Dashing blades, handsome rakes, feisty heroines, impeccable historical detail, declarations of love, fantastic slang, wit and wry: Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances truly have it all, says Rowan Whiteside.
I have loved Georgette Heyer since I first read Beauvallet (pirates! The Spanish Inquisition! Queen Elizabeth!). In fact, I credit Beauvallet and Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek for forming my romantic and sexual expectations, as well as creating an enduring and passionate love for pirates.
I was 11, maybe 12; we were visiting my cousins and my granny in ‘The North’ and I’d run out of books. I’d already read most of my cousins’ books, and the ones I hadn’t were all boring fact books, when I wanted stories.
So my aunt had taken me to the grown-up bookshelf on the landing, which ended with two rows of dark bound hardbacks. They didn’t look alluring at all; they looked interminably dull.
But my aunt was insistent and I really didn’t have anything else to read. So I picked one out and curled up on the sofa, and started to read. And that was it. I was hooked on Heyer’s romances.
Because they are brilliant. They are funny and clever and exciting and, actually, even pretty feminist. The men are almost always the ones who have to compromise their lifestyles, eager to change for the sake of marriage to a good woman. An excellent woman, most of the time.
“There’s a snobbery around romances. They’re dismissed as trashy, as books for women and nobody else, as somehow diminutive in the world of literature.”
Heyer took inspiration from Jane Austen – like Austen (and unlike the reality of the Regency period) her heroines marry for love. Like Austen, her heroines are independent and strong-willed, dressed in soft muslin, and entirely capable of intelligent thought. Like Austen, there is a strong delight in the absurd, a razor-sharp examination of social convention, and a deep and enduring interest in character.
Her heroines vary in age, with some in their debut season; encountering the marriage mart of Almack’s Assembly Rooms for the very first time, some on the brink of being on the shelf and some firmly collecting dust.
The love between the pages is not just wildly passionate; it is, in turns, the deep and enduring love of friendship, a love formed from respect, or even pity, a love born from the desire to protect, and (my personal favourite) a love that persists and grows in spite of utter exasperation.
When I professed my Georgette Heyer adoration in the bookshop I worked in, it always caused great riots of laughter. Not least because the covers are sappy and uninspired.
One of my proudest bookseller moments was when a young girl (maybe 15), came back in a week after I’d recommended Venetia to her, and swept another six Georgette Heyers off the shelf. I paraded her around the shop and got her to tell everybody how fabulous the books were.
But there’s a snobbery around romances. They’re dismissed as trashy, as books for women and nobody else, as somehow diminutive in the world of literature. Heyer herself criticised her novels, saying, “I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense… But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature.”
“What is most distinctive about these books is a feeling that fiction rarely creates: a sense of deep warmth when you read them, which grows and grows as you travel through the story, leaving you to finish with a happy sigh and a growing smile.”
It is a great shame that an author of such skill was taught to disparage her own writing, but little surprise. Much like contemporary romance writers, she never received reviews in the broadsheets. It was, and is, somehow thought unseemly to give the genre column space. But her colossal sales at the time of publication—and the books’ continued success today—are testament to Heyer’s knack for creating an immersive, thrilling, believable, dreamy novel.
Heyer’s research was impeccable. She used letters, dictionaries, thousands of historical reference books, periodicals from the era, recipes, old bills and God knows what else. Her use of slang was exceptional and is utterly readable. An unsophisticated country-mouse is in need of ‘town-polish’, a tendency to sulk is to ‘have a fit of the sullens’, to be gutsy is to ‘have plenty of bottom’ or to be ‘full of pluck’, an idiot is a ‘gudgeon’, ‘blunt’ is money and to be ‘purse-pinched’ is to have none, ‘flummery’ is flattery, which would make you a ‘toadeater’, which in turn would make you a ‘ninnyhammer’ and if you were both that and ‘pudding-hearted’ too, you were probably prone to ‘fits of the vapours’.
I could go on, but I’ll resist.
What is most distinctive about these books is a feeling that fiction rarely creates: a sense of deep warmth when you read them, which grows and grows as you travel through the story, leaving you to finish with a happy sigh and a growing smile. (Let’s face it, a cheerful book is rare. A well-written cheerful book, rarer still.)
Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances are my go-to comfort books. I have quite literally read them to pieces. Some are missing jackets, many are sellotaped together, some were taken from my grandmother or my aunt, and have a dedication from a friend scribbled in front, or the initials of my family. I will carry these books with me wherever I go, re-read them for the nth time when I feel sad, or lonely, or in need of some hope.
And I hope to share that feeling and joy with you too, my reader. I beg you to go and buy one of her books post-haste.
My particular favourites are, in no particular order:
The Convenient Marriage
It is a sin of the most colossal proportions that, so far as I know, there has never been a period drama adaptation of Heyer’s works. (I am absolutely available to write it).7439 Views
Rowan Whiteside is a writer, reader, and consummate gin-drinker. She is never without a book and sheds to-do-lists wherever she goes. Like everyone else, she is currently working on her first novel.