I've read her books to ragged shreds
Heyer, much-mocked inventor of the Regency romance, was a writer
of great wit and style, says fellow novelist Kate Fenton
'Georgette Heyer?' I prompt the helpful young
woman at Pan. 'Centenary of her birth next month, as you obviously
'Who?' she says.
I point out that her firm used to publish the paperbacks of all
Heyer's celebrated Regency romances. Feeling my age, I have to explain
that these were phenomenally popular - with my generation, my mother's
generation, even my grandmother's. She was a household name, dominating
bestseller lists for half a century without ever uttering a word
in person or print to promote her work.
What I could add, but don't, is that every one of her books, re-read
to ragged shreds, can be found on my own shelves.
There, I've admitted it now. I'm Kate, and I'm a Heyer user. Oh,
I don't resort to her daily any more, or even monthly - the serious
habit belongs to my youth - but when flu or the blues strike, I
still crave my fix. I'm only coming clean, however, because Germaine
Greer recently disclosed on BBC2 that her sexual fantasies are stalked
to this day by Heyer's Byronic heroes - yup, Germaine Greer.
On the same programme, Reading the Decades, A S Byatt, no
less, pronounced Miss Heyer's books 'wonderful'. I nearly fell off
my chair. The only other person I've ever seen on telly admitting
to being a Heyer fan was Hyacinth Bucket - and doesn't that say
everything about the popular perception of Georgette Heyer? Her
name alone is good for a laugh.
Is she due for rehabilitation then? Naturally, I think so. All
addicts would like their private pleasures legitimised. More interesting,
perhaps, is to ask how this writer attracted not just enormous sales,
but such a blue-stocking readership.
Born to a genteelly underpaid schoolmaster in Wimbledon, Heyer
was both precocious and prolific. Only 19 when The Black Moth
was published, she dreamt up this rip-roaring tale of duels, dukes
and highwaymen to amuse a sickly brother. Of the 50-odd books that
followed, a dozen are whodunnits, a handful historicals, and the
majority the novels for which she is famous, the sub-genre she single-handedly
invented, the Regency romance.
Feminist publisher Carmen Callil, who concedes that she wrote very
well, nevertheless claims she had only one plot: 'She just used
Jane Eyre, and jiggled it around 57 times.' But while Heyer
herself cheerfully admitted a debt to Mr Rochester in what she dubbed
her Mark I hero - 'the savage sort with a foul temper' - you could
as easily argue that her story template was Pride and Prejudice.
And Heyer's early swashbuckling romps mature, at best, into gloriously
intricate comedies of manners.
Take The Grand Sophy, my own favourite. This is also, unusually,
a romantic novel relished by feminists, doubtless because the eponymous
heroine drives the plot with a gusto that makes Bridget Jones look
like Mrs Tiggywinkle. In ruthlessly bringing the glowering hero
to heel and the altar, Sophy pairs off his priggish fiancee with
an appropriately pompous bore, repairs his dizzy sister's betrothal
and even causes her father's rich amour to tumble instead into the
arms of a charmingly indigent rake. All four couplings are contrived,
like falling dominoes, in one of Heyer's deliciously choreographed
finales, the satisfactions of which have been likened by her biographer,
Jane Aiken Hodge, to those of a Mozart opera or Shakespeare comedy.
No, it isn't great literature, but it is stylish, witty and consummately
literate. As 'bad' books go, Heyer's, for my money, are among the
best. What has dogged her all along, though, is the 'romance' tag.
Any novelist foolhardy enough to write about love is liable to be
coupled with Barbara Cartland, particularly if there are bonnets
and breeches involved. If Heyer had produced only her cosily pedestrian
body-in-the-billiard-room potboilers, her stock might stand higher
today. Crime, like spy stories or thrillers, is respectable - but
Yes, yes, I have an axe to grind. The plots of my own novels hinge
on the matching of characters, rather than their ingenious dispatching,
so I'm tarred with the same brush. I sympathise with Heyer, exasperatedly
protesting that she was the least romantic of women. She worked
hard at her own 50-year marriage, financing her husband's legal
training, trudging - so she claimed - golf courses the length of
England, and appearing in public to further his career, if not her
Equally, Ronald was her trusted critic and deviser of detective
plots. Theirs, evidently, was a marriage rooted in friendship and
respect. Likewise, the lovers in her books are bonded not by lightning
bolts of lust but by liking and, above all, laughter.
She subverts the conventions of romance. A tall, dark hunk of potential
hero is passed over for a short, slight and not-very-bright cousin,
more Bertie Wooster than Mr Rochester. Midnight elopements in post
chaises end with one heroine tucked into bed, alone, with a cup
of hot milk, and another being seasick over the hero. Bosoms do
not quiver, still less are bodices ripped. Sense is preferred to
sensibility, restraint to passion, and proposals are more characteristically
sealed with a joke than a kiss. 'What I rely on is a certain gift
for the farcical,' she wrote to a publisher anxious to promote her
work. 'Talk about my humour if you must talk about me at all.'
But critics rarely talked about her humour, and this proud and
clever woman pre-empted them by disparaging herself. 'Another bleeding
romance,' she said, after scribbling furiously through a night fuelled
by gin to meet her deadline.
And Heyer was a demon for detail. Notebooks bulged with clothes,
gossip, prices - slang. Readers encounter a colourful argot in which
someone behaving foolishly might be described as hen-witted, paper-skulled,
addle-pated, a nodcock - or perhaps suffering from rats in the garret.
Her contemporary sources are unimpeachable. Whether anyone ever
talked like that is another matter. Compared with Heyer in full
flight, Jane Austen sounds modern.
No, her sparkling Regency is not the real England, racked by economic
depression, riven with fears of revolution. But neither was 1920s
England inhabited by chinlessly amiable denizens of the Drones Club
who, busy stealing cow creamers, seem never to have heard of the
Somme. Like Wodehouse, Heyer created a world of her own, and peopled
it with her all too recognisably human creations.
Her scrupulous research, nevertheless, ensured that one book has
always been respectfully received. An Infamous Army, with
its vivid account of Waterloo, is recommended to Sandhurst cadets.
Well, talk about damning with faint praise - because to claim this
novel as Heyer's crowning achievement is as ludicrous as celebrating
Noel Coward solely for his flag-waving wartime epic, In Which
We Serve. Battles on land and sea are all very fine, but the
arena in which both excelled was the brittle and glittering battleground
between the sexes - and Coward himself, incidentally, admired her
So may I offer a proposal? In the year that cannabis is being reclassified,
I suggest we rescue Georgette Heyer from the trashy romance shelves
and class her under C, too. C for comedy. Then, perhaps, we thinking
women can take our pleasures with impunity.
Kate Fenton's latest novel, 'Too Many Godmothers', is published
by Hodder & Stoughton, £6.99
©Kate Fenton 2000