Georgette Heyer’s Georgian and Regency novels have long been marketed as “women’s romance fiction,” which means that men are unlikely to pick up one of her books. When originally published, however, the books achieved a broader audience. Heyer had male fans (latter-day enthusiasts include Stephen Fry) and wrote on many subjects of masculine interest: the Napoleonic Wars, sporting activities (riding, driving, boxing, hunting, shooting), the criminal underworld (including smugglers), mystery and adventure.
Indeed, her first book, The Black Moth, was an adventure-romance written for her brother Boris. Furthermore, in my opinion at least, Heyer was so adept at depicting male relationships that the brothers, brothers-in-arms, fathers and sons, and male friends in her books seem more fully realized than the women. I believe that this is one reason (among many) that the books have remained perennials, nearly always in print. On the one hand, women enjoy a glimpse into the world of masculine camaraderie; on the other, they recognize the emotional authenticity in the relationships she describes.
That said, for her heroes Heyer returned over and over again to certain models of masculinity which are not necessarily realistic, but express ideals of female desire. According to Jane Aiken-Hodge’s biography, she classified her heroes in two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is “the brusque, savage sort with a foul temper” and the Mark II hero, who is “suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip.” I hate to contradict Heyer herself, but having re-read all of her Georgian and Regency romances over the past year, I can say with certainty that her heroic landscape is more complex than this. Furthermore, only a very few of her heroes could accurately be described as savage and foul tempered, while a large majority of them are suave, well-dressed and rich. Some interpreters have understood Mark I as a commanding or dangerous type and Mark II as the more sweet and gentle type, yet many of her suave, rich, and well-dressed heroes are also what the romance trade calls Alpha Males, while her good-tempered, humorous men may lack the Mark II characteristics of elegant speech, impeccable dress or riches.
Glass and Mineo (1986)* suggest three basic hero types: (A) Darcy-Rochester, who is proud, aloof, intolerant and sarcastic; (B) Rochester-Darcy, who is blunt, frank, humorous and a reformed rake; and (C) Knightley, who is serious, calm, reliable, unobtrusive, and paternal. Yet they give few specific examples, and their tripartite scheme does not withstand close scrutiny. Hugo Darracott in The Unknown Ajax, for example, is frank and humorous, not a reformed rake, and also calm and reliable. Robert Beaumaris in Arabella is unmistakably based on Darcy, but he is hardly intolerant or sarcastic, and his sense of humor is gently self-deprecating.
Kerstin Frank describes the “thermodynamics” of Heyer’s depiction of upper-class life, in which the “coolness” of her heroes, (representing the rigid dictates of polite society) is challenged by the “warmth” of her unconventional heroines. I find the temperature metaphor useful in describing the emotional affect of Heyer’s heroes across the spectrum:
“Cold” indicates self-control and masking of the emotions, as well as a cruel streak (e.g. Justin Alastair in These Old Shades).
“Cool” is a milder version, the type who is bemused and droll rather than harsh and sardonic (e.g. Sir Gareth in Sprig Muslin).
“Warm” describes a sweet-tempered, frank, humorous man, who may be boyishly mischievous or capable and mature (Capt. Staple in The Toll-Gate).
“Hot” applies to the brusque, short-fused, passionate personality (Max Ravenscar in Faro’s Daughter).
Here is my own classification of Heyer’s hero archetypes, which I present with the caveat that any rigid scheme is bound to fail. Heyer was more subtle than she was willing to admit (given her habit of pre-emptively deprecating her romance books), and while she revisited certain patterns, she took care to vary them.
Dandy or Corinthian. This hero is the idol of London society, either an arbiter of fashion who rules over Almack’s and determines the success or failure of newcomers to Town, or a sporting man, a member of the Four Horse Club who drives to an inch, “strips to advantage” in the boxing ring, and is an excellent shot. Either way, he collects an ardent following of young men who imitate every detail of his dress and pastimes. He cultivates a cool, bemused persona. If a dandy, he follows Brummel’s style and his dress is tastefully sober and restrained, yet perfect in every detail. Rich, handsome, and of impeccable birth (but in his pure form, not titled) he is the most coveted prize in the “marriage mart.” Typically he has grown bored with the superficiality and shallowness of society life, and falls for a youthfully unspoiled provincial, or a woman with financial disadvantages but unusual grace and strength of character. He is a descendant of Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. This is presumably what Heyer called her “Mark II” hero. Temperature: Cool.
Examples: Robert Beaumaris in Arabella, Sir Gareth Ludlow in Sprig Muslin, Sir Richard “Beau” Wyndham in The Corinthian, Sir Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch.
Variations: Julian, Earl of Worth, in Regency Buck is a Corinthian with a strong dose of Cynical Sophisticate. Gervase, Earl of St. Erth in The Quiet Gentleman, is a Dandy with a dash of Capable, Self-Made Man. Philip Jettan in Powder and Patch is a Dandy with a difference; he has some characteristics of both the Youth Coming of Age and the Capable, Self-Made Man. Viscount Desford in Charity Girl disclaims the name of either a dandy or Corinthian, but fits the general profile.
Capable, Self-Made Man. This type is a man of action, perhaps with a military background or much time spent abroad. If of noble birth, he may be a younger son, or he may have suffered some misfortune which caused him to be outcast. He is more resourceful and intelligent than he gets credit for, and may seek out adventure for its own sake, bored with life in England. Though he does not shrink from using force where necessary, he is sweet-tempered and cheerful rather than cool and sardonic, and he has a good sense of humor. He dresses well but is not necessarily a fashion plate (especially if he is a very large man like Hugo in The Unknown Ajax), and he may lack sporting skills (such as being an expert whip). He falls in love, almost at first sight, with a woman who is “above his touch” or otherwise unavailable, but finds a way to win her. Temperature: Warm.
Examples: John Carstares (Earl of Wyncham) in The Black Moth, Captain Charles Audley in An Infamous Army, Hugo Darracott in The Unknown Ajax, Captain John Staple in The Toll-Gate, Kit Denville in False Colours.
Variation: Miles Calverleigh of Black Sheep is a Capable, Self Made Man in terms of plot, but rude and informal like the Volatile Irascible Male.
Cynical Sophisticate/Cool Customer. Heyer began her career with the Cynical Sophisticate and he remained a favorite. This type includes both the rake who has ruined his social reputation, and the more discreet gentleman of worldly experience. He is invariably titled (usually an Earl) and able to depress pretension with the lift of an eyebrow. His most salient personality trait is being completely unflappable. If respectable, he is a confirmed bachelor with a long tally of mistresses (he prefers married women and widows) who finally recognizes his responsibility to beget an heir. If a rake, his cynicism is deep and bitter. Whether or not he himself has behaved badly, he insists that his family members (especially the females) avoid scandal and will go to great lengths to protect the family name. He may have fought a number of duels. He has despotic tendencies like the Volatile Irascible Male, but is not “foul tempered” and never suffers a loss of self-control. In his world-weariness and boredom (and usually in his exquisite dress) he overlaps with the Dandy/Corinthian, but he has little to no interest in setting fashions or being part of an admired “set.” He surprises himself by falling in love with a much younger or very unconventional woman, but fears he is too old or too wicked for her. A variant of this type is the Cool Customer, who lacks the Sophisticate’s checkered sexual history. Temperature: Cool to Cold.
Examples: The Duke of Avon in These Old Shades, The Earl of Rule in The Convenient Marriage, the Marquis of Alverstoke in Frederica.
Variations: The disgraced Baron Damerel in Venetia is a hybrid of the Cynical Sophisticate and the Capable Self-Made Man, with a touchingly vulnerable side. Lord Carlyon in The Reluctant Widow is a Cool Customer. Tracy Belmanoir, the Duke of Andover in The Black Moth, is a Cynical Sophisticate who takes over the story even though he is not “the hero.” The Marquis of Rockhill in A Civil Contract is a classic Cynical Sophisticate, although a secondary character.
Volatile Irascible Male. This passionate man may be young or mature, but has an aura of danger and does not always behave like a gentleman. Above all, he has a temper and cannot bear to let anyone (male or female) get the better of him. He tends to be titled, extremely wealthy, or both, but (like the Cynical Sophisticate) he doesn’t give a damn about being a leader in society. Ruggedly masculine rather than handsome, he is careless of his appearance and may dress in a style so casual as to be considered eccentric for one of his rank. He needs a woman he can respect, with the same high spirit, and therefore ends up in an intense Battle of the Sexes. He is the brooding descendant of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre (but even more rude, and less romantic). His profile is closest to what Heyer called her “Mark I” hero, but the pure type is somewhat rare in her oeuvre. Temperature: Hot.
Examples: Max Ravenscar in Faro’s Daughter, the Marquis of Rotherham in Bath Tangle.
Variations: The Marquis of Vidal in Devil’s Cub and Charles Rivendell in The Grand Sophy are both Volatile Irascible Males with a dash of Youth Coming of Age, yet their stories are completely different (Vidal being a rakish VIM, while Charles is a comic version of the VIM type, with rigid, authoritarian tendencies). Oliver Carleton in Lady of Quality is rude and despotic like a VIM, but with the unflappable, perspicacious traits of a Sophisticate.
Youth Coming of Age. This is a man who has not matured enough to possess the self-confidence, polished address, authoritative aura, and resourcefulness of a true gentleman of the ton. He may be arrogant and stiff, feckless and selfish, or meek and passive, but has qualities to balance his flaws: sweetness, generosity, loyalty, kindness, or (in some cases) mischievous charm. He often has an older mentor, a father or cousin, who models the behaviors he needs to learn, or lacking these, a friend with good breeding but limited intelligence. Over the course of the book, he learns to take responsibility for himself and to protect the vulnerable. When this process is complete, he realizes that there is Someone (often a childhood friend) he has been in love with all along. Heyer wrote two stories of this type about Dukes, who are given personality flaws to counterbalance their extremely high rank; the Duke of Sale is too meek and humble, while the Duke of Salford is too arrogant. Temperature: Cool to Warm, varying with the hero’s experience and age.
Examples: Viscount Sheringham in Friday’s Child, the Duke of Sale in The Foundling, Freddy Standen in Cotillion. The Duke of Salford in Sylvester is an older version of the Coming of Age hero, with a dash of VIM.
Variation: Viscount Lynton in A Civil Contract has a few features of the Coming of Age hero, but his story is darker and more complex than Heyer’s usual efforts, which emphasize the comic aspects of the hero’s inexperience.
Manly Country Gentleman. This hero is a variant of the Capable, Self-Made Man, except that he suffers no social disadvantage—in fact, he may be a bit too respectable. He is neither fabulously wealthy nor of high birth, but a member of the landed gentry or minor nobility, perhaps a knight or baronet. He is very much the gentleman, mature and authoritative. Like the Self-Made Man, he falls in love quickly and appoints himself his lady’s protector, often getting a chance to demonstrate his physical prowess in her defense. Temperature: Cool to Warm.
Examples: Sir Anthony Fanshawe in The Masqueraders, Sir Tristram Shield in The Talisman Ring, Philip Broome in Cousin Kate
Many critics have accused Georgette Heyer of recycling plots and characters. As my analysis of the hero-types shows, there is some truth in this, and indeed, she was keenly aware that her readers expected “the mixture as before”: more of the same, yet different. She worked hard to satisfy their expectations while meeting her own high standards, and within the general framework of romance plots feasible in the context of Regency upper-class mores, she manages considerable variety. The same is true of the heroes. In future posts, I’ll share my reviews of Heyer’s Regencies, with special attention to her ideal(s) of masculinity.
*E. R. Glass and A. Mineo, “Georgette Heyer and the Uses of Regency,” in Mary Fahnestock-Thomas, ed., Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective (Prinnyworld Press, 2001), 421-34.