Georgette Heyer

I read Cotillion while on the recent London/Glasgow trip. Yes, that’s right in eleven days I was able to read only one book. That should give you a measure of how busy the trip was and how knackered I was at the end of each day.

Anyway. I was delighted by the response to my recent throw away comments on Heyer, but because I was on said trip with scanty interweb thingy connectivity I was never able to respond to the response. Sob.

In those discussions Harriet mentioned Cotillion as one of her favourites which spurred me to pick it up for a reread. I adore the book. But I didn’t always. On my first read as a teenager I found it a terrrible disappointment for the very reason I love it now: Heyer buggers around with your expectations, the hero isn’t who the teenage me wanted it to be. Why, he isn’t even in the petticoat line! She shows the reader exactly how selfish and awful a rake really would’ve been. The book is delicious and clever and subversive and funny and full of delight at messing with her own formula. Divine!

As are Frederica and Venetia. (And if I could stand to reread it I’d probably find the same of The Grand Sophy.) All those books were first published in the 1950s or early 1960s. Many years after The Black Moth was first published. By which time she must’ve been well and truly ready to mess around with the genre she pretty much created.

I’m dying to reread all her books in chronological order to see if this theory is even remotely true. Tragically, the rest of my Heyers are back in Sydney in storage. And more tragically I have many other books I actually have to read, not to mention the ones I have to write. Like this one and the final Magic or Madness book. Sigh.


  1. Sherwood Smith on #

    A couple of reactions. First, she didn’t actually create that genre–it had been around since the 1830s. (Some say Bulwer kicked it off with Pelham, which is largely satire, but I think Catherine Grace Gore is the real driving force.) What she did was put twenties Bright Young Things in period clothing–and that made the genre accessible to the generation who discovered her books in the sixties and seventies.

    I do think she plays in her best books with some of the expectations of genre, but she always adhers scrupulously to the rules: blood will tell, a lady is always a lady, etc. The only modern attitude she had was to reject religion, otherwise she quite firmly believes in rank and everyone in his place, and it shows.

    Another note: The grand Sophy is readable if you just totally skip the utterly disgusting Goldhanger chapter. Her anti-Semitism is all over the books, but she’s not alone in that, it’s casually all over most of the literature of her generation, except in a few. That chapter revels in it, though, and damnere spoils the entire book for us now–unless one just skips right over the chapter. There is absolutely nothing in it that one needs to enjoy the remainder of the story.

  2. Justine on #

    Thanks so much for this fascinating comment. You make me ashamed of my ignorance.

    I’ve always thought of Heyer as starting a different tradition of regenices, uniquely her own which led to the current regency romance tradition. Of course I’ve thought this without any research or supporting evidence of any kind and have not heard of Catherine Grace Gore before. (Though what a superb name!)

    In fact, I now realise that I had always assumed Heyer was popular from the moment of publication. Maybe her reception was markedly different in the US then it was in the UK and Australia?

    Yes, indeed, it is the anti-semitic chapter that kills Grand Sophy stone cold dead for me. Given that the book was written in the fifties after the second world war I can make no excuses for it.

    She does have ladies who aren’t exactly ladies who have to be kept in line—like Freddie’s sister in Cotillion.

    D’you know I never noticed the lack of religion before? How dim am I?

  3. Garth Nix on #

    My favourite Heyer novels are THE UNKNOWN AJAX, FRIDAY’S CHILD and SYLVESTER though I’m very fond of nearly all them.

    I think there are two basic types of Heyer Regency romance: in one type the novels are essentially serious and unleavened by wit; the other, much better ones, are funnier and more playful.

    As for religion, I think Heyer actually reflects a common 19th and 20th century English upper- and upper-middle-class attitude that while of course one is Chuch of England and goes to Church, one doesn’t actually dwell on it. There’s not much religion in Austen or the Brontes either, is there?

  4. Garth Nix on #

    Ah Justine you have disabled capitals for visitors too. How frightful! I was so careful to put book titles in caps too . . .

  5. Sherwood Smith on #

    Oh you simply must get and read a copy of Gore’s Pin Money. Oh my goodness it is delightful.

    Regency romances were called ‘silver fork’ novels for several decades after the 1830s. They diminished somewhat in popularity but then certain tropes showed up enough (all set in Regency England) so that one can actually find the ones that inspired the young Heyer–like Georffrey Farnol, and his penchant for interlarding his stories with tons of thieves’ cant and local accents.

    I found an early P.G. Wodehouse (before Heyer even published) that makes fun of the Regency romance cliches–the hero tossing lace back from his wrists, his glinting eyes, the curls of the heroine, etc.

    I think Heyer brought two things to the form (besides her sense of pacing and comedy–her serious ones are just about all dreadful, though many except only the Waterloo one, An Infamous Army)–a successful combining of twenties mores with Regency same, and sufficiently detailed worldbuilding that is then altered into what is in effect an alternate world. She took what she liked and discarded the rest–after doing enough research to make her world consistent unto itself.

  6. Jenny D on #

    yes, it really is worldbuilding fiction in the most delightful way. (i am sorry to say that you two put me to shame, grand sophy is still one of my favorites despite that awful episode–i expect i am inured to it from reading so much 18th-century literature, also i can’t resist the monkey. i am still amazed by the casual antisemitism of england as opposed to america, at least my version of america, even in the present day.)

    string of miscellaneous additional thoughts: (1) i think “sylvester” is my favorite too. although “these old shades” and “devil’s cub” certainly have their charms. (2) the silver fork novels are delightful and underrated! glad to see them getting some props here. harrison ainsworth is also one of the great underread pulp novelists of all time. “paul clifford” is my favorite. (3)there are many, many reasons why “crown duel” is a wonderful novel but one of them is the way that it’s really a georgette heyer novel in clever disguise! (4) it is tragic how weak heyer’s detective novels are. it’s funny, it clearly took transposing the bright young things back a century plus for it to work. they are really a great disappointment. (5) in a subtle way there’s quite a lot of religion in austen, but it’s a very observance-based quiet thing without much outward expression. certainly her most pious heroine (fanny price) is also by far the least popular. bronte, yes: it’s post-romantics religion-of-nature type stuff. (though i believe that c. bronte personally was also quite devout.) (6) justine, as before, you mentioning cotillion is going to send me to the library tomorrow to see what i think on rereading! dangerous, dangerous lady…

  7. harriet on #

    I think there is actually a lot of religion in the Brontes – absolutely central to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I had always assumed (though I haven’t read it in a while) that Jane Eyre’s refusal to become Rochester’s mistress was on religious, rather than social grounds. And in Wuthering Heights (which I haven’t read in even longer) doesn’t Edgar Linton believe he will be reunited with Catherine when he dies? (He’s pretty obviously wrong, but this is due to a lack of understanding of Catherine, rather than an error in faith).

    And I agree with Jenny that in a subtle way there is a lot of religion in Austen. In particular, I’d argue that Anne Eliot has just as strong a faith as Fanny Price. (I could, in fact, go on and on and on about Anne, Fanny and Elinor Dashwood … but I won’t.)

    I think this underlying belief in God does seem to be absent in Heyer. On the other hand, she and Austen are writing about two different segments of society – Austen’s characters are gentry (I think that is the correct term) but Heyer’s are all “upper ten thousand”. Not being a social historian, I don’t know if this actually makes a difference to the view of religion, but it’s quite possible that it does.

    I think that for me, the magic of Heyer is that even though her Regency is grounded in an absolutely phenomenal amount of research, she’s still created a sort of fairy tale world – adjacent to the universes that contain Importance of Being Earnest and Twelfth Night. All the clothes and the carriages and the slang expressions are real, but the people aren’t – like fairy floss, there’s not a lot of substance to them, and you know they couldn’t possibly exist in the real world, but they’re so cleverly written that it’s just a delight to spend time with them. Sorry – I seem to be going overboard on the metaphors here, and I suspect I’m still failing to convey what I actually mean. My only excuse is it’s after midinight in Australia, so I’m probably not thinking all that clearly right now.

  8. Justine on #

    Wow, what smart, fabulous comments. Thank you! Heyer fans are all brilliant. And everyone’s already pointed out the religiosity of both Austen & the Brontes so I don’t have to. Yay you lot!

    I also hadn’t really thought about the worldbuilding side of her work. To be honest I’ve never really thought much about Heyer except that I love her work and she makes me happy. I’ve always read her as an antidote to books that I have to think about.

    Except for Grand Sophy for which there are no excuses. I’m not someone who will condemn a text because of the politics of the author. Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is one of my favourite books. But Heyer wrote the book after the second world war. Enough said.

    Sherwood: so how do I find a copy of Gore’s Pin Money? Is she out of print?

    Garth: Yup, Sylvester‘s a fave of mine too. Oh, and, ha ha on the non caps. Did you not read the faq?

    Jenny D: I look forward to hearing about your Cotillion reread.

    Harriet: there is no such thing as overdoing metaphors!

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