Pistols for Two, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

Pistols for Two, by Georgette Heyer (2012)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

Pistols for Two is a collection of eleven short stories first published in 1960.  Throughout her writing career, Heyer published her novels in serial form in various periodicals, and published short stories in them as well.  This is the only collection published as a book; otherwise her short stories exist only in old copies of the various magazines.  In researching her biography of Heyer, Jennifer Kloester tracked down bibliographic information on as many stories as she could find, and lists them in an appendix, but she states that there are probably more still undiscovered.  This corrects a general and long-held impression that Heyer only wrote a few short stories, and that nearly all of them were included in Pistols for Two.  But Heyer did choose the stories in this collection herself, so she must have considered them among her best.

These stories are delightful microcosms of Heyer’s work.  They all feature the deft characterizations that Heyer always provides:  she excels in summarizing a character in a few brief sentences.  What is lacking of course is the layering that provides depth in a full-length novel.  Each also necessarily features a very compressed timeline of action, often covering only a few scenes and a few hours, and since they are mostly love stories, several of them feature love at first sight.  In short, their only real defects are the limitations of the short story form itself.  For this reason, I strongly recommend the reader to resist the urge to gobble them up all at once:  space them out instead, with something else in between to leaven them.

One particularly delightful aspect of these stories for the Heyer aficionado is the recognition that comes here and there.  Heyer uses some names that appear in her novels, but, more importantly, there are identifiable germs of ideas, characters, and relationships that are developed later more fully in the novels.  For example, in “A Clandestine Affair,” Lord Iver appears to be a prototype of Ivo Rotherham in Bath Tangle, and if that novel’s heroine Serena’s prototype does not appear, the broken engagement does.  (Note, however, that in publication dates, Bath Tangle precedes the short story by five years.)  More than one damsel is clearly related to Amanda, Eustacie, and Leonie; and more than one gentleman resembles Sir Waldo Hawkridge, the Duke of Avon, the Marquis of Alverstoke, or even the Earl of Worth.  “Pistols for Two” includes a set of young gentlemen who must surely be the original sketches for the young set in The Nonesuch making cakes of themselves over Tiffany Wield.  Discovering these embryonic (or sometimes revisited) characters and situations almost feels as if Heyer is sharing a special treat with her readers.

In “A Husband for Fanny,” however, Heyer visits a theme which I can’t remember in any of her novels, and wish she had.  (Details omitted to avoid spoilers.)  And in another story, there is a macabre twist that is all the more surprising for being surely unique in Heyer’s oeuvre.  So in addition to the familiar characters and situations, there are a few stories that show Heyer exploring ideas that she never developed into novels and thus stand alone in her work.

Please avoid spoilers in your comments as these stories are new to many people, especially since the collection has been somewhat hard to find until being republished this month by Sourcebooks.

This concludes my last review of the Georgette Heyer re-issues by Sourcebooks for Austenprose.  I hope that promoting these books has brought many readers to Heyer for the first time.  She continues to give me joy, and I remain grateful for her life and her work.  I’m also grateful to Laurel Ann for providing me with this opportunity to share Georgette Heyer with you.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Pistols for Two, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2012)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1402256981
NOOK: ISBN: 978-1402257001
Kindle: ASIN: B006IBFW12

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

April Lady, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

April Lady, by Georgette Heyer (2012)Guest Review by Laura A. Wallace

Georgette Heyer’s April Lady is the last re-issue by Sourcebooks of Heyer’s novels.  (The very last is Pistols for Two, a collection of short stories.)  Originally published in 1957, it is comfortably set within the Regency period that she had made her own.  The setting is London, and the plot involves money, love, misunderstanding, gambling, debt, and, ultimately, a famous heirloom, the Cardross necklace.

Lady Helen Irvine, the daughter of an improvident peer who has wasted most of his patrimony through addiction to gambling and high living, has been fortunate enough to marry the Earl of Cardross, an extremely wealthy nobleman some dozen years older than she is.  A very dutiful daughter, she had previously faced the unappetizing prospect of being married off to a wealthy city merchant in order to repair the family fortunes, but the unexpected offer from Lord Cardross saved her from this fate.

Nell did not know just what Cardross had done to earn her parents’ gratitude.  It all came under the vague title of Settlements, and she was not to bother her pretty head over it, but to take care always to conduct herself with dignity and discretion.  Mama, declaring herself to be deeply thankful, had made it quite plain to her what her duty henceforward would be.  It included such things as always showing my lord an amiable countenance, and never embarrassing him by asking ill-bred questions, or appearing to be aware of it if (perhaps) he was found to have formed a Connection outside the walls of that splendid house of his in Grosvenor Square.  ‘One thing I am sure of,’ had said Mama, fondly patting Nell’s hand, ‘and that is that he will treat you with the greatest consideration!  His manners, too, are so particuarly good that I am persuaded you will never have cause to complain of the sort of neglect, or — or indifferent civility, which is the lot of so many females in your situation.  I assure you, my love, there is nothing more mortifying than to be married to a man who lets it be seen that his affections are elsewhere engaged.’

. . . Mama had been right.  When Nell had met my lord’s half-sister and ward, a vivid brunette, not then out, but hopeful of being presented by her sister-in-law, that impetuous damsel had exclaimed, warmly embracing her:  ‘Oh, how pretty you are!  Prettier by far than Giles’s mistress!  How famous if you were ot put her nose out of joint!’

Lord and Lady Cardross have now been married a year, and he has been extremely courteous, patient, and generous to her, but Nell has a soft spot for her high-spirited brother, Lord Dysart, who seems to have inherited his father’s penchant for gambling, and is always kicking up a lark.  Naturally, he applies to his sister for money to pay some of his debts; naturally, she gives it to him; and naturally, Cardross forbids her to do it again.  But she does.

So misunderstandings pile upon misunderstandings, with the way enlivened by an entertaining set of secondary characters, including not only Nell’s brother and Cardross’s sister, but that Pink of the Ton, Mr. Felix Hethersett, Cardross’s cousin and Nell’s most faithful ciscebeo, and a particuarly inarticulate friend of Dysart’s, Mr. Cornelius Fancot.  While perhaps not the most spectactular of Heyer’s novels, this one doesn’t lack for entertaining moments, including a very funny scene with happy-drunk Dysart and Corny doing their inadvertent best to perpetuate as many misunderstandings as possible.  Heyer’s style and wit raise what might have been a mediocre book in the hands of a less-skilled novelist to an enjoyable reading experience worth savoring and re-reading.

Since this is the last Sourcebooks novel re-issue and I have commented on the production values before, I want to mention that I’ve done some in-depth comparison of editions, and have come to the conclusion that Sourcebooks did indeed go back to the source books:  the British first editions.  Most of the differences in punctuation between my more recent American paperbacks and the Sourcebooks editions turn out to be in fact restorations of the original British punctuation which had been changed in American editions.  This is particularly true regarding hyphenated words and colons.  The principal difference in the text between the Sourcebook editions and the British editions (to be precise, the Uniform Editions, as I don’t own any British first editions) is that the new editions use single quotation marks (the British Uniform editions used double ones).  The second thing of note is, as I have mentioned before, “scannos” introduced by scanning and OCR technology.  These are perhaps unavoidable but they are also, fortunately, fairly rare; unfortunately, when they do crop up, they tend to be of the stealthy type that can change the meaning of a sentence.  I also think that they are more common than traditional misprints.  But overall the Sourcebooks editions are probably the best compromise possible and they are indeed very beautiful and well-made editions that I hope will stand the test of time, worthy of Heyer’s work.

4.5 out 5 Regency Stars

April Lady, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (288) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238789
Nook: ISBN: 978-1402273858
Kindle: ASIN: B0068N4C2K

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

Sprig Muslin, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

Sprig Muslin, by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin is one of her most entertaining Regency novels.  It is a “road book,” full of adventures, comical situations, and fun characters.

At the outset, I must beg anyone who leaves a comment to avoid spoilers.  New readers should have the pleasure of discovering Amanda’s antics, their consequences, and who feels what for whom, on their own.

Sir Gareth Ludlow is one of society’s best-loved bachelors.  We first meet him calling upon his sister, whose offspring consider his visit to be a high treat:

Watching him, as he contrived, while displaying over and over again for the edification of little Philip the magical properties of his repeating watch, to lend an ear to the particular problem exercising Leigh’s mind, Mrs Wetherby thought that you would be hard put to it to find a more attractive man, and wished, as she had done a thousand times before, that she could discover some bride for him lovely enough to drive out of his heart the memory of his dead love. . . but she had never been able to detect in his gray eyes so much as a flicker of the look that had warmed them when they had rested on Clarissa Lincombe.

Clarissa had been beautiful, vivacious, and headstrong.  She and Gareth were considered a perfect couple—and so they were, until she managed to break her neck in a carriage accident, trying to prove her mettle by driving Gareth’s spirited horses without permission.  Seven years later, he has never fallen in love again, and come to the conclusion that he must marry without it.  So he decides to offer for one of his oldest friends, the Lady Hester Theale, who is as unlike Clarissa as it is possible to be.

But on his way to pay his addresses to Lady Hester at her father’s country seat, he encounters, quite by chance, a very young but resourceful and determined lady named Amanda, who has run away from home and has a remarkable facility for making up stories.  She is obviously an innocent girl, and Gareth reluctantly takes charge of her, with the intention of restoring her to her family.  Unfortunately, she refuses to tell him her name, so he resolves to take her to London and entrust her to his sister’s care until he can discover her identity.  But in the meantime, he takes her to Lady Hester, knowing he can rely upon her kindness to allow her to stay overnight, and so she does.  But Amanda runs away, and their highly entertaining adventures form the rest of the novel.

The people they encounter during their travels, from the Hon. Fabian Theale, Hester’s uncle, to Hildebrand Ross, a young gentleman who is a poet, enjoying his first Long Vacation on his own, to Barnabas Vinehall, who was a friend of Gareth’s father, the cast of secondary characters help them along in what would film (if only we could be so lucky and someone would write the screenplay) as a classic screwball comedy, or perhaps an Oscar Wilde play.

This novel shows Heyer’s skills at the top of her form, with a tight plot, delightful and deftly-drawn characters, plenty of wit and humor, and an ensemble ending second only to those in The Grand Sophy and The Unknown Ajax.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Sprig Muslin, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (304) pages
ISBN: 978-1402255496

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

A Civil Contract is an atypical Georgette Heyer novel.  While the setting is firmly Regency, beginning at the time of the Battle of Orthez (February 1814) and ending with that of Waterloo (June 1815), it is neither lively nor witty.  It is a quiet book, with a love story that grows gradually, without any sparkle or adventure.  The eponymous contract is a marriage contract between an impoverished, newly-acceded peer and a wealthy “Cit” (Citizen of the City of London)’s daughter.  It is an inauspicious beginning:  the aristocrat is in love with someone else, the bride is homely, and the Cit is vulgar.

However, what follows is a sensitive, nuanced exploration of human relationships that from today’s perspective may seem almost quaint:  commitment, respect, duty, honor, fidelity, civility, resentment, and generosity.  I say “quaint” because the most cursory glance at current divorce and familial statistics show an absence of almost all of these qualities (saving resentment) to such an extent that a marriage and family where they prevail seems almost naïve, or even alien.  Imagine a marriage where commitment, civility, and respect are more important than passion and romance, even at its inception, yet fidelity and appreciation are also central.  This isn’t a “romance” novel:  it’s an “intimacy” novel, in a non-sexual way.  (The couple does have sex, though the only way you know this for certain is that they have a baby:  Heyer almost never writes about sex directly.)

Money plays a big role in the novel, and a feminist reading would no doubt analyze the connection between money and sex.  But I think that to reduce it to money and sex would fail to do it justice in almost every respect.  Yes, of course the contract is an exchange of money for social position that is literally consummated on the body of the woman, but that is the least important aspect of the situation.  The real story is how they grow together and create something new:  a lifetime together based not in physical urges but in common goals and a determination to make it work and find contentment.  When money comes to the fore, it is more usually (though certainly not always) a point of contention between the hero and his father-in-law rather than his wife:  it highlights the differences of class and the meaning of nobility (which, in Heyer’s world, is not always exclusively associated with a character’s station at birth).   With more time and space, I could take it a step further, and analyze the tension between money and power being played out over the pregnancy.

Despite the serious overtones, the novel does not lack for the comic relief or the masterfully-drawn secondary characters at which Heyer excels.  The most notable is the Cit (the father-in-law), who is hopelessly vulgar, but also shrewd, generous, and kind.  (In her new biography of Heyer, Jennifer Kloester describes him as “one of [Heyer]’s comic triumphs” and quotes her as saying that he continually “tried to steal the whole book, & had to be firmly pushed off the stage.”)  The recently-widowed dowager peeress, on the other hand, is languishing but selfishly manipulative, and when these two strong-willed persons encounter one another, she is completely nonplussed, while her elder daughter cannot help but “regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal.”  Even more entertaining is the clash of titans between the Cit and the hero’s aunt, who presents the bride at court.  She routs him completely, leaving him in the unfamiliar circumstance of having nothing to say.   Further amusement comes from the hero’s second sister, an irrepressible damsel not yet out who initially conceives the idea of saving the family fortunes by becoming a famous comedic actress, an ambition that survives (even after her brother’s marriage) until she encounters Kean’s performance in Hamlet, when she decides that she must become a tragic actress instead, in order to play opposite him.

Many Heyer fans name A Civil Contract as their favorite Heyer novel.  I personally have found that my appreciation of it has grown over the years, and I did not always like it so well as I do now.  I once thought it was a sad book, but I no longer think so:  it is a hopeful book, and ultimately a very positive one.

The Sourcebooks edition is typical:  a lovely (though Victorian) cover, good paper, and an easy-to-read typeface, with only a few “scannos,” one of which is “Playoff” for General Platoff.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (432) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238772

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester – A Review

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Koelster (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

I must acknowledge that it is well-nigh impossible for me to be objective when it comes to reviewing Jennifer Kloester’s new biography of Georgette Heyer which was released this month in the UK.  Rarely have I looked forward so much to reading a biography.  But be assured, gentle reader, that had I found it sub-standard, I would tell you so.  Instead, I am delighted to report that it met or exceeded almost all of my expectations.

This is a more traditional biography than Hodge’s, which discusses each work Heyer wrote in some detail, creating a dual focus on the events of Heyer’s life and her works, occasionally feeling as though the biographical material is merely a bridge until the next novel.  Kloester’s treatment of Heyer’s work places them firmly in the context of the events of her life, with emphasis most definitely on her life.

Kloester had access to more of Heyer’s letters than Hodge (and Hodge generously gave Kloester all of her Heyer research notes).  The bibliography is divided in two:  published sources and archival sources, and the latter is extensive, with letter collections located all over the English-speaking world.  (Oklahoma?  New Zealand?  Who knew?)  Heyer didn’t keep her own manuscripts, and very few letters, but private archives such as the Frere family’s provided Kloester with dozens of frequent, chatty letters over several decades that reveal Heyer’s personality clearly, as well as some of the more mundane details of her life.

Kloester reveals more details about the incidents of plagiarism that Hodge mentioned.  The first copier was indeed, as Heyer fans have long agreed amongst themselves, Barbara Cartland.  The second, some years later, was Kathleen Lindsay.

One point I found particularly interesting is Kloester’s treatment of Penhallow.  Hodge reported that this was intended as a contract-breaking book.  Kloester’s research revealed that this notion was, in fact, a family legend built up after the fact.  At the time, Heyer had the highest expectations of the novel and hoped it would be well-received in the literary world— and in fact it was, garnering several positive reviews, but never high enough to satisfy her.  She always yearned for more serious literary recognition, and never felt that she received it.

This biography is interesting (to me, at least) on so many levels, especially placing Heyer’s life in a chronological context.  The Regency setting of her later novels was less than a century before her own birth in 1902.  She personally experienced the transition of the world from Edwardian times— when carriages and servants and indeed much of social and even some technological norms of the Regency were still an ordinary part of life for the upper middle class of which she was a part— to the new world “after the war” (i.e., World War I) of the twentieth century.  Numerous small details of Heyer’s early life, and even of her antecedents, inform incidents in her novels.  For example, Felix’s obsession with steam engines and his trip up and down the Thames in a steam-boat (Frederica) comes directly from Heyer’s grandfather’s successful tugboat fleet.

Like other biographies of authors, including Hodge’s, this work provides insights into the author’s creative process that other writers will find interesting and informative.

The only minor criticism I have is that some of Kloester’s examples and quotations are the same as Hodge’s.  This is completely understandable as they are perfect choices to illustrate certain points, but I found myself slightly (and unfairly) resenting any duplicate quotations, as I wanted more and new quotations!  (Perhaps Kloester will publish an edition of Heyer’s letters!)

The book itself is produced beautifully.  The pages are stitched, the paper is substantial, and the photographic plates are well-chosen and well-described.  The cover is stunning:  I literally gasped when I opened it, not having seen it online first.  This is a fine book that is aesthetically an admirable complement to the most fastidious collector of Heyer first editions or uniform editions.   And substantively it is just as pleasing.  Congratulations, Ms. Kloester, on a job exceptionally well done and worthy of its subject.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester
William Heinemann (2011)
Hardcover (464) pages
ISBN: 978-0434020713

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

The Toll-Gate, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

The Toll-Gate,  by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

Georgette Heyer’s novel The Toll Gate is a little different from her typical Regencies.  It is more of a mystery than a romance, and is told primarily from the point of view of the hero.

The hero, Captain John Staple, shares several characteristics with Hugo Darracott of The Unknown Ajax.  Like Hugo, John is a former army officer who sold out after Napoleon’s defeat—though in John’s case, he sold out after Leipzig, and when Napoleon escaped from Elba and began the Hundred Days, he rejoined and thus (like Hugo) was present at Waterloo.  Like Hugo, John is a large man, six-foot-four, with a gentle manner, a sense of humor, and a great deal of intelligence that he sometimes hides behind an intentionally bovine manner.  And like Hugo, John prefers to travel cross-country on horseback rather than in a chaise with a servant and piles of baggage.

If you haven’t read this novel before, there is one thing you definitely should know before reading it.  The first chapter seems not to fit. It is a large family dinner party where John’s cousin, the Earl of Saltash, has called his relations together to meet his fiancé.  Thus the first few pages are full of characters that are hardly thought of again after John escapes the party in Chapter Two.  The reason for this is that Heyer initially planned to develop the mystery to involve John’s status as his cousin’s heir presumptive.  Instead she went in quite a different direction.  So when you read it, don’t worry about keeping any of the characters straight except John, and enjoy the rest as vignettes of Regency life.

Captain Staple, traveling cross-country through Derbyshire to put as many miles as possible between himself and Lord Saltash’s country seat, is caught in rain and darkness and finds himself at an isolated toll gate attended only by a frightened boy.  His dad, the boy explains reluctantly, went off saying he’d be back in an hour but hadn’t returned.  John decides to stay the night, and look for the gatekeeper in the morning.  And from there, finds himself in an adventure, which is much more to his taste than dancing attendance on Lord Saltash and his prospective in-laws.

There is a romance, but it is very lightly handled:  quite sweet and satisfying, but not highly developed.  There is quite a bit of thieves’ cant, but it is generally intelligible from context (and if it isn’t, provides a wonderful opportunity to delve into a cant dictionary, several of which are freely available online).  There are entertaining secondary characters, as in every Heyer novel, including a highwayman and a Bow Street Runner.  There are moments of comic relief, but they are not the focus.

Some have criticized Heyer for failing to excise or re-write the first chapter, which hangs unevenly and sets up the expectation of seeing some of the characters again, or at least of the relevance of their existence.  But on re-reading, I find that there is very little that could be excised cleanly.  John’s interactions with the various family members and guests reveal parts of his history and his own character which are important background for his later actions.  So the chapter couldn’t just be chopped out without material loss.  It would have to be rewritten, and I think that the labor involved wouldn’t be worth the return.

I give this novel four and a half out of five stars, not for any grievous faults, but because it does not sparkle as some of Heyer’s other novels.  I still would rank it higher than most Regency-set novels by other authors, for its wonderful language and well-drawn characters, but for me—and I realize that this is a subjective opinion, but I am the one writing a review—it isn’t a top-tier Heyer novel.

The Sourcebooks edition is lovely, the only possible criticism of it being that the cover photo is eighteenth-century rather than post-Waterloo, but I am happy to report that I did not find a single printing error, not even a scanno!

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Toll-Gate, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks Casablanca (2011)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238819

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011, Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

The Unknown Ajax is one of Georgette Heyer’s funniest Regencies.  It is populated with some of her more memorable characters, and ends with a protracted scene reminiscent of comic opera, with a dozen people coming in and fading out in a seamless composition that builds to a climax as funny as a Heyer fan could wish for.  It might even be funnier than the ending scene in The Grand Sophy.

The setup for The Unknown Ajax is reminiscent of Downton Abbey—only the former came first, so it would be more proper to say that Downton Abbey is reminiscent of The Unknown Ajax.  The heir to a peerage and a large estate has drowned in a boating accident, along with his only son.  Everyone in the family thinks, therefore, the new heir is my lord’s youngest son, who has two grown sons of his own, but it turns out that this isn’t true.  Unbeknownst to anyone except the old lord himself, his second son, who had made a shocking misalliance with a ‘weaver’s daughter in Yorkshire, and been cast off, managed to procreate before his untimely death in Holland (in the quagmire which occasioned “The Grand Old Duke of York”).  So the story opens with Lord Darracott’s informing those of his relations who live with him that he has sent for his son and grandsons—and his heir as well.  He had informed no one until now because he had hoped that the new heir—son of the despised weaver’s daughter—was already dead, or that there might be some way to sequester the estate to prevent his inheriting when Lord Darracott dies.

What ensues when the heir arrives is a comedy, not of errors but of pride and prejudice, to coin a phrase.  Add in a set of Heyer’s wonderfully drawn secondary characters and you have a recipe for some highly entertaining scenes and dialogue.

There are the rival valets of the two brothers, who never miss an opportunity to turn the knife in each others’ bosoms.  There is the would-be pink of the ton, whose sole ambition in life is to replace Brummell in society, and who likes to test his new ideas on the hapless residents of nearby Rye, while (being terrified of matchmaking mamas) trysting with any willing and personable female of a lower order.  There is the serious-minded Customs’ Riding-officer, determined to stamp out smuggling along the Sussex and Kentish coast.  There is the cantankerous, autocratic and ancient patriarch who keeps everyone dancing to his hornpipe.

And there is a truly magnificent grande dame whose well-modulated voice is never raised, whose countenance rarely smiles, whose behavior towards her irascible father-in-law is always perfectly correct, and whose dignity is never compromised.  Even when she beats all of the young people to flinders in a lively game of copper-loo, her response to being asked if she always holds the best cards is merely:  “I am, in general, very fortunate.”  She expresses her opinions as pronouncements, and makes the most splendid (though dispassionate) speeches that render her auditors without a thing to say.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh only wishes she could be as majestically formidable.

The final, hilarious scene begs to be produced as a play.  Heyer clearly saw it as a tableau on a stage, and it makes me wonder why she never tried her hand at writing plays.  The quotations and references to Ajax are all to the character in Shakespeare’s play Troilus & Cressida, which is based on the Trojan War.

This is a fun novel which would be a good choice to introduce Heyer to someone who hasn’t read her yet.  And if you’ve read it before, re-read it, and let it become one of your favorites again (your favorite Heyer being the one you’re currently reading).

Appendix:  As usual, I love everything about the Sourcebooks edition except for the “scannos,” some of which make nonsense of the text.  Following is a list of the ones I found:

  • p. 44:  reclining should be relining (Claud’s chaise).
  • p. 52:  “. . . and he added with relish;” should end with a colon.
  • p. 85:  long coats should be short coats, but this error is also present in my Berkeley 1977 printing.
  • p. 94:  “the principal open” should be “one.
  • p. 199:  arm-in-armly should be arm-in-arm.
  • p. 230:  la-amentable should be lamentable.
  • p. 252:  “He had thought from the outside” should be “outset.”

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (384) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238826

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge – A Review

The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

Jane Aiken Hodge’s 1984 biography of Georgette Heyer, reissued this month by Sourcebooks, was until very recently the only one available.  Published ten years after Heyer’s death, it describes her life primarily from her letters to her publisher.  An intensely private person, Heyer eschewed publicity, never giving an interview, and not keeping her papers for posterity.  Thus a biographer has relatively little material available.  Hodge interviewed Heyer’s editors, surviving family members, and a very few friends (all of whom loved or respected her), and then wove a narrative around the books themselves, using them to illustrate her life, and vice versa.

A lot of the criticism of this biography has focused on either errors Hodge made about the novels themselves, or some kind of personal disappointment the reader feels from finding Heyer “unlikeable.”  I personally find whatever errors Hodge made to be minor and forgivable, and find Heyer herself to be witty, strong-willed, and very likeable.  Her personality erupts from her letters, and makes me want to read more of them.  Coupled with her friends’ descriptions of her immense style and charm, they make me wish I could have known her.

Her private nature prevented her from discussing her books with her friends.  She would talk about everything else in the world with them, but when the conversation came around to her work, she would remain silent on it, leaving any discussion to her husband, or changing the subject.  It is hard to tell from this remove (of both time and culture), but it seems to me that this was, at its core, a very large dose of British reticence and self-deprecation.  The idea of self-promotion was simply repugnant to her, and since her first novel (written as a serial to amuse a sick brother when she was seventeen and published before she was twenty) had sold well, and a later novel had come out during a general strike with no publicity and yet sold 190,000 copies, she was convinced that she had no need to promote her work.   She referred requesters of interviews back to her novels.  Hodge reports that she would say:  You will find me in my work.

So this biography focuses on her work, and how it informs us about the author.  And in that regard, it is particularly interesting to writers.  There is advice to new authors (she sometimes read other people’s manuscripts for her publisher) and there is the long incubation and development and experimentation with her own style and various settings before she settled into the Regency period.  It took her twenty years, and twenty-four novels, before she did so.  For many years she wrote a historical novel and a thriller every year.  It was an intense pace.  And her meticulous research is always highlighted.

I was surprised by the size of the Sourcebooks edition, which was smaller and thinner than I had expected.  The comparative sizes of this trade-paperback-sized edition and the original hardcover edition are deceptive, however.  The new edition runs to 256 pages while the original is only 216.  The new edition has a new sentence at the end of the Acknowledgements stating that some new material has been incorporated into the text; but while I did not make a word-for-word comparison of the two editions, I did not find any additions or corrections.  The most significant difference between the editions appears to be the lack of color illustrations in the new one, and the omission of as many as half of the total number or illustrations that were in the original.  The hardcover edition is one of the best-illustrated books about the Regency anywhere, full of large color and black and white plates of photographs, portraits, caricatures, fashion plates, and paintings, with something on nearly every page.  Many, perhaps most, of these are missing in the new edition, and of course the smaller format and plain paper reduces the beauty, and even the utility, of many of those that remain.  It is still well-illustrated, just no longer exceptionally so.  This is the only thing that restrains what would otherwise be an enthusiastic recommendation of this book to all Heyer and Regency fans.  Even so, it is still well worth reading for anyone who enjoys Heyer or who is interested in the development of a successful author’s career.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1402251924

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose