Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Georgette Heyer and the Art of Romance

When I began my theme of good books for autumn, one story that instantly sprang to mind was Venetia by Georgette Heyer. That romance, by the Queen of Regency Romance herself, is set during a lovely, golden autumn season, when a rather innocent miss meets a hardened rake.
Heyer books are even better if you can find a  retro edition like this.

Romances are not my read of choice. For one thing, too often the books are written as pure fantasy without any research or knowledge of the time period, along with its politics, language, clothes, and society.

Heyer is the shining example of what to do in order to write a great romance. She kept notebooks about her time period, going to the British Museum to sketch ball gowns and reticules. I've often thought that those notebooks would be a wonderful companion to her books.

Venetia is a more typical example of a romance, although to say that would be to ignore Heyer's shining style. For example, when the rake spurs Venetia (for her own good, because of course he has finally fallen in love) and Venetia, blind with sadness, returns home, there is a masterful scene between her and her old Nurse. It could be tripe in the hands of a less experienced writer, but Heyer makes the minor character come alive while advancing the desperation that Venetia feels. 

However, to my mind, really is apparent in two other books: The Unknown Ajax and A Civil Contract. In them the writer took the genre and completely turned it on its head.

The Unknown Ajax is really the story of a man, not a woman. Hugo comes to a mouldering estate as its heir and must confront a very indignant crowd of relatives. Add smuggling and more lively, realistic characters to the mix, and the book is unique. 

Not only that, but Heyer manages several very different voices. There is Hugo's groom, John Joseph, who speaks broad Yorkshire with accompanying slang ("I'd get a bang on the lug"), as well as the servants in the estate itself who have their own delicious phrases, such as "knaggy old gager."

A Civil Contract goes even further. This is no desperate romance between two gorgeous, wealthy people. No, it is the story of a marriage of convenience, and again it is mainly told from the point of view of Adam, a retired soldier from the Peninsula, who is called home to rescue his family from the crushing debts left to them after his father's death. The only way he can settle them is to marry Jenny, who is fabulously rich and incredibly dowdy.

But she is not dowdy in a Hollywood "one scene set to 80's music of shopping and exercising and she'll become gorgeous" sort of way. Jenny is real - she is plump, she prefers housework to horseback riding, her hair is mouse colored, and she is extremely shy. 

The beauty all belongs to Julia, the girl whom Adam must forsake in order to make his marriage of convenience. Again, here is where Heyer's mastery stands out. A lesser author would make Julia an obvious bitch from the start, but Heyer creates a luminous, lovely girl who is actually friends with Jenny, the new wife. Her character is drawn just as delicately as those of Adam and Jenny.

More than that, the developing marriage between Adam and Jenny, set against the backdrop of the days of Waterloo and interfering families (not to mention childbirth in the time period) is completely organic. What romance would feature a squat, unattractive woman who prefers setting a seam and polishing floors to riding ventre a terre to an adventure? AND be a fascinating read in the process? 

I'll leave you with a scene from A Civil Contract, taken from Georgette-Heyer.com. This interchange between two minor characters, Jenny's father and Adam's aunt, shows how Heyer can make background voices real and intriguing:

Her entry took everyone by surprise, including the footman, who had attempted to usher her into the drawing-room while he went to inform his mistress of her arrival. It had been arranged that the Lyntons were to have driven to Nassington House, in Berkeley Square, and to have proceeded thence to St. James's; and for a moment of almost equal relief and disappointment Jenny thought that some accident must have occurred, and that there was to be no Drawing-Room after all. But her ladyship's first words, as much as her attire, dispelled this notion. "I thought as much!" she said. "Good God, girl, do you imagine I am going to take you to Court decked out like a jeweller's window?" Her high-nosed stare encountered Mr. Chawleigh, and she demanded: "Who is this?"

"It's my father, ma'am. Papa--this is Lady Nassington!" responded Jenny, inwardly quaking at what she feared might prove to be a battle of Titans.

"Oh! How-de-do?" said her ladyship. "Those pearls you gave Jenny are too big. She's got too short a neck for them."

"That's as may be, my lady," replied Mr. Chawleigh, bristling.

"No may be about it. Take off that necklace, Jenny! You can't wear rubies with that dress, child! And those ear-rings! Let me see what you have in this monstrous great box: good God! Enough to furnish a king's ransom!"

"Ay, that's about the worth of them," said Mr. Chawleigh, glowering at her. "Not that I know anything about king's ransoms, but I know what I paid for my girl's trinkets, and a pretty penny it was!"

"More money than sense!" observed her ladyship. "Ah! Here's something much more the thing!"

"That?" demanded Mr. Chawleigh, looking with disgust at the delicate necklace dangling from Lady Nassington's fingers. "Why, that's a bit of trumpery I gave Mrs. Chawleigh when I was no more than a chicken-nabob!"

"You had better taste then than you have now. Very pretty: exactly what she should wear!"

"Well, she ain't going to wear it!" declared Mr. Chawleigh, his choler mounting. "She'll go to Court slap up to the echo, or I'll know the reason why!"

"Papa!" uttered Jenny imploringly.

"She'll go in a proper mode, or not at all. Lord, man, have you no sense? She had as well shout aloud that she's an heiress as go to Court hung all over with jewels! Puffing off her wealth: that's what everyone would say. Is that what you want?"

"No, indeed it isn't!" said Jenny, as her parent, a trifle nonplussed, turned this over in his mind. "Now, that's enough, Papa! Her ladyship knows better than you or me what's the first style of elegance."

"Well, there's no need that I know of for you to be ashamed of my fortune!" said Mr. Chawleigh, covering his retreat with some sharp fire. "Going about the town in a paltry necklace that looks as if I couldn't afford to buy the best for you!"

"If that's all that's putting you into the hips, you may be easy!" said Lady Nassington. "All the ton knows my nephew's married a great heiress, and you may believe that she'll take better if she don't make a parade of her riches. Tell me this! would you thank me for meddling in your business, whatever it is?"

"Meddling in my business?" repeated Mr. Chawleigh, stupefied. "No, I would not, my lady!"

"Just so! Don't meddle in mine." 

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