Georgette Heyer, whom the Beau Monde is celebrating this year as the "founding mother" of the historical romance genre and the Regency romance sub-genre, was born on Saturday, 16 August 1902. That makes today her one hundred-and-thirteenth birthday. We could not let this momentous occasion pass without marking it with a salute to the author who has given us so many entertaining stories as well as paving the way for all of us who love to write historical romance, especially Regencies.
All visitors are welcome to post their own tributes and birthday greetings to Georgette Heyer in comments to this article.
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Born soon after the turn of the last century, Georgette Heyer spent her first two decades in a world without the various types of mass communication which we take so for granted today. Her father, George, after whom she was named, rose to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire after the first World War and went on to teach at King’s College in London. Reading was strongly encouraged in the Heyer household, where Georgette and her two younger brothers, Boris and Frank, were surrounded with books. In the years before the advent of movies, television or even radio, those books soon became one of their favorite forms of entertainment, a way to slip off for a holiday in other places and times. As a teenager, Georgette discovered the swashbuckling tales of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which had first debuted in a West End theatre in London when she was not even three years old. The play was such a hit that its author, Baroness Emma Orczy, went on to write a series of novels based on this same daring and aristocratic hero. Young Georgette read most, if not all, of these exciting tales of adventure set in eighteenth-century England and France. Perhaps it was from these stories that she developed such a deep and abiding interest in history.
When her brother, Boris, was confined to bed for an extended period, due to an illness, he quickly devoured every book in the house. To help entertain him, Georgette wrote a swashbuckling story in serial form which was set in eighteenth-century England. Her father was so impressed by the story as she read each installment of the tale to Boris that he encourage her to edit it into a novel, with an eye to publication. Thus was born her first novel, The Black Moth. Published in 1921, that novel was successful enough that she went on to write others, initially, all set in the eighteenth century. For these later books, she did a great deal of research in order to fully create that world for her readers. The eighteenth century, even in the Age of Enlightenment, was a period of regular and casual violence. Most noblemen, as well as many other men, wore swords. They were well able to use them and had no compunction about doing so. The clothing of the upper classes in that period was elegant and richly embellished, but the styles of women’s garments significantly inhibited their movements, thus restricting their activities. Women at that time had few, if any rights and they were often treated as property. Robust and vigorous times, for sure, and thoroughly masculine. But what if you wanted to write stories of deep, true romance, with a lighter, more delicate touch? The eighteenth century was not the best place for such tales to play out.
Though the genre of historical fiction had been around for a very long time before Heyer began writing her own novels, there was seldom any of the kind of overt romance between the male and female characters in those stories which we enjoy today. And, even when romance slipped in, it was often only tangential to the story. In addition to the Scarlet Pimpernel series, Heyer is also known to have read the works of Rafael Sabatini and H. Rider Haggard, among others. Though the heroes in those books usually got the girl in the end, she was essentially the prize for their success in the main effort of the story. In these novels of historical fiction written by men, the relationship between the male and female characters is seldom developed to any depth. Such was not the case in the Scarlet Pimpernel stories, where the relationship between Marguerite and Percy developed and deepened over the course of the series. Was that why Heyer especially enjoyed them? Was she a romantic at heart?
Though her first novel, The Black Moth, is less romance and more melodrama, it was written for a teenage boy. It is only natural that it followed more the pattern of historical fiction than of historical romance, because she clearly knew her audience. But in subsequent novels, Heyer increasingly let the relationship and interaction between the hero and the heroine drive the story. At that same time, she was also growing into her voice as an author, not to mention that she had fallen in love and married her own hero. As the 1920s became the 1930s, did Georgette Heyer want a fresh, more appropriate ambiance for her new stories? Perhaps her ongoing research led her to the period of the English Regency, possibly guided there by the novels of Jane Austen? Though the risk of a duel remained, men no longer wore swords or fought at the drop of the hat. Clothing for both sexes was much closer to that which is common today, including fewer physical restrictions for women. Improved roads and stronger, more lightly-built vehicles allowed for more convenient travel over longer distances. Arranged marriages were considered old-fashioned and young people were often allowed to marry for love, within reason, of course. Though many mores of the previous century still obtained, the manners of the early nineteenth century were more restrained and delicate, as was the conversation. Then, of course, there was all that delicious cant with which to flavor diverting dialog. How could she resist?
We will never be quite certain why Georgette Heyer chose that brief decade of the Regency in England as the setting for her 1935 novel, Regency Buck, but we are all glad that she did. With its publication, she ushered in that very special sub-genre of romance, the Regency. The romance between the heroine, Judith Taverner, and the hero, Julian, Earl of Worth, is not as overt as some might wish for today. It is subtle and delicate, and the reader must pay attention to catch all the signs of their growing respect and affection for one another. But in addition to the love story, a wide swath of Regency England is laid before the reader to enjoy as a holiday in another place and time, just as Georgette and her brothers enjoyed all those tales of historical adventure when they were young. Though she did not often talk about her work, Heyer did admit some years later that she had loved writing Regency Buck.
Fortunately for all of us who love Heyer’s books, Regency Buck sold very well and would spawn another Regency romance, An Infamous Army, in which Judith and Peregrine Taverner, Lord Worth, and his brother, Colonel Charles Audley, all make an appearance. They are joined by characters from Heyer’s Georgian novels, These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub. And so, Georgette Heyer gave us not only the historical romance genre and the Regency romance sub-genre, she also gave us the romance sequel. Over the course of the next forty years, Georgette Heyer would go on to write more than fifty novels, of which a large percentage were romances set in the Regency.
Heyer fans all over the world were delighted to learn that just this past June, a blue plaque was placed at her birthplace in Wimbledon, in south-west London. The unveiling ceremony was attended by many celebrities along with some of Heyer’s family, and flocks of her fans. Finally, this talented and innovative author now joins the pantheon of important figures in British history and culture whose home or work place is marked with a lovely blue plaque.
Since Georgette Heyer has given us so many gifts, a few members of the Beau Monde wish to offer their best wishes on the occasion of her 113th birthday:
Comfort to me has always meant Georgette Heyer. Her novels are the consummate refuge from life’s storms. I find courage in the indomitable Sophy; hope in the machinations of Kitty Charing; prudence in the adventures of Judith Taverner. And always laughter, and love. May her books live on. — Sharron Massey, writing as Sharron Gayle Beach.
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I think I owe my two-decade novel writing career to Georgette Heyer. Back in the ’90s an editor at Harlequin Historical judged my World War II love story (my seventh completed book) in a contest and said if I wrote something that took place before 1900, she’d like to see it. Hmmm. I had read every single Georgette Heyer book, then started on her later imitators. I was becoming so familiar with Regency England I was beginning to detect other authors’ errors. "I think I can write in that era," I told myself, even though I knew I’d never write as brilliantly as Georgette Heyer. I started to write A Duke Deceived, and it quickly sold to Harlequin Historical in 1997. I’ve now written more than 20 Regencies, and as I’ve matured, I’ve really concentrated on incorporating some of the lightheartedness than made Heyer’s work so brilliant. I’ve taken a photo of my Heyer keeper shelf to prove my devotion to the Queen of Regency Romance. — Cheryl Bolen
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My godmother once said that she could imagine nothing more perfect than a day at the beach with a new Georgette Heyer. Happy Birthday remembrances to a woman who has given pleasure to generations of readers, past and present. — Lillian Marek
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I love how Heyer pays attention to sketching out even tertiary characters. In Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, John Keighley is the lead character’s groom. When he informs him and Swale, the valet, that he intends to leave Austerby in very poor weather, Keighley protests they’ll never reach London and that they’ll have to change horses due to the snow. After being cajoled and ribbed by Sylvester, he tersely responds, "Well, if ever there was a crackbrained start, your grace! Driving right into a snowstorm, like you are! All I say is, don’t you go blaming me if we end up in a drift!" Sylvester defends himself by saying, "I could hardly have remained, when his lordship was suddenly called away, could I?" To which Keighley observes drily, "No, your grace. Particularly seeing as how you wasn’t wishful to."
These scattering of sentences are revelatory by nature. We learn something about the main character and something about his long-devoted, long-suffering groom. Not only does she reveal their character, she does so in a humorous way that strikes a chord. This FEELS like a genuine, authentic exchange because she nails the scene so exactly.
Mrs. Heyer has set the bar high. Hoorah and thank you! — Tracy Edingfield Dunn
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Georgette Heyer inspired many of us who write traditional Regencies. She wrote about heroes and heroines who came alive and were wonderfully well matched. There was laughter and drama as well as the hoped for happily ever after ending. Her books combined captivating characters with history in such a way that history was integral to the story. — April Kihlstrom
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My debt to Georgette Heyer goes very deep, since her novels were the primary inspiration for my choice to major in history when I went to college. It was hard work, which required long, demanding hours of study. But I loved it and I cannot imagine my life without the richness which my study of history brought, and continues to bring, to my life. Of course, that is on top of the richness with which I treat myself when I re-read one of her wonderful stories of love and adventure in times gone by. — Kathryn Kane