Growing Up With Georgette Heyer
She’s been so much a part of my young days and she’s still like a familiar friend that I go back to when I need a laugh. Any book of hers I found, I bought. It’s a collection I wouldn’t part with for anything. For me, she’s on par with Jane Austen – and I discovered Jane Austen after I read Georgette Heyer.
Georgette Heyer has been dismissed by many as just another romance writer. You need to read her to know just how unfair that is. She couldn’t be more different from a romance writer like Barbara Cartland as chalk from cheese. This was the writer who brought the Regency romance genre into being – and what a wonderful, well-researched picture she paints of Regency England with words. Her books bring to life the Nonpareils of fashion in that era, all the nitty-gritty’s of high ton at its best, every little fashionable quirk from the late 18th to the early 19th century and the London of Almack’s, highwaymen, intricately carved snuffboxes, masked balls and curricles.
It all began for me at 10 when I was down with a bout of the flu and my mother came home with an armful of books from the library – one of them was Devil’s Cub and the author was Georgette Heyer. A few pages into the book and I was a goner – a Georgette Heyer addict for life. Decades later, I still reach out for a well-thumbed copy and the choice of titles depends on my mood. The great thing about her books is the incredible humour. Sure, there are the stereotypes that are found in many of her books. The masked villain, the stuttering young buck, the foppish old gentlemen, the beady-eyed dowagers. The books always have a romantic angle – it is the structure around which the story is constructed. However, romance is not the crux of each book – just a barebones structure that allows for wordplay between the characters that assume an almost lifelike presence. Her research is meticulous – and whether it was the wars or the events of the time, even the fashion, she did a lot of painstaking work to make sure that each book and the period it was set in was as true to life as she could make it. From the elegance of Regency England fashion with its foibles, to the understated dress trends with Beau Brummell – she paints pictures so vivid, it’s just like being there.
In her historical romances, she hardly ever states what year it is – but all the inferences, the events, the fads are spot on. She could be seen in the libraries and the museums, taking down notes and she did her level best to make sure that even the speech and expressions were as true to the period as possible. Hers is Wodehousian wit taken out of the countryside and the gentlemen’s clubs to the lavishly furnished drawing rooms, card rooms and watering holes of London, Bath and Brighton – with a few quick trips to Paris.
In real life, she was probably more like Mary, the heroine in Devil’s Cub than Leonie, the young red-haired beauty in These Old Shades. To think that her first novel was written to amuse her brother who was ill – at the tender age of 17! She went on to publish 50 titles after that – and 2 were published after she died. Georgette Heyer was her real name and once she got married, she was quite content to be Mrs. Ronald Rougier and remain in the background, letting her books do the talking. In fact, many of her readers knew her married name only when her death was announced in the newspapers. Anyone who has read her books can’t just dismiss her as a mere romance writer. While Barbara Cartland might have been prolific, churning out books to a formula and rarely bothering about how authentic her background was, Heyer was meticulous and thorough.
Like Shakespeare, she used the ‘masquerading as the opposite gender’ so very well in some of her books like The Masqueraders and These Old Shades. Like the plots of the Bard, this cross dressing made for some delightful and hilarious scenes in her books. She also tried her hand at murder mysteries and a few of her books are very in the Agatha Christie mould. However, swashbuckling romance was her speciality and she handled it as delicately as any of her expert horsemen protagonists – never too much to be racy, never too slow to be a bore. The ride was always punctuated with acerbic wit and fond humour of the best kind – and it made millions of her fans come back to read again and again.