For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with Munro’s Bookstore in Victoria, BC, suffice it to say that in 2016 it was rated by National Geographic the third best bookstore in the world beating out Powell’s in Portland, which came fifth. (https://www.straight.com/blogra/665501/victorias-munros-books-ranked-third-best-bookstore-world) If you ever make it to this part of the world, Munro’s is a “must visit.” I and my spouse were treating ourselves to a couple of days of gracious living in Victoria just before Christmas, and, of course, a visit to Munro’s was essential. I came home with several “must-have” books one of which was Georgette Heyer’s Snowdrift and Other Stories. If you’ve browsed through older posts, you will know I admit to a guilty pleasure in Heyer’s novels, especially her Regency novels.
This book is a reissue of Heyer’s 1960 collection of short stories Pistols for Two with the addition of three stories unseen since their earlier publication over sixty or even eighty years ago in magazines and including a Foreword by Jennifer Kloester, Heyer’s biographer (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller and Georgette Heyer’s Regency World). Kloester tells us that when she discovered the stories she had to restrain herself from doing “a happy dance right there in the middle of the [British] Library reading room!” (vii). I hasten to add that while I was intrigued to find Snowdrift I did not break into dance, not even a little pirouette of excitement, in Munro’s. I just bought the book, and I read all the stories over the holiday season.
The stories are quintessential Heyer. Here are the sprightly heroines and dashing, firm-chinned heroes, helpful landlords, stately yet understanding butlers, and anxious, overbearing aristocratic families. What I found lacking in these works, most of which apparently date from Heyer’s earlier days of writing is that the brevity of the form means there is little opportunity for character development and, therefore, I found the number of times couples fell tumbling into love at first sight rather over-stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. As Kloester points out, readers of Heyer’s novels will recognise that some of the plots of these stories are reworked and developed in the later novels. Only the names have been changed.
By the time I came to the end of the collection, I had actually had enough. I was in fact rather irritated with the fact that Heyer ends all the stories with a happy resolution. I realise that the market for which she was writing demanded that she comply with the formulaic happy ending, but . . . .
Despite this saccharine quality, however, the stories do turn a comic lens on the world of women in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. It’s not a world I would particularly like to have lived in, a world where women were basically the property of first a father and then a husband; a world in which an unmarried lady (I use the word specifically) had little place unless she were a governess. Those whose class defined them as women or even merely as persons, in other words lower middle and working-class women, did at least have a function other than as someone’s wife. They were forced by poverty to work, whether married or not. Further, the, to us, extreme youth of some of the heroines, some as young as seventeen, when they commit themselves to life with men approaching or already in their thirties seems not a little disturbing, but this was indeed an aspect of the world that Heyer visits in her work.
For the most part, Heyer’s characters are if not aristocratic then landed gentry, or the children of somewhat impoverished but well-connected clergy. They depend upon the services of others; they aren’t in service. However, in a couple of the stories we find Heyer shifting ground somewhat. In “Night at the Inn,” the main characters are a clerk newly returned to England from working in his company’s office in India and a governess on her way to her first position. In “Pursuit,” Heyer also shifts her attention a little further away from the aristocratic classes; the heroine is a governess whose charge has eloped. In this story, we also find Heyer entering territory she was to visit at times in the novels: the situation, even plight, of women who for whatever reason appear “doomed” to spinsterhood. Miss Fairfax in “Pursuit” is “a lady . . . who would very soon have attained her thirtieth year” (237).
While Heyer is no George Eliot or Jane Austen, she does offer a view of a past world, an antidote to or at least a brief escape from the pressing realities of our own times. However, it does behove us at times to remember that there are some women who are still in thrall to family obligation and societal expectation not dissimilar to those experienced by their nineteenth century predecessors. As current news stories make all too evident, women today still suffer from the attentions of predatory males, and families still have to deal with financial loss, addiction, and war. Look carefully at Heyer’s world: for the most part, her stories and novels are set during the Napoleonic wars or in the years surrounding the French revolution. It’s a violent, insecure world, but Heyer’s comic resolutions do suggest that prejudice can be overcome and that belief in oneself and in one’s own good principles can ultimately be rewarded. I leave it to you to decide whether such a view is naively optimistic or not.