Sunday, June 04, 2006

Comfort Reading

A few days ago, I had begun re-reading Faro’s Daughter for, I think, the twentieth time when I decided to do a post about Georgette Heyer. I kept postponing it for several reasons, but last night I landed up here and decided I had to write about one of my favourite writers. (Warning: nothing in the link above except for the title and the comments section has anything to do with Heyer).

Like Mills and Boons, most people will not admit to reading Georgette Heyer. But while M&Bs deserve their reputation for being utter tripe Heyer most certainly doesn’t. It does not help that Heyer—like Wodehouse—was first published by Mills and Boon in the days when they had better taste.

Heyer was almost single-handedly responsible for what is now known as Regency Romance; the difference is that her research was meticulous and detailed. Almost anybody who writes in the genre now draws, not from original sources, but from Heyer.

Since I’m reading Faro’s Daughter, here are a couple of random selections:

His hair, which was black, and slightly curling, was cut into something perilously near a Bedford crop. Lady Mablethorpe, who belonged to an older generation, and herself continued to make free use of the pounce-box, in spite of Mr. Pitt’s iniquitous tax on hair-powder, could never look upon the new heads without a shudder. (page 1, Bantam Edition)

And in the gaming hell that the heroine’s aunt runs, a cash crunch is exacerbated by the arrival of more bills.

Miss Grantham abandoned this line of argument, and returned to her study of the bills. Such items as Naples Soap, Patent Silk Stockings, Indian Toothbrushes, and Chintz Patches, mounted up to quite an alarming total; while a bill from Warren’s, Perfumiers, and another from a mantua-maker, enumerating such interesting items as One Morning Sacque of Paris Mud, Two Heads Soupir d’étouffes and One Satin Cloak trimmed Opera Brûlée Gauze, made her feel quite low. (page 44)

Heyer has been very useful for me; much of the history of the period I learnt because of what appeared in a book. In college, one lecturer teaching background history for the early 19th Century, said that it was easier to remember bloody wars than peaceful, dull legislations. To make her point, she said, “Everyone remembers 1815; but who remembers 1824?” When I said 1824 was the Reform Act, for which also Wellington was responsible, she was rendered speechless with shock. Heyer’s An Infamous Army is, I believe, a text at Sandhurst for its descriptions of battle and reconstruction of events.

But lest anyone think Heyer is all worthy, plodding description of history, let me hasten to add (heavens, I’m slipping into Heyerese) that she is very funny. A friend and I were travelling together to Bombay when we discovered a mutual passion for GH. In very little time, we were quoting large portions of dialogue from our favourites, much to the disgust of another friend who was also with us but might as well not have been. We laughed so much that evening that we were suddenly possessed of a strong desire (help! I can’t stop!) to renew our acquaintance with our old friends. I think I started on Venetia and my friend on Devil’s Cub.

The saddest thing about Heyer is that there is only so much to reread. I have all the historical romances (including the non-Regency ones such as The Conqueror, or Royal Escape) and all but one of her seven or eight murder mysteries. And still I wish there was more.

There is, actually. There were three or four romances she wrote that were set in the early 20th C, but she suppressed them. Extracts from these can be found here.

There’s a very good essay by A.S.Byatt on Heyer, which I used to have but have since lost. If anyone can find it anywhere, please send me a link. There’s a biography of Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge (she and her sister, Joan Aiken, both children’s writers, are Conrad Aiken’s daughters.)

1 comment:

the mad momma said...

I read a lot of Heyer. Grandmother was very strict about not touching M&B and so this was staple fare. I am so happy to find you have a soft spot for her writing too.