Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective
We, as romance readers, have a healthy respect, even an attitude of veneration, toward Georgette Heyer; it’s widely acknowledged that she invented the modern Regency. But what about those outside the “romance ghetto”? How do they see Heyer? Do they take her seriously? What do they consider is her contribution, if any, to literature? Georgete Heyer: A Critical Retrospective offers material to answer these questions.
This is a compendium of articles, reviews, and essays written about Heyer, from 1921 to 1999. Also included are several non-fiction essays by Heyer herself, as well as three short stories – one a 1920’s contemporary, and two Regency historicals. Neither of the Regency stories is as good as the ones in her collection of shorts, Pistols for Two, but they’re still interesting. You want to know what contemporary critics thought of Heyer’s books as they appeared? It’s in here. Are you curious about the “feminist take” on Heyer? That’s here, too. You want to read what some literary critics thought of her romances and mysteries? Those essays are reprinted in this hefty volume.
The material is divided thematically and with minimal editorial comment or attempt to place in context. Heyer’s own stuff comes first, then the reviews, then the lit-crit essays and miscellaneous writings: obituaries, letters to the editor in reaction to something a paper printed on Heyer, even an interview, after his mother’s death, with her son Richard Rougier.
What did I come away with after reading the book? First of all, frustration. While the author is very upfront in stating that her purpose is not to recreate the biographical work done by Jane Aiken Hodge (The Private World of Georgette Heyer is the standard bio, and snatches of it appear here), she might have anticipated that not all readers of this present volume would be familiar with Hodge’s work. A very brief life-sketch – even a timeline – for her subject would not have been inappropriate, I think. Instead, I had to hobble together bits and pieces from the essays in the second half of the book to get an idea of the events of Heyer’s life.
Second, I came away feeling sad. Georgette Heyer did not like most of her fans, and thought that they admired her work for all the wrong reasons. She only kept one fan letter, and only answered those that asked what she considered “serious” questions of a historical nature. She hated the modern world, and toward the end of her life resented the fact that she had to write romances to pay the tax man; she considered this something that kept her from the work of her heart, a trilogy about the House of Lancaster. There’s something pathetic about a person who cannot gain satisfaction from the happiness she brings to others.
But finally, I was relieved to learn that some very serious lit-crit figures, among them historian Jacques Barzun and novelist A. S. Byatt, have voiced appreciation and admiration for Heyer’s literary legacy in both the romance and mystery genres. True, some of these essays are doctrinaire-feminist dismissals of her writing (Germaine Greer writes that exposure to Heyer at an early age predisposes women to fall for the lies and wiles of male seducers). A couple are downright silly and strike me as extraneous – do we really need to read an excerpt from “Some Notes on Negated Comparatives (+ ‘than’),” just because the author of this scholarly gem uses Heyer to illustrate his point? But some of these essays express an understanding of her ability to craft a well-written piece of popular literature, and voice appreciation for her grasp of history. They may even add depth to a re-reading of several of the Heyer classics so many of us love.
Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective is best suited to be picked up and read in snatches. The price tag is somewhat steep for the average recreational reader, and academic reading isn’t everyone’s idea of escapist literature. I’d hardly consider it a mandatory purchase, but if you’ve got the money, or if you’re someone who absolutely must have everything by or about the Grandmother of the modern Regency Romance, or if you’re just curious to see how “real writers” have perceived Heyer, you’ll probably be glad to get this book. And, if you’re interested in some wonderful Regency Romances published by Prinny World Press, check out those by Sherri Cobb South.