Until university I had never heard of Georgette Heyer – I went to stay with a friend for the Easter holidays and her mother had what seemed like dozens of her paperbacks from the 60s. I think I powered through about 5 of them in that week, which was quite good going considering we also spent a fair bit of time spent at the local pubs.
Georgette Heyer was a historical novelist who wrote over fifty books between the 1920s and 1970s; she is best known for her regency period novels, but also wrote some detective novels, although I’m not a fan of those.
To me, Georgette Heyer novels are the literary equivalent of watching a beloved film – I will read them over and over again, to the point where I own most of them as paperbacks and kindle editions, in the event that I get the impulse to read one of them when I’m travelling or working away.
If you follow me on instagram( @msstephanimichelle ) or Twitter( @little_stephani ) you will have seen my recent Georgette Heyer binge, as I am doing a 366 days of reading project. I read a lot of new books, but I like to re-read my old favourites in between.
Rather than write individual reviews for each of the 11 novels I’ve read so far this year, I’m going to do a description of each title and my general thoughts on them, and do a few at a time.The novels are all set in England during the regency period – approximately 1790 – 1820. I love books written during this period, and always wanted to be able to go back in time and experience Cotillion balls, Almack’s assemblies, and riding in a dashing high perch phaeton. Of course the glamour would wear off quite quickly due to the lack of electricity, indoor plumbing and restricted rights allowed to women at the time. If you like Jane Austen you will probably love these books.
This is my favourite of Heyer’s novels, a story about the Marquis of Alverstoke, who’s life undergoes radical changes when distant relatives request his help making connections with the ton (the cream of society).
Vernon, the Most Honourable the Marquis of Alverstoke is rich, handsome, an excellent sportsman and a leader of fashion. He is also bored. As head of his house, it is his duty to get married and set up his nursery, something his two sisters never stop nagging him about. They also seem to think it’s his responsibility to keep them in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, and resent his complete disinterest in their lives and children.
Alverstoke’s Heir is a beautiful but incredibly dim witted young man called Endymion( don’t you just love the old fashioned names?!?! ); as per the custom of the time, Alverstoke makes his heir an allowance, which leads his sisters to believe he is lavishing money on Endymion, his mother and younger siblings, whilst leaving them to deal with their financial embarrassments. There is a lot of resentment, meddling and general bickering between Alverstoke’s relations, which comes to a head when all one of his sisters and Endymion’s mother decide that he should throw a ball to introduce their daughters into society. Naturally he refuses.
Enter the Melvilles – distant cousins( described as mere connections or scathingly as dirty dishes by Alverstoke’s relations) – orphans from Herefordshire who write to him upon arriving in London for the season, and ask for his help. The Melville family consists of Frederica, the eldest daughter at 24, who had taken charge of the household and looking after the younger children, Charis who is 19, ridiculously beautiful and kind, Jessamy who is around 15, studying to go to Oxford and Felix, the youngest who is about 10, obsessed with engines, steam power and getting into scrapes. They also bring with them a giant dog of unknown parentage called Lufra, who is also quite prone to getting into scrapes.
At first reluctant to acknowledge the Melvilles, Alverstoke realises that to launch Frederica and Charis into society will put all of his relatives noses out of joint. He quickly gets pulled into the daily dramas of their lives and starts to fall in love for the first time in his life.
As I said, my favourite of her novels, I love the characters of Felix who is an engaging little scamp, and the drama of Charis and Endymion’s relationship, or as Alverstoke describes them – a very boring Romeo and Juliet.
Sylvester or The Wicked Uncle
Sylvester, the Duke of Salford, is endowed with rank, wealth and elegance; he’s good looking enough to be described as handsome, although he has rather distinctive black eyebrows which make him look like a “satyr” when he frowns.
Having lost his twin brother a few years previously, Sylvester needs to get married and start his own family whilst his nephew and heir Edmund is still relatively young, so that he doesn’t feel cut out. Sylvester has no illusions about his own worth, and after listing the desirable qualities he requires from a wife, comments to his mother that he will pick whomever she prefers from 5 or 6 of the most favoured debutantes, who he considers to have met the said criteria( a degree of beauty, accomplished, good dowries, agreeable manners etc. ). The Dowager Duchess is shocked and horrified that her son may be becoming arrogant, and tells him to only propose to a woman he loves. She tells him about an arranged married that was tentatively discussed when he was a child, and her late best friend gave birth to a daughter. Sylvester is amused by the idea and unbeknownst to his mother( who is arthritic and a bit of a recluse) asks his godmother to set up a meeting with the girl he was almost betrothed to, and just happens to be her granddaughter.
Phoebe is rather plain, has no accomplishments, lives for her horses and spends a lot of time running her fathers stables. She has no plans to get married, especially considering her rather unsuccessful London season the previous year, but instead wants to be an author and set up house with her old governess. Rather unfortunately Phoebe took quite a dislike to Sylvester and modelled the villain in her soon to be published book on his appearance.
Sylvester, invited to spend a week at Austell by Phoebe’s father doesn’t realise that rather than welcoming his advances, they will lead the object of his attention to flee from her home and his proposals.
This is my second favourite novel in the series; Phoebe is blunt, graceless and falls from one scrape into another. The secondary characters on this book are very amusing, particularly 6 year old Edmund.
The Unknown Ajax
The unexpected death of Lord Darracott’s eldest son and heir leads to him contacting his grandson Major Hugo Darracott; Hugo has had no contact with his father’s kin, as his late father was cut off after he had the audacity to marry “a weaver’s” daughter, and he was raised in Yorkshire by his maternal grandfather.
Lord Darracott’s middle son Matthew was unaware that his brother had any children, and is furious at being cut out of his inheritance. Matthew’s sons, the dandified but harmless Claude and vicious tongued Vincent, are equally put out by this turn of events.
Lord Darracott sends for his heir and hatches a scheme to marry off his granddaughter Andrea to her cousin, to try and “make the best” of the situation. The whole family are given roles to play in the rehabilitation of Hugo into a person fit to take over the Darracott legacy.
Hugo arrives at the rather dreary Darracott Place to find his previously unknown extended family waiting to judge “the weaver’s brat” who will one day be the head of the household. Throw in some smugglers, a haunted Dower house and a spirited heroine (Andrea) and you have yourself the plot of a Georgette Heyer novel.
Again one of my favourites, I love that the family have expectations of Hugo that are completely contrary to who he actually is. The Yorkshire slang is probably baffling to anyone outside the UK( probably anyone outside Yorkshire to be fair), but what can I say? It’s reet champion!
The comedy in these novels comes in large part from the secondary characters. It also helps to have some understanding of the period on which the stories are based – what was considered outrageous behaviour for a woman at the time would be something we don’t even think about now, for example walking down the street unaccompanied. Scandalous, I know.
Georgette Heyer is well known for her detailed research of the period; for the little references and nods to the notable characters of the time, that make you really feel as if you’re there.
I think these stories are still relateable 50-90 years after they were written because of the strength of character shown by the heroines, to not necessarily do what was expected of them by the society of the times, but to follow their instincts; to protest at an arranged marriage or decide that they wanted a career.
Have you read any Georgette Heyer novels? Do you like Jane Austen or regency period novels? Let me know in the comments.