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21 April 2010

The Heyer Influence


My wonderful friend Veronica Wolff (with whom I often share very productive writing dates) has recently discovered the novels of Georgette Heyer. Lately our writing get-togethers often begin with a discussion of whatever Heyer book she's currently reading. It's so fun to be see Heyer's novels through the eyes of someone who is reading them for the first time.


If my fascination with the Regency era began with Jane Austen’s novels, novels which were actually written in the Regency, it was further cemented by reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency and eighteenth century-set historical novels. I still remember my first introduction to Heyer’s books. I was nine-years-old, and though I was reading to myself, my mom still read outloud to me as well. One evening we were at a bookstore, and I asked what we were going to read next. She held out a book with a cover showing a dark-haired young woman with side curls in a high-waisted pale green dress and said “let’s try this and see if you like it.” “This” was Heyer’s The Grand Sophy one of my favorite novels to this day (interestingly it was also the first Heyer book Veronica read). From the first chapter where Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey calls on his sister Lady Ombersley, I was entranced by this vividly created world. Over the next few years, I went on to read most of Heyer’s historical romances and several of her contemporary mysteries, some outloud with my mom, some to myself.

I reread her books frequently. Rereading the books as an adult, I'm more aware of Heyer's politics, which are wildly different from my own. Her take on the Regency is also somewhat different from my own. But I still marvel at her craftsmanship and think of her characters as old friends. I’m hard-pressed to pick favorites among the books, though I do have a fairly consistent top three:

The Grand Sophy which has a wonderfully tough, independent heroine, a nicely understated love story, a sharply-detailed cast of secondary characters, laugh-outloud humor, and an hysterically funny ending in which all the characters and plotlines converge (the inspiration for the finales of several of my mom and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies and also for the denouements of several of my historical novels).

Venetia, which beautifully captures the wonder of finding a friend and lover and manages at once to be deeply romantic and yet have a keen edge of reality (I also realized writing this that Venetia and Damerel toss quotations back and forth, which is probably yet another reason why Mélanie and Charles do the same).

And An Infamous Army, set in Brussels in the weeks before and then during the Battle of Waterloo. An Infamous Army started my interest in the Napoleonic Wars (definitely another influence on my Charles and Mélanie stories) and introduced me to a collection of real historical people who figure in the book and who I’ve gone on to use in my own books (Wellington, Fitzroy Somerset, the Prince of Orange, the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Lennox). And its rebellious heroine and quietly honorable hero are a fascinating pair. I recently reread An Infamous Army because my WIP takes place round Waterloo. I was struck by how brilliantly Heyer integrates real events and people with fictional ones, so that one can scarcely tell where the history leaves off and the fiction begins. And the way she pulls back and lets us see the hero and heroine through the eyes of other characters (notably the hero's brother and his wife, the hero and heroine from a previous book) is masterful.

Those are my favorite three, but they leave out so many others I love–Sylvester, Arabella (after whom I named my Madame Alexander doll when I was ten), Frederica, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Friday’s Child

There's no explicit sex in Heyer's books, though I sometimes think they're the more romantic for it. Venetia in particular is a filled with sexual tension, perhaps all the stronger for being held in check. In The Grand Sophy, we don't event get the hero's and heroine's feelings in inner monologue. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles (the hero)'s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then either says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung! I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over as a pre-teen, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions.

Have you read Georgette Heyer? Any particular favorites? What makes those books stand out for you (or not as the case may be)?

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23 Comments:

Blogger Bibliophile said...

I love Heyer's historical novels for the style and the detail and the storytelling and the characters. I can't really say I have one favourite, but The Grand Sophy, Frederica, Venetia, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch and The Unknown Ajax are amongst the best (IMO).
The plots of her detective novels are often rather contrived, but I read them for the humour, the sparkling dialogue and the characters.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Vanessa Kelly said...

Tracy, I adore The Grand Sophy. I think it's my favorite Heyer, and the comedic ending is just masterful. I also love Arabella, Regency Buck, Venetia, Frederika...heck! I love all of them. I'm also very partial to her Georgian romance, The Talisman Ring. I love how it takes place over the span of probably about a week, mostly in a small inn in the countryside. But it's full of action and romance and, yes, comedy. Another masterpiece.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'd say I pretty much adore all of Heyer’s historicals, with the exception of Beauvallet and A Civil Contract (can’t stand the heroine of the first and find the second one depressing).

My godmother handed my first Heyer to me at the start of fall break my freshman year of college and I was HOOKED! I’ve read all the historicals except The Great Roxhythe (which I’ve never been able to find a copy of) and The Spanish Bride (which I own, but am saving for a truly rainy day).

The heroine of Lord Sin was inspired by the heroines of The Grand Sophy, An Infamous Army and Bath Tangle (which I adore and rarely see listed among the standard favorites; there’s a line in the book about the hero’s only attractive feature being his hands and rather than showing them off, he shoves them into his pockets; total squee moment for me, I love bit).

And I couldn’t resist doing my own version of the “cute meet” from Venetia. It shows up in Lord Scandal where they quip back and forth with biblical quotes, poetry, and Shakespeare (all centered around sin, sinners, and repentance).

8:28 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I have loved Georgette Heyer's novels since one of the sweet little old sister librarians who lived nextdoor to us in the village of Kelsale gave me Venetia to read after I finished all of Jane Austen's novels. Those two ladies introduced me to Austen, the Brontes and then Heyer and let me borrow the lovely leather-bound gilt-paged copies in their personal library. Their house was the first I'd ever seen with an actual library in it. I sat in over-stuffed leather chairs in front of a fireplace with tea and biscuits and submersed myself in Heyer's Regency England and I've been living there in my dreams ever since.

I love them all, but I'm rather partial to The Quiet Gentleman.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Bibliophile, I tend to prefer her historicals to her mysteries as well, though I've enjoyed some of the mysteries quite a bit, for the humor and characters, as you say. Heyer writes wonderful characters in any era--so vivid and distinct from the heroes and heroines to the sharply detailed secondary characters.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Vanessa, I too am very fond of The Talisman Ring. I love what she does with the confined setting and short timespan and how she "distracts" the reader with the younger couple while building a quite powerful romance between the "older" couple.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I haven't read Beauvalet or The Great Roxhythe either. I admire a lot of things about A Civil Contract as a novel, but I too find it sad. I love The Spanish Bride--it's fabulous for Peninsular War history and a great love story as well. I can totally see how George was inspired by Bab, Sophy, and Serena. I'm quite fond of "Bath Tangle"--I love stories about ex-lovers.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Louisa, I love your story about discovering Heyer! What a fabulous setting in which to read Heyer. "The Quiet Gentleman" is really interesting as a Regency mystery. It's fascinating to me how even though there's a distinct tone to Heyers books, they vary from comedy to manners to mystery (even in the historicals) to farce to adventure to sweeping historical filled with real events. And often combinations of the various types.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't read a huge amount of Heyer, but in some ways I prefer the early ones, THESE OLD SHADES and particularly THE MASQUERADERS. They're so... I don't know... undisciplined, perhaps. So awfully un-PC. Which is not typically my sort of thing but perhaps a guilty pleasure.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

There's something wonderfully fresh in the early ones, and with all the adventure they're more Scarlet Pimpernel-esque. Some of the class stuff in
"These Old Shades" makes me grit my teeth, but I'm still very fond of it. The emotional shifts on the last scene between Avon and Léonie are beautifully done.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love the Georgian ones best too. I even love The Black Moth and These Old Shades . . . and Faro's Daughter. *sigh* I love the bit where she says she disliked him from the start and she's learned to detest him and he replies: "And I thought I had learned to love you, ma'am!" love love love

5:23 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

My mother introduced me to the Great Georgette when I was twelve and I've read them all, except for the mysteries. There's at least one scene in [almost?] every book that I can quote because my mother and I carry on conversations in Heyer-isms. (We must have driven my poor father mad!)

But there are very few books that I will re-read the entire book from start to finish: Sylvester, Arabella, These Old Shades, Fredericka, The Spanish Bride.

When I bought my new house, the Squatter's Rights Library allowed me to have all my Heyer books out in the open for the first time in years. I invited my mother to visit and she spent days in there, just reading and reading and reading...

6:15 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

You've ruined me! I just blew a fast $100 buying all my favorites as eBooks (now my Arrow editions can remain pristine, LOL!).

6:21 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

I will have to plead guilty to not having read Heyer. I did not read romance until just a few years ago. I have been rapidly expanding the authors I've sampled and she is on the list. Our library ordered all her rereleases and I recommended them to quite a few patrons. It was nice to know I had a "safe read" I could give to anyone and not worry about them being offended. Writing good sexual tension and love is in danger of becoming a lost art. It isn't easy to do well and many authors have turned to graphic sex scenes to compensate. Only a very good writer can pull it off.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Veronica Wolff said...

Wonderful post, Tracy!! Though I'm sure you're not surprised I loved it. ;) I'll add one to the mix here, with a disclaimer, and that is, Cotillion. The beginning found me sorely disappointed with its overly stilted prose, but by the late-middle, I was completely engrossed. I adored the ending, and find myself thinking about it often. I won't give any spoilers just in case someone hasn't read it who might, but let's just say, for a while there, I honestly had NO idea how she was going to end it. Otherwise, I just finished Sylvester, and am tucking into Frederica tonight!

10:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, "Faro's Daughter" is a lot of fun. And I love the way she reworked "The Black Moth" characters in "These Old Shades" (I still remember my surprise and delight at realizing it was the same characters before I'd read that that was what she'd done). Amazing to think she wrote "The Black Moth" as a teenager. Cool you were able to get the books as e-books.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Diane, that's so cool you share the books with your mom too! I have a lot of my Heyer books on easily accessible bookshelves so I can grab them easily to dip into favorite scenes. And I usually have a few on my beside table (currently "Venetia", "These Old Shades", and "An Infamous Army").

11:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Librarypat, I envy you having the Heyer books still to discover! I'm always particularly curious about what people think of them who are already romance readers, as they were basically the first romances I read (way before I realized there was a romance genre). Do let us know what you think when you read them!

11:39 PM  
Blogger Margaret Mallory said...

I like to listen to audio versions of Heyer books while I walk. It's embarrassing when I realize I'm grinning like an idiot as someone passes me on the sidewalk.

11:40 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, V! And thanks for the inspiration for the post! I love the fact that Heyer can sometimes make the reader uncertain about who will end up with whom (no easy task in a romance). That's true of "Cotllion" and also of the very beginning of "The Talisman Ring." When my mom read "The Grand Sopny" to me, I insisted she tell me who Sophy would end up with after about three chapters. Though now I think I'd figure it out from Chapter 1, even though Sophy and Charles have yet to appear on stage.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How fun, Margaret! Heyer is frequently laugh-outloud funny. Do you like the readers of the books?

11:58 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I just finished Sylvester, and am tucking into Frederica tonight!

Oooo, you're going to love Frederica! As usual with Heyer, the bits with the dog are laugh out loud funny.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Frederica is such a delight! I love watching the hero fall in love too.

8:21 AM  

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