Chatting About Heyer– a column from May 1, 2000
Something wonderful happens when you mention Georgette Heyer to writers and readers. They start to smile (you can feel it in e-mails). They can’t wait to tell you how they first discovered her books, where they were, which ones they read first. This is an author that changes people’s lives because she is responsible for inspiring so many of the best romance writers writing today.
How do I know this? I’ve spent the last few weeks reading Georgette Heyer, reading about her, in Jane Hodge’s wonderful biography The Private World of Georgette Heyer, and in discussions with readers and romance writers. Readers love her, have loved her, for decades but for romance writers Georgette Heyer takes on a more fundamental role. Laurie and I asked a number of writers how Georgette Heyer influenced them. Judith McNaught, for instance, sent me this fascinating story which I am passing on to you in its entirety:
“Georgette Heyer? Did Georgette Heyer have any effect on me as a writer? I think you could say she did. In fact, the simple mention of her name invariably makes me pause to marvel at Fate’s bizarre sense of humor…”In late 1976 – 2 years before I ever imagined writing a book – I had a lunch date with an executive who worked for the same corporation I did. I arrived at the restaurant late, and as the waiter led me toward her table, I noticed she was laughing softly at a paperback she was reading – a book which she promptly slid into her Gucci purse as soon as I sat down. We’d both been working long hours on a company project, and we were both exhausted, so I was naturally curious about the identity of a small book that could make this brilliant, sophisticated, dedicated businesswoman feel refreshed enough to laugh. As soon as I sat down, I asked what she’d been reading. Instead of answering, she reached into her purse, removed the book, and then handed it to me across the table.
“The book was Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer.
“Since I’d never even been in the romance section of any bookstore, I had to turn the paperback over and read the back cover in order to conclude that it was some sort of ‘silly little historical novel’ set in England, with a seemingly ‘infantile’ plot-line that involved a romance between the impoverished young female relative of a gambler and an English nobleman. When I handed the book back to her, I’m sure I looked as incredulous and amused as I felt, but this was not the sort of woman to be concerned with, or feel diminished by, anyone else’s opinion of anything she did. (In retrospect, my life has been enriched and blessed by chance associations with women just like her.) Anyway, instead of making excuses for her reading tastes, or denigrating the book she was reading (as some of us have felt compelled to do when we’re caught reading romantic novels), this woman looked at me across the table with a knowing smile. ‘Have you ever read Georgette Heyer?’ she inquired politely.
” ‘No,’ I said, and I suddenly felt a little ashamed and uneasy for belittling a book and author I hadn’t even read. (That same justifiable sense of shame, you will note, does not afflict many of the ‘journalists’ who interview romance novelists and comment on their books.) ‘My favorite Heyer novel is The Grand Sophy,’ my luncheon companion announced. ‘I will loan it to you, and you can tell me what you think.’
“The following day, she walked into my office and handed me a tattered copy of a book I had absolutely no desire to read, ever. By way of an explanation about the book’s bad condition, she said, ‘I re-read this one whenever I need a “lift”.’ She stopped in my doorway and added, ‘Please don’t lose it. Heyer’s novels have gone out of print and they’re very hard to find.’
“I slid it into my desk drawer and left it there. That way it wouldn’t get lost. And maybe I wouldn’t have to read it. A week later, she phoned to asked how I’d liked the book. I made an excuse. The week after, she phoned again. I made another excuse, but because I liked and admired her, I realized I was going to have to read the thing, so I could at least express an opinion. I took it home that night and opened it during The Tonight Show. Feeling like a martyr to my own sense of fairness, I opened it and sighed so loudly that my husband jokingly remarked that the book couldn’t possibly be any duller than the annual reports I’d been bringing home from the office.
“I finished The Grand Sophy that same night. I could have finished it in two hours, but it took me three hours because I laughed so hard I cried, and then I had to get Kleenex, and then I naturally had to re-read the part that had made me laugh – to see if it could make me do it again.
“The following day, I borrowed Faro’s Daughter, and then all the others from my friend.
“Two years later, in 1978, I went to work on my first manuscript that would later become Whitney, My Love. Heyer’s incomparable novels had taught me that humor made historical novels sparkle, and so I used humor in every appropriate available place in my own historical novels.
“In 1990, twelve years later, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as an editor with a publisher (not my own publisher) and who said she had an unusual request. She said she had recently acquired the rights to publish a body of work by a deceased author whose books had been out of print for many years. The editor said they were marvelous books, unknown to a whole generation of readers, but she needed a writer of my ‘caliber and popularity’ to help launch them so that they wouldn’t disappear, unnoticed on bookshelves crowded with other short regency historicals. To accomplish that goal, the editor wanted to use a small picture of me on the front covers of the re-published novels, along with my name and a short quote to advise my ‘legions of readers’ that these were really good books that they’d enjoy.
“I asked who the author was.
” ‘Georgette Heyer.’ the editor replied. ‘By any chance are you familiar with any of her work?’
“A year later, a box was delivered to my house. In it was a full set of the works of Georgette Heyer, with their new, updated covers. On the front cover, in the upper right hand corner of each book, there was a picture of me with my quote beneath it, promising my readers that they would also enjoy Ms. Heyer’s books. For several years, I kept those re-issued books by Georgette Heyer in my office, face-out where I could see them-brilliant books by an incomparable author I was never foolish enough to even try to emulate. Her books. My picture and quote.
“As I said earlier, I think Fate has a bizarre sense of humor.”
Wow. Now that’s what I call an influence.
When I started reading romance a year and half ago I started with Regency Romances. Why? Well probably because I was under the mistaken impression that regencies were based on Jane Austen. It didn’t take me long however to discover that Jane Austen’s world of country gentility and the traditional Regency Romance world of debutantes, the London “Season,” rakes and rogues are very different. Also the language was different. Characters in Regency Romances kept using odd expressions. A heroine wondered it she would “make a cake” of herself. A hero warned a heroine that they would be in “scandalbroth” if they did not marry. And there was so much more respect for titles, station and rules. Austen’s hilarious Mr. Collins and his beloved “Lady Catherine deBurugh” had no place with these people who sometimes showed signs of being “natural aristocrats.” Where did this stuff come from?
The short answer is that an awful lot of it, arguably most of it, comes from the prolific pen of Georgette Heyer. As Mary Jo Putney writes in her introduction to the recently reissued The Nonesuch, “Very few authors create a whole new genre, but Georgette Heyer did and discovering the modern regencies inspired by her books was the first step on my path to authordom.” Laurie asked Mary Jo about Heyer’s influence on her life and here is what she wrote:
“I always enjoyed stories with romantic threads, even if they were mystery or science fiction or fantasy. I also read more than my share of both historical and contemporary Gothics. Remember all those paperbacks where a girl in a Victorian gown with about three yards of blowing-in-the-wind hair stood in front of a threatening mansion? Probably on a cliff.”Georgette Heyer was probably the first ‘romance’ author I read, though perhaps it’s unfair to call her that since she invented a genre instead of following it. I discovered her in college and loved the wit, the humor, the subtle characterizations, and the sheer Englishness of her books. She had a gimlet eye for social pretensions and class, yet there was always great compassion for her characters. Some of the plot devices she came up with are still being recycled, and they still work.
“I read all her books many times, and that very British voice shaped my own Regency voice. (Looking at the first part of my first Regency, The Diabolical Baron, I can see Heyer in every sentence, though I never consciously copied her.) It would be impossible to over-emphasize her influence on my haphazard path to authordom.
“Her books reward rereading even now because of the sheer quality of her writing – I’ll still pull out one of my favorites when I’m in need of a comfort read. There is nothing like gathering several Regency authors together and getting us to talking about our favorite Heyers! (Traditional Regency isn’t a genre, it’s a cult.)”
Okay, you’re saying that’s nice and everything but I don’t really care for traditional Regency Romances. So what has this to do with my romance favorites?
Maybe quite a bit. Its amazing the writers who cite Georgette Heyer as an influence. Since I learned of Heyer, but before I read her, I have thought of her as a rather staid influence – a talented author who specialized in civilized comedies of manners. An influence, yes, but one who was important for regency writers and writers of regency historicals. Imagine my surprise to see the introduction to the newly reissued Frederica by none other than Nora Roberts.
An even bigger surprise came when Laurie pointed out to me that Catherine Coulter had cited Heyer as an influence in an interview they’d done in 1996. I knew that Catherine Coulter had begun her writing career as a writer of Regency Romances, but somehow I couldn’t quite reconcile my idea of her, as the author of books like The Cove, with my view of Heyer. I knew that Catherine Coulter had rewritten a number of her early books and I wondered if part of the reason was to take out any of the “Heyerisms.” Never one to shy away from a question, I wrote and asked her. Here is Catherine’s reply:
“Georgette Heyer: I was raised on her. I own every book she ever wrote, some of them that have been repackaged/reprinted, at least two copies. When I said she influenced me, that doesn’t mean that I write like her. To be honest, I couldn’t write like her even if I dedicated my life to it. Just like no one can write like Dick Francis. She’s unique. I hope I’m unique as well. No, she made me love the period. My master’s degree is in early 19th century history, so probably because my love of Heyer and the Regency period, I simply kept reading/studying/degreeing. I rewrote my own six early Regency Romances because I wanted to make them bigger and more fun. I wanted to ‘evolve’ them. I turned them from Regencies to historical romances, and of course, that meant removing all “stylization” (all the Regency cant, all the convoluted ways of saying things, etc).”
Shame on me. Catherine Coulter is of course, absolutely correct. When a writer is inspired you never know where the inspiration will take her.
I couldn’t help wondering who Georgette Heyer was, how she came to write and what her audience had been when she had originally written her books. I was lucky enough to find many of the answers to this question in The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Hodge. This book is virtually the only secondary source available for biographical information on Georgette Heyer. All of the biographical information included in this column comes from this wonderful, and insightful biography which I highly recommend.
According to Hodge, Georgette Heyer was born in 1902 to an upper class family. She appears to have been strongly influenced by her father and like many women of the day, got the bulk of her education at home. Her father being a college instructor, that education was excellent and, when she was seventeen, as a way to entertain her brother, who was ill, she began to tell a story which became her first historical novel, The Black Moth.
Hodge makes it pretty clear that The Black Moth is not the best of Heyer, but as the first effort of a nineteen year old girl it must have been quite remarkable. What is even more remarkable is the speed at which Heyer’s career took off. Hodge tells us that between 1921 and 1975, Heyer wrote fifty-seven books.
Heyer wrote contemporary (for her time) novels, historical novels, historical romances, and mysteries. Heyer’s mysteries had respectable sales but never touched the popularity of her historicals. What was interesting to me about these historicals is that even though Heyer name is synonymous with the regency period, you can easily her identify her influence in today’s crop of Georgian historicals and historicals that take place in other swashbuckling periods.
During the 1920’s and following the publication of her first book, Georgette Heyer wrote three contemporary novels including: Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), and Pastel (1929). But what really excites romance authors was the emergence of Heyer’s historicals. Heyer loved swashbuckling romance. In 1923 she published Powder and Patch which was originally published as The Transformation of Phillip Jettan. In this novel a handsome young man Phillip transforms himself into a Paris “exquisite” to impress his lady love who only cares for men who are “fashionable.” In Jo Beverley’s Desert Isle Keeper review for AAR, she described her fascination for the novel as follows: “I instantly fell in love with the whole idea of these men who spent so much time on their silk and lace, and who then minced off in high-heeled shoes to challenge someone to a duel to the death.”
Georgette Heyer wrote a number of historicals in the twenties including The Great Roxhthyne (1923) and Simon the Coldheart (1925), but her real breakthough book came in 1926 with These Old Shades. This novel was something of a breakthough, and Hodge describes it as “an instant success that established Heyer with the public and with her publisher.” Indeed, it sold 190,000 copies at the first printing. There was virtually no publicity done on the book and Hodge speculates that Heyer may have decided at that point that her previous decision to avoid interviews, booksignings and all other types of publicity was the right one.
Many readers and romance authors alike remember These Old Shades fondly to this day. In the book, Heyer brings back the Duke of Avon from The Black Moth. Hodge describes the book as follows: “An old saturnine hero with a past, he rescues a rid-haired girl in boys clothes from the Paris gutter, sets her up as his page, finally proves her aristocratic birth, and marries her.” Hodge goes on to point out that the heroine’s aristocratic birth is no accident. Heyer had strong feelings in favor of the class system and they figure largely into her books. Of course the incidence of the “stolen aristocratic baby” did not begin with Heyer, but it’s interesting to see how she continued the tradition. This tradition has even continued among American authors, whom, one would expect to question it.
In These Old Shades, Heyer uses one of her favorite situations – the heroine dressed as a boy. This is a device that is still loved by romance authors and readers, so much so that AAR has devoted a Special Title Listing to romances featuring Cross-Dressing & In-Disguise. The author Leigh Greenwood, who wrote a DIK Review of the book, Leigh credits it with beginning his career as a romance novelist. Speaking of how his wife had goaded him into reading the book, he wrote:
“The book was Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades. I loved it. I immediately started searching until I found every book Georgette Heyer had ever written, including the mysteries. After I’d read everything about three or four times, I started reading other writers. Later, I began writing. I’m starting on my 24th book, and I owe it all to Mrs. Heyer.”
These Old Shades came up at an interesting time as I was asking romance authors about how and when they had read Heyer. It was no surprise to me to discover that Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley and Carla Kelly had read Georgette Heyer. I was, however, very surprised to get this note from Robin Schone, author of the very unHeyerlike, The Lover:
“I read These Old Shades when I was twelve years old. It was my very first romance novel, and I will never forget it. There’s a poem in the beginning that to this day I remember: ‘Whereas with these old shades of mine, their ways and dress delight me / but should I trip by word or line, they cannot well indict me.’In the story, a girl masquerades as a boy and becomes the page of a duke. The sharp contrast of grim poverty that the girl came from and the glittering wealth that the duke possessed was incredible. Georgette Heyer brought the early nineteenth century alive in a way that no text book did, and from that day onward I have had an insatiable curiosity about personal historical details – not the broad overview that we’re taught in school – but the little things that shaped the lives of those who lived in times past, whether they be rich or poor – vernacular, fashion, hygiene, diet, modes of travel . . . Not a bad lesson for a twelve year old to learn. Of course, Ms. Heyer also gave me a love of elegant, jaded, aristocratic rakes and blue sapphire jewelry. And a lasting belief in happy endings.”
In 1929 Heyer published Beauvallet, another historical romance that is beloved by many people. AAR Editor Nora Armstrong counts Beauvallet as one of her favorite books. It is a rousing pirate story. As Nora tells it, “Dona Dominica de Rada y Silva, returning with her father from the Spanish West Indies in 1586, has the misfortune to be sailing on a ship that’s waylaid by the infamous English pirate, Nicholas Beauvallet” Sigh.
During the 1930’s Georgette Heyer began writing mysteries. These were the days when Agatha Christie was in top form and people were reading them avidly. But Heyer’s mysteries, which were published one a year at the same rate as her historicals, never came close to the sales and popularity of her historicals.
In 1932, Heyer published Devil’s Cub. This was another break-through book and Hodge says that it is the first of Heyer’s books where the comedy of manners was almost as important as the story. In this book, the Duke of Avon’s son, Dominic Vidal, abducts the heroine after mistaking her for her sister. Of course she is compromised but refuses to marry him for quite a large number of pages before eventually marrying him in the end.
Hodge describes this period of Heyer’s life as one in which she completely immersed herself in research on the Regency period. She amassed a large library and kept files on Regency slang. Much of the Regency jargon that we read today – slow-top, hubble-bubble, pishery pashery -comes from this extensive research.
Then in 1935 Heyer published Regency Buck and her career as a Regency writer, the founder of the Regency sub-genre truly began.
In the 1930’s Heyer also wrote some straight historicals which are remembered today. The Infamous Army is remembered as a book in which the battle scene descriptions were so well researched that it was used as a basis for some college lectures. Many readers also remember The Spanish Bride, a historical novel based in fact.
But when I asked writers to talk about the later Heyer regencies that intrigued them it was mostly the books of the forties, fifties and sixties that came to mind. Carla Kelly, a romance writer who has read almost no romance with the exception of Heyer, wrote me this about Arabella:
“How do I love Arabella? Let me count the ways. She’s just sweet enough, and has a social conscience (re: the chimney sweep – if I don’t have the right book, I’m embarrassing myself). And she gets deeper and deeper in trouble with a harmless lie told to an arrogant man, who deserved it. What all this means is that Heyer was so adept with plot, and how character moves that plot in the right direction. Reading Georgette Heyer is a good lesson for all Regency writers. She could pace a story like nobody else.”I think Arabella and Sprig Muslin are my favorites, following closely by Frederica. Is there a better animal in all of light fiction than Lufra, the Baluchistan hound? I laugh just thinking about him.
“Here’s a personal aside about Heyer. My older sister read her, too, during one perfectly awful winter when her youngest child was born quite premature at 2.3 pounds, and dipped down to 1.9 before surgery. Jyoti was 100 miles away in the hospital in Spokane, and Karen said she (Karen) just died regularly every time the phone rang. The only thing that kept Karen going was Heyer novels. I get choked up every time I think about Karen and Jyoti and Georgette Heyer. The story does have a happy ending. Jyoti graduates from high school next month with honors and will be attending the U of Florida with a music/math double major.
“Yeah, I like Georgette Heyer. She does great things for me as a writer, and helped my sis through a rough patch.”
Heyer next published The Grand Sophy, a Cinderella type story. Jean Ross Ewing, author of a number of Regencies and regency-set historicals, was delighted to tell me her memories of it:
“The Grand Sophy was the first romance I ever read – I received it as a Xmas present when I was a teenager and was instantly hooked. Many, many years before I began writing myself! I think I was influenced for life by Heyer’s humor and the way she created a totally believable Regency world.”In TGS, Heyer gives us a classic romance mix, the independent-minded, strong heroine and the cool, elegant hero who’s beset with problems. I love this contrast. You can see something similar in my last Regency, Love’s Reward, where the heroine is very unusual for her time, but still constrained by the rules of her Regency world, and the hero is very cool, but carrying a dreadful inner torment. OTOH, Heyer’s hero’s problems in TGS are mostly domestic ones, whereas my hero’s problems are rooted in his more wide-spread experiences in the world. In LR, the hero was seen to have allowed his first wife to be killed in Spain to save his own life – not something Heyer would have used.”
Reader April Dancer also loved The Grand Sophy, remarking:
“I remember The Grand Sophy with such fondness. I haven’t read Heyer since the early 1970s when I was a high school student, but every time I pick up a Regency I can’t help but to think of her. There is the ubiquitous references to Almack’s, the strict manners, the fashions and hair. It all started with Heyer I think, because there’s little of it in the literature of the Regency period itself. I think the characteristics of today’s romances that are attributable to Heyer include The Rake, The Fop and the ubiquitous dukes. And also the heroines who are TSTL, blue stockings, and modern women who seem to be the fish out of water in the Regency.”
In the late 1950s, Heyer published Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. Stanislava Ivanova, a frequent AAR visitor, loved this book and was kind enough to provide me with this description:
“Sylvester is the quintessential catch – rich, handsome, titled, cynical. In order to marry he has compiled a list of the most eligible debutantes. Miss Marlowe is nowhere near his requirements – too plain, timid, not rich enough, but daughter to his mother’s deceased friend he promised to visit. A twist: she secretly wrote a Gothic novel, where, because he once snubbed her at Almack’s he features as the villain. A lot of misunderstandings, plot twists, etc. throw them together and they gradually discover they are attracted. The climax comes when, because he has compromised her in the eyes of society, he has to offer marriage and she refuses – a real eye opener for him. A very rich and satisfying story – he gets his comeuppance and they find love.”
Next came Venetia, a book which Hodge tells us had one of the most liberated of Regency heroines and apparently a realist about men. Hodge quotes her as saying that she does not wish the hero to promise faithfulness as that is not realistic. One wonders what would happen to a romance author who dared such a statement today?
The Unknown Ajax was published in 1959. For Sheri Cobb South, author of The Weaver Takes a Wife and Miss Darby’s Duenna, this Heyer release is the one that made the difference for her. She wrote, “I think Georgette Heyer is probably the greatest single influence on my writing. I collect her books (including the hard-to-find contemporary novels she wrote in the 1920s), but if my house caught on fire and I only had time to save one, I’d grab The Unknown Ajax on my way out. The humor is unsurpassed, and Hugo Darracott is such a wonderful hero!”
A Civil Contract was published in 1961. Stanislava Ivanova once again provides the description:
“Young nobleman returns from the Peninsular Wars to find his father dead, estate on the verge of bankruptcy. The only way out is to marry for money a rich merchant’s daughter and forget the lovely, vivacious but not very rich society girl. The story goes from there. His wife – secretly in love with him – is plump, has no sense of style or polish, but manages to create a wonderful and warm home for him and his younger siblings. Although for most (2/3s of the story) he is in love with another, he gradually comes to understand that she would have made his life hell with her dramatics and by the end, with the birth of his son he begins to appreciate and value and love, his wife. Maybe not so romantic, but immensely warm and satisfying. Very realistic too, no sudden changes of heart but gradual and very subtle shifts of emotion.”
The next book is The Nonesuch. I have to admit that this book will always hold a special place for me because it is my first Georgette Heyer book. One of the things that impressed me about it was the variety of characters in the book. As in Jane Austen, Heyer describes an entire community of people. EP, another long-time AAR visitor, wrote of The Nonesuch:
“. . . regarding the book having a ‘larger,’ less ‘claustrophobic’ quality to it, taking time to get to know a whole neighborhood of characters, and time with the hero and heroine so that we really understand their romance, how and why the characters fall in love. This is pretty much what I mean about the better romances of the past that I have liked so much.”When I talk about a book being character-driven, this is the kind of book I mean, a book that presents and develops characters so that you understand what makes them tick, see how and why they fall in love, and really believe that they are in love (and not just lust). I often see the term ‘character-driven’ applied merely to a book where characters’ thoughts are emphasized over plot. I don’t particularly like this any more than readers who like a lot more ‘plot’ do.”
Upon finishing The Nonesuch, I immediately wrote a DIK Review of it. What amazed me was that so many people then wrote to me to congratulate me for having found Heyer. I felt like I’d just been given the secret handshake for a special club about which I previously knew nothing but had been lucky enough to gain entry! EP’s musings on the book articulated many of my own first thoughts.
I could go on and on about individual books such as Frederica and Cousin Kate, but I’d rather mention a few more things about Heyer herself.
“I haven’t studied Heyer’s writing contemporaries, but I think perhaps she developed the modern style of opposites attract. Even Jane Austen does not use contrasting characters in the way Heyer does.”I was playing with some titles that came first to mind – my favorites.
- The maiden and the rake – Venetia, Devils Cub, These Old Shades
- The innocent and the jaded sophisticate – Arabella, Sylvester, Corinthian, April Lady
- The lively lady and the stuffed shirt – The Grand Sophy
- The lady of quality and the outsider – Black Sheep, Lady of Quality
- Guardian/Ward – Regency Buck
- Sensible woman and the grand catch – Frederica, Sprig Muslin, Reluctant Widow
“This is, in effect, the ‘arsonist and the firefighter’ which Nora Roberts advocates. We see it clearly in her JD Robb books where we have the cop and the criminal, the billionaire and the woman who has no time for frills, etc.
“In Heyer’s world – mostly the regency – a structured society is a crucial component because something has to bring about a meeting of these unlikely people. Or, if they are not so unlikely, try to split them up.
“It seems to me that the attraction of opposites is different to the other style of mid-twentieth-century romances where the conflict to the love relationship was often based on misunderstandings or the other woman – the red-fingernailed lady. The latter seems to have lingered longer in contemporaries, whereas the former has had more to do with historicals. This could be because most contemporary situations lack a social structure that will bring the opposites together in a believable manner.”
While I would not compare Heyer with Austen, I do think Jo’s comments are intriguing. How about you? Please be sure to share your thoughts when it’s time to post to the message board. and had fun with the story.”
On What They All Said (by Laurie Likes Books):
I hope you all have enjoyed Robin’s in-depth look at the works and influence of Georgette Heyer. The genesis of this column began in March, when we looked at the influence of the “bodice-rippers” of the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Based on posts made to the ATBF message board, Robin and I began to talk about the idea of a romance time-line – how far back could it go, and what would be included on it? Further discussion revealed perhaps less of a time-line than a romance family tree with several branches. One branch was indeed those bodice-rippers while yet another was the Gothic. During message board discussions on the Gothic, we began to be intrigued by another couple of branches – one for Georgette Heyer, and another for authors of historical novels, such as Anya Seton, Elswyth Thane, and Susan Howatch. When Mary Jo Putney and I talked, she suggested adding branches for Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Stewart.
As I began to go through my roledex of author contacts, I remembered which authors had mentioned Heyer (or the Regency Romance), Seton, or other historical authors. Janet Evanovich, for instance, indicated a couple of years ago that, “the hero/heroine formula of Joe and Stephanie is straight out of a regency.” Though she’s never read Heyer, she recently told me she was influenced both by Mary Jo Putney and Amanda Quick.
One author directly influenced by Heyer is Merline Lovelace, whom I first interviewed in 1996. As she remarked during that interview, “After discovering Georgette Heyer in college, I spent the next summer driving to the libraries all over New England to hunt down her books. Years later, my husband walked 20 blocks with me through the pouring rain in London to a bookstore, so I could track down the only book of hers I didn’t own.”
Merline added to her comments on Heyer just last week, and mentioned Seton as well:
“Oooooh, you’ve just hit on two of my all-time favorite authors. I love the work of both authors, Heyer for her wonderful characterization and humor, Seton for her ability to drop you right in the middle of sweeping historical events and carry you along with them.”I consciously try to emulate Heyer’s subtlty and shading when it comes to crafting my characters. An example is Isabella Chessington – the heroine in Mismatched Hearts, part of an upcoming Harlequin Historicals Regency Romance anthology with Mary Jo Putney and Gayle Wilson.
“Belle comes from a background similar to that of my favorite Georgette Heyer heroine, Sophie, in The Grand Sophy. Both traveled extensively with eccentric fathers, although Belle’s travels took her to rather more exotic lands. Both return to Regency England to find love. Belle’s unconventional upbringing has given her a breezy self-confidence and shrewd grasp of the realities of life, yet underneath her sophisticated exterior lurks a heart every bit as vulnerable as any sheltered young miss’s to that elusive emotion called love.
Mismatched Hearts is my first actual Regency Romance, and I’ll admit I was nervous about writing a Regency. With so many devoted Heyer fans out there (myself included!), it’s important to get the details right. I did a tons and tons of research, then just dove in and had fun with the story.”
Robin and I hope that those of you who do not read Regency Romance and/or have not read Georgette Heyer were not put off by this column. Because the Heyer branch of the romance family tree has been such a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on authors of historical and contemporary romance, we wanted to share with you the excitement that mention of her name elicits in both readers and authors such as McNaught, Putney, Coulter, Roberts, and Evanovich.
In the coming months, we will continue to work on the romance family tree and hope that many of you will want to work on it with us. Feel free to use our ATBF message board, to join the Old Romance Novels discussion list Robin has been moderating in recent weeks, and/or to email either Robin or myself.
“The first romance novel that I remember reading was by Georgette Heyer. I was about fifteen or so, an avid reader, deeply into science fiction and fantasy novels, and generally known as an ‘egghead’ because of all the books I carried with me. My friends told me Id never get a boyfriend with all those books I carried. I said I didnt care.”In other words, I was brainy and extremely shy. However, that didnt mean I didnt surreptitiously glance at boys from the corner of my eyes while pretending to read. My friend, Patricia, who read romances by the ton (and was writing one herself), and no doubt thinking it was the way to introduce me to the concept of boys, gave me a book by Georgette Heyer – Venetia, I believe.
“I was totally entranced. I began scarfing up every book by Georgette Heyer as if they were cordial-filled chocolates. I bugged my parents to take me to libraries for miles around just in case there was a copy I had overlooked. I read her books over and over again. Then I searched for more books set during the Regency. When I couldnt find those, I began to research the Regency period with all the passionate obsession of a teen. I read Regency period history, I drew Regency period costumes, I fantasized Regency, and thanked God on my knees that I lived in the 1970s and that long skirted Empire waist dresses were in, and I could pretend all day that I was a Regency miss. My parents never suspected my obsession – they thought I was doing a history report. I didnt enlighten them.
My friend Patricia didnt know what she started. I think she gave up on her matchmaking efforts when I took my book on the Duke of Wellington to school dances, content to lean against the wall and read. Callow teenaged boys could not compete with Wellington. Besides, none of them could fill out a pair of breeches and tailcoats the way a real Regency hero might.
“And yet, as my teen years progressed, I learned how to haughtily stare down those who teased me until they were silenced. I learned how to laugh at myself. And when at last I had my heart broken, I picked up a Georgette Heyer Regency Romance and remembered that there were, indeed, men out there who where as good and honorable as my brothers and my father.
“In the history of the Romance genre, Georgette Heyer looms large as one of the Founding Mothers. While we can point to various influences on such subgenres as the Gothic and the sexy historical romance, Heyer is the starting point of the Regency Romance subgenre. While there are Regency authors who are heavily influenced by Jane Austen, and no doubt Heyer was as well, I think we can say that there was no Regency subgenre as such until Heyer wrote her books.
“Theres something about Georgette Heyers books that produced similar obsessiveness in her readers to the point that it gave rise to a whole subgenre called the Regency Romance whose influence spread beyond the romance genre. Theres the Friends of the English Regency, and even Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions have Regency cotillions.
“Filled with memorable characters, humor, and fast-paced and adventurous plotting, Heyers books have been read and loved the world over. Her attention to historical detail has built a Regency world in which many Regency authors since then have happily played and relied on. Heyers Regency is so real to many of her readers, and readers are so focused on the details of this world, that Regency authors have had to contend with an interesting dilemma: Do we stick to the world she created, even if it means including historically inaccurate sentiments and facts, or do we go for the accuracy and risk readers contention that what weve written is not accurate – that is, accurate according to Heyers Regency? (And yes, she has been inaccurate – sometimes on purpose.)
“That is the power of Heyers writing, her stories, and her world-building. Her stories are so memorable, inviting, and compelling that you believe. You believe in what shes created to the point that you feel in your heart it has to be real. And when youre done living in that world for that space of time it takes to read one of her books, you want it to go on.
“Readership for Regency Romances – and I mean Regency Romances, not the longer Regency-set historicals – has fallen off over the years, despite a strong and persistent core of fans. Aside from problems with distribution, the reasons for the falling off are myriad. Sometimes I wonder if its because no Regency Romance can be anything but a pale copy of Heyers. Ive long abandoned the idea of trying to imitate what she has accomplished, and have settled for a solid Regency tone and being grateful for having the chance to play in Heyers world. No daughter can be a complete duplicate of her mother, or should be, and as a Regency ‘daughter,’ I love and respect Heyer as the Mother of the Regency Romance, and know that I will naturally write differently. However, whatever else I might write, my work will always have her touch in some way. How can I not?
These days, I still re-read my Heyers. One day, my teenaged son came to me, upset that he was being teased by a bully. I looked at him and said in my most aristocratic way, ‘That bully is a coward. You are a Harbaugh and come from a long line of Harbaughs: he is beneath your notice. He is as dust beneath your feet. Pay no attention to him.’
“Interestingly, it worked. The bully stopped bothering my son once my son took this attitude. If you can navigate through the dangerous shoals of Almacks, you can navigate through adolescence. Trust me on this.”
We don’t plan to revisit our romance family tree for another couple of months because we know these columns are not of interest to all our readers. We’ll return to our usual format and content on May 15th.
Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:
Have you read any of Georgette Heyer’s books? What about some Regency Romance? What influence do you see in Heyer and/or Regency Romance in general with the historical and/or contemporary romances you read today? Which books are your favorites by Georgette Heyer?
Which of the authors who spoke with us for this column have you read, do you read, and/or would you like to read based on their comments? If you’ve read any of them for a long period of time, what are some of the differences in their writing now as compared to earlier writings? Of those authors who used to write Regency Romances, which do you prefer – their Regencies, historicals, or their contemporaries (or contemporary romantic suspense)?
Many readers are put off by Regency Romances. If you are not among this group, what titles would you include in a Regency Conversion Kit?
Have you enjoyed our look back into the history of the modern romance nove? Do you find that this romance family tree we are trying to create is useful? When we come back to this topic in the future for a look at the influence of historical novelists, whom would you like us to discuss?
–Robin Nixon Uncapher