I confess to you sadly that up until a month ago I had never read a Georgette Heyer novel. Worse, gentle readers, when I did, I didn’t like it. I hear the collective gasps of Heyer devotees around the world. I can explain.
First, a step back. Having written about the regency era, the question became, “What is a regency novel?” That’s a more complicated question than it it first appears. In the broadest sense it is any romance novel set during the historic regency era. These range from semi-historical novels to completely anachronistic stories with modern sensibilities particularly in matters of sex and women’s roles. Most contemporary regency novels fit into this spectrum.
In the narrowest or “traditional” sense regency novels deal primarily with romance, or more specifically with decisions to marry and whom to marry, and involve the manners, class distinctions, rules, and customs of the regency era as sources of conflict. Traditional regency novels are still published. They pay very close attention to historical accuracy in such matters, and some readers are passionate about that accuracy. They derive “not so much from the 19th-century contemporary works of Jane Austen, but rather from Georgette Heyer, who wrote over two dozen novels set in the Regency starting in 1935 until her death in 1974, and from the fiction genre known as the novel of manners.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regency_romance)
The Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America celebrates the regency novel and is a major repository of research, reference, and information about the era and its customs. Beau Mode recently announced a celebration of the 80th Anniversery of the regency novel. What happened 80 years ago? Heyer published her first novel set in the regency period, Regency Buck.
That leads me back to my confession. I decided I should read Regency Buck. I had to force myself to finish it. I quickly recognized the major motifs and devices of the regency novel:
1. The very young heroine who centers her concerns on hopes to marry. This type of character that has more or less gone the way of the dodo bird in recent years. Women at very least have other interests.
2. A hero who is older, wealthy, and titled. The proliferation of powerful Dukes, the arrogant alpha male, is even more pronounced now. Some are thinly veiled stand-ins for investment bankers. Heyer’s “Buck” was a mere Earl.
3. The mischievous younger brother who provides comic relief.
4. Greedy and/or evil relatives.
(Anna Snyder outlines these and more in a hilarious list, “How to Tell If You Are In a Regency Novel.”)
However, Regency Buck is weighed down by excessive backstory and excessive detail meant to show the depth of Heyer’s research. The pacing is slow and the conflict weak due mostly to the fact that she made the heroine wealthy, thereby giving her many marital options.
Disliking Heyer seemed downright heretically, but there you have it. Imagine my relief when I discovered I am not the only person to find it difficult. Mari Ness wrote a stinging review (Badly Channeling Jane Austen ) in which she makes the point that Regency Buck is atypical Heyer. Her later regency novels match her earlier historical novels for confident world-building, strong plots, and witty dialogue. She spawned the genre. Regency Buck must have been her vehicle with training wheels.
That left me relieved. The world has been built and I write in it comfortably. The mores, conventions, and strictures of the era feed conflict and complications for my characters. I strive for period accuracy and authenticity for the most part. My stories come close to the semi-historical end of the spectrum, with heroines who are older, smarter, more confident and willing to build a life for themselves. My heroes aren’t all wealthy and powerful, but they navigate the world of the wealthy and powerful with confidence. I like the world Heyer created. I just didn’t like Regency Buck.