Georgette Heyer wrote countless Regency romances where the romance ran as a constant thread but front and center was the Regency period of British history. She published prolifically – one romance and one mystery a year from 1932 onwards for many years. There was meticulous detail in the books about the period, its most colorful figures (Beau Brummel featured prominently), the costumes, the furniture, the very language of the classes and cant of the masses – it all came alive for the reader!
I recently read three of her historical novels in succession. The period started from early 1400 (Simon the Coldheart – around the time of Henry V), to Royal Escape – dealing with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s loss to Oliver Cromwell at the Battle or Worcester and his thrilling escape to France, and finally An Infamous Army that dealt with the Battle of Waterloo as the detailed backdrop to a romance.
Of course the genre she is known for is the Romance set in the Regency period of England. No bodice ripping romances these, they were full of wit and humor and deft story-telling. My favorites include These Old Shades, its “sequel” Beauvallet, Sylvester and The Grand Sophy – but the book that hold prime spot in my heart is The Masqueraders. The masquerade involves a brother and sister duo, and their masquerade as siblings of the opposite sex as the brother is trying to evade capture for having taken part in the rebellion. The duo manage to befuddle all but a languid large gentleman – an unforgettable character.
Historical romances began to burgeon once Heyer set the trend but her class act could hardly be equaled by the mass act of Barbara Cartland who turned the romance into almost bodice rippers, with talks of hearts aflame and all that low brow stuff! Often the stories mirrored what was written by Heyer, and apparently did not take this quietly:
The historical novels of Georgette Heyer have long been some of my favourite comfort reads – can you beat The Convenient Marriage, The Grand Sophy or The Reluctant Widow for spirited heroines and dashing heroes, wit, romance and good clean fun? – but it turns out that Heyer herself is going to become one of my all-time heroines. As Benedicte Page reports at the Bookseller, a new biography of the author, due out this autumn, will see her fury at Barbara Cartland for allegedly plagiarising her work in the 1950s revealed in all its glory.
Angry at the similarities between Cartland’s Knave of Hearts (“When it was discovered that the notorious Duke of Melcombe had become the guardian of Ravella Shane, Society was shocked. For the Duke was a gambler, a roué, a man not to be trusted, while Ravella was young, innocent, beautiful and rich”) and her own These Old Shades, Heyer told her agent “I think I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate. I think ill enough of the Shades, but, good God! That 19-year-old work has more style, more of what it takes, than this offal which she has written at the age of 46!”
Wielding language like a rapier, in the manner of the best of her heroines, Heyer says that Cartland “displays an abysmal ignorance of her period. Cheek by jowl with some piece of what I should call special knowledge (all of which I can point out in my books), one finds an anachronism so blatant as to show clearly that Miss Cartland knows rather less about the period than the average schoolgirl,” adding that she would “rather by far that a common thief broke in and stole all the silver”. According to the Bookseller, Cartland did not respond to a solicitor’s letter, but Heyer later noted that “the horrible copies of my books ceased abruptly”.
Ms. Heyer’s books went rapidly out of print, but recently new editions have been appearing. To those unfamiliar with her writing, but lovers of the English language, I highly recommend any of the listed books. Get acquainted with Dame Heyer, you will not be disappointed!