Kate Fenton

 

Books
The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up

 

 

JOURNALISM

GEORGETTE HEYER
I've read her books to ragged shreds

Georgette 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 know?'

'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 romance?

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 own.

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 technique.

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