This week marks the 108th anniversary of the birth of Georgette Heyer, the founding mother of the Regency romance, born August 16, 1902. Celebrations of Heyer and her books are taking place throughout the blogosphere where Heyer enthusiasts are reviewing her books and sharing stories of their discovery and continuing love affair with this author who has maintained best-selling status for more than eight decades, since the 1926 publication of These Old Shades, her fifth novel.
If you are interested in some stellar review of many of Heyer’s books, I recommend Austenprose’s month-long celebration. Comments there will also earn you a chance at winning a copy of one of Heyer’s books. If you are interested in Heyer’s own words about her writing, I refer you to Jean Mason’s 1998 “interview” with Heyer at The Romance Reader. If you’re interested in a brief online biography of Heyer, I suggest Jay Dixon’s An Appreciation of Georgette Heyer. This blog is not a review, a sampling of Heyer quotes, or a biography, but it is a result of my having read all of these things and of some thoughts they inspired concerning my own experience as a Heyer reader.
Every Heyer enthusiast I know has a story of her—or his—first Heyer read. I’m no different. In the late 60s, my favorite reading material was Gothic romances by Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, etc.; Harlequin romances by Mary Burchell, Essie Summers, Sara Seale, and others; and gentle romances recommended by my mother by writers such as Emilie Loring, D. E. Stevenson, Grace Livingston Hill, and Elizabeth Cadell. On one visit to my local bookstore, I could find nothing that I hadn’t already read by any of my favorites and was persuaded by the salesclerk to give Heyer a try. That first book was Devil’s Cub. (If you look at the cover, I think you can see why I was sold on it.) I returned to the bookstore the next day to buy These Old Shades and left not only with Avon and Leonie’s story but also with Faro’s Daughter and Friday’s Child.
I went on to read nearly everything Heyer had written. So did my mother and my sister. Part of my joy in rereading Heyer is that each reading celebrates a connection with them as well as the wonders of Heyer’s world. I can almost hear my mother’s chuckle when I come to some of her favorite scenes. Friday’s Child was her favorite. I doubt if she knew how many times she read it. I still have that first copy. It’s coverless, and some of its pages are loose, but I can’t bear to discard it.
Heyer has another significance for me as well. She is a “respectable” romance writer, the only one that I found some colleagues in academia willing to admit they read. They might call the novels “froth,” but they didn’t deny their enjoyment of her work. So during all the years when I was a closet reader of romance, Heyer was the writer that I allowed myself to admit to reading, the one whose books I felt free to stick in a brief case or a book bag along with books by Faulkner, Woolf, and Proust. I wasn’t the only one discovering Heyer with those Bantam paperback editions in the 60s. Time placed her in exalted company in a 1964 review of False Colours:
By knowing more about Regency fops, rakes, routs and blades than anyone else alive, Georgette Heyer has turned what otherwise could be dismissed as a long series of sugary historical romances into a body of work that will probably be consulted by future scholars as the most detailed and accurate portrait of Regency life anywhere. She has also become the center of a genteel reading cult that has made her for years a runaway bestseller in England and now is spreading to the U.S., proliferating vociferously at ladies' luncheons and in lending libraries. But as with the late William Faulkner, you don't buy a book, you buy a world. If it suits you, you settle down forever.Heyer’s world suits me admirably. I never tire of the time I spend there. In fact, I’ve read Heyer so often that I have a list of Heyer superlatives.
My favorite heroines tend to fall into two categories, those that I see something of myself in and those that possess characteristics I admire but to which I could never aspire. Sophy definitely falls into the second group. She is supremely confident of her ability to manage her own life and to solve the problems of those she cares about in the process. She’s wealthy, independent, daring, and tall—all things I’d love to be. She never allows herself to be intimidated by Charles Rivenhall’s censure or bested by Eugenia Wraxton’s meanness. She even manages an unethical moneylender. One of my favorite moments occurs when Sophy, goaded by Miss Wraxton’s efforts to advise her on proper behavior for a lady of quality, drives her down St. James Street—and in a high-perch phaeton no less.
Sophy says, “Of course, I should not have dared to do it without you sitting beside me to lend me credit, but you have assured me that your reputation is unassailable, and I see that I need have no scruple in gratifying my ambition. I daresay your consequence is great enough to make it quite a fashionable drive for ladies.”
And I want to cheer every time I read those words.
Best Loved Hero: Major Hugh Darracott,
The Unknown Ajax
Georgette Heyer began what continues to be the rule in Georgian/Regency romances. The heroes are men of rank and wealth. Among Heyer’s heroes are four dukes (including one who became a king), three marquises, five earls, three viscounts, three barons, five baronets, and an assortment of heirs and second sons with aristocratic connections but no titles.
The hero I love best belongs to the last group. The Unknown Ajax is not the most popular of Heyer’s books, although it is one she herself counted among her best, but it features a beta hero I adore: Hugh Darracott, a towering (six feet, four inches), Yorkshire-born, former military man and unwelcome heir to his grandfather’s title. The Darracott family expects the “weaver’s brat” forced upon them to be a graceless bumpkin, and he gives them what they expect—complete with a thick accent. But the bumpkin is a man of honor, intelligence, and humor, who saves the family name from scandal and wins the heroine’s respect and love.
The practical, independent heroine who captures the heart and hand of a bad-boy hero is the stuff of which countless romances are made, but it was fresh when Heyer used it in one of her most popular books, and it continues to delight readers more than seventy years after its publication. Mary, fully aware that the fiery young Marquis of Vidal, forced to flee England because of a duel, has no honorable intentions toward her younger sister, determines to thwart silly Sophia’s plan to runaway with the arrogant lord. She takes her sister’s place, confident that once Vidal discovers the switch, he will leave her and her sister alone.
Instead, Vidal insists one woman is much like another and Mary’s brain may prove more effective than her sister’s beauty in alleviating his boredom during his exile. When reasoning with him fails, Mary defends her virtue by shooting him, thus persuading him that she is the “devilish strait-laced” young woman he first thought her to be. Vidal, who proves to have a most inconvenient code of honor that includes not ruining a virtuous young woman, insists that Mary must marry him. Mary refuses and has the strength to withstand Vidal’s determination to marry, to end a duel at considerable risk to herself, and to remain true to her own code when her emotions and society’s convention push her in the opposite direction.
Lady Hester Theale’s courage is quieter but no less real. Unmarried at twenty-nine, with no fortune and no congenial relatives, she refuses a marriage of convenience to the eminently eligible Sir Gareth Ludlow, despite the pressure her family brings to bear. Yet when Gareth needs her, she escapes her family, throws off the bonds of convention governing acceptable behavior for a spinster, and goes to his aid. Even after all of this, she accepts Gareth’s proposal only when she is certain love rather than just affection and respect motivate him.
Damerel is no fake rake; he’s the genuine article, a libertine whose behavior is rumored to have killed his father, whose orgies scandalize the neighborhood for years afterwards, and whose reputation is so black that he has been used to frighten naughty children. Heyer’s first description of him reinforces the common perception: “He was taller than Venetia had first supposed, rather loose-limbed, and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance. As he advanced upon her Venetia perceived that he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation. A smile was curling his lips, but Venetia though she had never seen eyes so cynically bored.” Little wonder that Venetia is diverted by the thought of the jealousy that will consume a neighbor’s Corsair-aspiring son when he is confronted by this Byronic hero.
Of course, Damerel is more than a quintessential rake. He is also a man of intelligence, humor, frustrated idealism, and the good taste to fall in love with the heroine. He proves his nobility of soul by befriending the heroine’s brother, a brilliant misfit with a physical disability, and by trying to save the virtuous heroine from the man he knows himself to be. Thank goodness Venetia is one of Heyer’s managing heroines. She, with a remarkably clear-eyed understanding of Damerel, manages her own HEA.
One of the things I like best about Heyer’s couples is that their relationship grows. Attraction may be instantaneous, and the sexual chemistry is certainly strong, perhaps strongest in Venetia, but the couples develop a friendship too. They come to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. One of my favorite Heyer scenes and one of my favorite descriptions of what being in love is occurs near the end of Frederica. Alverstoke has proposed to Frederica, who is not persuaded he can be in love with her. He responds, “It is merely that I find I cannot live without you, my adorable Frederica.”
She then says:
“Is it like that? Being in love? You see, I never was in love, so I don’t know. And I made up my mind years and years ago that I wouldn’t marry anyone unless I was truly in love with him. . . . It has always seemed to me that if one falls in love with a gentleman one becomes instantly blind to his faults. But I am not blind to your faults, and I do not think that everything you do and say is right! Only—is it being—not very comfortable—and cross—and not quite happy, when you aren’t there?
“That, my darling,” said his lordship, taking her ruthlessly into his arms, “is exactly what it is.”
When I think of Heyer’s books, I smile. I recall the scenes that struck me as the most humorous, and my smile broadens. I remember details, and I start to laugh quietly. Soon, if I’m at home, I’m pulling the book to reread the scene and laugh aloud. Choosing a favorite funny scene from the abundance of wit, incongruity, absurdity, and situational humor is not an easy task. Freddy Standen’s conversations with his father in Cotillion, Arabella’s foisting a mutt on Beaumaris in Arabella, the rescue of Richmond scene in The Unknown Ajax, the impenetrable egoism of the “Old Gentleman” in The Masqueraders, the irrepressible Felix in Frederica, the natural daughter scene in Sprig Muslin . . .
But the scene, or rather series of scenes, that never fails to leave me laughing till the tears run down my cheeks is the final chapter of The Grand Sophy with its wild assortment of characters--the wounded Charlbury (shot by Sophy), the newlywed Marquesa and Sir Vincent, the self-centered poet, the weeping Cecilia, the outraged Miss Wraxton, the pompous Lord Bromford, and the box of yellow ducklings—all managed superbly by the ever competent Sophy until the late-arriving Charles Rivenhall proposes and whisks her away. From the Marquesa’s demand that her new husband kill chickens for her through Charles’s unique proposal, I laugh.
Every few years I do a major rereading of Heyer’s Georgian/Regency novels. My last was in 2007, so it’s about time for another. Now which one should I reread first?
Are you a Heyer enthusiast? Which novels are your favorites? Do you have Heyer superlatives?