Georgette Heyer

16 August 2012

During my various traipsings around the internet (traipsing sounds so much nicer and more fun than ‘surfing’ don’t you think?), I have noticed an ever increasing amount of people discovering Georgette Heyer’s Georgian romances. I’m thrilled by this as I adore her books, but I must admit that I am also a little annoyed too because she is MINE, all MINE.

Okay, that sounded a bit mad. I’m envious too, of course, with that ridiculous envy that strikes when someone discovers a best beloved author and reads their books for the very first time. Oh, the bliss of an unread Georgette Heyer. There’s nothing quite like it.

This may be a surprise, but I didn’t actually like Heyer’s books the first time that I tried to read one. I was about nine at the time though and my grandmother, who had a vast collection, had been trying to get me to read Cotillion for quite some time. Sadly though, I just couldn’t get into it and so Heyer had to wait a couple more years before I picked up Friday’s Child and it all clicked into place.

You never forget your first Georgette Heyer. I adored Friday’s Child and still do, in fact. I loved childish, sweet natured, guileless Hero with her dusky ringlets and wide eyes. I swooned over her arrogant, handsome, impetuous Sherry and day dreamed about their lovely house on Half Moon Street. It was just perfection.

After this I moved on to These Old Shades and fell madly in love with the Duke of Avon. I have naturally titian hair so felt a deep affinity with the lovely Leonie and of course I was thrilled by the descriptions of Parisian high society and Versailles as presided over by Louis XV.

I’ve noticed my taste changing subtly as I grow older too – when I was younger I dismissed A Civil Contract, which I always think of as being Heyer’s Persuasion, as boring and pointless but now I love it, I really do. It’s the story of an officer who inherits the mortgaged to the hilt family estates and so has to turn his back on the rather dim society girl that he is madly in love with and instead marry the less appealing daughter of an immensely wealthy businessman. It’s a gentle but heartwarming tale, which appeals to my grown up sensibilities but the younger me thought it frankly depressing.

I used to prefer the more frivolous books with pretty, rather silly heroines and rakish heroes but now I find myself turning more often to the Heyers with mature heroines, such as the eponymous Venetia, Serena in Bath Tangle, Ancilla in The Nonesuch or Abigail in The Black Sheep – confident, independent women who know their own minds. When a lot of people think of Heyer’s heroines, it is the simpering misses in their empire line dresses that they think about but to me the archtypical Heyer heroine is all flashing eyes, witty retorts and ready laughter. Either way they always have a sense of humour.

Heyer heroes also improve with age – no’one could be more charming than Freddy in Cotillion but I think that if I had to choose between him and Lord Damerel scattering rose petals for me or Oliver Carleton snogging me on a sofa then I’m sorry Freddy but we’ll catch up over lunch at the British Museum sometime. Or maybe you’d like to take me on a tour of the sights of London? I know of a great guidebook…

It’s not just the hero and heroine that make a good Heyer novel though. My favourite male Heyer character isn’t even the hero – I have a serious crush on Gideon in The Foundling, who is the cousin of the main male character and is basically unspeakable HOTNESS personified. Oh my. He is just one example of the fabulous and unforgettable incidental characters who crowd Heyer’s books and are just as brilliantly drawn and real as the main couple.

It’s sad that so many people continue to dismiss Heyer as frivolous, stupid or frothy without giving her books a chance. I think my vocabulary is pretty good (sorry, but I do) and still have to look up some of the words that she uses as some of them are so arcane. This isn’t simple English written for dullards, not by a long chalk. They are seriously funny too and the dialogue is always extremely witty. As a writer myself I really appreciate this – all too often I have had a character hyped up as ‘clever’ or ‘witty’ and then fallen into a panic when they open their mouth and er, oh dear, maybe I should stick to writing about unfunny idiots. Not so Heyer – the dialogue in her books crackles and shimmers with life.

Besides, you can’t write off Heyer’s novels as being frivolous and written for grannies because Stephen Fry is a fan, so there. I also get a little thrill of happiness when they get a mention in the books of Jilly Cooper, Raffaella Barker and India Knight. Yes, all the best heroines are Heyer fans these days. In the case of Barker’s Venetia, they are even named after them. And I say this as someone who has a son whose first and middle names come from two favourite Heyer characters: Felix Gideon. Yes, that’s right. I took it a bit too far.

If you get a group of Heyer fans together then talk with inevitably turn to television and film adaptations or, more precisely, the lack of them. There is a film version of The Reluctant Widow, which came out in Heyer’s lifetime but apparently it appalled her so much that she refused to allow any more.

However, it now transpires that she badly wanted her books made into films and there’s even recently been a Cranford style version planned with three of her books given an intertwined storyline – I’m guessing it would be Regency Buck, Devil’s Cub and An Infamous Army maybe as they are already linked by common characters.

Wouldn’t it just be fabulous to be able to watch a Heyer adaptation on lazy Sunday afternoons? I hope it happens one day!

I saw Dr Jennifer Kloester talk about Heyer’s life and books at the RNA Regency Day last October and she revealed that Heyer’s books were often published unseen and unedited. You’d never guess would you? Heyer herself used to write her books in a matter of weeks and would send off the first draft, which would then be published just as it was. Wow.

I’m often asked which Heyer novels I would recommend to a complete newbie so here’s a list to start you off:

1. The Grand SophyWhen the redoubtable Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy is ordered to South America on diplomatic business he leaves his only daughter Sophy with his sister’s family, the Ombersleys, in Berkeley Square. Upon her arrival, Sophy is bemused to see her cousins in a sad tangle.The heartless and tyrannical Charles is betrothed to a pedantic bluestocking almost as tiresome as himself; Cecilia is besotted with a beautiful but feather-brained poet; and Hubert has fallen foul of a money-lender. It looks like the Grand Sophy has arrived just in time to sort the out, but she hasn’t reckoned with Charles, the Ombersleys’ heir, who has only one thought – to marry her off and rid the family of her meddlesome ways…

2. Cotillion. – The three great-nephews of cantankerous Mr Penicuik know better than to ignore his summons, especially when it concerns the bestowal of his fortune. The wily old gentleman has hatched an outrageous plan for his stepdaughter’s future and his own amusement: his fortune will be Kitty’s dowry. But while the beaux are scrambling for her hand, Kitty counters with her own inventive, if daring, scheme: a sham engagement that should help keep wedlock at bay…

3. Friday’s ChildRejected by Miss Milborne, the Incomparable, for his unsteadiness of character, wild Lord Sheringham flies back to London in a rage, bent on avenging Fate. Vowing to marry the first woman to cross his way, who should he see but Hero Wantage, the young and charmingly unsophisticated girl, who has loved him since childhood…

4. VenetiaIn all her twenty-five years, lovely Venetia Lanyon has never been further than Harrogate, nor enjoyed the attentions of any but her two wearisomely persistent suitors. Then, in one extraordinary encounter, she meets a neighbour she only knows by reputation – the infamous Lord Damerel – and before she knows better, is egging on a libertine whose way of life has scandalised the North Riding for years.

5. FredericaRich, handsome, darling of the ton, the hope of ambitious mothers and despair of his sisters, the Marquis of Alverstoke sees no reason to put himself out for anyone. Until a distant connection, ignorant of his selfishness, applies to him for help. Plunged into one drama after another by the large and irrepressible Merriville family, Alverstoke is surprised to find himself far from bored. The lovely Charis may be as hen-witted as she is beautiful but Jessamy is an interesting boy, and Felix an engaging scamp. And, most intriguing of all, their strong-minded sister Frederica, who seems more concerned with her family’s welfare than his own distinguished attentions…

Do you love Georgette Heyer’s books? What’s your favourite? Do you swoon for any particular heroes? Come and tell me!

Further reading:

Georgette Heyer Biography

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World

The Private World of Georgette Heyer

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