An Honorable Escape: Georgette Heyer Remakes Jane Austen

“’Pon my word, do you mean to tell me, madam, that you think the lady an accomplished writer?”

It has been 40 years since A.S. Byatt defended prolific romance novelist Georgette Heyer as a “superlatively good writer of the honorable escape”. Now Heyer is enjoying a new wave of popularity. Both the independent publisher Sourcebooks, founded and run by a woman, and the romance giant Harlequin Enterprises have been reissuing Heyer’s novels monthly (Bath Tangle is the latest release). The romance market is one of the few thriving sectors in publishing: it has held onto the largest share of the consumer market while expanding its reach into e-books. Some publishers speculate that romance readers swarm to e-readers because they don’t expose the lurid covers in public. In other words, romances sell, but they earn little respect. Byatt was one of the few literary critics to defend Heyer’s writing, which serves as a stepping stone from Jane Austen to the contemporary bodice ripper.

Heyer is often called the “Mother of the Regency Romance”, but she was also Jane Austen’s symbolic daughter. Austen’s novels were already over one hundred years old when the 19-year-old Heyer published her first book, The Black Moth, in 1921. She continued producing a book a year, on average, until her death in 1974. Although she dabbled in detective fiction, short stories, and other historical periods, most of her novels take place in the same small world Austen described so acutely. Like Austen, Heyer is best known for her sense of humor and irony; yet, Heyer shrewdly adapted the Austen “formula”. To Austen’s light and witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and domestic plots, she added madcap adventure. Her heroes are men of fashion who powder their hair, paint their faces, and peer through quizzing glasses, but can wield swords, pistols, and words with dangerous precision.

They are as far from the alpha males of contemporary romance as her heroines, though “spirited”, are from the seductive vixens of today’s bodice-rippers (Heyer called the sexy romances of her day “breast-sellers”). Heyer does have tremendous fun with them though: in The Grand Sophy the irrepressible Sophy Stanton-Lacy reaches new heights of mischief when she kidnaps a gentleman, brings him to an abandoned estate, shoots him, and forces a Shakespearean denouement that re-aligns all the romantic couples into the proper pairings. Sophy’s rough embrace with her long-suffering suitor has the typical screwball quality of Heyer’s sex scenes: “Charles!” uttered Sophy, shocked. “You cannot love me!” Mr. Rivenhall pulled the door to behind him, and in a very rough fashion jerked her into his arms, and kissed her. “I don’t: I dislike you excessively!” he said savagely.

Heyer understood that the past is as exotic and alien as any foreign culture or fantasy world. Not only did Regency bucks drink negus and Bohea, they had radically different expectations and beliefs than our own. Unlike her successors, Heyer did not pretend that her aristocratic heroes and heroines expected love from their parents or siblings. It was enough of a stretch to imagine they expected love from each other. Her plots hinge on assumptions that are incredible today, but true to the byzantine moral codes of the English upper classes, as when Jack Carstares, Earl of Wyncham, spends six years in exile for allegedly cheating at cards. The entire plot of The Black Moth is devoted to extricating him honorably from that moral lapse, though the kidnapping and attempted rape of the heroine by “Devil” Andover is dismissed with a wave of a gloved hand. Yet Heyer (and her heroines) can mock these starched gentlemen too: when Jack Carstares admits to the woman he loves, “I once… cheated… at cards,” she replies “only once?”

To re-create the stylized language of the period Heyer had to make authentic slang of the “ton”, the fashionable upper classes of early 19th century England, intelligible to modern readers. She prided herself on her historical accuracy and kept detailed notebooks filled with sketches of costumes and lists of terms like “shagbag” (meaning “contemptible”) indexed under “Abuse, Male”. This attention to historical detail gave her and her work credibility in a maligned genre. It also appeals to readers interested in the material details of history, the status symbols as well as the physical artifacts of the past. In The Foundling the Duke of Sale tries to escape the crushing burden of his money, servants, horses, and belongings, while the foundling of the title desperately tries to acquire one purple silk dress. In A Civil Contract, the aristocratic Adam Deveril marries a “cit” for money and then struggles under a comical deluge of gifts from his new father-in-law. The plot revolves around the couple coming to a financial understanding as much as a romantic one.

After all, money is the unacknowledged engine of all of these books. Since Austen, the tensions between economic and sexual compatibility have been central to the genre. All romances need conflict. They need something to keep the lovers apart or the story will not be interesting. Thus the classic Cinderella tale of mismatched couples arose (occasionally you read of matches between a poor man and an heiress, but that only works if the poor man makes his own money before the marriage — in fact, the delay this causes often provides the plot). To this attention to finances Heyer added fastidious descriptions of coaches, gowns, and snuff boxes. Her novels began the rage in today’s Regencies for well-polished Hessian boots and elaborately tied cravats with diamond stick-pins. Mr. Darcy impresses with his “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year”. But his successor Mr. Beaumaris, hero of Arabella (1949), has additional advantages in his coat of olive-green superfine (tailored by Weston, naturally), tight pantaloons, and those inevitable gleaming Hessians.

It is surely no accident that the mass-market romance industry really took off in the post-war era of consumer culture. Readers fed on escapist fantasies and denied material goods during the thirties and forties became avid consumers of popular romance in the fifties. The publisher that is now Harlequin Enterprises was founded in Canada in 1949 to publish paperback reprints in all genres but in the last 60 years it has become a massive engine of consumer culture itself, shipping more than six billion books. It sold fantasies that made reality more palatable for women all over the world, and the desire it fed was as much a desire for luxuries as for love. These readers want something more.

Sheer volume has always been a defining feature of the industry, and one reason for its lowly status. Like other women writers scorned for writing “too much,” Heyer wrote and wrote for the least romantic of reasons: to make money to support her family.

A voracious cycle of supply and demand keeps the books in circulation. Scarcity becomes a reason for abundance: one contributor to reported that she switched to reading Heyer when she finished Austen’s entire oeuvre of six novels. Austen’s under-production provides a measure of quality assurance, perhaps, but leaves her readers begging for more. Romance readers read and, more importantly, re-read. Amazon reviews of Heyer books are full of readers on their tenth read of a particular favorite. Repetition — of plots, characters, editions — is not a disadvantage in this industry: it is its very reason for being, though it must be carefully managed to prevent satiety. Heyer’s bored and apathetic heroes are stand-ins for bored and apathetic modern consumers, who must be teased and titillated into responding, and kept entertained at all costs. Repetition serves the needs of escapism—to minimize the stresses of uncertainty while providing a pleasurable reminder of the thrill of the “first time.” Harlequin has an entire series called Second Chance.

Heyer made light of her books, calling them “romantic fluff”. In a letter she wrote “I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it’s questionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from flu….” Yet her 50-plus volumes are heavy in their own way: densely researched and subtle in their varied explorations of a limited terrain. They evoke Austen’s own self-effacing description of her work as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” As Byatt discovered as a teenager, when she ran out of Heyer romances to read and tried to write one, to make anything seem so effortless is hard work indeed.

Victoria Olsen is a freelance writer and lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.