Guest blog with author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson
In July, my husband, one of our two teenage sons, and I, set out to walk across England. In seven days we walked eighty-four miles, coast to coast along the new National Hadrian’s Wall Path. Staying in bed and breakfasts at night, stopping in pubs and tea rooms along the way for meals, we walked grassy pastureland and high open crags, following the path and the wide stone foundations of the Roman wall that once marked the northern edge of the Roman Empire.
One day, we stopped in at a small village community center that offered bathrooms, refreshments and a ‘walkers welcome’ sign outside. When you are walking fifteen miles a day over farmland, it is advisable to stop in at every bathroom on offer! Inside, the community center also offered a used book stand, with paperbacks for 10p (about 20 cents). I had a good feeling as I scanned the rows and, sure enough, I quickly scored a copy of Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl. My long-suffering husband rolled his eyes as I stuffed it in my backpack. It has become a joke in our family that I don’t consider a vacation complete if I can’t pick up an orphaned Georgette Heyer novel from hotel bookshelf, used bookstore or beach book swap.
I first discovered Heyer’s novels as a young teenage girl. While I reveled in the dashing heroes and heroines, the dampened muslin dresses, the importance of a perfectly matched pair of carriage horses, I also took note of the more important messages. Heyer’s heroines invariably turn out to be very strong young women, who do not suffer fools and are not seduced by the glamour, or the dashing rakes, around them. The heroes, while rich and fashionable, always prove to be very decent men – the kind who would never condescend to their inferiors or refuse to help a woman in distress. Meanwhile the Regency period is laid out for the reader through a wealth of small details that build a portrait of the social and economic history of the time. There is a deep sense of decency and civility in Heyer’s books that has stayed with me and probably influenced my own writing. My first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, may be completely contemporary, but my hero is a decent man who tries hard not to suffer fools and quickly gets roped in to helping those whom many others in his social milieu disdain.
Georgette Heyer continues to pop into my mind at the most unlikely moments. As we finished this last hiking expedition, hobbling up to the finish line in a small wooden gazebo in Bowness-on-Solway, she came to mind again. A quick look at the map confirmed that we were looking across the Solway Estuary to Scotland – and to Gretna Green. There was a little more eye-rolling from my husband and son as I explained to them the significance of Gretna Green as the nearest Scottish village for eloping couples in Regency England. I can’t recall any of Heyer’s heroines actually getting to Gretna Green, but it was often an option or a threat.
Hiking across England made me happy. With no responsibilities – just fifteen miles a day of sun and rain, endless views, Roman ruins, and the company of my wonderful husband and my son – I could enjoy the present day and forget all of life’s stresses. Reading a Georgette Heyer is not quite a whole vacation, but it allows me to continue to slip away for a while and, for a few hours, be simply happy. This is the legacy that keeps her novels passing through so many grateful hands, 10p at a time.
Born in England, Helen Simonson now lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two sons. Her debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was released in March garnering glowing reviews and a groundswell of admiration from happy readers. Set in the small English village of Edgecombe St. Mary, retired Major Ernest Pettigrew and Mrs. Jasmina Ali are two widows who form an unlikely attachment, fueling gossip and challenging decorum. Filled with endearing characters and an uplifting story, Simonson’s charming novel was chosen by Barnes & Nobel for their Discover Great New Writers series. Helen freely admits that Georgette Heyer is a life-long guilty pleasure and her gateway drug to Jane Austen.
- Visit Helen Simonson’s website
- Listen to Gilded Romances of Dashing Dandies, Brooding Beaus by Helen Simonson on NPR