“ Author: Georgette Heyer „
I have had it in mind to write this review for several months now but have been mulling over what I want to say because, for me, this novelist is simply unbeatable.
Georgette Heyer has often been dismissed as being merely a writer of romantic fiction. However, she has also been likened to a modern-day Jane Austen. I think I would disagree with both these contentions.
It's true that the majority of her novels are romantic and are set in the Georgian or Regency period. They are also frequently a commentary on the manners and mores of those times, all delivered in a similar well written and witty style to that of Jane Austen. She might not have received the literary acclaim that has been granted to Jane Austen and she might not be studied by GCSE or A Level students but she single-handedly created one of the most popular and lucrative sub-genres in romantic fiction, the Regency Romance, and she has never yet been bettered.
Georgette Heyer was born in 1902 and fell into writing fiction almost by accident. Her first novel, The Black Moth, was originally written as a story to entertain her younger brother who was recuperating from an illness and was subsequently published as a novel in 1921. And so began her long and prolific career as a novelist during which she produced over fifty novels during her lifetime.
She didn't just confine her writing to romantic fiction but also published several detective novels, which brought her some success during the 1930s. These novels are still in print but although contemporary at the time they were written, to modern readers they seem quite dated now. Like her historical romance novels, her crime fiction was witty and stylish and similar in many ways to Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, who were queens of crime at the time.
Her true passion, however, was history of the undiluted kind, and therefore her novels, even her romances, contain a great deal of accurate historical detail, which immediately gives the reader a wonderful sense of time and place. This love of historical detail pulled several of her Regency novels into a different genre altogether, as they concentrated far more upon the historical elements and less upon the romantic. Indeed, one of these books 'An Infamous Army', set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and dealing with the Battle of Waterloo, is reputed to have given such accurate detail about troop placement and movement during the battle, that it was used as a teaching aid for military cadets at Sandhurst.
But it is her Regency romance novels which hold a special place in my heart. The saddest thing for me is that Heyer herself was actually quite dismissive about her romantic novels and treated them merely as 'pot boilers'. However embarrassed she may have been about these books, she didn't short-change her readers. The storylines were always strong, the dialogue witty, her heroes invariable wealthy and urbane, though often not handsome in the accepted sense, and her heroines were feisty and intelligent, much like Austen's Elizabeth Bennet. This, I think, is possibly why Georgette Heyer is so often compared to Jane Austen but, to my mind, that is where the similarity ends. Jane Austen wrote contemporary novels and her heroines are women of their time, and with the exception of Elizabeth Bennet, most of Austen's heroines are less than feisty. Indeed, one or two of them are quite obnoxious, but that's my personal opinion.
In the interests of fairness, I should point out that Georgette Heyer has her detractors. She has been accused of inventing a vocabulary which was not used and also of sanitising a time which had much poverty and misery, something she glosses over in her books. But, this is fiction and most people don't want to read about peasants starving on the roadside because they've been thrown out of their tied cottage by an uncaring aristocrat. If they want the unvarnished truth, they can read an historical biography.
Many writers have tried to produce Regency romances to the standard of Miss Heyer but most have failed. A large proportion of historical romantic fiction is now produced in the USA, and it invariably lacks the authentity of language or historical detail. Even British-born writers struggle to write with the stylish wit so prevalent in Heyer's work. Georgette Heyer was an original talent which it seems it's impossible to emulate.
My first introduction to Georgette Heyer, and indeed adult literature, was at about age eleven or twelve: a time of hormonal change and heightened emotions for most females (and males for that matter). The first adult novel I read was Friday's Child, featuring a heroine in her teens with whom I could identify and who loved someone who barely noticed she existed; again, a situation with which I could identify. I lapped it up and went back for more.
For those who have read and enjoyed Georgette Heyer, I'm sure I'm preaching to the converted but for those who have never read any of her work, I urge you to give it a try. She is much easier to read than Jane Austen, her characters are every bit as well-rounded and might I say, even more interesting, and the stories keep the reader engaged from page one.
Romantic fiction today often details minutely the sexual relationship between the main protagonists and, although enjoyable to read, is often totally unnecessary embellishment of the story. Georgette Heyer's novels never go beyond the bedroom door and in fact, often don't feature any physical contact at all until the final pages. However, she was incomparable in her ability to build sexual tension between her hero and heroine, making the final declarations of love far more believable than any modern novel which has the heroine falling into bed with the hero on the slightest acquaintance.
Nearly all Georgette Heyer's books are still in print and will be available at your public library. As I said before, she's written over fifty novels so I won't list them all here but will give my recommendations. If your preference is for light romantic fiction, to begin with I suggest you try 'Sylvester', 'Faro's Daughter' or 'Frederica', and for more serious historical fiction with a dash of romance, then 'An Infamous Army' is a good place to start or if your preference is for medieval history, then 'The Conqueror' takes some beating. Heyer's detective fiction is all pretty good, albeit dated, and 'A Blunt Instrument' is one of my favourites. Whichever book you try first, I guarantee it won't be your last.
Georgette Heyer died in 1974 and thirty five years after her death, her books are still being read and enjoyed. Not a bad legacy to leave behind.
It is almost half a century since I first picked up a Georgette Heyer novel and I've read them all, some I've devoured more than once. For me, she is the ultimate comfort read. Whenever, I'm in a reading rut, I always know that I can rely on her to entertain me and re-energise my love of reading. She transports me to another time and place and instead of being a middle aged woman with an expanding waistline, I'm a young lady of the Regency attending balls and routs and getting vouchers for Almacks and just a few pages on, I'm going to meet my hero....
If you're looking to genuinely lose yourself in a novel, then I can't recommend Georgette Heyer strongly enough. Although I can't claim to have read them all (for example, I haven't read any of her detective-type novels yet), I love reading and re-reading the period ones I have. I must have read Arabella in particular nearly 20 times over the years.
Perhaps not the author to go for if you're looking for something meaty and modern, with plenty of twists, but then I view novels like movies - I'm looking for a little escape-time from the stresses and strains of modern life.
So if you're looking for a period romance, perhaps with a little adventure thrown in, where the guy gets the girl pretty much every time, she's my author of choice every time. Her attention to detail is excellent and you do feel that you've visited Almack's or the Pavillion! And the characters are never lifeless! The only book I ever found even remotely taxing was An Infamous Army, but this was purely down to the level of research she'd done into the events surround the Battle of Waterloo; and can you really fault an author for doing that!
The two books that preceded the story of An Infamous Army in her trilogy are These Old Shades and Devil's Cub, with the latter being one of my favourites. Now these are some characters!!!!
But don't take my word for it.
Georgette Heyer is my all-time favourite author. I discovered her at sixteen when my mother gave me 'These Old Shades' to read. I remember being so tired at school the next day; I'd stayed up most of the night reading it!
In the subsequent years I've never found an author to parallel her work. All other authors seem cheap when compared to Heyer's rich language and beautiful imagination, not to mention the epic research she did about the time period she wrote. Although her favourite period was Medieval England, most of her books are set during the Regency period (roughly around 1811 - 1830). In my opinion, her Regency romances are her best work; her medieval pieces are quite slow and dry.
In her biography on Ms Heyer, Joan Aiken Hodge documents the extensive research Heyer did and it's fascinating to see how far she went with her research. It makes one realise how genuine the facts behind her fiction are, especially if you read literature from the early nineteenth-century; there are many obscure references that only someone familiar with the time period will truly understand. However, this doesn't mean her books are inaccessible; even without extensive knowledge of the Regency period they are still very enjoyable books to read.
I find it refreshing to see that her books contain very little references to sex. Although her characters are very much aware of sex, it all takes place behind the scenes. For example, in 'A Convenient Marriage' Jenny and Adam consummate their marriage outside of the narrative. Again, in 'April Lady' there are references made by Nell and her mother about an attempt to have a baby, but we are never permitted a glimpse into the bedroom. I think this makes Heyer's books so much more enjoyable than other Regency authors; we are made aware that a relationship works due to friendship and trust rather than antics in the bedroom.
As mentioned briefly before, the bulk of Heyer's work lies in her Regency romances. However, her crime novels are also worth reading. Instead of being set in the Regency period, her crime novels are set in the early twentieth-century and are very much in the same vein as Agatha Christie's novels. Although not as good as her Regency novels, these are still very enjoyable if you want some light-hearted crime to read.
To conclude, I would recommend Heyer's novels to anyone who has an interest in historical romances, especially those who are fans of Jane Austen's works. As a first book I would direct you to 'Friday's Child' - I would be very surprised indeed if you didn't find yourself weeping with happiness at the end of this book!
You can usually find her books in all good bookshops, or on book websites such as Amazon. For those who like collecting first editions (like myself!) then they are usually available for reasonable prices on eBay or abebooks.
I can remember the day I bought my first Georgette Heyer book; I was about twelve. I was bored and had a book token so took the quite long walk to my local branch of W H Smith's and started to look for a book. I was about twelve, at that age when children's books were too young and grown up's books a bit too grown up (I must point out this was over 40 years ago and they didn't have great teenage books available like they do now.)
I found some historical romances and thought I would try one. Here I am all these years later and I still love Georgette Heyer books. The book I bought that day was Friday's Child and it is still a favourite of mine. I can't tell you how many times I have read it but it is a few. Hero Wantage is a delightful heroine, innocent and funny, Lord Sherringham so silly but still such a wonderful catch for the poor Cinderella Hero. If I am feeling down I still turn to Georgette Heyer to make me laugh, I find them particularly effective if I am in bed ill, nothing so luxurious as a comfy bed, some chocs, no work and an enjoyable book. It makes me feel that being ill is almost worth it.
All her heroes are handsome and accomplished. The heroines are delightful in their own special way, some are beautiful, some are rather sweet and innocent and some are every bit as brave and resourceful as the heroes.
The historical detail is very good, if you want to learn about the battle of Waterloo you could do far worse than read An Infamous Army. The detail of the battle in this book is as fascinating as the story she has woven round it.
Miss Heyer is a very entertaining writer, I don't often laugh out loud at a book but hers often make me laugh. Here I have to make a confession, I have never read one of her crime thrillers. I don't know why, maybe it is time I try one?
When I was a child (seems like ions ago) and the weather was rotten, or it was too dark to play outside, my two favourite pastimes were reading or listening to the radio. (My parents didn’t buy a TV until 1963). And being somewhat rebellious, even then, I took exception to having my reading matter ‘chosen’ for me, by parents who held strong views on what they considered ‘suitable’ for young minds. Ergo! I often used to ‘appropriate’ one of their library books, and read it by torchlight under the bedcovers, when my ‘snitch’ of a sister had fallen asleep. Which was how I discovered the writer Georgette Heyer, among others, and developed a life long interest in the Georgian/Regency period in English history. Though most were written in the late 1930’s ‘40’s and ‘50’s. Miss Heyers books are still in print, and remain, a pleasant, easy read for those who enjoy the odd historical romance. Absolutely no SEX of course. Not even the suggestion of heavy breathing, but I find her characters, well drawn, often amusing, and attractive. Miss Heyer also had an eye for detail, and stuck, where applicable in her stories, to historical facts. However it must be said there are certain instances in her novels, where she is not very PC, and has allowed her well documented ‘prejudices’ to get the better of her. So for those who haven’t yet discovered Miss Heyer, but enjoy a well written, if somewhat dated historical romance. I offer my particular favourites as a guide. “The Devils Cub” I bought my copy of this follow on to “These Old Shades” when it was priced at 35p., and instantly fell in love with the somewhat spoiled , and cynical ‘hero’ Vidal. “The Grand Sophy”. A heroine with irresistible force, and a lively, if somewhat ‘managing’ disposition
. A girl after my own heart. “Cotillion”.. The gentle dandy Freddy, could charm the pants off almost any female with a pulse. “The Unknown Ajax”. This novel wasn’t regarded as one of Miss Heyers more successful novels, which I find hard to understand. COZ I LIKE IT! “Sylvester”. Slow to start, but warms up nicely, stick with it. “Faro’s Daughter”. A case of pride coming before the fall. “Frederica”. Filled with the escapades of the heroines siblings who are all adorable of course. “Venetia”. “The Quiet Gentleman”. “Cousin Kate”. At this rate I shall have listed Miss Heyers life works. And yes I have read them all. (Some two, three or more times). Sad ain’t I?
Historical Romance and Detective fiction writer.