HEYER'S HEROINES - True love in a plausibly real world

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By Mukul Kesavan mukulkesavan@hotmail.com
  • Published 24.01.08

Georgette Heyer wrote a sequence of ‘Regency’ romances in the middle years of the 20th century. Strictly speaking many of her romances aren’t set in Regency England at all, a period that lasted ten years between 1811 and 1820, when mad George III was declared unfit to rule and his son (later George IV) was made Prince Regent. Heyer’s novels range over a fifty-year span, from 1775 to 1825. Thus that great fan favourite, These Old Shades, is situated in pre-revolutionary France as is her first novel, The Black Moth. But many of her novels are set in that flamboyant time defined by sartorial extravagance and aristocratic excess. They are notable for their historical accuracy, the unusual attention paid to dialect, costume and period detail. Heyer invented the genre in 1935 with the novel, A Regency Buck. A casual comparison with imitators like Barbara Cartland, who set romances in the same time, highlights the historical plausibility of Heyer’s world.

The remarkable thing about Heyer’s novels is that they manage to be romances for grown-ups without being explicit about sex. Heyer acknowledges sexuality but she allows no hint of the erotic into the pages of her large oeuvre. She frequently refers to mistresses, she’s deeply interested in the limits set by class on love and lust, she is explicit about the property relations that underwrite love and marriage in Regency England. But she manages, despite this, to stage plausibly chaste romances.

She works androgyny, cross-dressing and sexual impersonation into the sexually-limiting context of the romantic. To put it another way, Heyer satisfies the formulaic expectations of the reader of romantic fiction while simultaneously creating substantial men and women, shaped by a historically specific world.

In the late Sixties, A.S. Byatt, an admirer of Heyer’s fiction, wrote an essay on Heyer’s work, which makes the case for not condescending to the novels as merely romantic escapism. Byatt points out Heyer’s achievement in tempering the escapism of the genre by grounding it in near-documentary detail about the social and economic arrangements of the time. “She is playing romantic games with the novel of manners. In her world of ‘romanticized anti-romanticism…men and women really talk to each other...and plan to spend the rest of their lives together developing the relationship.” She then makes a larger claim that should please Heyer’s fans: “In her romantic novels, as in Jane Austen’s, it is love the people are looking for, and love they give each other.”

This is very acute. Georgette Heyer’s Regency fictions dramatize the world of England’s social elite, the ton. Plebeian characters abound, but they’re generally subsidiary, comic characters: jarveys, maids, publicans, chimneysweeps, urchins, prostitutes, and so on. There are petit-bourgeois figures: shopkeepers, moneylenders, clerks who play cameos, but the protagonists are invariably of ‘good’ birth and the heroes are not just well born but well heeled. I can think of one book where the hero is aristocratic and poor and the heroine is plain and bourgeois, the daughter of a merchant. But the plot of A Civil Contract is exceptional: it represents the breakdown of the social order that sustains nearly all her novels.

Her well-born protagonists live in a narrow world where fashionable life is centred on a structured social ritual: the annual marriage mart and the Season dedicated to it. Every aspect of London’s upper-class life revolved around the indispensable business of getting girls on to the marketplace when they were old enough to contract an advantageous marriage.

There is no pretence in Heyer’s novels about the economic imperatives that drove the social season, and Heyer is explicit about the financial calculations that underwrote ‘alliances’. Girls with small portions found it difficult to get good (that is, wealthy and noble) husbands. Lovely young women with no money used their looks to sell themselves respectably to the highest bidder. Pedigreed men married beneath themselves to repair their fortunes. Well-born ladies who lived by their wits became high-class courtesans with a series of male patrons.

These marriage auctions occurred in settings regulated by the leaders of the ton. Girls were presented and eligible men came to inspect them, to show themselves off, to enjoy the frisson of formal physical intimacy through dances and balls. The venues for respectable intermingling between well-bred men and women were strictly prescribed: Almack’s, the Assembly Rooms at Bath, the promenading places, the Season’s balls in the great houses of the aristocracy. The ideal outcome for a debutante was to make a good marriage in her first Season. After a couple of years of having ‘come out’, the unmarried girl ran the risk of being considered too old to be desirable: on the shelf, at her last prayers. The Season was an auction block, made genteel by the rituals of a snobbish world.

I can think of two books by Heyer that have this ritual centre-stage: In Frederica, the eponymous heroine takes her lovely sister off to London to marry her off into the ton even though Frederica and her sister have very little money settled on them. Frederica transfers her whole family and household to London and persuades a distant but aristocratic connection to launch her sister into the marriage market. Without such a recommendation her sister could have never hoped to be invited to the clubs and balls frequented by the most eligible men.

Similarly in Arabella, Arabella, the daughter of a provincial vicar, sets off for London with her parents’ blessing to find a rich husband. The book makes it clear that being the eldest and best-looking child, she needs to make a good match, so that her husband can sponsor her brothers and help her sisters make similarly advantageous marriages.

But the remarkable thing about Heyer’s Regency novels is the way in which her heroines manage not to dance the marriage minuet, their awkward refusal to ‘fit’ the model of the eager, conforming debutante. Her heroines aren’t revolutionaries or even proto-feminists: they accept the mannered marriage market as the way of the world, but they work to make room for themselves and their natures within its constraints.

Pen Creed in The Corinthian flees the prospect of a loveless marriage with her cousin by sliding down a rope of bedsheets dressed as a boy, one of many examples of cross-dressing in Heyer’s fiction. Frederica wants to work the marriage market for the good of her younger sister while keeping herself on its sidelines, pretending to be on the shelf. Arabella makes herself a prize in the market by lying about her dower, marries the man she loves for his money and then, convulsed with guilt, baulks at the deception. Sophy, in The Grand Sophy, exhibits the savoir faire and daring of a man, shows none of the delicacy expected of a debutante, behaves like a managing woman and yet marries a deeply conventional man because they fall in love. Deborah Grantham, the unlikely heroine of Faro’s Daughter, is barred from the respectable world on account of her association with a gaming house and lives on the fringes of the ton. But she wins the eligible Max Ravenscar because of her generosity and brio and courage. Prudence and Robin live the lives of cross-dressing adventurers in The Masqueraders, the very opposite of a respectable life and yet find well-born partners who love and trust them. Leonie, in These Old Shades, is made to live as a boy in the mean streets of Paris where she sees and experiences vileness that’s only hinted at and, despite that, she becomes the Duchess of Avon, the bride of a nobleman who worships good ton.

It is the refusal of her heroines to conform to the rules of the marriage market or submit themselves to the machinery of match-making, and, despite this dissent, to find love, that makes her books so habit-forming. I suspect this is why Indians like my older girl-cousins, who introduced me to Heyer, loved them. India in the Sixties and Seventies, and even now, is a place where young men and women have to try to find romantic love within a system where an efficient apparatus exists to ‘arrange’ marriages. In Heyer’s novels, and more particularly in her intrepid and believable heroines, her Indian readers find the comfort of knowing that given spirit and belief, true love will find a happy ending in a plausibly real world.