The Heyer Influence
My wonderful friend Veronica Wolff (with whom I often share very productive writing dates) has recently discovered the novels of Georgette Heyer. Lately our writing get-togethers often begin with a discussion of whatever Heyer book she's currently reading. It's so fun to be see Heyer's novels through the eyes of someone who is reading them for the first time.
If my fascination with the Regency era began with Jane Austen’s novels, novels which were actually written in the Regency, it was further cemented by reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency and eighteenth century-set historical novels. I still remember my first introduction to Heyer’s books. I was nine-years-old, and though I was reading to myself, my mom still read outloud to me as well. One evening we were at a bookstore, and I asked what we were going to read next. She held out a book with a cover showing a dark-haired young woman with side curls in a high-waisted pale green dress and said “let’s try this and see if you like it.” “This” was Heyer’s The Grand Sophy one of my favorite novels to this day (interestingly it was also the first Heyer book Veronica read). From the first chapter where Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey calls on his sister Lady Ombersley, I was entranced by this vividly created world. Over the next few years, I went on to read most of Heyer’s historical romances and several of her contemporary mysteries, some outloud with my mom, some to myself.
I reread her books frequently. Rereading the books as an adult, I'm more aware of Heyer's politics, which are wildly different from my own. Her take on the Regency is also somewhat different from my own. But I still marvel at her craftsmanship and think of her characters as old friends. I’m hard-pressed to pick favorites among the books, though I do have a fairly consistent top three:
The Grand Sophy which has a wonderfully tough, independent heroine, a nicely understated love story, a sharply-detailed cast of secondary characters, laugh-outloud humor, and an hysterically funny ending in which all the characters and plotlines converge (the inspiration for the finales of several of my mom and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies and also for the denouements of several of my historical novels).
Venetia, which beautifully captures the wonder of finding a friend and lover and manages at once to be deeply romantic and yet have a keen edge of reality (I also realized writing this that Venetia and Damerel toss quotations back and forth, which is probably yet another reason why Mélanie and Charles do the same).
And An Infamous Army, set in Brussels in the weeks before and then during the Battle of Waterloo. An Infamous Army started my interest in the Napoleonic Wars (definitely another influence on my Charles and Mélanie stories) and introduced me to a collection of real historical people who figure in the book and who I’ve gone on to use in my own books (Wellington, Fitzroy Somerset, the Prince of Orange, the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Lennox). And its rebellious heroine and quietly honorable hero are a fascinating pair. I recently reread An Infamous Army because my WIP takes place round Waterloo. I was struck by how brilliantly Heyer integrates real events and people with fictional ones, so that one can scarcely tell where the history leaves off and the fiction begins. And the way she pulls back and lets us see the hero and heroine through the eyes of other characters (notably the hero's brother and his wife, the hero and heroine from a previous book) is masterful.
Those are my favorite three, but they leave out so many others I love–Sylvester, Arabella (after whom I named my Madame Alexander doll when I was ten), Frederica, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Friday’s Child…
There's no explicit sex in Heyer's books, though I sometimes think they're the more romantic for it. Venetia in particular is a filled with sexual tension, perhaps all the stronger for being held in check. In The Grand Sophy, we don't event get the hero's and heroine's feelings in inner monologue. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles (the hero)'s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then either says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung! I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over as a pre-teen, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions.