I begin my #36in12 – The Roots of Romance project with an author that I just cannot live without. For those of us who watch Downton Abbey, we can identify with Georgette Heyer (pronounced “Hair”). She is the Lady Edith type who began writing during World War I and had her first romance novel published in 1921. Her career continued, with little rest between works, until 1975, with the posthumous publication of My Lord John. If I count that correctly, she wrote for 50 years, turning out everything from mystery to historical epics. She is best known for her Regency romances, all set between 1740 and 1815.
How did I find this gem, you ask me? I am a child of the military and moved often in my early years. After each move, the first thing I identified in any town or school was the location of the library. Ms. Heyer’s work took up an entire shelf of the library I happened to be perusing at the time – I was probably in my early teens then. I can’t remember where I was, but it is no matter. What matters is that I picked up These Old Shades, and it was all over for me. If I am sick, tired, hurt, sad, depressed, or any other time that a level of comfort is required, I turn to my massive library of Georgette Heyer and lose myself in another world. I am not alone in my obsession, I believe. There are closet Heyer readers all over the place. A lot of 10 vintage hardback Heyer works is currently at a $95.00 bid on eBay. She was never a literary darling, but her following is devoted. I would pay $95.00 for that lot of books. . .but I digress.
For the #36in12 project, I chose three representative pieces: The Masqueraders (1928), An Infamous Army (1937), and Frederica (1965). I chose to use pictures from the older editions because these are the ones that I started out reading. I have owned several iterations since these, but sentiment is strong.
The setting is England, 1746. How do I know that? Because the main characters in this mad romp are recently escaped from the English rebellion seeking to put James II on the throne of England. It was, of course, unsuccessful, and the Stuart supporters, known as Jacobites, were under penalty of death in England. On a dark and stormy night, a young man and a young woman stop their journey at an inn, where they find a dastardly attempt to bring a young heiress to Gretna Green, the most scandalous elopement possible. The young man and young woman foil the fiendish plan, making their first enemy and their first friend.
I must be deliberately vague, because when Heyer creates a comedy of masks, she does it well. The Masqueraders are deeply in disguise and acting out a plan of which they know very little – only the parts they play and the two allies upon whom they can depend. However, they enter their parts with gusto, making their way into early Regency society, going to balls, card parties, shoots, picnics, duels, and the like. The Merriotts, Peter and Kate, take the town by storm, building fast relationships with the staid and sober Sir Anthony and the flighty heiress so lately rescued, Letitia. The appearance of a “lost heir” to an estate and title throws the town into a rumble, and the game plays out. The Masqueraders is one of Heyer’s best comedy of manners, because of the unlikelihood of all the disguises. I, the cynical reader that I am, am always astonished that I more than willingly suspend disbelief and enter into a world that is thoroughly researched and delightfully populated. Heroes and villains appear in the most unlikely places, bringing a seemingly hopeless tangle into perfect lines of order. As with most Heyer works, all is well that ends well. The fun is getting to the end.
Published in 1937, An Infamous Army centers around Heyer’s meticulous research about the Duke of Wellington and the Napoleonic Wars. The English aristocracy has migrated to Belgium as the English Army masses. They are poised for the final battle of Waterloo, but, while waiting, I got to revisit several of my very favorite people. The Earl of Worth and his wife Judith first appeared in Regency Buck (1935). They are in Belgium, along with many of their friends and relations. Charles Audley, a dashing aide to the Duke of Wellington, is Worth’s brother. He arrives in Belgium and is instantly smitten with the wildest of all women, Lady Barbara Childe. Babs is a scandalous woman who approaches life as one of the notorious Alastair family. Her vibrant red curls and flagrant disregard for proprieties hark back to her great-grandparents, who fell in love in These Old Shades. Babs is the perfect combination of Justin, Duke of Avon’s disregard for public sentiment and Leonie’s fiery temperament. These Old Shades, like The Masqueraders, centered on a wild disguise and secrets held by only one. Babs, on the other hand, holds no secrets, but creates controversy publicly, daily, and enthusiastically. The honorable Charles captures her attention and they enter into a tempestuous relationship, despite their entire acquaintances’ collective astonishment. Babs constitutionally cannot conform and Charles, kept busy with his military duties, cannot dance attendance. In the midst of the balls and parties and picnics, often conducted by military leaders, Heyer gives a detailed account of the massing of troops, equipment and accouterments of war as the final battle is shaping up. Aside from Worth and Judith, there are appearances by Dominic and Mary, from Devil’s Cub, Justin and Leonie’s son and daughter-in-law, Harry and Juana Smith, from Heyer’s 1940 work, The Spanish Bride, Johnny Kincaid, also from The Spanish Bride, and many other characters that I have known and loved these many, many years. While some readers find the meticulous research tedious, I see the conduct of the Napoleonic war, with battle squares and wheel charges, and fixed bayonets. And Heyer does a magnificent job depicting the horror of mass casualty, senseless loss of life and limb, and the utter finality of war. I followed my characters through their movements and truly cared as they came across their fallen fellows. No family is exempt from loss and the true colors of every character are revealed by the horrors of true war. It is not everybody’s cup of tea, due to the massive amount of space devoted to military matters, but I could see the fog and smell the rain, and I almost slipped in the mud when I came to the fate of Lord Harry Alastair. The romances set against the backdrop of the final battle of the Napoleonic wars were almost a precursor to Gone with the Wind. I recall Mammy saying how Grandma Robillard had dampened her petticoats in France. So, too, did Babs Childe, which was scandalous enough, until war stripped away superficial concerns and cast a bright light on the character of each individual.
Finally, one of my favorite books and the first one I pick up when I am in need of comfort. Frederica, written in 1965, is one of Heyer’s last and most charming heroines. Arriving in London as a single, 24-year old girl well past her debut in society, she has her family in tow. Determined to give her beautiful but n0t-very-bright sister, Charis, at least one London season, she brings her two brothers, a large dog, an elderly aunt, and the family butler to room in a furnished house in London. She applies to the Marquis of Alverstroke, a very distant relative, for assistance in her quest, asking him to host a ball for her lovely sister. The Marquis, already beset by his sister and his sister-in-law to do the same for their daughters, agrees – only to give his relations their comeuppance, so to speak. He rightly judges that Charis will outshine either of the other two debutantes, and evilly plans to even the score with his close family. Frederica, as a character, is a self-possessed head of household with a strong independent streak. She has managed her family for many years, serving as a mother to her sister and brothers. The brothers, one scholar and one mechanical-mad adventurer, lead her a merry dance and the Marquis, abandoning his fashionable boredom, bestirs himself to assist her and them. A familial relationship springs up and an entire series of mixed romantic signals on pretty much everyone’s part lead to a side-splitting finale that has never been matched for sheer absurdity. The absurdity is so very human that it strike a chord in the romantic soul and engenders hilarity in the practical soul. Somewhere between names like Charis and Endymion, old footmen, eccentric aunts, large dogs who misbehave in public parks, and Restorative Pork Jelly, the terminally bored Marquis has reengaged with life and Frederica has won all without ever lifting a finger. There is life and love in the most unexpected places. When I am down and out, the idea that it will all work out in the end comforts me enormously.
In the end, it really does not matter that Heyer never found a place among the giants of her time. Agatha Christie had that one pretty much sewn up. But here is the thing – I have read every.single.book she ever wrote, including the histories and mysteries. She has never failed to charm me. Her use of language and her ability to create a world that feels real-even a lifetime later-has been unmatched in my reading adventures. Even last night, as I stayed awake way too late to finish the Battle of Waterloo, I still had a tear to shed for the loss of a character who only appeared fleetingly. It only took three minor scenes for me to mourn his death. The talent to create a world that feels real and where the reader cares deeply about what will happen to characters is rare and priceless. I am more than glad that Georgette Heyer stepped out of the traditional role of the aristocratic English woman in 1921 and gave me a safe place to hide.
In all fairness, here are the heart values
The Masqueraders 10/10
An Infamous Army 8/10 – I think many readers would get bored with the military machinations, but I did not.
Frederica 10/10 – Comfort reading at its finest