Reviewed by Amy MacInnis
Romance is one of the most popular fiction genres. And why not? The God we are all restlessly yearning for is Love itself; marriage is the icon of Christ’s love for his Church. It’s only natural, therefore, to delight in stories that dwell on falling in love. Disappointingly though, romance novels have become increasingly pornographic, some intentionally written as erotica, and others containing that token, if not as explicit, sex scene. Romance readers can only devour classics like Austen’s and the Brontë sisters’ so many times before desiring other fare. Fortunately, we can partake of over thirty romances penned by twentieth-century English authoress, Georgette Heyer.
Heyer set many of her books in the Regency era, the same period in which Jane Austen was published. In fact, both women set their romance novels among the gentry and are noted for their realism and humour. Not only is Heyer a particularly strong historical fiction writer, threading the events, trends, historical figures, and even slang of the period into her stories, she also produces intricate plots and compelling characters.
Since Heyer also published a dozen thrillers, it is no surprise that many of her romances contain an element of mystery. For example, The Reluctant Widow includes a subplot about a spy ring. But even without mystery, Heyer’s stories are filled with unexpected plot turns and amusing events, from the ostentatious—like runaways and duels—to the simple—like a troublesome mutt thrust upon the hero by the heroine’s younger brother in Frederica.
In addition to her flair for intrigue, Heyer has an undeniable gift for creating interesting characters, whether complex leads or vivid minor characters. She effortlessly amuses the reader with one-dimensional individuals, such as those who imagine themselves to be ill whenever it may be to their advantage. I think I most admire her, though, for her portrayal of heroes who protect, provide and cherish without diminishing their heroine’s ability to think and act for herself. In fact, one of Heyer’s tropes, found in such novels as Sylvester, Black Sheep, and Lady of Quality, is that of the unconventional, intelligent woman to whom the hero is attracted for the very reason that she is unusual and strong-minded. Such a leading lady does not blindly fawn over her love interest; instead, she is well aware of his faults and even speaks of them to his face. This characterization is extremely refreshing when juxtaposed with romances in which the heroine remains entranced by the leading man even when his actions are blatantly damaging to her dignity.
Perhaps some parents would be reluctant to let rambunctious teenaged daughters read about women who disobey authority and buck convention, thinking that it would entice her to radical feminism. However, in Heyer’s defence, the leading ladies who look for independence in what is arguably a repressive patriarchy do so by a) waiting past (then) marriageable age because they want to marry for love rather than money or connection; b) seeking employment to support themselves as singles; and/or c) ignoring absurd cultural norms, like the need to wear a certain fashion if it does not suit one. I find all of these to be legitimate, even admirable, actions. Moreover, as each of the women eventually does find a man with whom she can both share a life and be supported, I do not think Heyer can be construed as a radical feminist. Finally, rebellion is not always a bad thing: is not chastity pre-eminently counter-cultural these days?
Another area of potential concern for younger readers is Heyer’s candid, though certainly not graphic, reference to such realities as rakes (promiscuous men), bastards and mistresses. To her credit, Heyer delights in giving happy endings to characters with pasts they regret, or born in unfortunate circumstances, and she is anything but idealistic about the social norms of the time in which her books are set. Nevertheless, prudence should be taken with younger readers.
What occasionally irks me about Heyer’s books is her emphasis on wealth as security. Even more worrisome in my opinion is the way some of her main characters mockingly or uncharitably treat silly or slow minor characters. Although this could be construed as a credit to the author’s realistic portrayal of heroes and heroines who have faults, I can’t help but feel that the reader is meant to laugh at the expense of the unintelligent—hardly something that should be fostered. Granted, Heyer is not completely unsympathetic to her dim-witted characters. Many of her early romances feature silly heroines. The plot of April Lady, for example, hinges on Nell’s mistakes and the ridiculous way she tries to fix them, and ends happily enough. In any case, it would be a mistake to read Heyer’s romance novels as instruction manuals for the moral life. Indeed, she has often been quoted for her admission that what she wrote was nonsense, but “unquestionably good escapist literature.”
Beyond mere entertainment or escapism, though, I think there is much good to be admired in Heyer’s writing. I find one of her most touching romances to be A Civil Contract, the story of a marriage of convenience that blossoms into love thanks almost solely to the virtuous actions of the heroine. Heyer is clearly able to highlight more than just erotic love in her novels; she crafts strong friendships and family loyalties too.
In a world looking for love in all the wrong places, I don’t think Georgette Heyer’s romances are a bad prospect. With complex plots, compelling characters and a positive portrayal of traditional sexual morality, Heyer is a master storyteller whose romances always end in the happiness of true love.