|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|
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.