‘I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense’ wrote Georgette Heyer, ‘but I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from the flu.’
Nonsense Georgette Heyer’s regency romances may be, but there are times when they are just what the doctor ordered. From the first page we are taken into another world, knowing we are on safe ground where love and happiness will win through, in much the same way as Golden Age or cosy crime fiction leaves us with the reassurance that the baddies will get their come-uppance, good will triumph and order will be restored. Confidence and happiness is catching. Escapist literature gives us more than just a respite from our increasingly unpredictable and confusing world. It makes us feel better.
But why am I sounding so defensive? Perhaps because Georgette Heyer is sometimes viewed with disdainful superiority as being a literary stablemate of Barbara Cartland. Which is a mistake. This is not to criticise Barbara Cartland; I read one of her books when I was young and rather enjoyed it. But anyone who has read more than a page of the regency novels of these two authors knows how entirely different they are.
It’s not surprising that Jane Austen devotees are often voracious readers of Georgette Heyer; it’s not only the regency setting and happy endings the novels have in common but the perfect grasp of comedy. We never tire of the humorous aspects of Mr Bennet, Mrs Elton and Mr Collins and so it is with the unforgettable comic characters who pepper Georgette Heyer’s books. Ask Georgette Heyer fans about which novel or secondary character is the funniest and a clamour of opinions starts up, with Ferdy Fakenham in Friday’s Child a hot favourite.
Nor is it surprising that feminists often approve of Georgette Heyer because rather than creating soppy, milky heroines subservient to men, she shows us strong-minded, spirited young women who think and act for themselves: capable and feisty like Deborah in Faro’s Daughter and Sophy in The Grand Sophy who give as good as they get to any man who tries to rule them, intelligent and sensible like Drusilla in The Quiet Gentleman and Elinor in The Reluctant Widow.
Love doesn’t come one-size-fits-all either. We are shown mature love developing out of friendship in Sprig Muslin, the growth of self-knowledge and confidence in The Foundling, and a perceptive examination of the difference between infatuation and commitment in A Civil Contract.
‘A crash course in romantic novels – Georgette Heyer say – and men might learn what’s expected of them’ I made a disappointed character say with joking irony in my novel Of Human Telling. For Georgette Heyer offers us heroes to meet every changing taste as we grow older: boyishly charming Lord Sheringham in Friday’s Child, autocratic Lord Worth in Regency Buck, reformed rake Damerel in Venetia, philanthropic Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch, wild Lord Vidal in Devil’s Cub, unassuming, kind-hearted Freddy in Cotillion. They may be very different but they have one thing in common: we can feel quite certain that they will always be faithful to the women they come to love and marry.
Georgette Heyer fans endlessly re-read her novels, catch themselves using the regency slang used by her characters, and hoard their tattered paperbacks so that unlike popular thrillers or issue novels you rarely find secondhand copies in charity shops. As the entirely wonderful Freddy Standen in Cotillion would say, stands to reason!
A woman ‘must improve her mind by extensive reading’ pronounces Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and nobody can argue with the principle in spite of the haughty manner in which it is delivered here. But most of us need a varied diet – light-hearted, sun-filled novels as well as more serious, thought-provoking, questioning ones.
There are many other delightful authors whom we may turn to for sheer undemanding enjoyment or when we are feeling ill or in need of comfort. I only know that Georgette Heyer will always, like Sir Tristram Shield in The Talisman Ring, ride ventre à terre to my side.