Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rereading Critically: A Meditation on Georgette Heyer

Elizabeth Zelvin

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!


Sandra Parshall said...

I think some books are not meant to be reread. They have too many flaws to stand up to scrutiny, especially by another writer. I've never read anything by Georgette Heyer, but from your description I'd say they're in that category.

deb said...

I agree the indolent lifestyle wouldn't be tenable in a modern era, but that's the problem of judging with modern eyes, views that will be just as dated tomorrow. I applaud your awareness.

Yet, class warfare is as unpleasant as gender warfare. Many of us (most of us?) long for strong heroes that are damn hard to find into today's metrosexual world. But then again, heroes and heroines come in many guises. We moderns reject the office nerd out of hand, but we never guess that the heart of a hero might lie within. Bottom line is Georgette Heyer and writers of the Byronic hero always remain in style because our innermost desires trump the pseudo-intellectual layers we plaster over them. The mark of a successful romance is what makes us happy.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I don't agree at all. Like many mystery lovers, I still reread Heyer, in spite of all my quibbles. In fact, I enjoy the quibbling in a case like this. I suspect you wouldn't have liked Heyer the first time, but as we know, there's a book for everybody.

Janice said...

Georgette Heyer is a favorite comfort read of mine. Have you read "A Civil Contract" yet? It's my favorite Heyer, yet to many it's their least favorite. It's about a plain, plump heroine who happens to be the only daughter of an obscenely rich merchant. And the hero is an impoverished young lord of the manor who bites the bullet to marry her to save the family from financial ruin. It's follows the first year of their marriage. I would be interested to hear your opinion of it.

ladyvyvian said...

I read all of Heyer's regency books and I agree that "A Civil Contract" is one of her best. I have been re-reading some of her books lately and enjoy them just as much as I did the first time. I have to say that I did not like her mysteries. I might try to read them since I am much older and see if I feel differently about them now. I admire her research and recreation of the period.

Anonymous said...

Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre byronic modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently
debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the glam/punk tunes "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst" and "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire", and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
"Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque