From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Today is Georgette Heyer’s birthday. I can think of no better way to celebrate the occasion than with a fellow Heyerite and Regency-era authority, Vic Sanborn of Jane Austen’s World. Vic has graciously agreed to be quizzed on her passion and knowledge of the Queen of Regency Romance, so please welcome her and feel free to ask your own questions as well.
Thank you for inviting me, Laurel Ann. Happy Birthday, Georgette! I can’t think of a better way to spend her special day either.
LAN: Some critics write Georgette Heyer off as merely a romance novelist. Others praise her for her historical accuracy, witty dialogue and engaging plots. Looking back on her fifty plus novels, why do you think she is still so popular years after her first publication?
VS: When she was a current bestselling author, Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances stood out from the pack. Her humorous but well-researched writing rose above a sea of earnestly written historical romances. In those days, Daphne du Maurier, Jean Plaidy (Victoria Holt), Mary Stewart, and Mills and Boon (Harlequin) authors reigned supreme. While these best-selling authors were popular, none came close to combining humor, history, and romance in Georgette’s inimitable way. Today, GH’s breezy style doesn’t stand out quite as vividly, because there are many other romance writers (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Susan Andersen, Sandra Hill, Jane Ann Krentz) who publish funny and sassy romances, but back in the dark ages when I went to college, Georgette had the humorous romance field to herself.
One reason that Georgette’s books have survived so well is that the worlds she created for her characters seem authentic. A reader can be confident that her research was accurate and meticulous. She visited museums and the British Library, and filled notebook after notebook with her observations and drawings. In addition, she and her husband lived in Mayfair. In her daily life, Georgette walked in the same streets as her heroes and heroines. GH characters frequently spoke Regency cant, which made their language sound absolutely authentic. Who can forget the rich dialog from A Lady of Quality?:
“It wouldn’t do for you to call him Bangster, for that would be too impolite, but I see nothing amiss with you calling him Captain Hackum, which has the same meaning, but wrapped up in clean linen!”
Mr Carleton grinned, and kindly explained to his bewildered niece that these terms signified a bully. “They are cant terms,” he further explained, “and far too vulgar for you to use! Anyone hearing them on your lips would write you down as a brass-faced hussy, without conduct or delicacy.”
“Devil!” said Miss Wychwood, with feeling.
“Oh, you’re quizzing me!” Lucilla exclaimed, slightly offended. “Both of you! I wish you will not! I am not a brass-faced hussy, though I daresay people would think me one if I called you merely Oliver! I am sure it must be most improper!”
Good stories never die and Georgette Heyer at the very least was a masterful storyteller. As early as the age of seventeen, when she related The Black Moth to her sick hospitalized brother, GH could tell a rousing tale of romance that combined intrigue as well as history. Many of her books involved complicated stories, and she worked hard at weaving one or two main plots in with several subplots. In reading Georgette’s letters to her publisher, I realized that she took her work quite seriously and spent countless hours perfecting her plots. Readers might disagree with the particulars in her books, such as an annoying character or a hero who was not heroic enough, but she threw so many enjoyable elements into the mix that her fans easily forgave her an occasional misstep.
I think there might be one more reason why GH romances are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. When Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Wolf and the Dove burst upon the scene in the early 70s, she changed historical romance forever. Woodiwiss added steamy, sometimes sadistic sex scenes, to what was once a fairly tame genre. I believe that Georgette Heyer’s books have retained their popularity in part because her stories are “family friendly.” You can confidently suggest her books to your daughters, mothers, and friends without the danger of passing on “soft core porn.” Not that I don’t like a steamy novel or two, but I would not purchase them for my younger nieces.
LAN: Credited as the pioneer of historical romance, what qualities in Georgette Heyer’s writing do you appreciate? What do you think was her greatest weakness?
VS: I love that Georgette made the Regency era come so colorfully alive! We will never precisely know the smells and sights and sounds of days of yore, but she made us believe that she had recreated that era to a tee. Through her eyes we can see Mayfair, and London, and turnpike roads, and glittering ballrooms. We shop with her heroines on Bond Street, and meet the “coves “operating in the seamier parts of Cheapside. We join the parade of carriages on Rotten Row, eat ices and sweets at Gunter’s, watch balloons ascend in Hyde Park and cows being milked in Green Park, promenade up and down the Pump Room in Bath, talk to Lady Jersey at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, gamble with Beau Brummel, and join the Bow Street runners as they chase down highwaymen. We enter inns and taverns and grand country houses, and are privy to the way servants took care of their masters, and vice versa. Jane Austen seldom described her world in detail, but Georgette Heyer more than filled in those gaps.
GH imbued her novels with the vitality of that era, with wars and smugglers and highwaymen, and with the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, such as balloon ascensions, new gas lights in Pall Mall, and a raucous ride on the velocipede, the precursor to the bicycle. She capitalized on the improvements of Regency roads by having her characters travel all over Great Britain. The viewer could be assured that if her characters took a number of hours to reach Point B from Point A, then she had the distance correct. GH not only knew her muslins, but she could pinpoint which fashion trends were popular during a certain year. Readers lapped up those details. Since then many authors have imitated her style when writing their Regency romances, but Georgette was the first to do it and she remains the best.
In terms of character, most of Georgette’s heroes and heroines possessed an audacious quality that bordered on recklessness and outright rebellion. In These Old Shades, the dissipated Lord Avon (Justin) takes a virginal and trusting young girl – the natural daughter of his bitter enemy – as his ward. Friends and acquaintances are aghast, until they meet Léonie. In the following passage, you can read how deftly Georgette could sketch a scene and describe a character’s effect on those around her::
“Bit by bit the Court, so long bereft of a mistress, began to wear a more cheerful air. Léonie’s glad young spirit pervaded it; she flung back heavy curtains, and consigned ponderous screens to the lumber room. Windows were opened to let in the wintry sun, and bit by bit the oppressive solemnity of the place disappeared. Léonie would have none of the stern neatness that was wont to reign there. She tumbled prim cushions, pushed chairs out of place, and left books lying on odd tables, caring nothing for Madam Field’s shocked protests. Justin permitted her to do as she pleased; it amused him to watch her gyrations, and he liked to hear her give orders to his expressionless lackeys. Clearly she had the habit of command: unusual she might be, but never did she exhibit any lack of breeding.”
At a ball, in which Avon (Justin) described the guests to Léonie, you can read how effortlessly GH wove history in with fiction:
“There is March,” he said, “who will be Duke of Queensberry. You have heard me speak of him. There is Hamilton, who is famous for his wife. She was one of the Miss Gunnings—beauties, my dear, who set London by the ears not so many years ago. Maria Gunning married Coventry. If you want wit, there is Mr. Selwyn, who has quite an inimitable way with him. And we must not forget Horry Walpole: he would hate to be forgotten. He lives in Arlington Street, child, and wherever you go you may be sure of meeting him. In Bath I believe Nash still reigns. A parvenu, infant, but a man of some genius. Bath is his kingdom. One day I will take you there. Then we have the Cavendish—Devonshire, my dear; and the Seymours, and my Lord Chesterfield, whom you will know by his wit, and his dark eyebrows. Whom else? There is my Lord of Bath, and the Bentincks, and his Grace of Newcastle, of some fame. If you want the Arts you have the tedious Johnson: a large man, my dear, with a larger head. He is not worth your consideration. He lacks polish. There is Colley Cibber, one of our poets, Mr. Sheridan, who writes plays for us, and Mr. Garrick, who acts them; and a score of others, In painting we have Sir Joshua Reynolds, who shall paint you, perhaps, and a great many others whose names elude me.”
Heyer’s heroes have many outstanding qualities. They can act cruelly towards selfish mistresses and avaricious relatives and give no quarter to their enemies, but they are fiercely loyal to those they love. These alpha, or Mark I heroes, often out-dandy Beau Brummel himself. Some drive four-in-hand carriages better than professional Royal Mail coach drivers, and others are able to handle a sword adroitly and outmaneuver their enemies with the ease of a military man. Rough around the edges and a man’s man, Mark I heroes can also be tender and solicitous with dogs, children, and frail women. Georgette’s beta heroes, or Mark II heroes, are the modern equivalent of the capable metrosexual man – supportive and understanding of the female mind and her need for a new dress or bonnet, and warm and fuzzy and kind all over. I admit to preferring Mark I heroes.
Georgette Heyer’s greatest weaknesses, in my estimation, lie in her one-dimensional plots (complicated as they are with events and activities) and the predictability of her characters and endings. Certain character types appear repeatedly: the bored alpha hero whose predictable routine is enlivened by an audacious sprite; the beautiful, spoiled and wilful matron who dresses far too young for her age and has never matured; the jealous mistress who leads the young heroine astray, thereby delaying the inevitable union between hero and heroine; and the young silly dandy who, like Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, hides his heroic tendencies behind a foppish facade. All her heroes eventually win the heroine’s heart, and one presumes that they live happily ever after. However, GH’s glittery, one-dimensional plots are so similar with their action-packed coincidences, that after some time passes I have difficulty distinguishing one book from another.
From a personal standpoint, I tend not to like the novels in which Georgette paired a very young heroine with an older, mature hero, and she did this frequently. I know this age discrepancy was common at the time, but I have found that reading a romance about a 16- or 17-year-old and a man approaching his 40’s is not my cup of tea. For this reason, I like These Old Shades less than some of GH’s other novels, even though the book is splendidly written.
Because GH novels are so frothy, they are like rich meringues that produce an instant sugary high but contain very little sustenance. Jane Austen’s six books provide more intellectual heft than all of Georgette Heyer’s 50+ books combined. But I do not mean to quibble, for GH novels have provided me with many a pleasurable hour of reading. The world of literature is large enough to accommodate both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and I am happy for it.
LAN: Like Jane Austen, Heyer is known for keen sense of the charms and foibles of human nature. Her sparkling dialogues between her heroes and heroines are often eye popping and hilarious. Can you share a favorite passage?
VS: There are so many. Each book is filled with priceless dialog. One of my favorite passages concerns the misunderstanding between Ned Carlyon and Elinor Rochdale in The Reluctant Widow, when he thinks he is hiring a bride for his dissolute and dying nephew, and she thinks she is applying for a post as governess to a small boy. Elinor tells Ned:
“I shall do my best, sir, to fill the position satisfactorily.” She detected irony in his steady gaze, and was disconcerted by it…”Perhaps it would be as well if I were to lose no time in making the acquaintance of my charge.”
His lips curled. “An apt term!” he remarked dryly. “By all means, but your charge is not at the moment on the premises. …If what you must already have observed has not daunted you, you encourage me to hope that your resolution will not fail you when you are brought face to face with him….”
“I was given to understand, I own, that I might find him a trifle — a trifle high spirited, perhaps.”
“You have either a genius for understatement, ma’am, or the truth was not told you, if that is what you understand.”
She laughed. “Well, you are very frank, sir! I should not expect to be told all the truth, but I might collect it, reading between the lines, I fancy.”
“You are a brave woman!” he said.
Her amusement grew….”I dare say he has been a little spoilt?”
Then there are the typical introductions of the hero, who usually makes a grand entrance of sorts, as Avon in These Old Shades (can you tell I am rereading this novel at present?):
“The great front-door stood open, and into the house stepped his Grace of Avon, elegant in a coat of fine purple velvet, laced with gold, a many-caped greatcoat, over all, worn carelessly open, and polished top-boots on his feet. He paused on the threshold and raised his eyeglass to survey the Merivales.”
LAN: Many of Heyer’s plots are filled with comedy high jinxes and uproarious plot twists. It is not uncommon to be supplied with no less than a duel, a sword fight, highway robbery, abduction, switched identities, carriage races and all-around scandalous behavior in one novel! How does Heyer do it? How does she take us on such an outrageously wild ride and make it all so believable?
VS: Without a doubt, Georgette’s heroes and heroines all know the conventions of polite society and the rules of etiquette, but something in their characters allows them to abandon any sense of decorum or convention. A few of the young heroines regard themselves as “on the shelf,” and therefore feel free to carry on as if the rules for young virgins on the marriage mart don’t apply to them. This leads the GH heroine into all sorts of interesting scrapes. Others seek to escape untenable situations. Young Pen Creed cuts her hair short and climbs out of a second-story window in the dead of night. The Corinthian first mistakes her for a lad:
“Sir Richard was not precisely sober, but although the brandy fumes had produced in his brain a not unpleasant sense of irresponsibility, they had by no means fuddled his intellect. Sir Richard, his chin tickled by curls, and his arms full of fugitive, made a surprising discovery. He set the fugitive down, saying in a matter-of-fact voice: “Yes, but I don’t think you are a youth, after all!”
“No, I’m a girl,” replied the fugitive, apparently undismayed by his discovery.
“But, please, will you come away before they wake up?”
Pen, an heiress, has decided to run away from the fish-faced fiancee she will be forced to marry if she remains in London, and is determined to find her childhood friend, who promised to marry her when they were only children. Not only do Pen’s actions seems reasonable to herself, but our drunk hero decides on the spot to join her and protect her from harm. With much stubbornness, bickering and misunderstanding, Pen and Sir Richard set out on their grand adventure, and another delicious GH novel has begun.
Sir Richard from The Corinthian has many similar qualities to other Heyer heroes. Rich, disillusioned and bored, he decides to break the rules of convention just to feel alive and useful. Many of us can associate with such an ennui, or relate to a desire to break free from the expectations of one’s family and friends. And then there are the cast of supporting players that inhabit Heyer’s fictional world. I love her teen-aged boys, whose enthusiasm for getting into scrapes seem so very life like . Her dogs, too, are spot on and their antics add a playful and believable element that brighten her plots.
LAN: I was a Georgette Heyer neophyte until two years ago when your review of Friday’s Child charmed me into taking the plunge. I have now read eight of her novels without regret. If you were to advise a new reader, which three novels would you recommend?
VS: When I was younger I would have said Frederica, Venetia, and the Grand Sophy without hesitation, so I recommend those three for young neophytes. Now that I am a bit longer in the tooth, I favor The Reluctant Widow and Marriage of Convenience for their mature heroes and heroines, and would recommend them to more seasoned readers. I would then urge them to read my first three choices! Wait, I also love The Corinthian, Faro’s Daughter, Friday’s Child, and… (Uh, oh, did I just cheat?)
LAN: I must ask the perfunctory questions on every Heyer enthusiasts mind! Who are your favorite hero and heroine, and which is YOUR favorite novel, and why?
Oh, what a tricky question! That’s like asking a food addict to make one choice at a buffet. Impossible, but I’ll do my best. My hero must be a dark and brooding rescuer. Don’t ask me why. And my heroine must have a lively wit, and the intelligence to butt heads with her hero, even if she is dead wrong. She must also possess the elegance of a Mayfair fashionista and the daring do of an out and outer. So here goes – *deep gulp*
- Favorite hero: Marquis of Alverstoke, Frederica
- Favorite heroine: Sophia Stanton-Lacy, The Grand Sophy
- Favorite novel: The Corinthian, no The Reluctant Widow, no Frederica! (Eenie, meenie, minie, moe!)
Happy Birthday, Georgette Heyer! And thank you for this wonderful interview, Laurel Ann!
Blogmistress of Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today, Vic Sanborn has loved reading Jane Austen novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, since she was in High School. She discovered Georgette Heyer just after she graduated from college. Having run out of new Jane Austen novels to read, she began to search for other regency stories set in similar settings. One day at the library, she stumbled across Charity Girl and Arabella, and her love affair with all things Georgette began. You can also follow Vic on Twitter as janeaustenworld.
Interview text Laurel Ann Nattress & Vic Sanborn © 2010; revised 19 March 2022, austenprose.com.