Between the 1920s and 1970s, Georgette Heyer wrote nearly three dozen novels set Regency or Georgian times, along with a string of thrillers. I love me some Golden Age detective action, but this article is about her historical romances which, in my opinion, are sublime and nearly perfect examples of their type.
My mum had a shelf of Heyers on the landing the whole way through my childhood, but it was only when I was about 16 that I first picked one up (either False Colours or Cotillion, I can’t remember which) and that one led to another, which led to all of the ones she had and then to buying the ones that she didn’t. When my parents moved house a couple of years ago, mum passed them on to me as she “didn’t have space for them” any more, on the understanding that she could borrow them back if she wanted and that I wouldn’t get rid of them. Since then though, rather than borrowing them from me, she’s started re-buying them!
I have a lot of favourites, but if I was forced and could only have one, it would be The Grand Sophy. Sophy is feisty, independent, well-travelled and used to running her own life – and everyone else’s. She arrives back in England to live with her aunt and her cousins after her diplomat father is posted to South America. She finds them in the midst of a family crisis – with one daughter in love with an unsuitable poet and the eldest son engaged to a disagreeable bluestocking. Sophy proceeds to try to organise the household along more harmonious lines and arrange matches for her cousins and, in the end, herself.
What I love about Heyer’s female characters are that they’re not weak and wishy-washy pushovers, but they also don’t feel like modern women who have been supplanted to the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Her women aren’t simpering misses sitting around waiting for life to happen to them or for a man to make their life complete, but they’re not doing anything that feels jarringly out of period either. I have a weakness for American-written British-set historical romances (you know, the ones with the buxom heroines bursting out of their corsets on the covers) which lead a shamefaced existence* on the uppermost shelf of my tallest spare bedroom bookcase – and that’s a problem I find with some (but by no means all) of their heroines.
One of the feistiest and most independent of Heyer’s heroines is Léonie in These Old Shades – who we first meet as Léon the page when he is bought “body and soul” by Justin, Duke of Avon – known as Satanas because of his lack of morals. Heyer books always have a lot plot and not a lot of yearning looks or heaving bosoms and Shades is a great example of this. At the start of the book Justin is a thoroughly disreputable character who buys Léon not to free him from a life of abuse and mistreatment, but because he sees a method of being revenged on one of his enemies. Léonie is in love with Avon almost from the start, but you’re not sure until the very end, after the plot has taken you from France to England and back to France again, whether Avon’s motives have changed at all. Most of Heyer’s books are standalones, but Shades is unusual in that some of the characters have appeared before, albeit with different names and in a less developed form, in The Black Moth – and Justin, Léonie and Rupert all appear again in Devil’s Cub (which I also love) where Justin and Léonie’s son Dominic – who has all of his father’s faults and his mother’s temper but does at least have a conscience – runs off with a virtuous young lady who is trying to protect her sister’s honour.
In Regency Buck (another with a sort-of sequel – An Infamous Army of which more later) another strong minded heroine comes up against a domineering alpha-male and, dear reader, you may start to see a pattern in the sort of heroes that I like. Preferably tall, dark and handsome, he needs to be bossy, clever and with a bit of a dark side or at the least a temper – like Buck‘s Julian St John Audley, the titular Sylvester or best of all Damerel in Venetia. But they also need to be up against a smart woman who is prepared to stand up for herself and what she wants. I don’t want to see any woman being forced into a marriage by a man who holds all the power. The Heyers that come off my shelf the least are ones like Cotillion (Freddy’s too thick), Friday’s Child (Hero the heroine is too wet), Cousin Kate (Kate’s too stupid to see the trouble coming) and A Civil Contract (Adam needs a good slap).
Those are the exceptions though and just looking along the shelf is like seeing group of old friends – they live in the sitting room so I have them to hand if I need them! If you’ve never read any Georgette Heyer, may I heartily recommend you have a look now – particularly if you are a fan of authors like Eloisa James or Julia Quinn. They don’t have the sex that modern historicals do – in fact there’s barely any kissing, but they’re still breathtakingly romantic in places and have tight well-structured plots – and a wealth of meticulously researched historical detail (An Infamous Army was required reading for trainee army officers because its descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo are so accurate – it also features Julian and Judith from Regency Buck and a cameo from a much older Dominic and Mary from Devil’s Cub) that I can only imagine the current crop of authors have drawn on. It also says a lot that more than ninety years since her first book was published and forty years (this year in fact) since Georgette Heyer died, her Regency/Georgian romances are still in print.
I like them so much I even have a couple of them on my kindle and as audiobooks in case I need a fix when I’m away from home. And, while I was taking the photos for this article I discovered I’ve got a couple of duplicates of my own – I think I bought the pretty Pan paperbacks of The Talisman Ring and The Masqueraders when I was living in Essex – in the days when mum had most of the Heyers…
* Thank you Peter Wimsey for that turn of phrase (From Busman’s Honeymoon, about his collection of press cuttings about Harriet)