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Georgette Heyer is a top-selling author, but most people have never heard of her– unless they work in a public library. In which case they know that her books are perennial favorites, well-thumbed and well-loved by (mostly) female patrons.

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Georgette Heyer in her youth– a lovely woman. Click for source (wimbledonguardian.co.uk)

If you tore through the oeuvre of Jane Austen, re-read them several times and then sighed that there was no more to be had from that brilliant pen, Heyer is for you. Away with all the Austen adaptations, imitations, and ripoffs we see these days! They can’t hold a candle to Heyer’s wit, fine writing, and most of all, her exquisite research. She spent her life gathering all the details of Regency slang, dress, manners, amusements and minutiae of daily life into her notebooks–straight from contemporary letters and other primary sources.

In fact, her books are not Austen imitations, but a new genre of their own. Austen satirized the social climbing, snobbery and gold-digging of her time, yet even had she wished to delve into the seedier side of Regency life, her status as a lady prevented her from writing about such interesting topics as carte-blanche (an offer from a gentleman to support a lady financially in return for certain intimate favors), or intriguing methods of foreplay used by experienced gentlemen (such as inhaling snuff from a lover’s wrist). Since Heyer’s day, innumerable “regency romances” have been penned, but I’ve never found another author who possesses her facility with the speech and slang of the period, or her delicious wit. She is truly the P.G. Wodehouse of romance.

I first read a Heyer book about twenty years ago. I noticed a few old paperbacks at a book sale and picked them up for a quarter each. As soon as I began reading (Arabella, I believe it was), I knew I’d found a gem. After that, I kept an eagle eye out for her books and amassed a collection that, to this day, I turn to whenever I’m sick in bed, grieving, or melancholic. They never fail to work their magic.

More recently, I discovered a new way to enjoy Heyer’s books all over again. Quite a few of them are available as audiobooks, and I chose Venetia and Sylvester from Naxos Classic Fiction because they were the least expensive ($9.95 each on iTunes). At the time I paid no attention to the identity of the reader, but as soon as I began listening, I was riveted by the fascinating voice of none other than Richard Armitage, he of the beloved mini-series North and South (2004), and (more recently) of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

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Richard Armitage in “North and South,” based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Screencap credit: Desert Sky. Click for source.

Venetia (1958) is in fact one of my favorite Heyer books. Set in 1818, it features a classic Heyer rake: Lord Damerel, otherwise known as the Wicked Baron. He meets his match in Venetia, who accepts his scandalous past with equanimity, and effortlessly deflates his reputation as a grand séducteur. When he quotes Ben Jonson’s poem on Lady Venetia Digby to flatter her, she says,

“No, is it indeed so? I never heard it before! In fact, I didn’t know there had been any poems dedicated to a Venetia. What was she like?”

“Like yourself, if John Aubrey is to be believed: a beautiful, desirable creature!”

Quite unmoved by this tribute, she replied seriously, “I wish you won’t fall into flowery commonplace. It makes you sound like a would-be beau at the York Assemblies!”

“You little wretch!” he exclaimed.

“That’s much better –between friends,” she approved, laughing at him.

Had it been set in the 1930s, Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle (1957) would have been called a screwball comedy. It features another archetypal Heyer hero, the proud, Darcy-esque Sylvester, Duke of Salford. Sylvester is disgusted when his host, a country squire, pushes forward his shy daughter Phoebe as a marital match. But Phoebe, an aspiring authoress of Gothic romance, takes the wind from his sails when she runs away to escape what she believes are Sylvester’s unwanted attentions. The plot includes a Northanger Abbey-like satire of Gothic fiction, with Phoebe penning a roman à clef exposing Sylvester’s imagined villainies.

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Portrait by Ingres of an intense-looking Baron, 1806 (Norton-Simon Museum. Click for source.)

One might think that for a novel in the Regency genre, a female narrator would be best, as so many of the characters in these books are women. What I discovered instead is that a male actor has the ability to produce a surprisingly wide vocal range, from falsetto to deep bass notes. As a matter of fact, I first noticed this phenomenon when listening to Ciarán Hinds perform Rebecca, Rowena and Ulrika in an audio recording of Ivanhoe. Some male actors have this hidden talent! Of course one can tell they are men, and yet the female voices are quite convincing. In his reading of Venetia, Armitage creates distinct voices for such diverse characters as kind Lady Denny, insipid young Charlotte Lanyon, Charlotte’s vulgar mother Mrs. Scorrier, and Venetia’s gruff Old Testament-quoting Nurse, not to mention Venetia herself. Even the housekeeper, Mrs. Gurnard, is provided with a Scots accent that is pitch perfect. And then, of course, one has the pleasure–not to be underestimated–of hearing Damerel voiced by a man. And in this particular case, a very Beautiful Man.

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The cover of the first edition of “Sylvester.” Click for source (wikipedia).

Admittedly, purists may scoff because these recordings are abridged. Yet it seems to me that the streamlined versions, focusing more on dialogue and less on narration, allow Mr. Armitage’s actorly talents to shine. An audiobook is often a one-man (or one-woman) show, and stands or falls on the quality of the narrator. It is a great deal of work for relatively little recognition, but I trust that Mr. Armitage’s fans, and Georgette Heyer fans, will enjoy these gems for many years to come. (Just don’t neglect to buy and enjoy the original books, too.)

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My word, Mr. Armitage! Where is your neck-cloth? Click for source.

After these delights, I simply had to buy the last, more expensive recording by Armitage: The Convenient Marriage (1934). This is one of Heyer’s Georgian books, set in 1776, and features yet a third classic type, the deceptively indolent, almost dandyish older man, whose swordsmanship nevertheless proves equal to every occasion. Like Heyer’s other Georgian heroes, Lord Rule wears colorfully resplendent brocaded clothing, and the lace on his shirt-cuffs falls well past the wrist. This archetype of male magnificence has gender-bending qualities and is, for some, an acquired taste, but I enjoy the sexiness of exquisite finery on a very masculine man.

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Glenn Close and John Malkovich in “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), in which we learn that lace can be very sexy on a man. Click for source (lovethoseclassicmovies)

The Convenient Marriage is a clever pastiche of familiar plot devices, including a staged carriage holdup with fake rescuer (from Scott’s Ivanhoe), sophisticated male and female schemers who plot the seduction of Rule’s bride (Les Liaisons Dangereuses); a villain who attempts to claim a lock of the heroine’s hair (Pope’s Rape of the Lock), and the heroine’s incriminating loss of a jewel (Dumas’ The Three Musketeers). Last but not least is the mariage de convenance itself, with handsome Lord Rule gradually falling for his own wife, the stammering but forthrightly charming Horatia.

I highly recommend this diverting tale for those days when the dog bites and the bee stings… especially given the added savor of Armitage’s reading. The Convenient Marriage is unusual among Heyer books in that it is dominated by male characters. The louche, debauched Lord Lethbridge and the romantic Lord Rule are equally enjoyable, and I laughed out loud several times at the hilariously foppish “macaroni” Mr. Drelincourt, who speaks with a higher voice than Horatia herself.

For a full list of Richard Armitage’s audio works, click here, and for a page devoted to Heyer’s works with full bibliography and extracts, click here.