Georgette Heyer

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It is a shame that Mrs. Heyer's novels have always been marketed as "Romances," indeed, that she is considered the founder of that most infamous of romantic genres "the Regency romance," not because her stories are not romances, but because we no longer truly understand what is meant by the term and many potential readers are alienated both by the genre and its marketing. How many young men are likely to pick up a book with a bright yellow cover showing a young woman as though filmed through cheesecloth accepting a yellow rose from a young man in a rather too frou-frou shirtfront and jacket? There was a time in my life when I deprived myself of the enormous pleasures of reading Mrs. Heyer for reasons no better than these. And it is still a little embarrassing to be "caught" in the act of flipping through one of the Harlequin editions.

Thank goodness a trade paperback publisher has recently reissued much of Mrs. Heyer's work in editions that look much more like what Ms. Heyer has written--comedies of manners á la Jane Austen. Romance is the predominant thread and the binding glue of each of the stories, but they are crackling with with poise and pungent observations about the human animal--in love and otherwise. In the new editions, which features covers that look like portraits of the John Singer Sargent age, no self-respecting man will have any difficulty picking them up and reading them. Well, perhaps there is a lingering aura that is no so easily diffused, but the covers go a long way toward helping with the image problem.

I'd like to share a small portion of Venetia that gives you a sense of the snap and crackle of dialog and the undercurrent of a deep and sensitive intelligence that drives the work. Additionally, Mrs. Heyer does her research--her characters are always "in time, in dress, and on the right stage" as it were.

from Venetia
Georgette Heyer

"I can't, of course. What is it?" she returned, glancing at the volume. "Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don't doubt."

"The Medea, he said repressively. "Porson's edition, which Mr. Appersett lent to me."

"I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother and cast the pieces in her papa's way, wasn't she? I daresay, perfectly amiable when one came to know her."

He hunched an impatient shoulder, and replied unctuously: "You don't understand, and it's a waste of time to make you."

Her eyes twinkled at him. "But I promise you I do! Yes and sympathize with her, besides wishing I had her resolution! Though I think I should rather have buried your remains tidily in the garden dear."

A castoff, a mere bauble of dialog that sets the story rolling and we know Venetia and the brother to whom she speaks. More than that we see an oxymoron--a gentle spitfire who knows a great deal, knows how to use it, and yet does not pull out all the plugs.

Georgette Heyer is a skilled writer whose works continue in print not because of a small population of readers of romance, or even because of a large population, but because the books are good--well researched, well written, witty, and sharply observant. I wonder how many men have already become acquainted with Mrs. Heyer dispite the nearly insurmountable difficulties of the schlock heaped on them by marketers who inadvertantly narrow the market rather than broaden it. I think Michael Dirda hit the nail on the head when he said in The Classics for Pleasure that the nearest things to Mrs. Heyer's novels were not the chain line of modern factory-produced romances, but the very different romances of Patrick O'Brien with Aubrey and Maturin. There is, I think, a good deal of justice in this comparison. While I have found the Aubrey and Maturin novels unapproachable because of the sheer odiousness of the main characters (or because of my finicky taste, more likely), I find Mrs. Heyer's company perfectly amiable--someone to take aside on a summer's rainy afternoon into the book nook or windowseat and spend a while chatting with. Someone who has much to say and says it both well and beautifully.

Man or woman, do not make the mistake of dismissing Mrs. Heyer as the queen and founder of the modern romance novel. You will be giving up a great deal if you do.

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I'm very eager to start reading Georgette Heyer, but I have to disagree with you regarding the state of the romance genre. Connecting Heyer with romance shouldn't be seen as a way of dismissing Heyer, but as a way of showing the better aspects of the romance genre that people miss in their dependence on the Harlequin as the ultimate example of the genre.


I've read only one book by Heyer: The Conqueror, a Historical novel about William the Conqueror and a fictional Norman knight loyal to him. It was BRILLIANT.

I have no doubt that her Regencies and other novels are excellent as well, not "just" as Romances, but as well-written novels.

As for the "current state of the Romance genre": I agree with AnimeJune that Harlequin books may be the most iconic examples, but they are hardly the only Romances being read today. "Modern factory-produced Romances" are about as representative of Romance as the Harry Potter books and their spin-offs are representative of YA. The novels are more varied (and well-written) than one would suspect, based on sometimes atrocious covers.


More organised thoughts on a specific part of your post, Steven:

It is a shame that Mrs. Heyer's novels have always been marketed as "Romances," indeed, that she is considered the founder of that most infamous of romantic genres "the Regency romance," not because her stories are not romances, but because we no longer truly understand what is meant by the term and many potential readers are alienated both by the genre and its marketing.

Great minds must think alike because that has been on my mind lately as well!

As someone who reads up to three Romance novels a week (all of them single titles and not a series Romance--which means Harlequin--in sight), I think I can see the marketing of books from another angle. More Romance readers than you know cannot stand the current crop of Romance covers. In fact, I've started to think that any serious discussion of covers--gushing, grousing or anything in between--as a dead give-away that there are Romance readers in the room.

The classic "clinch" cover is understandably embarrassing--but people are starting to be just as turned off by the ubiqitous "headless women" covers. If one style takes off, it's original for a few months before everyone else starts designing their own version of it. Yet there is one benefit to it: similar covers make Romances easy to spot. Then again, the same is true of all genre fiction. Wouldn't you know a Thriller if all you saw of it were its mass market cover?

What I'm trying to say is that while the Romance genre has more than its share of terrible cover art, that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with a book being published as a Romance. I daresay that if Heyer had not been marketed as a Romance writer, we would not be discussing her today. The fact is that Romance readers, who may or may not remember the real meaning of "Regency Romance," were the ones who discovered her, loved her and kept her in print all these years. I'm all for "repackagaging" Romances in order to draw more readers, but it seems simply wrong to achieve that end for Heyer by downplaying the romantic conventions of her writing.

Dear Enbrethiliel,

I have some quibbles with your arguments here. First, I did not, nor would I "downplay" the romance conventions of her novels. To make more clear--Georgette Heyer hearkens back to the era of Romance that includes Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and perhaps even Ann Radcliff and others of the ilk less well liked by modern commentators. By that I mean that the romance is more than a love story, it is a quest or a challenge--a true romance in the sense of Childe Harold, etc, where the "romantic" has nothing to do with some sophmoric vision of love and everything to do with the quest.

While the love story is integral to modern romance, and to those of Ms. Heyer (for without the love story there is no quest worthy of the name) it is not all that is going on in the story.

While you may be correct that there are many modern Romance novelists who should have a wider audience, they suffer from the same surfeit of all genres. There are just too many for those not otherwise inclined to go through the effort of weeding through them.

So, I offer to readers not otherwise inclined the offer of one for whom I can vouch. I cannot say much of others, ignorant as I am, but any writer who has a battle of Shakespearean quotations as a central part of the romantic gambit, is certainly one to pay attention to. Anyone with so fine a sensibility and so carefully tuned an historical sense and a sense for words deserves a wider readership. It is up to her or his fans to make the quality of that work more widely known. Perhaps by word-of-mouth, perhaps by blogging.

But, the quality of Ms. Heyer's writing transcends genre--and that is more to the point. Within a genre one is within a sort of ghetto--but there are those who transcend it either through force of idea or quality of writing. Olaf Stapledon is intimately associated with Science Fiction, and yet has become more than a science fiction writer--so much so that few SF fans read him now. E.R. Eddison, similarly, and Mervyn Peake, Jules Verne, etc. Transcending the limitations and conventions of the genre through quality of writing or sheer personality and appeal--this indeed is what makes Ms. Heyer a standout. In a similar way, so too with Angela Thirkell, who writes what might be termed romances, and several others. Perhaps you've found a few who truly transcend their genres in a similar way. Might you be disposed to share some of your favorites and reasons why they stand out from the crowd. I know I would be interested in having a greater diversity of writers to read.

Thanks for your note and please feel free to share here or to post a link to a place where you can be more expansive!




Steven, I'm sorry for accusing you of "downplaying" Romantic conventions. I had misunderstood.

You're right that there is a "Romance ghetto" which very few writers transcend. When they do, it's usually into ChickLit or other "Women's Fiction" or into Suspense and Thrillers. There is currently a strong Paranormal trend in Romance and many authors look poised to make the leap to straddle Fantasy/SF as well as Romance, but time has yet to tell whether it will happen . . .

In the meantime, I will think about the authors I've loved and make you a list of recommendations.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 30, 2008 7:57 AM.

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