Reprint: Venetia--Georgette Heyer

It is a great pleasure to me to witness a revival of interest in and printing of the novels of Georgette Heyer.  The last time there was such a revival, I was too young to take notice or too arrogant to think that it had anything to do with me.  However, there are few better ways to pass than time than in the company of the perceptive, witty, and charming Ms. Heyer.

Georgette Heyer
 on June 30, 2008 7:57 AM

It is a shame that Mrs. Heyer's novels have always been marketed as "Romances," indeed, that she is considered the founder of that most infamous of romantic genres "the Regency romance," not because her stories are not romances, but because we no longer truly understand what is meant by the term and many potential readers are alienated both by the genre and its marketing. How many young men are likely to pick up a book with a bright yellow cover showing a young woman as though filmed through cheesecloth accepting a yellow rose from a young man in a rather too frou-frou shirtfront and jacket? There was a time in my life when I deprived myself of the enormous pleasures of reading Mrs. Heyer for reasons no better than these. And it is still a little embarrassing to be "caught" in the act of flipping through one of the Harlequin editions.

Thank goodness a trade paperback publisher has recently reissued much of Mrs. Heyer's work in editions that look much more like what Ms. Heyer has written--comedies of manners á la Jane Austen. Romance is the predominant thread and the binding glue of each of the stories, but they are crackling with with poise and pungent observations about the human animal--in love and otherwise. In the new editions, which features covers that look like portraits of the John Singer Sargent age, no self-respecting man will have any difficulty picking them up and reading them. Well, perhaps there is a lingering aura that is no so easily diffused, but the covers go a long way toward helping with the image problem.

I'd like to share a small portion of Venetia that gives you a sense of the snap and crackle of dialog and the undercurrent of a deep and sensitive intelligence that drives the work. Additionally, Mrs. Heyer does her research--her characters are always "in time, in dress, and on the right stage" as it were.
from Venetia
Georgette Heyer

"I can't, of course. What is it?" she returned, glancing at the volume. "Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don't doubt."
"The Medea, he said repressively. "Porson's edition, which Mr. Appersett lent to me."

"I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother and cast the pieces in her papa's way, wasn't she? I daresay, perfectly amiable when one came to know her."
He hunched an impatient shoulder, and replied unctuously: "You don't understand, and it's a waste of time to make you."
Her eyes twinkled at him. "But I promise you I do! Yes and sympathize with her, besides wishing I had her resolution! Though I think I should rather have buried your remains tidily in the garden dear."
A castoff, a mere bauble of dialog that sets the story rolling and we know Venetia and the brother to whom she speaks. More than that we see an oxymoron--a gentle spitfire who knows a great deal, knows how to use it, and yet does not pull out all the plugs.

Georgette Heyer is a skilled writer whose works continue in print not because of a small population of readers of romance, or even because of a large population, but because the books are good--well researched, well written, witty, and sharply observant. I wonder how many men have already become acquainted with Mrs. Heyer dispite the nearly insurmountable difficulties of the schlock heaped on them by marketers who inadvertantly narrow the market rather than broaden it. I think Michael Dirda hit the nail on the head when he said in The Classics for Pleasure that the nearest things to Mrs. Heyer's novels were not the chain line of modern factory-produced romances, but the very different romances of Patrick O'Brien with Aubrey and Maturin. There is, I think, a good deal of justice in this comparison. While I have found the Aubrey and Maturin novels unapproachable because of the sheer odiousness of the main characters (or because of my finicky taste, more likely), I find Mrs. Heyer's company perfectly amiable--someone to take aside on a summer's rainy afternoon into the book nook or windowseat and spend a while chatting with. Someone who has much to say and says it both well and beautifully.

Man or woman, do not make the mistake of dismissing Mrs. Heyer as the queen and founder of the modern romance novel. You will be giving up a great deal if you do.

A Little Later
on June 30, 2008 8:26 AM
from Venetia
Georgette Heyer

Beyond the stream lay the Priory itself, a rambling house built in Tudor times upon the foundations of the original structure, subsequently enlarged, and said to be replete with a wealth of panelling, and a great many inconveniences.

". . . Fair Fatality, you are the most unusual female I have encountered in all my thirty-eight years!"
"You can't think how deeply flattered I am!" she assured him. "I daresay my head would be quite turned if I didn't suspect that amongst so many a dozen or so may have slipped from your memory." . . .

"Spiteful little cat!" he said appreciatively. "How the devil was I to recognize Miss Lanyon of Undershaw in a crumpled gown and a sunbonnet, and without even the chaperonage of her maid?"

"Oh, am I to understand then, that if you had know nmy quality you wouldn't have molested me? How chivalrous!"
Her first encounter with the infamous Lord Damarel goes none-too-well and so provides the reader with delights of the first order.

Venetia--Georgette Heyer
 on August 7, 2008 7:50 AM

I took my time reading Venetia largely as a consequence of two things--the long disruptive trip that fell during the time of reading, and Honoré's book In Praise of Slowness. I suddenly became aware that I was not in any particular hurry and my enjoyment of a very pleasant read was by far more important that finishing this to move on to the next.

Venetia was an excellent book to read next to The Portrait of a Lady and even The Ambassadors (which I have returned to now).Venetia herself is a strong-willed, bright, and iconoclastic country girl whose notions of independence are a good deal healthier than those of Isabel Archer. Venetia grounds her independence in a carefully cultivated world view which is internally consistent and allows her to make a choice for happiness that conventionality would deplore. Ms. Archer, on the other hand, is independent enough to make the choice, but not independent enough to make it work--she is too bound by how other people see her. Venetia has a healthy contempt for the often incorrect way in which people try to manipulate others through convention.

Not that Venetia completely denies all convention, rather she carefully chooses amongst the conventions of her time, sorting out those that conform to reason from those that are mere prejudice--the sign of a keen intellect. And that is what Venetia demonstrates from almost the very moment we encounter her.

The story centers around Venetia, a rather sequestered country girl, who meets and eventually comes to love Lord Damarel, a notorious rake and man-about-town. Venetia has her own deep dark secret that becomes her key to making the match she knows in her heart to be the right one.

The book brims with a knowing sexuality, but not eroticism, a hard look at how men and women really behave. Venetia is not a prude, nor is she under any illusions about how the world works and what a rake is. But going back to our comparison of Venetia and Isabel Archer, Venetia's passion is rooted in a true and deep affection that grows slowly over the span of her brother's stay with Lord Damarel. Isabel Archer's passion isn't rooted in anything other than her own notions of independence. When she encounters her fatal love, it isn't a flare of affection, mutual care and concern, but a burst of passion that is rootless.

What the romance genre does at its best is what woman-kind at her best does for humanity--it roots the primal and animalistic passions (particularly of the human male) in the enduring bonds of affection and caritas. It raises human love from the continuation of the human species to a true relationship that reflects, at its best, the Father's deep and abiding love for each of us. Romance, in the literary sense is about quest, transformation. We came to call modern romances such because they were about love and stemmed from the "romantic" tales of Arthur and his Knights--but some of those elements tend to be lost from modern romance. Not so with Ms Heyer. She gives to us true romance in which the characters of her novel undergo real and realistic transformations because of the bonds of mutual affection. Within the sanctity of the marital union one natural expression of these bonds is passion. But if passion is the first and only bond, it will dissipate and cause dissipation.

Venetia holds to the high standards of Shelley's, Keats's, and Byron's romanticism, in which the quest transforms the knight errant. The quest itself is often transformed--from Holy Grail to Fisher King. So it is in Venetia as Damarel gradually ceases the attempt to seduce and finds himself tangled up in true affection, true concern--so much so that he cannot even propose to the one whom he originally planned to ruin.

A fun, light-heared, but ultimately serious historical romance worthy of the attention of readers of both history and romantic novels. This is what a romance can be at its very best, and we would be better off if there were more writers who would practice this highest form of the art.

And one that is peripherally related to those above:

On the Real Pleasures of Henry James (and Georgette Heyer)
 on July 18, 2008 1:06 PM

I suppose it is odd to put these two writers together, and I do so for only one reason--so I'll start with that and move on to tpleasures one derives from Henry James alone.

While there are a great many things delightful about reading both Georgette Heyer and Henry James, one thing the two have in common is a sensibility that seems to have long since fled the world. They come from a world and a time that was not completely genitally obsessed. In Henry James, marriage, infidelity, and the like make up the fabric of the story, but we are not invited into the intimacy of the physical marital union--it is not germane to his point--as it is not germane to most of what we read. It is an add-on that has long since lost its shock-value, novelty, and, frankly, its interest. It's one thing to read Lawrence Durrell trying to turn the literary world upside down (a little late considering he came in the wake of Henry Miller), and quite another to read the tawdriness of most modern novels wherein sex is interjected because there seems to be nothing else to keep the reader's interest for pages on end.

As with Henry James, so too with Georgette Heyer. In most cases her virginal heroines are married or about to be married on the last page. There is always some kiss or another misinterpreted, unasked for, or otherwise "transgressive," but nothing that would offend the sensibilities of my grandmother. And that's exactly as I like it. I have read, at the recommendation of another, some modern romances and have, in some cases, been delighted with the writing, but nearly always disappointed by the perceived necessity to make the stories "hot."

While Henry James and Georgette Heyer both share in this delight, there is another pleasure in James's writing that cannot be said to be a characteristic of Ms. Heyer's. Henry James forces us to slow down. It is nearly impossible to get anything out of reading Henry James rapidly, except perhaps a sense of vertigo and a headache that threatens to split your skull. Henry James, particularly in the later period, specializes in periodic sentences that require slowing down and reading with great care. To wit:

"She hadn't pretended this, as she had pretended on the other hand, to have divined Waymarsh's wish to extend to her an independent protection homeward; but Strether nevertheless found how, after he had Chad opposite to him at a small table in the brilliant halls that his companion straightaway selected, sharply and easily discriminated from others, it was quite, to his mind, as if she heard him speak; as if, sitting up, a mile away, in the little apartment he knew, she would listen hard enough to catch."

Now THAT is a sentence. And The Ambassadors as well as The Golden Bowl is a book of such sentences and more. (I cannot yet speak to The Wings of the Dove, but hope to do so soon.) It was one of my great plesures when the reading group I belong to expressed delight and great pleasure with reading The Portrait of a Lady. There is a sense of accomplishment in just getting through the books; however, there is a lingering element--a kind of spirit of the book that stays long after the last page has been finished and the last word said that provides a sustained pleasure--that gives one a true sense of why Henry James is rightfully called "The Master." There is none other like him, not remotely, and I have to say that it came as a woeful surprise to me that I was unable to pick up much of anything in the way of modern literature after having taken in the real and solid pleasures of The Portrait of a Lady. The modern sensibility palls in comparison. Henry James turns pleasure, leisure reading into an edifying and strengthening activity that delights both heart and mind in the recollection of it. There is no modern writer of whom I would say the same.


  1. Comparisons are odious, and reflect well on neither. Georgette Heyer wrote best when 'romancing' in the period of the Regency. Her more contemporaneous detective fiction, to use a modern phrase, 'sucked'. James wrote as painstakingly, but he dealt with his times, in an excoriating, pitiless way. Heyer dealt with the past; joyfully, in a mad escape from her today. She amused, laugh out loud amused, and the comparison that would best fit would be perhaps Jane Austen with a large dollop of P.G. Wodehouse.

  2. Dear Geraldine,

    Thank you so much for your comments. While I agree with your points about Ms. Heyer, I must respectfully disagree with your points about James. It is true that he could be excoriating, but he was not always and his deep sympathy for his characters is evident throughout his career from _Washington Square_ through _Portrait of a Lady_ even into _The Golden Bowl_. That terrible things happen and that the tenor of the stories is not upbeat is not necessarily indicative of his feeling for the characters--it is evident that he much admires Isabel Archer even as he shows us the out-play of her character flaws.

    I would agree that Ms. Heyer is well-compared with Ms. Austen--but many have already noted that comparison and I thought to bring a new element into the discussion--because even as she is in the comedy of manners school, she also brings a deft psychological realism (a realism of the Jamesian) school to her work.

    I think we would both agree that her work is not to be dismissed as mere fluff. I would, however, disagree with your evaluation of her mysteries--while they are not of the very finest thread of the Golden Age, there is often some element of interest in them.

    But no more of that--we are both obviously admirers and I really appreciate the fact that you took time out to share your thoughts with me. We may disagree on some points, but that would provide interesting fodder for a lively conversation.

    Once again, my thanks.



  3. delightful tale....i just love Georgette H.


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