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