I’m not actually certain when I read my first Georgette Heyer. I know it was her anthology of Regency short stories, Pistols for Two, because I vividly remembered both the cover and several of the plot lines decades later, but I must have read it before the age of twelve, because the memories are inseparably connected to a specific armchair that didn’t survive much past that. I also entered a tomboy phase about then that precluded my even entertaining the thought of such drivel as historical romance.
But inevitably my tomboy phase ended and I swung to the other side of the pendulum, yearning for romance. In my inexperience, I unwisely pilfered an older sister’s hoard of Harlequins, quickly becoming jaded to the genre when I realized I do not appreciate sex or inuendo. After that, I turned up my nose at anything that looked suggestive—including, unfortunately, Georgette Heyer, because her ‘80s covers were just as bad as all the rest. (Witness this horrific example, April Lady, 1982)
But I had been bitten by the Regency bug, so I found myself drawn to Jane Austen and Baroness Orczy, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with the time period, the language, the manners, the fashions, and the restrained but passionate emotions, and I wanted more. Occasionally, I’d try another modern historical romance, but most of these disappointed me because the very restraint I thought made everything so compelling and exciting in Austen’s work was abandoned, and they seemed more like modern romances dressed up in Regency period costumes.
Then finally, one summer when I was in my forties, another older sister came to visit and brought a box of old Heyers—with the awful covers—and when she offered one to me, I politely and righteously refused. But she knew better, and instantly set about disabusing me of my misapprehensions, pulling out the very edition of Pistols for Two that I remembered from my youth as proof. I was amazed to have been so terribly wrong for so hideously long, and agreed to give The Convenient Marriage a try. Needless to say, after two chapters I was hooked.
Deeply shocked that my life-long prejudice had kept me from such joy, I proceeded to read every Heyer I could get my hands on, quickly accumulating my own collection. How could I not? Here was finally a writer who incorporated everything I loved about classic romance, with just a touch of modern readability and humor—and she had thirty-some-odd books!
As an English language geek, I can’t get enough of the language in Heyer’s stories. It is so deliciously smooth and yet exact, something that modern language often lacks. I know Heyer’s language is considered by some scholars to be Edwardian rather than Regency, but what I’ve come to recognize as an American studying British works is that the written language didn’t evolve very much at all during the hundred years between Austen and Heyer. Just look at the Brontës and Dickens—their language is so similar to Austen’s that many readers continually confuse the Victorian era with the Regency. There are also other Regency writers who have a more casual writing style, like Fanny Burney, whose language is closer to Heyer’s. All in all, I feel that Heyer beautifully preserved the precision and feel of earlier language in a slightly more relatable form to modern readers.
I’m also in awe of Heyer’s humor. It is so unexpected and yet delightfully apropos. For an author who has been accused of racism and class prejudice, she certainly poked fun at the English upper classes a lot, exposing their faults and excesses and laughing at their self-consequence with abandon. No one was safe from her needle wit, from the Patronesses of Almack’s to the Duke of Wellington to the Prince Regent himself. She didn’t spare the lower classes either, but more often showed them in a sympathetic or superior light, emphasizing their wisdom as opposed to that of their “betters.”
Which brings me to her remarkable characters. She was as adept a student of human nature as classic authors, drawing her characters with a balance of virtues and flaws that imbued them with realism and life. No character is simply a side character—they all have dimension and history. They’re just so delightfully human that we want to take them to our bosoms as family. I think I’ve read The Corinthian and The Convenient Marriage ten times each, just to savor every moment with them. Even her villains are realistic, their fatal flaws stemming from reasonable causes and believable backgrounds. But many of her villains are multi-faceted, despicable and yet possessing redeemable qualities that cry out to be explored. Jack from Cotillion, for example, might just find himself in one of my books someday as a rake compelled by true love to reform.
While I don’t claim to have mastered Georgette Heyer’s style—because who ever could—I certainly write in homage to her. She, along with Jane Austen, instilled in me an insatiable love of the Regency, an appreciation for subtle but witty humor, and a fascination with deep characters and involved plots. In my humble opinion, there is no better style than theirs to emulate in the genre of Regency romance.