You know those days when you feel like you're in the eye of a tornado? The world is spinning around you while you're trying to stay calm in the center, waiting for the storm to die down. This, at any rate, is how I was feeling last week, and more than anything I wanted to momentarily leave my stressful reality behind and escape to a warm, happy place. I yearned to enter to the enticing world of evening balls, muslin dresses trimmed with lace and afternoon drives in a fashionable phaeton. A Regency novel was the order of the day.
My go-to Regency author is, obviously, Jane Austen. I have been metaphorically worshipping the ground she walked on since my stroppy teenage years. I literally worshipped the ground she walked on during a holy pilgrimage to her former home in Chawton. In short, I simply adore her and every novel she wrote. In any case, I love five and like one (ahem, Mansfield Park), which is practically the same thing.
The only problem is that I have read each Jane Austen text multiple times. I can quote full passages at the drop of a hat. And while I will continue to immerse myself in Austenland for the rest of my days, sometimes I crave novelty, the excitement of not knowing what will happen on the next page.
Enter Georgette Heyer.
Georgette Heyer is a British novelist who published from the 1920s until her death in 1974. She wrote prolifically, producing an astounding sixty-plus novels, and is most well known today for her contemporary mysteries and Regency romances. My experiences with the latter have sparked a deep and abiding love for this author.
First of all, I would just like to make it clear that I am picky with a capital P when it comes to historical fiction on this period. In general, I'm not keen on Jane Austen sequels, re-imaginings and what not. In high school I read a Pemberley 'sequel' in which Georgiana unrealistically marries Sir Joshua Reynolds (he was cold in his grave long before Pride and Prejudice made its way to the printers), and its historical inconsistencies rather put me off this sub-genre. I have, with few exceptions, steered clear of fan fiction. Sticking a stray 'betwixt' or 'pray, sir' into an otherwise twenty-first century sentence does not a Regency novel make. I emphatically do not need to read novels about Darcy's infidelity or his secret life as a vampire. I just don't.
But Georgette Heyer is different. For a start, she creates her own characters and thereby conveniently avoids interfering with any reader's mental image of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Knightley and the lot. In my opinion, she successfully emulates the language of the period. The dialogue never feels forced or artificial, allowing me to sink into the Regency world free from twenty-first-century distractions. Heyer is well known for conducting a copious amount of research on early nineteenth-century England, and it shows. The details she includes on a variety of topics truly bring this beloved era to life. Even with my limited Georgette Heyer experience I've come across descriptions of Regency fashion, social etiquette, horses and carriages, engineering, snuff, furniture, and sporting events. It makes me feel as though Regency England were a tangible place, a destination I could jet off to for a weekend away -- and with these books I can! If only all historical novelists followed the example set forth by Heyer.
Yet all these aspects would be meaningless if they centered around uninteresting characters. Luckily, Georgette Heyer is skilled at conjuring up protagonists who are plucky and charming. Take, for instance, my most recent Heyer read: Frederica. The eponymous heroine, a young girl left to play mother hen to her orphaned siblings, enlists the aid of a distant relative in the hopes of making a good match for her beautiful sister. Lord Alverstoke, the relative is question, is a perpetually bored nobleman who only agrees to help Frederica because he views the situation as a source of potential diversion. It's evident from their first meeting that Frederica and Alverstoke will inevitably fall in love, but the pleasure lies in watching the process unfold. I was immediately drawn in by the pair's witty banter, Frederica's quiet self-assurance as she deftly manages family matters and Alverstoke's insistence on forgetting the names of his nieces.
The fun doesn't stop there. The full cast of characters provide a great deal of literary entertainment. There's Felix, Frederica's youngest sibling, a precocious young boy intent on procuring Alverstoke's accompaniment to every site of engineering significance in London; Jessamy, slightly older than Felix, who feels the need to apologize profusely on his brother's behalf; Charis, the beautiful sister Frederica hopes to see suitably married, who harbours rather melodramatic views on romantic love; Lady Buxted, Alverstoke's sister, who constantly applies to the Marquis for monetary assistance in spite of her independent wealth; and the observant Lady Jevington, Alverstoke's other sister, who is the first to see through her brother's protestations that he has no more than a trifling interest in Frederica's affairs. All of these minor characters make each page of the novel an absolute joy.
My only complaint with Georgette Heyer novels is the disappointing absence of epilogues. I'm the sort of reader who likes to see characters settled into a comfortable life before a narrative closes. I love that Jane Austen lets us know Georgiana is shocked by the way in which Lizzy talks back to Darcy, and the possibility of a future war is 'all that could dim [Anne Elliot's] sunshine.' Apart from this tiny niggle, however, I always conclude a Heyer text as happy as a clam.
In short, pick up a Georgette Heyer novel the moment you've exhausted your copies of Jane Austen or crave the wonder and finery of Regency England. Frederica and Arabella are great texts with which to begin. Both had me captivated, and both are perfect for a day when you need some internal sunshine. Curling up with Heyer and a cup of tea is a splendid way to pass an evening.
Yet my experiences with Georgette Heyer are quite limited -- I've only read four of her numerous publications. I've made my way through Regency Buck and Devil's Cub (though neither wowed me the way Frederica and Arabella did); I'm dying to pick up more of her novels but am spoiled for choice. Which would you recommend? Do you have a Heyer favourite? Please advise me!