Many readers of Georgette Heyer remark that her works are “the next best thing to reading Jane Austen.” There are obvious similarities, of course. Both women’s novels are set during the Regency in England, both focus on courtship plots with happy endings, and both include satirical portraits of human nature.
Since so many critics find it necessary to point out the obvious (that Heyer is the lesser author), it is important to note that she was not trying to write another Pride and Prejudice, but had quite different goals, and a distinct literary style which owes surprisingly little to Austen (despite her own remark that her style was a blend of Austen and Dr. Johnson). Heyer had a habit of pre-emptively declaring that her Regency books were frivolous “trash” which she wrote to keep the tax man at bay, not “serious literature”; her ambitions on that front were centered on her medieval historical novels. Yet it is precisely the lack of seriousness, the light touch of these books, which (combined with their wittiness) makes them so pleasurable and enduring.
Jane Austen wrote about her own time, while Heyer’s great talent was for the historical novel. Austen had no need to familiarize her audience with the material world and customs of a different time, any more than novelists writing stories set in the twenty-first century need to explain the internet or smartphones. Historical novelists, on the other hand, face the challenge of deploying their knowledge to create a plausible world, without turning the book into a tedious history lesson. As Jane Aiken Hodge* noted, Heyer’s Regency England was necessarily a selective creation, an idealized private world concocted from the raw material of primary sources.
Heyer’s protagonists (unlike Austen’s) move in the highest circles of London society. She describes their clothing, their transportation, their pastimes, their food, and their great, drafty mansions with chimneys backing up smoke into the bedchambers. She explains the customs and manners of the haut ton, the inner circle of high society in London, but ignores many other aspects of Regency England (industrialization, the financial and political worlds, religion, the arts), or mentions them only to lend her story texture and verisimilitude. Austen receives credit for using her comedies of manners to explore larger societal issues, but she rarely sketches persons outside her own social class. Heyer is criticized for her superficiality, but unlike Austen, she often includes characters from the demimonde and underworld; there are also occasional glimpses of abject poverty. Austen scarcely took account of servants, but long before Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey, Heyer delighted in recounting their hierarchies and rivalries, and their reactions to the queer turns of their masters and mistresses. That said, the servants in her books are comic characters, and the majority belong to the category of “devoted family retainer.”
The denizens of Heyer’s private world are provided with a private language, which she constructed by gathering idioms and slang proper to various classes and pastimes (thieves’ cant, the jargon of hunting and horses, the language used by men to describe boxing, drinking, and prostitutes). This slang is one of Heyer’s trademarks, often infringed by imitators who drew directly from her work rather than conducting their own research, and it was undoubtedly her great joy. She sometimes pours it on so heavily that it becomes impenetrable, or unrealistic in the level of society she is describing (after all, Austen used such terms very sparingly).
“Know what I think, Sherry? Been a regular turn-up. Someone’s had his cork drawn. Claret flowing copiously! If it was Monty’s cork, good thing. Don’t like him!”
Sherry turned to look at Revesby, his face hardening. “I was forgetting that damned scoundrel was here,” he said. “By Jove, you’re right, Ferdy! Someone’s landed him a facer at last! Take a look at his jaw!”
“Very wisty castor,” agreed Ferdy, nodding approvingly. (-Friday’s Child, 1944)
I believe that Heyer’s use of period expressions and slang is accurate in the sense that each lexical item can be documented for the Regency, but her characters’ distinctive language is in many ways her own creation. Heyer uses the noun “Corinthian,” for example, to refer to well-dressed men who led the sporting fashions (boxing, shooting, driving), even titling of one of her novels “The Corinthian.” According to the OED, the term was used by the 1820s for “men of fashion about town,” but during the Regency years proper, a “Corinthian” was a shameless fornicator (ancient Corinth being noted for its prostitutes). Indeed, Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines a “Corinthian” as one who frequents brothels, or an “impudent, brazen-faced fellow.” Heyer sanitizes and obscures the masculine slang of the period, which was full of crude sexual jokes. She enjoys placing indelicate phrases in the mouths of innocents, without making the joke clear to the reader. In Cotillion, Kitty says without irony to a friend, “Freddy—Mr Standen—calls him a buck of the first head! He is precisely the hero every schoolroom-miss dreams about—as I have told him!” Heyer sprinkles the phrase “buck of the first head” throughout her books, never letting on what she surely knew, that it means a whoremaster.
Especially in the early books, Heyer also uses historically accurate but confusing turns of phrase (such as “doubt” to mean “expect, suppose” or “discuss” to mean “consume, eat”). Yet her readers enjoy her private language immensely, and they take pleasure in learning it, even seeking out glossaries compiled by Heyer’s successors and fans. As a historical novelist, Heyer is often compared to Patrick O’Brian, who wrote of seafaring during the Napoleonic Wars with meticulously researched language (he has been called “Jane Austen at sea”), but I find Heyer’s use of slang, comic characters and intricate plots closer to the style of P. G. Wodehouse. Like Heyer, Wodehouse used varying “sociolects” (in his case, of Edwardian English) to great comic effect, exploiting the contrast between the upper-class Bertie Wooster’s casual speech and the elaborately formal style of his valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse too created a detailed fantasy world, comforting in its familiar rituals of country house and gentleman’s club, which his readers looked forward to re-entering with each new book.
In a Heyer romance, language is a marker of gender. Her heroines know that it is unladylike for them to use (or even admit to understanding) masculine expressions like “the muslin company,” “loose fish” or “plant him a facer,” but they often do so anyway, having picked up the lingo from their male relatives. Stodgy, priggish male characters reprove them for such language, while the heroes are amused by the incongruity of such words on female lips, finding them charming (and as I am sure Heyer meant to suggest, a turn-on, provided the lady’s saucy talk was reserved only for themselves). Her more irascible heroes, meanwhile, forget themselves in mixed company by saying “damned” instead of “dashed” and “what the devil” instead of “what the deuce.” Even the latter, she implies, was less than polite, and for a lady to utter “Oh, the devil!” (as Bab Childe does in An Infamous Army) was beyond the pale.
Both Austen and Heyer deploy satire and wit, but Heyer is far more broadly comic than Austen, and often more entertaining. Heyer had a fine sense of the ridiculous, and drew on the humorous style of 1930s screwball comedy, with its contrasts between high and low society, its absurd situations and its battle of the sexes. The screwball aesthetic is also noticeable in her dislike of sentimentality and her rejection of conventional pieties: the characters in Heyer’s books often remark quite candidly that they do not love their siblings or parents, when the latter have mistreated them. In more than one book (Venetia, Lady of Quality) the supposedly reformed rake warns the heroine that he cannot guarantee her happiness, or even his own fidelity. Marriage is not a blissful fairytale, but an alliance which requires patience and compromise on both sides. On the other hand, there are limits to Heyer’s use of screwball. Contrary to the classic screwball plot, Heyer’s madcap girl who leads the hero a merry dance is usually not his eventual bride. As in Austen, a successful union must be based on complementary personalities and shared tastes.
Heyer is often accused of being “sexless.” To defend Jane Austen against precisely the same charge, Lillian S. Robinson (1978)* points out that Austen includes “fallen” or sexually knowing characters like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or Mrs. Clay in Persuasion. Indeed Heyer has very few characters of this type, but she hardly ignores the relationship between sexual behavior, social class, and scandal. Her heroines often engage in high-spirited behavior, such as defying the taboo on driving in St. James’ street. Too late, they realize that this means being disrespectfully ogled by the men who frequent the gentlemen’s clubs there, and making themselves the subject of scurrilous gossip.
Setting a fashion in society is a delicate balancing act: in Heyer’s world, a young woman may be praised as a bold “original” if she takes snuff and drives like a man, or or she may earn censure for being “fast.” Heyer favors self-confident, forthright heroines who can ride to hounds, drive a curricle, or manage an estate, but she never allows them to forfeit their dignity or chastity. Elopement is a regular theme, but it brings social ostracism and her female protagonists typically reject it. Heyer does not allow even her bolder secondary female characters to be ruined, as Lydia Bennet was before Darcy came to the rescue, but she shows us more than a few genial Wickhams and Willoughbys. Also interesting in this regard is Barbara Childe in An Infamous Army, who as a girl was married off to an unsavoury, much older man. This experience goes some way toward explaining Barbara’s sexual “acting out” as a young widow.
Marghanita Laski (1970)* charged that if Heyer’s characters were to lift their muslin skirts or unbutton their yellow pantaloons, they would be revealed as “sewn-up ragdolls.” But I think this is a matter of individual reception of the books: some find sexual tension in Heyer’s witty dialogue, in her appreciative descriptions of the male form, and in situations where the principals find themselves together unchaperoned. Others detect prudishness in Heyer’s habitual reticence about sexuality (a restraint which her inferior and imitator, Barbara Cartland, certainly did not practice). Interestingly, two readers as knowledgeable about Heyer as Jane Aiken Hodge and A. S. Byatt have disagreed over whether Rule and Horatia in The Convenient Marriage sleep together. Byatt (1969)* thinks that we are meant to assume that the hero is waiting with superhuman patience “until his schoolgirl wife really trusts him.” Aiken Hodge, on the other hand, maintains that “careful reading reveals that Rule has, in fact, slept with his Horry, and has begun to neglect her as misunderstanding grows between them.”*
The lack of sex scenes in these books is partly to do with Heyer’s ideal of masculinity, the English gentleman. A Heyer hero does not meddle with Ladies of Quality, but he does not need to, for other females are available to quench his sexual desires. To debauch even a willing Lady would reveal a dishonorable loss of self-control, and aristocratic masculinity has always been based on self-control (a trait which lesser males are thought to lack). Léonie, the young heroine of These Old Shades, loves M. le Duc so passionately that she offers herself to him as a mistress. He gently declines the offer, opting for delayed gratification and marriage. Heyer’s latter-day imitators, practitioners of an erotic variety of “Regency romance,” present us with couples who have sex before they are married. No doubt gently-born virgins occasionally had premarital sex in the early nineteenth century, but this type of story would have revolted Heyer, not because she was a prude, but because it offended her moral and aesthetic ideals, especially her notion of a gentleman’s conduct. She could tolerate the thought of a lady compromising herself for love of the hero, as Hester Theale does in Sprig Muslin when she nurses him, staying unchaperoned at his inn. But for the hero to take sexual advantage of the lady’s regard would be vile.
Does Heyer ever borrow from Jane Austen? Yes, most definitely. Occasional plot points and characters are reminiscent of Austen; for example, Judith’s matchmaking activities in An Infamous Army resemble those of Emma Woodhouse, and Judith is surprised by the secret marriage of her protegé Lucy, just as Emma is surprised by Jane Fairfax’s secret engagement. The most important sense in which Heyer imitates Austen, however, is her adoption of Austen’s exquisite sensitivity to manners. Like Austen, she sees manners and morals as closely related— at the very least, manners are a window on a man or woman’s moral character. This is not to reduce morals to the status of mere etiquette, but to recognize that polished manners reveal (and require) empathy, compassion and kindness. Good manners can be faked, but not indefinitely; they demonstrate the quality of excellence that true gentlemen and ladies possess. In class-based systems such as Regency England, a supposedly innate moral excellence justifies the claim of the upper classes to their privileged, ruling status.
Heyer was deeply conservative, socially and politically, and quite a snob; her fantasy world is one in which class distinctions are regarded as the proper order of things, and to a great degree, innate. Yet not all her aristocrats have good manners, and not all “Cits” lack delicacy of feeling. Noblesse oblige can translate to oppressive rudeness (as practiced by the Duke of Salford in Sylvester). There is the occasional eccentric, the rag-mannered male who treats everyone the same, like Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, or Miles Calverleigh in Black Sheep. In A Civil Contract, Adam’s wife Jenny is not upper-class, but she displays a calm dignity in public which draws the approval of social arbiters like Lady Castlereagh (despite Jenny’s deplorable taste in gowns).
Like language, manners are tied to gender (and age) in Heyer’s private world. In the ton, the most stringent standards of behavior fall upon the young and female, while the elderly, and certain powerful men, are excused intemperate words. Yet despite the privileges of his gender, good manners require a gentleman to defer to a lady by seeing to her safety and comfort before his own, an obligation which means that he must recognize when she is unsafe or uncomfortable, and foresee and prevent any such eventuality if he can. In Heyer’s books, even dimwitted young men understand that ladies ought not to be left to wander unescorted through the streets of London (especially at night), while strictly correct gentlemen are shocked at the idea of presenting themselves for dinner “in all their dirt” without changing into evening dress (this being an insult to the lady of the house). The special standard for gentlemen is the nineteenth-century remnant of the medieval code of chivalry and its successor, the Renaissance “code of honour” which governed upper-class masculine behavior, particularly duelling. When in love, Heyer’s most attractive heroes seek (like Austen’s Darcy) a way to “serve” the ladies they admire, as if they were medieval knights. Rather than slay a dragon, however, they may find themselves called upon to adopt a mongrel dog (Mr. Beaumaris in Arabella), or take an importunate schoolboy to see a pneumatic lift (Alverstoke in Frederica).
The moral concerns in Heyer’s books often go unremarked because they are well-disguised beneath the elaborate historical detail and witty banter. She may not be Thackeray or Austen, but she was a clever satirist. She shows how upper-class life in town inculcates vicious habits, excessive pride, and shallowness. The idleness and consequent boredom of rich Londoners is contrasted with their country cousins’ brisk belief in “being useful,” while characters with deep devotion to loved ones (the twins and their mother in False Colours) are balanced by sharp portraits of selfish, irresponsible parents and siblings (Ianthe, the frivolous mother in Sylvester). That said, her goal is not serious exploration of moral questions (as Austen’s was). She depicts, but does not question, upper-class practices such as habitual failure to pay tradesmen’s bills, or the siring of illegitimate children. Although she works with stock characters, Heyer has the salutary habit, often neglected by genre authors, of allowing her villains a few admirable traits. The criminal Mr. Liversedge in The Foundling turns out to be a likable and amusing fellow, the chilling Francis Cheviot in The Reluctant Widow has a dry wit at odds with his overly delicate sensibilities, and even the unbearable chatterbox Maria in Lady of Quality is good with children.
Ultimately, Heyer is easier to read than Austen, and laugh-out-loud funny, but with less depth. Her great genius is her original use of language, together with her characters: admirable women of good sense, and desirable gentlemen who have Darcy’s good manners, Knightley’s moral compass, Rochester’s sexiness, and the most indispensable ingredient of all: Benedick’s wit.
*Authors quoted appear in Mary Fahnestock-Thomas’s anthology, Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective (Prinnyworld Press, 2001). I have also drawn on Jane Aiken Hodge’s excellent biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer (The Bodley Head, 1984). For an interesting take on Heyer and Austen, see Sherwood Smith’s blog post.