Once again I’m reaping the benefits of being a bookworm, as another relative, downsizing, discards a box of books my way. This week sees me wallowing in nostalgia with some of Georgette Heyer’s regency novels.
Sometimes we need some self-indulgence. Besides, truth is, they’re nicely written. Okay, so they may seem a little dated, and no, I haven’t forgotten that they’re historical romances. I mean that the (admittedly few) recently published historical romances I’ve read have a less ‘mannered’ approach to their telling. Georgette Heyer’s opening sentence to her novel, Frederica is:
Not more than five days after she had dispatched an urgent missive to her brother, the Most Honourable the Marquis of Alverstoke, requesting him to visit her at his earliest convenience, the widowed Lady Buxted was relieved to learn from her youngest daughter that Uncle Vernon had just driven up to the house, wearing a coat with dozens of capes, and looking as fine as fivepence.
Okay, it’s probably not authentic regency syntax. But it’s not meant to be. This is romance. It’s escapism.
It’s not the easy, colloquial approach that’s commonly in use now, though. Heyer leant towards being archaic: not so much that she’s a struggle to read, but there is formal feel to her writing. The thing is, she didn’t allow that to slow her up. Her stories are not bogged down by explanations. These are ‘show don’t tell’ novels. The story always moves forward smoothly. What the language of her narration does is help me to keep me in the historical mode.
Heyer’s novels hold a special place in my heart. They were my introduction to literature. As a result of reading them, I was ready to move on to Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Thackeray and the other great early novelists. I don’t say I wouldn’t have got round to them without her, but I think I might have missed an important lesson in story-making.
I say that, because these stories seem to reflect Heyer’s love of literature. I discovered moments of recognition, not only amongst the great novelists she had been influenced by, but also at the theatre. I’m not suggesting plagiarism, or direct borrowing. It seemed to me that what Heyer had done was to take characters or situations and set them into a new story.
There were a lot of other historical romance writers available when I was reading Heyer, and I read as many as came my way, but I never felt the need to collect those, as I did hers. I don’t think I can have read even half of her fifty novels, but the ones that I did have access to, I reread regularly. Why? Well they are easy reads. The characters are attractive, fun and busy. There’s always something happening, and the narrator has a lovely wry sense of humour.
Interestingly, at the time I collected them I was earning pocket-money as a babysitter, and all the households who employed me had at least five or six Heyer’s on their shelves too. With only three tv channels, it was the bookshelves that kept me entertained and awake on late-nights.
So I’m glad to find that even though there are still some of these softly aging old copies on the second-hand market, several of the titles are now available electronically too. I hope, if you’ve got a wet afternoon, or a quiet evening, you too might be tempted to give one a try.