2.28.2015

Georgette Heyer: All The Love!

I had grand plans this month to do a lot of reading for Black History Month. I sort of accomplished some of this . . . but mostly, I am afraid that I binge-read Georgette Heyer. I read eight (EIGHT!) Heyer novels over the course of perhaps two weeks. Nothing could stop me, not even my promise to finish reading a Very Intellectual Bork On Islam for my two-person book club (V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers, which I am not really enjoying.)

Georgette Heyer is worth being lazy for.

Heyer was an English writer of romance and mystery novels. She was born in 1902, died in 1974, and wrote from the 20's until her death. There are not many authors who give me more pure, unalloyed pleasure than Heyer. I didn't think I could possibly enjoy romance novels until I read Heyer (and I have read many romance novels since trying to discover books I will like even half as much as hers . . . to absolutely no avail. Other than Austen, I like literally no other romance authors.)

Her romances are almost all Regencies (set between 1811 and 1820), though a good handful of them are set thirty years earlier than that. Her thrillers are generally contemporary to when she was writing them, though some are also set in the Regency or Georgian periods. She more or less single-handedly created the modern genre of the "Regency Romance," but no one afterwards has at all equaled her.

What I find so delightful about her is her sense of the ridiculous. She knows exactly when to lead us along with a ridiculous plot (almost always) but also when and how to make fun of it (again, almost always).



She certainly uses tropes in her writing right and left; I don't love her for her originality. Her male leads are generally haughty and emotionally unavailable (except when they're not — Freddy Standen from Cotillion is delightful this way); her female leads are generally feisty and warmhearted. Her plots tend towards the outrageous. There is cross-dressing, kidnapping, and the occasional duel. There are sinister fops, Romantic Poets, and dissipated rakes. Somehow, though, she manages to take what is fun about those tropes (come on, who doesn't love a fop?) and laugh at the rest. I spent a while digging for appropriate passages to quote from for you that stands alone rather nicely. I don't find these two passages from A Talisman Ring particularly representative (in large part because this isn't a dialogue between the hero and heroine; it's a dialogue between a very mismatched pair each half of which ends up with someone else), but more than post bits I dug up, the humor here stands more on its own.

'You would more probably have gone to the guillotine,' replied Sir Tristram, depressingly matter of fact.
'Yes, that is quite true,' agreed Eustacie. 'We used to talk of it, my cousin Henriette and I. We made up our minds we should be entirely brave, not crying, of course, but perhaps a little pale, in a proud way. Henriette wished to go to the guillotine en grande tenue, but that was only because she had a court dress of yellow satin which she thought became her much better than it did really. For me, I think one should wear white to the guillotine if one is quite young, and not carry anything except perhaps a handkerchief. Do you not agree?'
'I don't think it signifies what you wear if you are on your way to the scaffold,' replied Sir Tristram, quite unappreciative of the picture his cousin was dwelling on with such evident admiration.
She looked at him in surprise. 'Don't you? But consider! You would be very sorry for a young girl in a tumbril, dressed all in white, pale, but quite unafraid, and not attending to the canaille at all, but —'
'I should be very sorry for anyone in a tumbril, whatever their age or sex or apparel,' interrupted Sir Tristram.
'You would be more sorry for a young girl — all alone, and perhaps bound,' said Eustacie positively.
'You wouldn't be all alone. There would be a great many other people in the tumbril with you,' said Sir Tristram.
Eustacie eyed him with considerable displeasure. 'In my tumbril there would not have been a great many other people,' she said. . . . 
. . . ‘After all, I have had a very unhappy life without any adventures, and it would not be wonderful if I went into a decline. Only nothing that is interesting ever happens to me,’ [Eustacie] added bitterly, ‘so I dare say I shall just die in child-bed, which is a thing anyone can do.’
Sir Tristram flushed uncomfortably. ‘Really, Eustacie!’ he protested.
Eustacie was too much absorbed in the contemplation of her dark destiny to pay any heed to him. ‘I shall present to you an heir,’ she said, ‘and then I shall die.’ The picture suddenly appealed to her; she continued in a more cheerful tone: ‘Everyone will say that I was very young to die, and they will fetch you from the gaming-hell where you —’
‘Fetch me from where?’ interrupted Sir Tristram, momentarily led away by this flight of imagination.
‘From the gaming-hell,’ repeated Eustacie impatiently. ‘Or perhaps the Cock-Pit. It does not signify; it is quite unimportant! But I think you will feel great remorse when it is told to you that I am dying, and you will spring up and fling yourself on your horse, and ride ventre à terre to come to my death-bed. And then I shall forgive you, and — ’
‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about?’ demanded Sir Tristram. ‘Why should you forgive me? Why should — What is this nonsense?’
Eustacie, thus rudely awakened from her pleasant dream, sighed and abandoned it. ‘It is just what I thought might happen,’ she explained.
Sir Tristram said severely: ‘It seems to me that you indulge your fancy a deal too freely. Let me assure you that I don’t frequent gaming-hells or cock-pits! Nor,’ he added, with a flicker of humour, ‘am I very much in the habit of flinging myself upon my horses.’
‘No, and you do not ride ventre à terre. It does not need that you should tell me so. I know!’
‘Well, only on the hunting-field,’ said Sir Tristram.
‘Do you think you might if I were on my death-bed?’ asked Eustacie hopefully.
‘Certainly not. If you were on your death-bed it is hardly likely that I should be from home. I wish you would put this notion of dying out of your head. Why should you die?’
‘But I have told you!’ said Eustacie, brightening at this sign of interest. ‘I shall — ’
‘Yes, I know,’ said Sir Tristram hastily. ‘You need not tell me again. There will time enough to discuss such matters when we are married.’

Heyer is just fun. She writes well, she makes me laugh, and I never feel stupid after I finish reading her books. Her romances are entirely sexless, so if sex in novels bothers you, never fear. Her mysteries don't always have the most brilliant plots, but they always have brilliant dialogue. Her characters are realistic in some ways, but more often humorous caricatures. Their banter is just so much fun to read.

Over the past week or so, I read These Old Shades, The Devil's Cub, Regency Buck, and Infamous Army for the first time; I re-read (because oh, does Heyer stand up to re-reading!) Venetia, Frederica, The Grand Sophy, and Cotillion. I didn't end up reading any of her mysteries this go-round (just romances), but those are a heap of fun, as well.

If you are familiar with Agatha Christie, these books read very similarly, though they are much funnier. They have a very similar light-heartedness to them, though, and the prose is comparably competent.

I whole-heartedly recommend a Heyer binge (maybe not eight books in a week, but hey! who am I to judge?) to anyone looking for some enormously fun escapist reading that doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator.