Like authors in every genre, romance writers cover a broad spectrum of imaginative ground. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and write to any number of inner aesthetics. Each one has a preferred archetype. From the bewilderingly naive traditional to the often bloody thriller, and every permutation in between, romance authors write to their personal tastes in in terms of pace, mood and degree of modernity. But if you were to get a group of romance writers together and ask them about their formative influences, the vast majority will mention one name: Georgette Heyer.
Born in Wimbleton in 1903, Georgette Heyer was very much a woman of her time, which is to say cultured, educated, and above all, discreet. She was a success with her very first book, Black Moth, published when she was nineteen, and remained so for the rest of her life. In fact when her husband decided to change careers, from mining engineer to barrister, it was her writing which supported the family: this, in the post WWI era, made her even more unique. When she died in 1974, she had more than fifty books in print, all of them bestsellers. But she never gave a single interview, nor did she ever make a single public appearance. No booksignings, no launches: nothing. After she married at twenty-three, she lived her private life as Mrs. Ronald Rougier. And though she said that anything anyone needed to know about her could be discovered in her books, she had four of her early novels suppressed because she felt that they were too autobiographical.
Black Moth is a story full of Georgian highwaymen and derring-do that she originally created to entertain her convalescent brother. Later, she re-developed some of the characters and featured them in These Old Shades, a marvellous court comedy set largely in pre-revolutionary Paris. Later still, the son of the two main characters in These Old Shades got his own book, The Devil’s Cub. So in many ways, she was the precursor of that standard of today’s publishing industry, the spinoff novel. But that’s not why Heyer is universally adored. What makes her such a seminal figure in the development of the modern romance was her ability to immerse readers in time and place, and that indefinable something called ‘voice’.
Most, though not all, of Heyer’s novels are set in the British Regency. In the strict sense, the British Regency spanned the years between 1811 and 1820, when King George III was declared insane and his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was made Prince Regent (though the broader Regency period is often extended to mean the years between 1800-1830). Heyer’s novels are sparkling clear windows into that time. Historical accuracy was vital to her, and her research into fashions, mores, and locations was intense. She lived in the cities she wrote about most often: Bath, London, York – and she investigated each from every possible aspect. Clothing, conveyences, street cant: every detail is spot on. In fact, one of her historical novels set around the battle of Waterloo was used in history classes for many years. Her ability to catapult readers deep into mores of the time is one of her great gifts.
The other, her inimitable voice, is harder to quantify. Certainly it has to do with her ability to create characters worth caring about, people with real feelings and real motivations. It’s also apparent in her brilliant dialogue. Often imitated by her successors, though never quite duplicated, Heyer created a standard for witty banter than has rarely been equaled, and she did it consistently. But above all her work is infused with charm. Not the facile sort that is easily forgotten, but the real thing: an allure that fascinates and delights, to a level that could almost be considered magic.
For those who just can’t quite bring themselves to try one of her romances, Heyer also wrote a dozen mystery novels. They too are historically accurate, though in their case the time period was Heyer’s own. Set in what was to Heyer the modern day, her mysteries have the tightly woven feel of detective novels written before the age of DNA evidence, when character-reading and clue-following reigned supreme. Her husband, a QC, vetted her plots for accuracy. Reading them offers a remarkable glimpse into English life between and following two World Wars, and the changing nature of societal interactions.
Whether writing hard-bitten mystery, piercingly accurate history or frothy romance, Georgette Heyer occupies a plane of her own. In particular, when it comes to romance, she was a trail-blazer. Hundreds of writers have followed in her footsteps. And if none have quite measured up, they have still managed to create a particularly strong and popular subgenre in her honour, called simply ‘Regency’.
Chris Szego has read all of Heyer’s novels but one, and if anyone should happen to have a copy of PASTEL, she’d love to borrow it.
Thanks for such a delightful introduction to Heyer. My curiosity is piqued. And what a cutie!
While I can think of a few contemporary celebrity romance authors, I’m not as aware of historically foundational writers. Are there others that you would consider canonical, or does Heyer stand alone for her influence within the genre?
Most definitely, Weed. I plan to touch on a few before bringing this column into the present. Next up is Mary Stewart.