By Val Hewson
I have been a fan of Georgette Heyer since a teacher recommended her, in an attempt to get the class in the mood for our Year 10 set book, Pride and Prejudice. She is an under-rated writer, whose work has long been scorned. Romance? Historical fiction? Comedy? Written by a woman and read by women? You’re not serious?
For our discussion this month, I chose a favourite Heyer, Sylvester. Beautifully written, it is one of her best and it allows her, I like to think, to have a joke at our expense.
I shan’t attempt to describe the complex story. It is enough to know that Sylvester is a duke who wishes to marry. He is arrogant, although not at all unpleasant, because he has been deferred to most of his life.
‘Self-consequence?’ said Miss Battery, a little at sea. ‘Thinks too much of his rank?’
Phoebe shook her head, frowning. ‘No, it isn’t that. It is – yes, it is worse than that! I think it is so natural to him to have all that consequence that he doesn’t give it a thought. …’ (chapter 5)
None of the beautiful and accomplished girls he knows has quite caught his fancy, so Sylvester decides to inspect Phoebe, the unknown daughter of a friend of his mother’s and therefore a suitable match. In her home, browbeaten by her stepmother, she fails to meet his high standards:
… his gloomiest forebodings were realised. She had neither beauty nor countenance , her complexion was poor and her figure worse, her dress was tasteless, and the colourless voice in which she murmured how-do-you-do confirmed him in his instant belief that she was insipid.
Away from her stepmother, she speaks up for herself and:
This girl, thought Sylvester indignantly, wants conduct as well as countenance! (chapter 5)
When she runs away rather than listen to his proposal, he is piqued and even a little intrigued.
It all ends happily, of course. (This is hardly a spoiler in a romance, but forgive me.) Through suspected elopements, the publication of a scandalous novel, a kidnapping, social disgrace and a mad dash around France, boy meets girl, boy loses girl and boy regains girl.
And the joke? On the surface, the scandalous novel is the plot device which separates Sylvester and Phoebe, but it is so much more. A roman à clef secretly written by Phoebe, The Lost Heir causes a sensation, with everyone trying to identify its characters and author.
‘Acquainted with the author?’ Ianthe gasped. ‘Oh, who is she? You can’t be so cruel as not to tell me! I won’t breathe a word, dear [Phoebe]!’ (chapter 17)
Heyer uses the familiar ‘story within a story’ trope delicately. We never get to see any of Phoebe’s novel, but there are frequent references, which turn out to bear an unfortunate resemblance to Sylvester’s life. Not for nothing is Heyer’s full title Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle. The Lost Heir, we are told, is easily dismissed: ‘nonsensical’ (chapter 4) and ‘that absurd novel’ (chapter 17). But it is also captivating, with its publisher saying ‘This female … knows how to do the trick!’ (chapter 4). The same might be said, of course, of Sylvester, with Heyer managing her plot and characters as skilfully as her hero manages the reins of his curricle, with its ‘pair of beautiful grey steppers’. To an inch, as they might say in the Four in Hand Club. We are being shown what can be done within the apparently narrow confines of the historical romance.
Phoebe knows that the hero and heroine of The Lost Heir are not well drawn.
Having very little interest in mere heroes and heroines [Phoebe] had done no more than depict two staggeringly beautiful puppets, endow them with every known virtue, and cast them into a series of hair-raising adventures from which, she privately considered, it was extremely improbable they would ever have extricated themselves. (chapter 17)
Heyer does better. Her hero and heroine are real and – a mark of a good novel – they change, convincingly, over its course. Sylvester learns some humanity and humility, and Phoebe, her own value. The secondary characters are necessarily less complex, but they are cleverly drawn. Take, for example, Sylvester’s young nephew Edmund (Heyer, who had a son, was particularly good at small boys) and his stepfather-to-be, the exceptionally dim Sir Nugent Fotherby. Here is an exchange from chapter 20:
‘When Uncle Vester knows what you did to me he will punish you in a terrible way!’ said Edmund ghoulishly.
‘You see?’ exclaimed Sir Nugent. ‘Now we shall have him setting it about I’ve been ill-using him!’
‘Uncle Vester,’ pursued his small tormentor, ‘is the terriblest person in the world!’
‘Uncle Vester will grind your bones!’ said Edmund.
‘Grind my bones?’ repeated Sir Nugent, astonished. ‘You’ve got windmills in your head, boy! What the deuce should he do that for?’
‘To make him bread,’ responded Edmund promptly.
‘But you don’t make bread with bones!’
‘Uncle Vester does,’ said Edmund.
Heyer uses Phoebe’s novel for another purpose – to help ground her own book. The Lost Heir draws on a real book, Glenarvon, by Lady Caroline Lamb. It too was sensational, with its barely disguised society portraits, including of the author’s lover and husband (respectively, Lord Byron and William Lamb, later Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister). By mentioning Glenarvon, Heyer is reminding her readers that novel-reading was growing in popularity in the early 19th century. More importantly, she is showing the consequences of offending society. People apparently resented their depiction in Glenarvon, and Lady Caroline was banned from Almack’s club, where everyone went to be seen. When Phoebe becomes known as the author of The Lost Heir, she comes close to disaster. People start to cut her and when, distraught, she quarrels publicly with Sylvester, her ruin is almost complete:
She wrenched herself out of his hold, heedless alike of her surroundings and the consequences, and hurried off the floor … so blinded by the tears she was unable to keep back that … she did not see how everyone was staring, first at her, and then at Sylvester, left ridiculously alone in the middle of the ballroom floor, his face white with fury. (chapter 18).
(For all that this is light romance, there is real emotion here.)
There is one more point to make about Glenarvon and The Lost Heir. They indicate Heyer’s knowledge of her chosen period. Even among her detractors, she was known for the meticulous research into events, personalities, customs and language which enabled her to re-create the Regency. Or rather to create her own version of the Regency. Heyer is as skilled a world-builder as the best science-fiction or fantasy writer.
I started by saying Heyer was joking with Sylvester, and maybe she was. But perhaps she was also making a point. Criticise historical fiction, novels of manners, comedy if you like, but see here what can be achieved by someone who knows what she is doing. In her correspondence, Heyer was deprecating about her books, but you feel that this was a defence mechanism from someone who worked hard at something that mattered to her. After all, she did invent the genre, and despite the claims of all the ‘new Georgette Heyers’, there is still no-one to touch her.