one sounds like a romp and has monkeys in it (always a plus for me). But I need the advice of an expert like you – which Heyers are more ‘mystery-ish’ – like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Why Shoot a Butler’? I enjoyed both of those and would like to read some more. But ‘The Toll Gate’ really gave me the heebie-jeebies and I don’t want a repeat of that.

    RE: Thirkell – I adore her characters and collect her books (abe.com loves me), but I just ignore the Toryish aspects. Since I gravitate to 1930’s and 1940’s mysteries, I’ve had to develop that ability in order to read my favorite authors. I can read Dame Agatha and completely skim over the prejudice. Southern girls are REALLY good at pretending that the unsavory doesn’t exist.

    • Oh dear, Kim — I love “The Toll Gate!” By then, of course, I was well-versed in the world and (authentic, though not Austenish)lingo of The Grand Georgette. After your discombobulating experience I’m glad you’re giving her another try. Her romances are short on detection, but a thrillerish (and delicious) one is “The Talisman Ring.”

  8. Pingback: Apron of the Day and Odds and Ends « Cheap and Cheerful

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