Georgette Heyer- The Mother of the Modern Regency Romance
A notoriously private woman, who refused to give interviews, Georgette Heyer was one of the most prolific and well-known writers of ‘regency romance’ of her time. In fact, Georgette Heyer essentially established the historical romance genre and its subgenre Regency romance, popularising the genre which had previously been established by Jane Austen, with her domestic-focussed ‘women’s’ novels for, and about, women of the Georgian and Regency periods.
Heyer’s regencies were inspired by Austen’s, but she brought to the genre a new life and a much less ‘serious’ feel than Austen did. Heyer was, however, a stickler for accuracy, which I presume must have come about from a fascination with the Georgian and Regency eras, and which anyone who loves Regency writing can sympathize with—Heyer collected references, books and historic documents, and kept detailed notes on all aspects of regency life. She is, for example, well known for her use of ‘regency cant’ the vernacular of the day, and which she sprinkled liberally throughout her novels. It is generally accepted that she made up some of these words herself, but even if she did, they lend an authentic feeling to her writing. For example, phrases such as ‘doing it too much brown’ (flattery), ‘to become a tenant for life’ (marriage) and ‘to be in damned low water’ (poor). These lend sparkle and life to her sentences and characters—the sparkle which draws us to her writing and which is unlike any other writer then or now. (For more on her regency ‘cant’, here is a great website which catalogues many of her turns of phrase, authentic or made up.)
To me, one of the most interesting facts about Heyer’s novels is that as Heyer's popularity increased, other authors began to imitate her style to the point of plagiarism. Barbara Cartland, a contemporary of Heyer’s, had written several novels in a style similar to Heyer's, reusing names, character traits and plot points and paraphrased descriptions from her books, particularly A Hazard of Hearts, which borrowed heavily from Friday’s Child, and The Knave of Hearts which borrowed heavily from These Old Shades. Heyer complained and took the case to her lawyers, but unfortunately the case never came to court. It was enough, however, to deter the other writer, and the plagiarism ceased.
That was not the only instance of plagiarism. In 1961, another reader wrote of similarities found in the works of another female novelist. These novels borrowed plot points, characters, surnames, and plentiful Regency slang. Apparently, her fans accused Heyer of "publishing shoddy stuff under a pseudonym". In response, Heyer made a complete list of the plagiarisms, including the historical mistakes in the books. Among the phrases that writer ‘borrowed’ were repeated use of the phrase "to make a cake of oneself", which Heyer had discovered in a privately printed memoir unavailable to the public. In another case, the author referenced a supposedly historical incident that Heyer had actually invented, in an earlier novel—a dead give-away for plagiarism, and I read somewhere a long time ago now, that Heyer claimed she had invented some of the phrases herself, and was able to catch out the offending novelist by pointing out the use of the same phrases in the plagiarised novels.
Perhaps these events make her more interesting to a reader—I certainly found her books fascinating because of it, and one can see why Heyer was so wildly successful enough to have other writers attempt to plagiarize her work. She writes with wit, certainly with a sense of the comedy of life, with an eye to detail and makes use of intricately woven plots, and most of all, she is funny…all of which make for the best reading.
So which of Heyer’s books would I recommend to new readers of hers? To be honest, any of her books are fine to start as almost all of them are pretty accessible. But if I had to state my favourites so far (as I have not read all of her books yet) I would recommend: The Black Sheep, Friday’s Child, Venetia, Regency Buck, Bath Tangle. Heyer wrote thirty-seven romances alone, not counting some thrillers also, so if you like her style, unlike Austen’s mere handful of novels, you will have plenty to keep you going!