Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) is known as a writer of Regency romances, and no-one has matched her in the genre of light-hearted romantic historical fiction. She was prolific, writing historical and crime novels at the rate of one or more a year from the 1920s to the 1970s, and so it is hard to summarise her works briefly. As you would expect, her work improved as she mastered her craft and as she matured personally.
Taking the Waters
Broadly speaking her historical books fall into four overlapping categories.
Her most accomplished books are her later ones, when she had settled down to writing pure comedies of manners. These usually feature a woman in her late 20s who is in loco parentis to a younger girl. They may be governess and pupil (The Nonesuch), elder and younger sisters (Frederica), or even an older stepdaughter and a younger stepmother (Bath Tangle). This particular plot usually untangles itself at the end with two happy couples rather than one. These books twist and turn on misunderstandings. There are gentle entertainments like picnics and expeditions to see a balloon ascend, or to a visit a picturesque house or ruins. The plots are undemanding, and they are based on a mixture of character and situation, and the main pleasure in these novels is that they are light-hearted and fun. You are happy to spend a few days in the company of the people they are about.
Frills, Furbelows and Powdered Wigs
Her earliest novels are set in England and France before or during the French Revolution, and in contrast to her later works, they feature improbable elements such as kidnappings, girls dressed as boys, horseback rescues, heroines threatened at pistol point, smugglers and émigré aristocrats. The influences of Baroness Orczy (author of The Scarlet Pimpernel), and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped, Treasure Island) are strong, and the plots are entertaining but unconvincing. She was 19 when her first book The Black Moth was published in 1921; and in some respect it shows.
Gentlemen Sleuths, and Silver-tongued Villains
In her middle period, the setting moves to Regency England (the time in the early 19th Century when the future George IV ruled as Prince Regent). The plots still tend to be highly coloured, featuring villains and moonlight, and marriages by special licence, and many of them are whodunnits in fancy dress. She began writing detective stories and murder mysteries in the 1930s, so her contemporary fiction is very much in the style of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. The standard blurbs on the detective fiction rather patronisingly say that she got the plots from her husband who was a barrister. But many of the historical romances could be recast as contemporary (ie, early to mid-20th Century) detective stories, and some of the contemporary novels could be dressed in period costume and would work just as well.
Earlier Works, Earlier Times
The books which are outside her main period are not her most successful, both commercially and as novels. There is an unhappy irony here. She did not think highly of the Regency comedies, which is the genre in which she has never been matched, and she wanted to write more serious historical novels. Unfortunately, the books she wrote outside her period have a tendency towards the gadzookery of Baroness Orczy. The Conqueror which is about William the Conqueror is probably the best. There is a book about King Charles II (Royal Escape). The others are set in medieval France and England (Simon the Coldheart and My Lord John), and Beauvalet is an Elizabethan swashbuckler. The Great Roxhythe is set in the 17th Century and is one of the half dozen or so books which she was unsatisfied with and repressed.
When she finally finds her period and voice, she presents us with minor characters who are often particularly well drawn. One of her most attractive men is the cousin of the hero of The Foundling. Gideon is a tall, strong and handsome officer in the Guards, and manages to be kind, physically powerful and witty. He is more obviously hero material than the main protagonist, young Duke of Sale, who spends the book breaking out of his gilded cage. But the book is about Sale's emergence as his own man, and we come to see a different kind of hero than the more obvious Gideon. In another book, Frederica, the eponymous heroine is the eldest of a large family, and her younger brother Felix is obsessed with machinery and technology. Felix is one of Heyer's most clearly drawn characters. This book contains one of her few historical errors. There is an expedition to an 'iron foundry in Soho', and Heyer assumed that the original foundry was in Soho in London. In fact it was in Birmingham, but the book had been published by the time she discovered her error.
Heyer's heroes and heroines are all either aristocratic or upper middle class, (among the 'Upper Ten Thousand' as they refer to themselves). Lower class characters are not delineated in detail, and they are usually there to provide comedy through caricature. There are wise and loving nannies; cautious innkeepers and their kind-hearted wives (who describe their upper class guests as 'Quality - but not high in the instep'); there are a range of cheerful villains and easily outwitted Bow Street Runners. There also are a few mature and successful City Merchants, who are usually the doting but embarrassing father of one of the more major characters.
One of Heyer's skills is that although many of her books seem to have been written to a formula, her protagonists do change from book to book. Some of her heroines are high spirited, some are feisty, others are gentler and more ladylike, or simply have less freedom and more responsibility. Some of her heros are rakes, and some are philanthropists, and they range in age from their early 20s to over 40. Her palette may not be broad, but there is variety and colour within it.
A Voice of her Own
All of her characters use slang. Scapegrace younger brothers don't go to London, they 'make a dash for the Village'. The rogues describe her heroes as 'showing a handy bunch of fives' and tell tales of colleagues who end up swinging from the 'nubbing cheat'. Her rakes 'give carte blanche' to 'bits of muslin' and 'barques of frailty'. Hysterical women 'have fits of the vapours' and 'enact Cheltenham Tragedies'. This last was the subject of a plagiarism suit. Heyer had made this particular piece of slang up; and when it appeared in another book she asked that the author prove that it had been used elsewhere.
She is rarely given the credit she deserves for using, and in part creating, such a rich and intelligible range of language. Her imitators are disappointing partly because none of them manage to pull it off so convincingly.
Acknowledging the Shadow
Georgette Heyer was aware of the darker side of the periods she wrote about, but much of it is implicit, and it is easy to miss. Most of The Foundling is devoted to the Duke of Sale's successful attempts to keep the beautiful and oblivious Belinda out of the hands of those who might harm her so he can reunite her, safe and untouched, with her handsome farmer. And Arabella rescues a chimney sweep from his master, a servant girl from bullying, and wants to rescue her brother's extremely capable mistress from the streets. In Cousin Kate, Heyer looks at the darker side of snobbery and dynastic ambition. But most of these dilemmas face working class people, and Georgette Heyer's product was spun-sugar fantasy about the upper classes.
The more melodramatic plots spin on improbable situations. Devil's Cub abducts the wrong sister and takes her to France. These Old Shades features a young girl who masquerades as a page boy. In The Talisman Ring, the young hero falls in with a band of smugglers, and the book involves searching for priest holes and hidden panelling. Even though these earlier books require a greater suspension of disbelief than the later ones, she never loses control of pace or character.
Lightness of Touch
Georgette Heyer includes a lot of sly one-liners in her books. In False Colours the mother of her twin heroes is accused of dying her hair. She claims that brightening it is not dying it. Also in False Colours the former mistress of a Marquis turns up and holds forth at length about her glory days. The closing lines of the scene include the private speculation amongst her awed audience as to exactly which Marquis this could have been. In fact False Colours is particularly rich in this way.
In The Talisman Ring, Sarah tells the Bow Street Runners that her brother is a JP and holds the strongest views on smuggled liquor. She does not explain that the reason why they are staying in that particular inn is because he hopes to buy at least one illicit keg of brandy from the innkeeper. In Venetia, Venetia's uncle complains about an elderly relative who will always do the opposite of whatever he advises. Damerel, the hero, comments that he clearly knows how to deal with her. And Heyer takes the occasional pot shot at her own genre. In the same book Venetia and her brothers refer to Damerel as 'the wicked baron' for years before they meet him.
These sidelights into the weaknesses and foibles of human nature are one of the things which round out the minor characters, and which contribute to the fun.
More History, Less Fiction
A few of her later books transcend the genre. A Civil Contract starts with the marriage of Adam and Jenny. Adam is an impoverished aristocrat who is in love with a beautiful but undowered girl, and despite this he has to marry the daughter and heiress of a wealthy city merchant. The book follows the course of the first two or three years of Adam's and Jenny's marriage, as the silences and distances change into mutual understanding and respect. It is doubtful that most arranged marriages were this successful, but it is still an acknowledgement of the difficulties that they must have involved1.
In The Spanish Bride, Heyer tells the true story of Harry Smith, an English officer in the Rifle Brigade in the Spanish Peninsular War and of his 14-year-old wife Juanita2. Heyer draws heavily on contemporary diaries: it is an accurate if fictional account of their marriage, and an accessible narrative of the campaign.
An Infamous Army is a similarly accessible account of the battle of Waterloo and the events leading up to it, although the main protagonists in this book are entirely fictional. These books are more serious. The plots follow the events of the war, and Heyer does not have the freedom to introduce her feather-brained dowagers and the servants and innkeepers who provide much of the comedy in her other books.
Most of her books stand alone, but four of them share characters. These Old Shades, Devil's Cub, and An Infamous Army trace four generations of the Alastairs, who are the Dukes of Avon. Unfortunately, she loses track of the dates. The hero of the first book, is a veteran of the '45 uprising3, which sets the first book in the early 1760s. The second book is about his son Dominic, and is therefore set in the 1780s. Which makes it an impossibly tight fit to get two generations in, in time for Dominic's grandchildren to be in their late 20s in time for Waterloo in 1815. The last book also features characters from Regency Buck. Heyer said that when she had finished writing a book she never wanted to spend time with the characters again, and this may be why they lose some of the their substance when they shift into supporting roles.
There are echoes of the Duke of Avon, (a mature and mysterious figure, who manipulates both the characters and the plot of the books in which he appears) in both The Black Moth and The Masqueraders. The Black Moth was Heyer's first book, and in some respects These Old Shades is clearly a reworking of an unpublished sequel, as she acknowledged in the title.
So Which Ones Do you Read?
Georgette Heyer's books are still published, though only about five or six are in print in the UK at any one time. However, Georgette Heyer has a large following in the US and there are many societies for those interested in her works. They entertain on several levels, being well written and witty, with attractive characters, diverting sidelines, and amusing plots.
Which ones you go for depends on how you like your historical fiction. If you want kidnappings and villains, babies swapped at birth, horseback rescues and intrigue, then go for those the three books about the Avons. The Talisman Ring, The Reluctant Widow and Devil's Cub are more mature and better examples of the same genre.
Her darker works, if she can be said to have written darker works, include Cousin Kate and The Quiet Gentleman. These are Gothic rather than melodramatic, and they look at some of the bizarre snobberies of the time.
For whodunnits, read The Tollgate, False Colours and The Unknown Ajax. For romps where the action takes place in journeys taken out of London, read The Foundling, The Corinthian and Sprigged Muslin.
For pure comedies of Regency manners, read Arabella, Frederica, Bath Tangle, Lady of Quality, The Nonesuch, Black Sheep, The Grand Sophy and April Lady. Faro's Daughter is on the cusp between the days of powder and patches and the Regency.
One of Heyer's few failings is that in most of her books either the hero or the heroine is drawn in more detail. The best exception to this is Venetia. Here we see both Venetia and Damerel as equals, and their attraction is based on wit, a shared attitude to life, and character as well as situation. And, uniquely in Georgette Heyer's fiction, the sexual energy between them is clearly apparent:
'You'd know about my orgies!' objected Damarel.
'Yes, but I shouldn't care about them once in a while. After all, it would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits, and I can always retire to bed, can't I?'
'Oh, won't you preside over them?' he said, much disappointed.
'Yes, love, if you wish me to,' she replied, smiling at him. 'Should I enjoy them?'
He stretched out his hand, and when she laid her own in it, held it very tightly. 'You shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!'.
Heyer's most successful fiction is formulaic, even if she invented the formula. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Her books provide no great insights, but they reliably provide well written entertainment.
They are just the most tremendous fun.
A Georgette Heyer Database which has a lot of information on the books, including dates, and information about books which she suppressed.
The World of Georgette Heyer is also worth a look.