The Novels of Georgette Heyer

If you are looking for some entertainment reading during the golden days of Indian Summer—or any other time—let me propose Georgette Heyer to you. Romance, Murder, Humor, Mystery, Dogs, and … Marriage!

First, a bit of basic background: She was born in 1902 in Wimbledon, England. She did not attend university, but started writing very young (her first book was written to entertain a younger brother who was convalescing). In 1925 she married a mining engineer named George Ronald Rougier; they spent some years in Tanganyika and Macedonia, returning to the UK in 1929. Heyer became an extremely successful writer, and until her death in 1974 she supported herself (and to some degree her family—they had one son) by her writing. Heyer was a very private person and avoided publicity and interviews.

Georgette Heyer wrote a dozen murder mysteries—that is how I came to know her work (I love mystery novels). Most of them are set in England between 1750 and 1820 (mostly the later era), the so-called Georgian and Regency periods. She also wrote about other places and periods, including an historical novel about William the Conqueror. She cared a great deal about representing accurately the periods she wrote about and she did extensive research; included in her novels are many details about dress, fashions of all kinds, language practices, food, family life, and contemporary pastimes (few about politics or historical issues). She is never patronizing about the periods she is writing about; that is, she does not imply—as so many authors who write about the past do—that things today are so much better, fairer, or the like.

Much of her work shows the strong inspiration of Jane Austen—and like Austen, her characters are generally members of the English aristocracy or gentry. Love and finding a happy marriage are her central concerns. She writes wonderfully well, with a very rich (though not pretentious) vocabulary; a sparkling, witty style; and nice ironic touches. But she brings to her novels a good many new elements, things not found in Austen.

In particular, she brings a warmer, more varied and more humorous appreciation of family life than Austen, for whom so much of family—and so many of its members—seem to be primarily burdensome. (Being a lifelong spinster must indeed have been hard on Austen.) Over the space of her many novels, Heyer certainly gives us some difficult and tiresome mothers—and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins. Yet she also offers us glimpses of charming and highly entertaining relatives, as well as strongly differentiated servants of all kinds: valets, butlers, dressers and others. Oh, and animals as well; she has some memorable dogs! The Reluctant Widow provides rich examples of both the difficulties and the appeal of family life—and a marvelous hound to boot.

Heyer’s vision of love and marriage is not just about the couple as a solitary unit (as it seems for Austen: at the end of Pride and Prejudice, for example, the two are happily alone and there is no mention of children.) It is understood in Heyer’s works that children are part of marriage—it must be understood, that in certain cases some of her characters want to marry in order to carry on their name, but as a principle, when a man marries that means he is going to be “setting up his nursery.” Heyer’s couples clearly expect to have children, and in some cases we know that they actively enjoy children. (See, for example, Frederia.)

She has, then, diverse and wonderfully drawn characters, set into a family context, with many friends of variable age and stripe as well. There is plenty of psychology here: in particular, of course the psychology of how and why love develops and grows between a man and a woman. Here again, she is indeed in the Austen tradition. She also has a real—and today of course highly unfashionable—appreciation of the important differences between men and women, and between male and female psychology. Many of her male characters are what we might call “men of the world” (and, it should be noted, some have had “high-flier” mistresses), whereas her heroines, though impressive in a variety of ways have all been sheltered and protected by their family; they are not ignorant, but all are in the modern, sexual, sense of the word “innocent.” Moreover, there is no “bodice-ripping” in these novels, only a few kisses, generally at the end: these novels are not about sex but about romance. Entertaining examples are Venetia and The Black Sheep. Through them, we experience the wonderful truth that love transforms men and women in different ways.

Psychology is important here, to be sure, but plot plays a major part in Heyer’s novels. She has many complex and intricate, sometimes rather, may we say, wacky plots, including some disguised identities (e.g., The Masqueraders), as well as characters pretending to be someone or something they are not (e.g., False Colors, The Foundling, The Tollbooth). That is a large part of the delight she offers: she is writing in an essentially comic mode, one full of cheerfulness and bonhomie. In one sense, there is no suspense in these novels; we know how the stories will end: happily, and true to comedy, with a marriage. But Heyer gives us a run for our money with her plots, and some of her romances also contain a mystery to be solved. “How will she manage this?” we wonder—for example, in The Talisman Ring, Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle and The Grand Sophy.

Georgette Heyer’s Georgian and Regency romances have provided me—and several of my family members, both male and female—with many hours of enjoyment. I have read all of them, and I have reread many—laughing aloud, yet again, over particular scenes and sparkling exchanges of repartee. I recommend her highly to you.

Evelyn Birge Vitz

By

Evelyn (Timmie) Birge Vitz is Professor of French, and Affiliated Professor of Comparative Literature, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Religious Studies at New York University. She is the author of A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family and Faith throughout the Christian Year (Ignatius).

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