I’ve noticed lately that several of the bloggers that I follow have been apologising for their recent silence, and I, too, perhaps fall into that category since it is a couple of weeks or so since my last post.
On the one hand, I can say that some of that silence has been caused somewhat by summer indolence, but not really. It’s not that I’ve not been reading; I’ve been rereading much loved books and indulging in escapist fiction. In fact, I’ve been rereading Georgette Heyer, specifically Charity Girl, The Black Moth and The Nonesuch. I have to admit, (note that I don’t say confess) that I have been reading Georgette Heyer since I first encountered Powder and Patch as a nine or ten year old. I read it in Bude, Cornwall, on the annual pilgrimage to a caravan in a field ten minutes walk from the beach “where no-one else goes.” No doubt said beach has now been discovered, and the field is probably covered with fully serviced chalets, or is a full subdivision. But I digress.
From then on, I was hooked. However, I experienced no shame. Heyer’s books were available in my school library as well as in the city library, and, while my English mistress was horrified to discover that I read Daphne Du Maurier, also available in the school library, Georgette Heyer received the imprimatur from our History mistress who informed us that Heyer was recommended because “her research is so accurate.”
Nowadays, Heyer’s books tend to be found separated from Fiction and Literature and shelved in the “Romance” section of the bookstore. Perhaps Heyer’s work is escapist, but it is also the product of “a superlatively good writer of honourable escape” (A. S. Byatt, “An Honourable Escape: Georgette Heyer.”  Rpt. Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. [Chatto 1991] London” Vintage, 1993, 258).
Yes, Heyer’s novels tend to share certain conventions with “Romance Novels”: innocent, young heroines, attractive, masterful, possibly dangerous heroes, and, usually, a traditional marriage ending, but, as Byatt points out, as Heyer’s writing develops, “there is an increasingly clever balance between genuine romance and saving comic mockery of romance within romance. . . .[Heyer plays] romantic games with the novel of manners” (Byatt, 261).
Byatt expresses what I first noticed in my teens, although at the time I was unable to explain what it was I was sensing. As a young reader, I made little distinction between the world of Jane Austen, discovered a couple of years after the discovery of Powder and Patch, and the world of Georgette Heyer. Austen was fractionally more challenging to read than Heyer, but that did not surprise me. Austen’s books were “classics” and “literature.” But in terms of plot structure and characters, the concerns of the two writers appeared similar, and their created worlds similar.
And, of course, they are similar. Both writers reflect on the implications of marriage, and neither writer, despite their apparent good humour, is particularly sentimental. Both novelists reveal how the fate of an eighteenth century woman depends very much on her social status; her ability to marry into money brings security for herself and her family. Heyer’s novels such as Faro’s Daughter, The Nonesuch, and The Reluctant Widow, for example, also reveal the difficulties faced by “a gentlewoman” who through the improvidence or misfortune of her father is forced to deny/betray her class and actually seek work of some kind.
Heyer is just as sensitive as Austen to the various nuances of class. In fact, I would argue, that Heyer’s range is somewhat broader than Austen’s. Austen, for the most part confines herself to the provincial gentry. Heyer’s world ranges from the country gentry to the exalted(?) reaches of the aristocracy. She also deals with the social implications of divorce (Venetia) and elopement (The Black Sheep), and she reveals just how limited are the choices of the aristocracy if they are bedevilled by poverty but wish to maintain their caste. They marry without love (The Convenient Marriage) or settle for contentment and a life devoted to paying down mortgages and agriculture (A Civil Contract). One can hardly say fen drainage is a particularly “romantic” subject. Neither is the state of the poor, but Heyer reminds us of the fate of beaten climbing boys (Arabella) and of the need for kindly administered orphanages (The Nonesuch).
Austen’s prose reflects the syntax and idioms of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Heyer is a twentieth century writer, but particularly in the dialogue passages of her novels, her characters use the colloquial idioms of their period, just as they wear the right clothes, and eat the right food for their time. Heyer is easy to read, but her prose is not facile. And it is here, perhaps, that she differs most notably, at least for me, from the writers of genre fiction romances. And here I must confess, I am entering waters unexplored for decades. My only on-going experience with the genre was over thirty years ago; I was bedridden for a while, and a friend bought me books by the bundle. She was an avid reader of Barbara Cartland and her ilk. I got through three a day. Perhaps I surfeited; I’ve not wanted to read in that genre since. What I did notice apart from the formulaic structure and characterization was that the paragraphs were short, and the sentence structure and diction tended to be simple. Heyer’s prose is sophisticated yet unobtrusive. Her writing is neither “writerly” nor self-conscious; she is not writing metafiction. She is writing light-hearted social criticism.
Nevertheless, Heyer’s books are sidelined into the “Romance” section of the bookstore. The debate over the seriousness or even literariness of Heyer, I suppose, may come from the fact that unlike Austen who is writing of her own time, and unlike contemporary writers like Joanna Trollope or Mavis Cheek who write about twentieth and twenty-first century society, Heyer writes costume dramas, and we are somewhat uncomfortable with costume dramas. Can you write social critique if you are not writing of your own time? And if you are not writing metafiction, or challenging historiography, then what is the purpose of historical fiction other than to entertain or provide an escape from the mundane realities of life today? That whole question is just too broad for this post.
What I will say is that I’m not sure that “escape” is necessarily the right word. In fact, I might be tempted to argue that all fiction whether “literary,” “genre,” or even “pulp” is escapist in some ways. That debate, too, is material for another day.