Sunday, June 19th, 2016 06:40 pm
So I love regency romances. Georgette Heyer is generally agreed to have been the creator of the genre, and is loved by most regency fans. And I can't stand her. I found myself ranting about why on twitter, but didn't have enough space to rant properly, so here we are.

I have only read a few Heyer romances, spaced out by the several years it took for me to forget how much I'd hated the last one before trying again. So I can't give an entirely informed opinion on her. Many people I highly respect adore her books, and that's fine. This is just why I don't like her. Note that the title isn't "why Georgette Heyer is objectively awful". I just get annoyed when she's presented as the Ultimate Regency Author All Regency Fans Love and All Regency Authors Should Emulate.

The two things I dislike about Georgette Heyer are (a) Her books in and of themselves (b) Some of the effects her books have had. I have no strong opinion on her as a person, she seems to have been kind of bigoted but also undeniably talented and hardworking.

First, the books themselves.

I think I have to start by saying what I like about the regency romances I do enjoy. So: I like the general romantic arc where two people meet, connect, solve their problems, and find happiness together. Being sex averse, I like a setting that means people have good reasons to be a bit weird about sex, though I'm fine with romantic sex scenes in that context. And I enjoy watching marginalised characters overcome adversity: at the very least a woman gaining agency, but preferably stories which also show working class/POC/Queer etc characters triumphing over the bigotries of the 19th century. For me the status quo is the villain, and the happy ending is triumphing over it.(*)

I've also read a moderate number of regency-ish novelists like Jane Austen (theoretically the inspiration for Georgette Heyer), and so while I don't have a deep understanding of the period do have some feel for it, and enjoy books which capture that feeling.

As I said I can't speak with a lot of authority, but every book of Heyer's I've tried has actively wallowed in sexism and classism. For her the status quo is the appeal. The final straw for me was The Grand Sophy which was aggressively antisemitic. She was writing in the 1930s-1970s, so can be forgiven for some old fashionedness, but was not only bad for her time, she was worse than many writers of the regency, especially Jane Austen, for whom sexism etc was a background noise they were used to but not something they celebrated.

I am particularly thrown out of stories with a lot of gender essentialism since it sets off my dysphoroia, and Georgette Heyer has it in buckets. She's sympathetic to women, but sees them as inherently different to men. She has witty, determined, and complex female characters, but her male love interests are (from what I've seen) all utter douchebags, so I keep going "Why is this awesome protagonist dating that jerk??" Even her fans tend to say the romance isn't the point: they read her books for the fun banter and shenanigans. But if I don't enjoy a romance novel as a romance it's much less fun, and if I don't believe the happy ending is actually happy it's ruined.

They are very witty, easy to read, and cleverly put together, and some of the characters and plots are great. That's just not enough to make up for the rest for me.

The other thing her books have going for them is how much regency detail they contain. She was a meticulous researcher, and her books have lots of old fashioned slang and little facts about locations and fashions etc that most modern writers (of her era or mine) wouldn't naturally know. But her books don't feel right to me. The fashions and social structures are heavily focussed on and fetishised when period authors included them as unremarkable background. There's too much regency slang, mostly individually fine but feeling gratuitous in aggregate, especially when she uses obscure terms frequently eg she sued another author for stealing the phrase "to make a cake of oneself" because she knew it only existed outside her books in an obscure memoir noone else had read. Also there's this weird double vision of people in early 19th century reflecting the attiudes of an early 20th century author. This "wrong feeling" is very subjective, and wouldn't bother me anywhere near as much if it wasn't for the broader influences I go into below.

So. That's why I don't enjoy her books. If it were just the books themselves, I wouldn't mind so much. But the problem is that since she kickstarted the regency romance genre she is seen as the platonic ideal all regencies should aim for, and her books act as the template others work from, so there's no escaping her legacy. She definitely deserves respect for being so prolific and well loved! And I can't blame her for other people's laziness, any more than I can blame Tolkein for crappy Lord of the rings knockoff fantasy. But it's still really annoying.

For a start, people replicate her particular brand of sexism and classism. Obviously, 21st century writers are perfectly capable of adding these things in independently, especially when trying to match 19th century writers. But the prejudices of the early 20th century, as reflected in Heyer's books, are different from those of the regency or of now. And Heyer was more prejudiced than the average person of her era. It's like people writing "historical fantasy" that assume the past had the attitudes of 1950s Disney fairytale movies. Even if they're criticising those attitudes it's still massively anachronistic, and also annoying: "look at me subverting the terrible prejudices of the regency" they say, while actually subverting a specific, particularly regressive 20th century author in ways that are often still less progressive than Jane Austen. And often they're not subverting anything, they're just replicating Heyer's biases thoughtlessly.

Also, people copy her dialogue, which is 1930s American in it's bones with a veneer of regency-nerd pretension. I find it more irritating than the people who just don't bother at all and write like modern Americans.

Signs you're reading a Heyer knockoff:

  • attempts at "witty banter", generally not anywhere near as witty as actual Heyer.
  • a Manly Domineering Hero who believes in Manliness, defined in a very 20th century way.
  • a headstrong, willful heroine who ultimately wants to be dominated by the Manly hero, in a very 20th century heroine sort of way.
  • the hero growling at the heroine for being so headstrong. He may call her a "minx".
  • emphasis on the quintessential differences between men and women
  • All sympathetic characters will be aristocracy or at least gentry, and the class will be presented as spending their days invested in fashion and gossip. Their clothes will be described in great detail, especially the hero's perfectly pressed and knotted cravats.
  • Characters may be endearingly eccentric, but when push comes to shove will unquestioningly support the status quo.
  • Terms like "chit", "diamond of the First Water", and "ton" will be said frequently, but basic conventions of regency dialogue (like not using contractions, or avoiding modern US slang) will be ignored.
  • In short: Everyone will be concerned with the ton, and refer to the heroine as a diamond of the first water, except the hero, who will call her a headstrong chit.


Now the thing is, at this point the "regency" as defined in Heyer's books and those who've followed her is it's own fantasy setting, as different from reality as your average Robin Hood movie. Obviously some people kink on manly dudes in perfect cravats and that's fine, in and of itself. If these books were clearly labelled I would avoid them and not care, but they're not, so I grumble. Just like fans of pre-Tolkein-ish fantasy grumble about Tolkein knockoffs, fans of actual fairytales grumble about Disneyfied versions, and people who know anything about old fashioned language get annoyed at gratuitous and incorrect use of "thee". Wikipedia talks about a distinction between "regency romances" in the vein of Heyer and "Regency Historicals" which aren't as tightly bound by the established conventions, but in my expereince the differences aren't that neat.

Especially anoying to me is when people apply Heyer-esque conventions to adaptations or analysis of actual regency books, especially Jane Austen. The number of people who view Darcy as a Manly Regency Hero...

Of course the question remains: if Heyer hadn't started the regency romance genre, would it exist at all? And if it had developed independently, would it be any different? If I'm honest, I don't know the answer to either of those questions. I would rather the genre exist and be flawed than not, and a lot of the flaws were pretty inevitable. And I am 100% in favour of witty banter, thee dimensional strong willed female characters, and hijinks, so I can't say I hate everything in her legacy. But she still exemplifies a lot of what I find annoying in regency romance, so I'm going to resent her anyway.

(*)Examples: Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, Anna Cowan. Some even have QUEER CHARACTERS! And POC! Not as villains!!!
Sunday, June 19th, 2016 12:49 pm (UTC)
This post is making me laugh so hard, because your shortform list describes nearly every Harlequin Regency romance that I ever read in the 90s and early 00s. The minx thing set me off, because I've read it so damned much.

These days I generally prefer KJ Charles' Regency stuff, which is m/m, but it's clear she's doing fucktons of her own research into the genre and so I'm coming across entirely new terms, the dialogue feels more natural (she obviously cares about it), and while it's still problematic (in that there aren't a ton of women characters, and therefore not much being done against sexism or misogyny in these kinds of texts), she subverts some of the classically held theories of Manliness etc.

But geez, you have just effectively described an entire era of reading for me. And yeah, it IS annoying. I actually avoid Regencies of almost any kind like the plague, and only read Charles on a personal recommendation (i.e. a friend is a friend of hers, lol).

I am all for your resentment, personally. Part of that 'you can love something or like it and still find it problematic as hell or secretly want to throw darts at an image of Heyer over a dartboard.'
Sunday, June 19th, 2016 08:35 pm (UTC)
All good points. None of them have been enough to turn me off Heyer's romances (although I prefer her 1930s murder mysteries), but all quite irritating from time to time.
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016 02:38 pm (UTC)
Honestly, your icon is making me want a Darla/Dru Victorian-era romance. Which would maybe really be horror? But either way, I'm now longing for Darla/Dru Victorian-style fanfic. I'm going to have to hit up the AO3 later and see if I'm lucky and anyone else has written it.

ETA: I know this post is about Regencies, but Darla and Dru fit so well with Victorian horror conventions that I always think of them in that context instead.
Edited (Adding context.) 2016-06-22 02:39 pm (UTC)
Sunday, June 19th, 2016 09:20 pm (UTC)
This is really interesting! I don't read a lot of Regency, it's not my preferred area, but I am always intrigued by the books other people talk about, and this was a perspective I haven't actually seen before. Thanks for taking the time to write it out.
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016 02:40 pm (UTC)
I love some Heyer novels (not all), but I do love other perspectives on her. So I found it similarly interesting!

(Hi! I'm also replying to your comment partly to say, "Been a while. How's it going?")
Friday, July 1st, 2016 02:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, what a lovely vacation! I wish I lived anywhere near one of the Disneys, but they're each more than a thousand miles from me, and Six Flags has lost its novelty at this point because I'm so close.

I've been trying to find the time to work on original fic, which is a little rough since I've spent the past two weeks dealing with homeowner fun times and the two weeks before that covering for someone on vacation (so doing two jobs). But I'm getting back to it!

What games are you working on?
Monday, June 20th, 2016 03:58 am (UTC)
I've bounced off Heyer several times, and never understood why but this gives me a definite starting point. I do like it in fiction when societal norms are challenged (or at least, as in Austen, understood to cause hardship) and Heyer enjoys her time period so much that she doesn't want to do this.
Monday, June 20th, 2016 08:00 am (UTC)
*fistbump of solidarity*

georgette heyer has many crimes against literature to answer for. i must disagree with you on this point, though: She definitely deserves respect for being so prolific and well loved!

nope.
Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 09:01 am (UTC)
I've managed to read ~2.5 Heyer books. The first one was a careful recommendation, and it was okay. The second one squicked me badly, and when the third one looked to be going the way of the second, I noped out, and haven't gone back. But that has been my reaction to much of the romance genre, so had mostly attributed it to 'mainstream romance is not my thing'.
Friday, July 8th, 2016 11:03 am (UTC)
I read Heyer well after I'd given up on mainstream romance, because someone assured me that Heyer was different!
Friday, June 24th, 2016 12:31 pm (UTC)
I like Heyer, mostly. Not the ones with the crazy overlord men but the ones with a sense of humour.

The aspect I find most jarring is the frequent anti-semitism. It's like she goes out of her way to make these jibes.
(Anonymous)
Sunday, July 10th, 2016 09:27 am (UTC)
I find myself nodding agreement with what you say, even though I'm a signed up Georgette Heyer nerd (@georgettedaily on twitter). Apart from the antisemitism, and barely disguised homophobia (campness and cat-ownership being the sure signs of a male villain), there's clearly an inner conservative in me that can suspend disbelief and enjoy the fantasy world that she has imposed on the regency period.

I wrote a Pride and Prejudice sequel myself, Becoming Mary,and I realised it does ticks your boxes - well it would, as why would I write a novel that I didn't want to read myself??

"marginalised characters overcome adversity:"
Check
"a woman gaining agency"
Check (within trad 'happy ending' parameters)
"working class/POC/Queer etc characters triumphing over the bigotries of the 19th century."
Check - no POC, but the working class and Queer characters are real people essential to the story, and not add-ons
"For me the status quo is the villain, and the happy ending is triumphing over it."
Not sure how that plays out in my novel, but I agree with you in principle.

BTW, what's your twitter handle?
@amystreetauthor
Amy Street
(Anonymous)
Sunday, July 10th, 2016 03:04 pm (UTC)
surprised you find heyer's heroes to be douchebags. some of them are a bit overbearing, but generally they are softened by contact with the heroine. And some of them are very nice, my favourite being Hugo in the Unknown Ajax. snd freddy in Cotillion is sweet. and women are different from men. as for having working class or coloured heroines in heyer romances, I can't see them fitting in with her style. personally don't mind reading about upper class characters now and again, I don't think only working class people are worth reading about. I imagine you would disapprove of P.G. wodehouse for the same reason

Louise
(Anonymous)
Monday, July 11th, 2016 12:06 pm (UTC)
As a life-long Heyer fan, I found your article very interesting. You made some valid points, and I think you were pretty fair. I am curious as to which Heyers you actually read, besides The Grand Sophy.
(Anonymous)
Tuesday, January 31st, 2017 08:29 pm (UTC)
Hello, I loved your post. It was remarkably witty and incisive. It was well set out. Besides, I agree with it. Plus, a silly reason: Sophie is one of my favourite names.

I plan to write an article on Heyer in the future on the theme that Heyer’s reactionary view of history has done a great disservice to popular understanding of the Regency, and I hope we can keep in touch.

I'm a writer of historical fiction from the UK, and a history geek. I am only posting under 'anonymous' because of problems with my Google account. One of my pen names is Marianna Green.

Yours is one of the few articles on the internet I can find which depicts why Heyer's vision of my country in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century is a sparkling, sanitized alternative reality, even for the upper classes about whom she writes as virtually the only people worthy of notice.

Her novels bear about as much resemblance to historical reality as do the Bertie Wooster stories of P G Wodehouse.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy the Bertie Wooster stories. Harmless escapism is fine if it is regarded in just that light.

But it does concern me that many readers (particularly some from outside the UK) for whom European history is often not a strong point, confuse a glittering, make believe world with the real UK of that era, and take no exception to Heyer’s sexist, socially oppressive views.

The politically and socially reactionary slant, and the insistence on allocation to stereotypical sex roles is subtle; you may have to be familiar with the UK class system to understand it (I note you detect it excellently).

Readers seem to have no objection, for instance, in Venetia, to Venetia describing Damerel’s first love as ‘a slut…with the mind of a courtesan with a wedding ring upon her finger’ (I paraphrase freely) . They don’t mind that he thinks it is fine to force a kiss on her when he mistakes her for ‘a village maiden’. Droit du signeur!

There is a mistaken view that Heyer's views on sex roles were advanced, because her heroines were sometimes spirited, argumentative, and could often shoot and ride well; but they only ever revolt within strict limits. In real life she didn't think women should work and hated writing romances, but had no choice as she wanted to keep up a certain lifestyle with servants, her son at an expensive boarding school, etc, and her male relatives seem to have been pretty hopeless.

All this perturbs me, to the point where I am planning to write an article about it. I do think there needs to be an opposing voice to this trend.

I am also pre-empting the criticism that I have not read enough of her novels by ploughing my way through twenty. I on number sixteen: ‘Faro’s Daughter’.

There is a large amount of savage criticism of such popular books as ‘Twilght’, so I am puzzled as to why Heyer is exempt. I cannot believe that ninety-nine per cent of those who read her books love them. I suspect that a lot of reviewers, say on Amazon, seem hesitant to criticize Heyer, for fear of cyber bullying by strident Heyer fans, yet, are they so much more alarming than ‘Twilight’ fans? Plus, there is a mistaken view among ‘the Romance Community’ that all criticism is bad. But if we are to retain our freedoms, a critical approach to all experience is necessary.

For instance, Pamela Regis’ section on her in ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’ amounts to a panegyric.

Few dare to mention her over use of exclamation marks; I have often counted twenty on a page, and not in a dramatic part of the action. Few comment that she had a a limited number of basic plot points and stock characters and moved them about, using them like building blocks. All cleverly done; but not the great literature her dedicated fan base insist.

It may even be the case, that serious writers avoid the era because it is equated with the triviality and fluff of Heyer and the awful rash of badly written, poorly researched Regency Romances.

On these, I saw one recently with the most absurd cover, depicting a ‘Scots laird’ standing outside his castle in the snow. He had no shirt. It couldn’t have been taxes. Perhaps a feisty lassie had it from his back…

Because she was an expert on the details of the upper class lifestyle, she is hailed as a great historian who depicts the society at that age 'as it was'.

I am frankly appalled by the view of the UK in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century as perpetuated by Heyer in her invention of the 'Regency Romance'. You would think at that time the population consisted of aristocrats, gentry, a few vulgar 'cits', subservient or anyway, devoted retainers, content bumpkins and the odd nasty subversive to be thrown out of the big house.

You would never think that there was widespread sympathy for the French Revolution, to the point where the authorities banned meetings of more than a few persons for fear of public disorder.

You would never believe that this was the age of the Corn Laws, disasterous harvests, and public unrest leading up to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819...

Heyer presents her High Tory view of the French Revolution, which equate the whole with the violence of the Terror. (That is true of the sixteen I have read so far; ‘An Infamous Army’ is next on my list; it may be that she manages to be more impartial there).

Heyer was out of fashion over here since her death circa 1976 , until the development of amazon seems to have become enormously popular again, particular in the US.

I have been trawling about the internet, trying to find objective criticism about Heyer, and ninety-nine per cent of the posts consist of fulsome praise by uncritical fans who seem to spend their free time reading all her novels over and over.

Oddly, many assume that if they had been alive and in the UK then, they would have been members of the minute aristocracy, not servants, farm workers or artisans.

To give an idea of how far UK people often have to go back to find a direct link to a titled ancestor, a relative of mine did that for one side of our family. She had to go back to the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, Sir Hugh Myddleton (and he was only a baronet).

I am particularly appalled at the way that so many modern readers give glowing reviews of 'Devil's Cub' which features a 'hero' who semi throttles the heroine at one point and threatens to rape her at another (he thinks she's a low floozy, so that makes it all right). No...Just, No....

If anything, you are too kind about Heyer's character. From what I've read, the views she expressed about the 'Jews and the w****' at the end of the Six Day War were typical, and even her own ‘set’ avoided mentioning politics because of her views.

I've only liked four so far. I like what I have read of Deborah in ‘Faro’s Daugher’. I liked ‘The Grand Sophy’ (apart from the anti-Semitism you mention, that is),’Cotillion’ and ‘The Foundling’. I hated ‘Devil’s Cub’ ‘ Venitia’ and ‘The Talisman Ring’ most. Those idiots Eustacie and Ludo Lav (he of that cringe making speech: ‘Is that a tear, little cousin?’) were probably two of the most idiotic characters I have ever had the misfortune to come across in any bad novel.

Very few reviews dare to mention her over use of exclamation marks (I have often counted twenty on a page, and not in a dramatic part of the action) or that she had a few basic plot points and stock characters

I even think that serious writers don't write about the era because it is equated with the triviality and fluff of Heyer.

I am frankly appalled by the view of the UK in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century as perpetuated by Heyer in her invention of the 'Regency Romance'. You would think at that time the population consisted of aristocrats, gentry, a few vulgar 'cits', subservient or anyway, devoted retainers, content bumpkins and the odd nasty subversive to be thrown out of the big house (as in 'The Unknown Ajax').

You would never think that there was fairly widespread sympathy for the French Revolution, to the point where the authorities banned meetings of more than a few persons for fear of public disorder.

You would never think this was the age of the Corn Laws, disasterous harvests, and public unrest leading up to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819...

Heyer presents a High Tory view which equates the whole of the French Revolution with the violence of the Terror.

Heyer was out of fashion for decades here, but with the development of amazon seems to have become enormously popular again, particular in the US.
I have been trawling about the internet, trying to find objective criticism about Heyer, and ninety-nine of the posts consist of fulsome praise by uncritical fans who strangely seem to assume that if they had been alive then, they would have been members of the minute titled aristocracy.

To give people an idea of how far UK people often have to go back to find a direct link to a titled ancestor, a relative of mine did that for one side of our family. She had to go back to the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, Sir Hugh Myddleton (and he was only a baronet).

I am particularly appalled at the way that so many modern readers give uncritical, glowing reviews of 'Devil's Cub' which features a 'hero' who semi throttles the heroine at one point and threatens to rape her at another (he thinks she's a low floozy, so that makes it all right).
No...jut, NO....

At the moment I am doing research, with the results I mention above. I am also precluding the criticism that I have not read enough of her novels by reading twenty.
I am up to sixteen so far.

Rant over. Do contact me on Goodreads.

(Anonymous)
Wednesday, February 1st, 2017 01:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Sophie, for the salute.
Agh, it looks as if I duplicated some paragraphs in that post; how annoying.
Do let me know if you have come across anything online remotely critical of Heyer besides your post and that of the late MM Bennets. I seem to be able to find little but 'I'm on to my fifth read of 'Devil's Cub/The Talisman Ring/Venetia and am cooing with delight etc etc' [sighs]
I'd have loved to have heard of your Grandmother's experiences.