This post first appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 19 June 2020. Enjoy!
Over the years I’ve heard Georgette Heyer’s name come up in lots of different places, usually in a highly complimentary way: “This story is so good, it reminds me of one of Georgette Heyer’s!” Or, “This sounds like a plot in a Georgette Heyer novel!” It was always assumed that I knew exactly who Georgette Heyer is.
Plot twist: I really didn’t! I had a vague idea that she was a regency type author, and I thought I must have read some of her stories at some point. I read a LOT so I figured I must have come across one of her books at some point. But I finally decided to look her up and find out why she is famous and what makes her so well loved. Also, to figure out if I have ever read one of her stories!!!
Heyer was born in a middle class family in London in 1902 to parents who were educated and cultured. Heyer’s father was in the military and the family lived in Paris for a time before returning to London. Heyer’s parents encouraged a love of reading, and as a teenager Georgette and her friends would get together to discuss stories and, later, to write them. It wasn’t long before Heyer stumbled into her life’s work.
At the age of seventeen Georgette wrote a novel called The Black Moth. Her father urged her to prepare it for publication and helped her have it commercially published when she was just nineteen years old. From then on Heyer would write prolifically, in multiple genres.For the rest of her life she typically wrote and published at least one novel a year.
Although Georgette wrote mysteries and other types of fiction, she really made her mark in the regency fiction genre. Some people claim that she single-handedly defined the genre for modern times. She was no Jane Austen – nobody can match our girl! – but she took what Austen did and built on it. Scholars agree that she popularized a number of common elements of regency fiction used even today. Raise your hand if you’ve run across any of the following tropes in Jane Austen fan fiction:
- A dark and brooding hero who is misunderstood by the woman who loves him
- A silly, foppish regency gentleman with a flair for dressing well
- Fashion and the ways of high society
- Regency slang and figures of speech
- Forced marriage scenario
- Arranged marriages
- Sarcasm and irony
- Poking gentle fun at people, especially the upper class
- Murder and intrigue
- Marrying for love rather than money
- Detailed descriptions of the time or setting
Of all these elements, Heyer is best known for the level of historical detail in her stories. To achieve this detail she didn’t just keep pages of notes for her novels. She kept whole notebooks. She had more than a thousand historical reference books in her library (pre-Kindle!!!!), and she had a collection of antiques from the regency period. Her level of detail and minutiae allow readers to be utterly immersed in the time period, or at least that’s what some readers say. Other readers claim to be annoyed and distracted by so much description.
How detailed did Heyer get? How meticulous was her research? According to critic A.S. Beyer, Heyer claimed that every word attributed to General Wellington in her novel An Infamous Army was actually spoken or written by him in real life. Now that takes dedication!!!
How I wish we could know what went on in Heyer’s mind as she wrote. Did she plan out her plots ahead of time, or was there any element of making it up as she went? How did she come up with her plot ideas? Were any of the silent, brooding heroes in her novels based on someone she knew? We may never know because Heyer was notoriously private and did not give interviews. She didn’t need to. Her books sold well even without her doing a lot of publicity. Most of them are still in print today.
Heyer died in 1974 in London and left behind a body of work (at least forty-five novels!) that seems to become more popular as time goes by. Every regency writer today owes something to Georgette Heyer, and to be compared to Heyer as a writer is a tremendous compliment. It’s almost as good as being compared to Jane Austen!
As for me, in looking over her list of novels I discovered that I have never read a Georgette Heyer book!!! Obviously this is a fault that must be remedied at once. I downloaded The Black Moth, and I’ve enjoyed it so far although Heyer’s writing can be . . . dense. Very dense. Still, if I could fall in love with Jane Austen when I was fifteen, I can totally handle Heyer at the age of fifty something, right? Those of you who are familiar with her stories, which one is your favorite, and why? And how do you think she stacks up to Jane Austen? Please let me know in your comments below.