Thursday, September 20, 2012
Rereading Critically: A Meditation on Georgette Heyer
I’ve been giving myself an intellectual rest by rereading Georgette Heyer. The mother of the Regency romance as well as a dozen Golden Age mysteries is still popular with mystery lovers (exemplified by members of DorothyL). I inherited most of her works in paperback from my Aunt Anna, who died at 96 leaving an apartment full of Harlequins and other light reading. I’d been dipping into the Heyers on her shelves whenever I visited since I was a kid. Printed in the Fifties, some of them are literally crumbling into dust, but I’ve been able to replace those with cheap Kindle editions that I can take along when I travel and gulp down one after another like M&Ms. I still enjoy them, but part of me steps back and wonders why.
Heyer has been credited with making the Regency period her own and reinventing the colloquialisms of the times, including slang and thieves’ cant as well as the idiom of polite society. I suspect most genre writers have read her at some time, because I’ve spotted some of her typical expressions—for example, “added to his consequence” and “how to go on”—in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. The romance plots slip down easily, the resolution satisfies (I’ve always been a sucker for a happy ending), and much of the humor holds up. One of Heyer’s strengths is that her heroes and heroines share intelligence and a sense of the ridiculous. Earnestness, foolishness, and stupidity as well as greed and vanity are reserved for characters who serve as foils for her protagonists. All of the above contribute to my enjoyment of these books even now.
But as I reread them today, in the post-feminist era and in light of a lifetime’s knowledge of who I am, I notice elements of the book that make me marvel why I never objected to them. For example, there are the detailed descriptions of Regency fashions, still an essential feature of historical romance novels as well as certain contemporary cozies. I don’t give a hoot what people wear. (I was once asked in an interview on the mystery blog Jungle Red, “Crocs or Jimmy Choos?” My answer: “Crocs all the way.”) Then there’s the class snobbery and the physical attractiveness standard. Yes, yes, it’s all appropriate to the period and class she’s writing about. But how did I ever suspend my disbelief long enough to identify with the characters?
A young woman who is “base-born,” ie illegitimate, or has thick ankles is ineligible to be cast as a heroine. Hey, you can’t help the ankles you were born with—or the circumstances of your birth. Nor can she be “vulgar” or “bourgeois.” The upper class values ascribed to Heyer protagonists include contempt for anyone who works for a living, a lifestyle that for women consists mainly of parties and shopping, and for men, sport and gambling, with the occasional supervision of their inherited property. “Debts of honor,” ie paying up on gambling losses, are a must, but it’s simply not done to settle up with tradesmen, ie pay the bills that result from all that shopping.
Then there’s the dynamics of the hero’s relationship with the heroine. I don’t mind the heroines so much. Historically, they have to be concerned with marrying well, and there are a few governesses and at least one writer among them. But the heroes tend toward being domineering or patronizing, and while in the typical character arc, boy and girl detest one another on sight, in the end, girl is delighted to be overcome, overruled, and ruthlessly swept up in boy’s (or, more likely, older man’s) arms. If I were the girl, would I like that? Indeed, it would be no such thing!