A few weeks ago I came across this list on US blog Heroes and Heartbreakers, naming the ten Regency romances you should read. The author did say it was her own opinion – and I know these types of list are always contentious! – but to be honest, I was pretty amazed that the author Georgette Heyer wasn’t featured.
Georgette Heyer was the creator of the first Regency romance, and her works remain unsurpassed by any other Regency author. She was prolific, writing at least a book a year for fifty years, and her novels maintained a consistently high quality. There are one or two duds, it’s true – but you have to read a lot to come across them!
So what is it about her that makes her books so great?
Here’s a great long list:
- they’re well-written;
- they’re meticulously researched, and the descriptions of dress and food are a particular delight to read;
- she created a rich language that was a combination of the slang of the time, and slang sayings that were her own invention. I’ve yet to find a historical author that’s her equal in this;
- they are witty. That’s a throwaway statement, but she wrote book after book full of situations and dialogue that continue to make the reader laugh out loud;
- her characters are well-drawn, with a range of human foibles and weaknesses;
- most of her novels are formulaic, as are most romance novels, but Georgette Heyer varied the characters, plot and situations in each novel with consummate skill. Amazing, considering how many she wrote;
- they are really fun to read.
I could go on, but I thought I’d pick on one novel I’ve re-read recently and explain why I like it so much.
The Unknown Ajax is the story of the Darracott family, who live in an isolated stately home in the Sussex countryside. The head, Lord Darracott, is an old curmudgeonly tyrant. When his wastrel son and heir dies, he is furious. His estate will now pass to a farflung grandson, Major Darracott – the “son of a weaver”, and a man he’s never met.
Determined to teach “the weaver’s brat” how to behave like a gentleman, Lord Darracott summons the Major to stay at the hall. In an Agatha Christie-esque build up, he also summons the rest of the family to meet the new heir. And so the initial scene is set, with a fabulous cast of family characters, including the heroine and her young brother; her affectionate and silly mother; her pompous uncle and his shrewd wife; and the heroine’s two cousins – the foppish Claude and his brother, the viper-tongued Vincent (whose bickering and rivalry I adored).
The author writes of Claude and Vincent: “If it cost Claude a pang to know that Vincent’s Hessians outshone his own, this was nothing to the rage and despair that filled his valet’s soul.” There’s a great subplot of servant rivalry running through the story, which escalates as the novel progresses.
I loved how Georgette Heyer describes Anthea, the heroine, and the butler, trying to arrange the dinner table seating so that there wouldn’t be too much arguing. “…and an arduous labour it had been, necessitating the use of a slate and much chalk. The result was not ideal, but as Chollacombe very sensibly pointed out, the ideal was not to be achieved with a party of nine persons, all of them related, and too many of them brothers.” Anyone organised a family dinner and felt like this? :)
In the opening chapters of the book, the rest of the family are stunned to hear of the Major’s existence, and agog to meet him. They expect him to be an ill-educated man from a milltown in Yorkshire (aye, we’re all ignorant here int’ north!), and that he’ll be overjoyed to inherit land and a title, and too frightened of Lord Darracott to stand up to him. Georgette Heyer throws in a few clues as to the Major’s character, however, and the fact that he arrives at his own pace speaks volumes.
By the time the Major arrives at the hall, his family – and the reader! – are dying to meet him. The build up of suspense is gripping.
In a masterly introduction, the Major suffers a series of insulting put-downs about his upbringing which, although startled, he takes with phlegmatic aplomb. He’s a great hero, and not at all the usual alpha aristocrat. He plays along with the family, exaggerating his northern accent and pretending to a lack of education. The author describes his appearance as “bovine”, but as the story unfolds, of course his intelligence, wit and leadership qualities all gradually reveal themselves. The family are also stunned to discover, at the end of the novel, that far from being an uneducated “weaver’s brat”, the Major is the son of a millionaire mill-owner, and was educated at Harrow.
The main plot involves Anthea’s younger brother Richmond and his involvement with a band of smugglers. The plot is outlandish, of course, but Georgette Heyer carries it off in style. In the final scenes, the whole family is united, like a sort of comic opera, in a plot orchestrated by the hero to save the heroine’s brother from being caught by the Customs Officer. The foppish Claude and his valet come into their own in a way that made me laugh out loud.
My one quibble with The Unkown Ajax is that the heroine doesn’t play a great role, and, although intelligent and witty, is rather passive. But this is highly unusual for a Georgette Heyer romance, where the heroines are all wonderfully strong leads, so I think it can definitely be overlooked. Andafter all, in nigh on fifty novels the author has to vary the heroine’s character in umpteen different ways – and she manages this more successfully than any other prolific romance writer I’ve ever read.
I’ve only touched the surface of why Georgette Heyer is such a great read. If you’ve never tried any of her novels, I urge you to do so – and I’m envious of the treats in store for you! If you’d like to know more about Georgette Heyer’s novels, you might find this article on the BBC website an interesting read.
There’s also this fabulous Georgette Heyer fan blog and a post called Give Puce a Chance (Georgette Heyer famously hated the colour puce.)
Are you a fan of Georgette Heyer? If so, which is your favourite novel? If you can recommend any other historical romance authors, I’d be very interested.
If you have any comments or recommendations, I’d love to hear from you!