Monday, 23 November 2015

Sex and morality in the novels of Georgette Heyer, by Leslie Wilson

Two strings to her bow, by John Pettie

To those who dread spoilers: there are some in here, because one can hardly discuss books without giving away some of the plot. However, with Georgette Heyer it's clear that the heroine will get her man at the end of each and every one. The fascination is in how this is achieved. So I'm not apologising!

To start with: I love Georgette Heyer's work. She's given me hours of pleasure, and I return to her over and over again. I love her wit, her elegant style, and respect the depth of her research.

On the other hand, I'm interested in history and the ways in which history is represented, and also interested in the Georgian era, and this makes me, in my leisure hours, inclined to cast an analytical eye on the way in which she has processed the knowledge she has; and today I want to talk about the sexual world of her novels.

Much though I like and admire Heyer's work, I would never class her with Jane Austen; she could never lay claim to having made significant breakthroughs in narrative technique, as Austen did. On the other hand, she does seem to inhabit the same moral world as Austen does; the end of her novels is a happy marriage, and her heroines are always virtuous.

Vittorio Reggiani: The Unconditional Lover
Indeed, they're almost all virgins, the only exceptions being the few whose marital trials are the subject of the novel, the heroines of 'April Lady', 'The Convenient Marriage', and 'A Civil Contract'. You could say of Horry ('The Convenient Marriage) and Nell (April Lady) that they are characterised by a kind of emotional virginity; but this is not the case with Jenny in 'A Civil Contract', and it's significant that only in this novel does Heyer, just briefly, speak of what goes on in the bedroom. 'Jenny was sometimes shy, but never shrinking.' Jenny is rather different, and far less of a commedia-del-arte character, than most of Heyer's heroines. She is down to earth and determined, and I've always felt that, if her husband is more experienced in bed, she is the one who makes the whole thing possible.

Oh - I've forgotten Juana in 'The Spanish Bride', probably because though I have read the book I didn't like it much. Heyer thought her novels were best when she gave way to her passion for military history. I don't. Here Heyer does say: 'She never denied him the comfort of her body.' Poor Juana, being woken up from deep sleep after the end of an exhausting day, and having to make love whether she felt like it or not!  If I've forgotten anyone else, do tell me.

Then there's Hero in 'Friday's Child.' I think she is definitely a virgin all the way through, and then there's Elinor in 'The Reluctant Widow', a novel I adore because of the humour. Her marriage is unconsummated, and just as well for her.
Regency Proposal; eighteenth-century woodcut

Leonie, who is brought up dressed as a boy (presumably to avoid rape) in 'These Old Shades', says 'Me, I am not very innocent,' but of course this refers to the things she has seen, not what she has experienced. Likewise, Prudence in 'The Masqueraders' has often dressed as a boy but has also retained her virtue - somewhat nauseatingly, (to me, at least) this is equated with never having been kissed. These heroines know, of course, about 'the muslin company,' meaning everything from prostitutes to courtesans, and they're almost all relaxed about these ladies' existence (Hero, of course, earns herself a box on the ear by referring to Opera dancers in public) - but they inhabit a different world.

But the men, on the other hand - and this is a major difference between Heyer and Austen. Of course we don't know if Austen's heroes are virgins when they take her heroines to bed. I can't believe it of Colonel Brandon, because of his advanced years, and I do wonder particularly about Frederick Wentworth, but this may be unfair, since it's only because he's a sailor. Austen was fairly relaxed about the existence of courtesans and adulterers in private life, though they and their male partners get slammed in her books. Frank Churchill probably has had mistresses in keeping. I'm sure Austen thought so. But she generally indicates that her heroes are men of good reputation. I do sometimes wonder though, what exactly that signifies. At least they don't have expensive mistresses and flaunt them.

Heyer's men frequently have mistresses in keeping at the start of the novel, and they're often flaunted big-time; sometimes they have just dismissed them, like Beaumaris in 'Arabella.' Or they have pasts, in which tarts with a heart of gold sometimes figure, faded 'cosy armfuls' who do them a favour and acknowledge that they've now turned virtuous. Then there's the Duke of Avon in 'These Old Shades. 'Behind me lies scandal upon sordid scandal,' he says, and in the early pages of the novel, he takes Leonie (who he knows is a girl) to a brothel, though he does suddenly realise what he's doing and sends her to wait for him downstairs. The seeds of redemption are already germinating in his heart.

Whereas Austen is cynical (I feel justifiably so) about the chance of a rake's redemption through the love of a good woman, and her heroines escape the likes of William Elliot or Henry Crawford, Heyer's novels abound in rakes just waiting to be reformed by her heroines. At least, they're reformed characters at the time the inevitable bear-hug takes place (I always find these 'crushing embraces' rather anaphrodisiac myself. Give me Peter Wimsey's 'Tu m'enivres!' any day.) I do wonder whether Avon, Alverstoke, et al do really remain faithful to their wives. Of course Venetia, in the eponymous novel, is quite calm about that possibility: 'It would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits,' she says to Lord Damerel.

Maybe Heyer was herself quite relaxed about husbands pursuing 'adventures? To her, the most important ingredient in romance was friendship, and this comes out, again and again in the novels. To share jokes, to be co-conspirators (sometimes against the world), to be comfortable with each other  is the crucial thing - far more important than the heroes' heroic physique and handsome face (anyway, they're not all Apollos).
Marcus Stone: The End of the Story

What are beyond the pale, though, are any 'natural' children. 'Children of your own?' the country doctor asks Alverstoke. 'Not to my knowledge,' his Lordship replies. And this at an era when courtesans often took their curren protectors' surnames and bore them children. Harriette Wilson was infertile, but her sister and rival Amy had children. This was also a time when noble lords often knew that only their eldest son was their own. This policy had its shortcomings, as the heir sometimes died, like Lady Melbourne's eldest son. So the next Lord Melbourne was William Lamb, later Victoria's Prime Minister, who was generally supposed to be Lord Egremont's son. Lord Alverstoke has had 'liaisons' with society women (though Heyer fuzzes this, leaving it hanging in the air whether these were only flirtations). In reality, of course, he would have bedded Cyprians and noble ladies alike, and  might well have planted his seed in some well-born household, not to mention giving his courtesans children as well as diamond necklaces.

'Natural children' indeed, are the sticking-point in the courtship of Sir Waldo Hawkridge and Miss Ancilla Trent ('The Nonesuch'). She believes him to be taking care of a squad of them and thus would as readily think of becoming his mistress as his wife. There's an oddness about this: one could almost infer that men who did the decent thing by their natural children (as did Harriet Smith's father in 'Emma') were deemed to be more immoral than those who abandoned them.

Actually, it was quite common for men to support their out-of-wedlock children in the Georgian era. Charles James Fox did. I think I'm right that the Duke of Devonshire introduced at least one into his household, and the Duchess's daughter by Mr Grey was looked after in his family. Dido Belle, the illegitimate niece of Lord Mansfield, was brought up almost as a daughter, and she was mixed-race, too.

So why are illegitimate children so offensive in Georgette Heyer that they need to be suppressed altogether? A modern writer might bring them in, and the heroine might love them as much as Alverstoke loves Frederica's younger brothers.

If this was an essay, I'd have to answer that question myself, but this is a blog, so I lay the matter before you, dear readers. What do YOU think?

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain, including in the US. They were also all created post-Regency, which seemed appropriate.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I've only read a few Heyers, and not recently. I wonder if this attitude was more about the author than her characters?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I would say without being that familiar with Heyer (I am not a fan of her voice) that it's down to the attitudes of society - of her readers - at the time she was writing.

louiseculmer said...

is it not the rather large number of children that is dismaying to The heroine of the Nonesuch? the idea that he has fathered a huge number of children is offputtting to her.

Leslie Wilson said...

I'd certainly agree that Heyer's attitudes do often reflect mid-20th century ones rather than actual Regency ones... I do wonder though how many kids actual rakes did father.. and IS Sir Waldo actually as straight-laced as is asserted of him and what exactly does that mean?

Helena said...

I think it's because in this Heyer was reflecting her own Victorian morality rather than the attitude of the Regency.

Leslie Wilson said...

She's a post-Victorian though, but you have a point. I always thought my parents' morality, bless them, was Victorian. I wonder if what we think of as Victorian is actually between the wars and actual Victorians were rather different. Have you read Matthew Sweet's excellent 'Inventing the Victorians, in which he proposes that our idea of them is a fabrication put together by a later age?

Ann Turnbull said...

Actually I think I read somewhere that "straight-laced" refers to women's bodice lacing, which could be horizontal or criss-cross. Apparently criss-cross lacing allowed a bit of leeway for the bosom, whereas straight lacing compressed it - so a "straight-laced" woman was one who didn't display her charms.

None of which has anything to do with your question, Leslie, which I'm unable to answer, having only read one of GH's books.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, but that is a fascinating piece of information!

Clare Mulley said...

I have never read any Georgette Heyer, but feel I must get a copy pronto. I think I have heard Imogen Robertson praising her in the past. Love the 'tit-bit' about the origins of being 'straight-laced' as well!

Leslie Wilson said...

I recommend: 'The Grand Sophy.' It is wonderful.

Kit said...

I agree that it was the number of supposed illegitimate children that was the shocker for Ancilla in the Nonesuch. There's a delightful episode in Sprig Muslin where Belinda innocently explains Hester as Sir Gareth's natural sister, when she is staying at the inn to nurse him, to the old family friend... who says he never would have thought it of his father, but acknowledged within the family of course.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about that. Hilarious, ain't it?

Helena said...

Even though Georgette Heyer was technically post-Victorian, her biographer makes a strong point of her having learnt her morality and thinking from her parents, in particular her father, and of her having maintained her Victorian values throughout her life. I think that this is apparent from her books, and explains the issues raised in this article.

Mary Hoffman said...

Ah, Dominic de Vidal, the Devil's Cub! I haven't read them since my mid teens but I did love that one.

FDC Law said...

I think Ancilla in the Nonesuch is supposed to have a particular interest in moral issues, and to be unusual in caring about Sir Waldo's (hypothetical) past.

Regarding the 'straight laced' thing - I thought I had read that it had to do with how easy it was to get it loosened - striaght (tight) lacing was much harder to get out of, cross lacing was easier to loosen, so it wasn't so much about what you could see, as how easily you could get at it..

I do love Heyer - she is one of my comfort reads, although I find that my favourites change.

Leslie Wilson said...

If Heyer's values were truly Victorian, though, her relaxedness about male transgressions does go to show they weren't as prudish as we think. (Just sexist). It's not just Ancilla, though, FDC Law. Apart from the joke about Lady Hester being a 'natural' sister - and she isn't, in fact - natural kids are excluded from the general relaxedness about men's sex lives. Which is my point. Were Victorians harder on illegitimacy than their predecessors, but OK about the begetters of illegitimate children?
When you said that about Dominic, Mary, it occurred to me that he's one of the few who aren't 'good husband material'. 'I'd make a devil of a husband,' he tells his aunt, who replies: 'I shall be sorry for your wife - or I would be, if I was a man.' Dominic is fun to read about, but I think he'd be too high-maintenance as a husband. OK if you make him your life's work, but when would Mary ever find time to write a novel?