Georgette Heyer and Genre

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I’m afraid I’ve been bingeing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Poldark.  Outlander. And the inimitable Georgette Heyer’s regency romances.

Women Rejecting Marriage Proposals in Western Art History
what
no
i’m totally listening
this is my listening guitar
i’m playing my listening song
Source: http://the-toast.net/2014/11/06/women-rejecting-marriage-proposals-western-art-history/

I could explain it away as research, of course. Trying to immerse myself in the subtleties of the period so as to better to convey the context in which Elizabeth Macarthur lived.  But lets not kid ourselves. I’m just swept away by the romance – and possibly also by the many and obvious attractions of the leading men in the relevant TV adaptations.

And yes, you’re right, perhaps I spent a little too much time trying to find just the right photos with which to illustrate this post – but what can I say?  I’m dedicated.

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, in Outlander. Need I say more?

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, in Outlander. Need I say more

While I’m in the confessional mode, I might as well also admit that I’d never read a Georgette Heyer romance before this year. Why did no-one tell me what I was missing?

Of course they are formulaic – innocent fresh young woman meets darkly handsome dissolute rake; various barriers to romance are overcome; her virtue and good sense encourages him to become a Good Man; cue the wedding waltz and happily ever after music. But all done with such style, and wit, and loveliness! And only formulaic in the sense that crime fiction is too: there is a crime, and we find out over the course of the novel whodunnit and/or, sometimes, howdunnit.

In Heyer’s regency world (the Regency period formally lasted 1811–1820 but is often used to describe the whole Georgian period of 1795–1837) the charming girl always gets her man.  The pleasure lies in finding out just how they will come together through the maze of societal expectations, errors of identity, family approbation, want of funds and, often, one of the pair’s own better judgement.

Jane Austen may well be the original master but Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) is no literary slouch. Her beautifully written and thoroughly researched work crackles with life and fun – her books are full of droll little episodes which are laugh-out-loud funny. With words in them like ‘droll’. Her heroines are in the mould of Elizabeth Bennet: intelligent, articulate and not without personal flaws. Her heroes are much less the upright (and uptight) Mr Darcy and much more like Wickham, only with money and brains and moral scruples, despite their bad-boy reputations. Who doesn’t love a bad boy?

Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark. Smouldering.

Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark. Smouldering.

According to Wikipedia Heyer has eight Georgian romance novels and twenty-six Regency ones, which bodes well given that I’ve only read four so far: A Convenient Marriage; Arabella; Devil’s Cub; and Venetia. Heyer also has thrillers and other stories but I’m not tempted. Heyer’s romances are like dessert at a fine restaurant, sweet and definitely more-ish.

But I’m not here to talk about Heyer, really. I’ve little to say about her that hasn’t been said before, and better. Try Georgette Heyer’s biography, for instance, written by Australian Jennifer Kloester. And I’d love to hear what Sue at Whispering Gums, Austen fan par excellence, has to say about Georgette vs Jane.

The real point of this post is about genre, and literary judgementalism. By which I mean, the fact that some folk can get pretty judgemental about what other folk read.  And I’m not sure why. Read whatever floats your boat, blows your hair back, rocks your socks, or melts your butter. Who cares what we read as long as we do!  Read, I mean.

I’ve said it before but here it is again: genre is a great way to choose which book we want to read on any given day but it’s never a good way to judge a book. There are excellent books in every genre.  There are awful books in every genre.  And by genre I mean all the fiction shelves in the bookshop – literary fiction being just as much a genre as crime, or fantasy, or rural romance.

My non-academic friends who have read all the Outlander books love that in doing so they learnt about eighteenth century Scotland (and about time travel too, but let’s not go there). All those readers of Fifty Shades of Grey may well have been reading poorly written tripe, but at least they were reading.  Because frankly you can get more – and better – for free on the internet (but let’s not go there, either.)  I was put off reading Heyer for years by my own misconceptions and bias and it’s been a delight (and an awakening) to find out how wrong I was.

So tell me: what books were you wrong about?

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30 responses »

  1. Well, I’ve already publicly outed myself as a Georgette Heyer fan, and I also have big collections of SF, Maigret, and Simon Templar. But ‘wrong about’ … I’m not sure. Though I’m certainly judgemental (and probably inconsistent) about certain revisionist historical fictions – love The Timeless Land/seriously dislike The Secret River.

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    • We are all a bit judgemental from time to time, I think. The key thing probably is being self-aware enough to realise it. Right now I can’t read historical fiction set during the same era as Elizabeth Macarthur – I know too much to be able to suspend disbelief!

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  2. I was wrong about true crime. Used to think it was just a sensationalist genre but have come to think it can be profound at it’s best – thanks partly to literary entrants like Helen Garner.

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  3. Ha ha, I’ve been outed by my regular use of ‘droll’. I must have learned this word when I read Georgette Heyer as a girl, and it’s stayed in my vocabulary.
    IMO it’s the people who write genre novels who get worked up about it. I don’t care what anyone else reads, I don’t think what I read is superior to what other people read, I just don’t like what I’ve read of various genres and so I’ve found that they’re not for me. To be polite or friendly I’ve read a fair few of the books that people say transcend the genre label and I’ve not had my opinion changed. But so what? Why should anyone care? Especially not authors of genre fiction who are raking in dollars that would make the authors of LitFic wince.

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    • You are right about genre writers, I think. Some, at least, do seem to get very uptight about their ‘place’ in the literary world. And some LitFic writers do get similarly sniffy (or jealous) about the money. I’m with you – each to their own!

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  4. No, no, no Michelle! You must read These Old Shades before you read Devil’s Cub – and I think An Infamous Army features some of the same characters later at Waterloo. Enjoy.
    On a more serious note, I’ve often wondered what her sources were. She gets the regency scene right to a large degree – the details about doctors and midwives, and even her characterization of some of the doctors like Sir Henry Halford (A Civil Contract) seem to me spot on.

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    • Oh that’s good news. I’ll read those two and then I’ll be ‘forced’ to read Devil’s Cub again – excellent!
      If I remember I’ll try to do some research about her sources. Heyer’s biographer Jennifer Kloester has an earlier book, called Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, which I have (somewhere). I’ll find it and see if it answers. I’ve not read Kloester’s Heyer biography (and it was only released in the last few years) but now I’m a Heyer fan I probably will do so.
      The accuracy and usefulness of historical information within fiction is interesting – it’s certainly how I’ve obtained a great deal of historical knowledge (mainly about sailing and naval warfare – thanks Patrick O’Brian). There are some fiction writers whose historical accuracy I just trust (Heyer, Mantel, and O’Brian, for example). But how do you know you can trust it? Or, given that I am unlikely to indulge in naval warfare any time soon, does it (she asks, courting controversy) even matter?

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  5. I’ve never read any Heyer even though one of good friend/book guru’s loves and adores Heyer. It’s not that I have a thing against the genre, but I spent a lot of my teens and twenties devouring Jean Plaidy’s royalty books. I read a few of her Victoria Holt gothic romances as well, but the goings on of the royal families in Europe sucked me in every time! Heyer’s drawing room romances don’t appeal quite as much.

    During my twenties I also loved some of Laura Black’s Scottish historical romances (who I’ve just discovered on goodreads was a man – Roger Longrigg!) I also read a lot of Catherine Gaskin’s historical romances – I loved her ones set in Australia (I’m planning on rereading two for AusReading Month in Nov) to see if they’ve held up at all.

    We all have our guilty secrets 🙂

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  6. I’m so sorry I missed this post. I didn’t get the trackback – I’ve noticed that happens sometimes and have been told it may be in the originator blogger’s settings? Anyhow, double jeopardy because I also somehow I missed it in my in-box (which is very large at present!). Life has been busy and I’ve been falling behind in keeping up with blogs.

    So now this is where I say I have never read Georgette Heyer. I just wasn’t interested when all my friends were reading her in our teens. I either read classics or more contemporary fiction – Nevil Shute was the oldest I got really! I was not interested in historical fiction – and didn’t read any of the authors my friends read, though I can name them for you! My Jane Austen group decided a year or so ago to discuss her and we all agreed to read one. I read a few pages of one and just couldn’t read it. I just didn’t find the writing engaging or interesting. Some at the group like reading her, and others don’t, but they all said that the best is An infamous army. If I’d read that, I might have liked it. But, this is just personal taste about what I do and don’t like to read.

    In terms of Heyer versus Austen, I think people (not you though, I’m aware) often forget that Heyer was writing historical fiction, while Austen was writing contemporary fiction. She was writing about her own time. That makes them very different works. Heyer doesn’t write Jane Austen sorts of stories as far as I understand her novels. Heyer’s stories are not about small villages and small groups of families, but are set on bigger stages and mostly amongst the wealthy. Austen’s characters are mostly middle class, and even those who are wealthy live in the country and attend quiet social events. Her themes involve critiques of society and of human behaviour.

    I have heard Kloester speak. She’s very engaging, and I do love that Heyer loved Austen!

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    • I hope you don’t mind me having my two bobs worth to Sue, Michelle. Heyer’s regency era novels are of two distinct types. There are the romantic melodramas which are often laugh out loud funny (such as False Colours which I read last night) and the historical fiction which she was very careful to get right, although it still includes a bit of romance for colour.

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    • Oh Sue – what a warm and generous response – thanks! And your points about the differences between what and how Heyer and Austen wrote are right on the money. That you didn’t like reading Heyer just proves my point, I think. Different people like different books and that’s entirely as it should be. BTW, I’ll check my blog settings too… Hope you’re busy in a good way and not the other kind.

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      • Thanks Michelle. Exactly as I see it re what we like to read.

        yes, please, do check your setting. I think it’s this one: Settings – Discussion – and then tick the one that says “Attempt to notify any blogs linked to from the article”. I think that’s it. If it’s already ticked then who knows. I have that ticked and the one below which says I accept Trackbacks and Pingbacks, so I should receive it if you send it. That said, I do think there are some furphies or things I don’t understand in all this!

        Yes, mostly busy in a good way, but a bit of the other too with estate business in Sydney and ageing parents here!

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        • Hmmm. Already ticked. WordPress gremlins maybe? I plan to upgrade to Premium soon but am a bit nervous about how it will affect the status quo.

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        • Gremlins then. I’ve missed others that I’ve come across later by accident. I don’t know why it happens sometimes. All the support people told me was to make sure the right things are ticked at receiver and sender ends.

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        • As for going premium, you mean staying .com but buying your own domain so you drop the WordPress in your name? I did it a few years ago. It was a big setback in terms of Google hits that took a long time to recover but the people who knew me, who comment weren’t last. It’s worth doing so you might as well bite the bullet sooner rather than later…before your book is published?

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        • Useful tip, thanks Sue. Might need a separate post about domain names and moving to WordPress premium! Before the book is published I’ll need to think about hosting my own pages, I think, rather than letting WordPress do so. I’ve already registered the (multiple) relevant domain names.

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