It turns out that romance author, Barbara Bettis, has been a champion of the work of Georgette Heyer since her college days. Barbara is also a teacher of English and in today’s article, she shares her insights into what makes Heyer’s novels so enjoyable, even in this new century, despite the fact that the Regency genre has changed significantly since Heyer’s books were first published. Whether you are just discovering the work of Georgette Heyer, or if you have enjoyed her books for years, you will better understand the differences between her Regencies and those written in the twenty-first century once you have read Barbara’s article about Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle.
Visitors are invited to share their views on this romance novel, or the Regency genre in general, in comments to this article.
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One of my college English Lit teachers once asked our small class what author we were reading at the time. When my turn came, I decided to be perfectly honest. I said, "Georgette Heyer." The Jesuit professor—a brilliant, slightly rebellious intellectual—sat back in his chair, his eyes twinkling. "She could have been an excellent historical novelist," he said, "if…"
Unfortunately, critics of her time felt much the same. As an author of historical romance she, like Rodney Dangerfield, got "no respect."
It’s a shame, too, because she was a meticulous researcher, a top-notch world-builder, and a fabulous wordsmith.
I’ve been a fan of Heyer’s since the first book of hers I read. Just as we’re forgiving of Jane Austen’s style so unlike ours today, we can be forgiving of Heyer’s more narrative approach. Each followed the general ‘way of writing’ of her time. In romance writing today, we avoid authorial insertion, dialogue tags with their descriptive adverbs, and extensive ‘telling.’
However, when I read Heyer, or Austen, or even Dickens, I’m perfectly willing to settle in for the leisurely unfolding of story we no longer practice. I don’t even mind the seamless moving from point of view to point of view in the same scene. In her books, it works. Her writing is clever, she’s terrific at portraying the vagaries of human nature, and her delightful humor is often subtle—sometimes missed if the reader isn’t paying attention.
She has an ability to create memorable characters. As we now try to do, she used language and speech patterns to establish a character immediately, so that a reader can identify the speaker even without dialogue tags (although custom of the time called for them more frequently than now and often accompanied by descriptive adverbs).
Sylvester; or The Wicked Uncle includes some of those memorable characters, among other things.
The storyline is one that has become familiar with use over the years—a young lady runs away to avoid an unwanted marriage; she’s pursued by the prospective groom who has decided it’s time to wed; they’re all stranded by bad weather or accident at an out-of-the way place; and in due course, each realizes the other is exactly what he and she wants in a spouse.
The hero, Sylvester, is a proud man but unfailingly polite, although he doesn’t realize it comes across negatively to others. He is aware of his duties, but after his beloved twin brother’s death, he has retreated behind a wall of coldness, penetrated only by his love for his mother. When he at last decides it’s time to marry, his godmother urges him to consider her own granddaughter, Phoebe. He doesn’t remember her from her one Season in London.
Phoebe is not a beauty and her character doesn’t show to advantage around her overbearing step-mama or anyone who shouts at her. Away from her mama, however, Phoebe is spirited, adventurous, and generous. When Sylvester arrives at her home, she tries to escape his pending offer and enlists her friend, Thomas Orde, to help her flee. But the two are stranded at a small inn after an accident that injures Tom. There they encounter Sylvester, who has independently decided not to offer for her and left for his own home. Snow traps them at the inn, and during this enforced proximity, Phoebe and Sylvester discover they really care about each other.
Unfortunately, Phoebe, after her disappointing Season, has written a novel with characters modeled after some of the Society members she observed as a wallflower. Sylvester’s proud demeanor and distinctive eyebrows lent themselves to her book’s villain, who plotted to do away with his nephew in order to gain the title. All of that wouldn’t have been so bad, if Sylvester wasn’t really guardian to his own nephew. And if that nephew’s beautiful but feather-headed mama, Ianthe, hadn’t spread melodramatic tales of Sylvester’s mistreatment of her darling son.
When Phoebe discovers the similarity she tries, unsuccessfully, to halt publication. Once the book is out and Phoebe is revealed as the anonymous author, Sylvester is crushed by what he perceives as her opinion of him.
Phoebe and Sylvester’s journey to happiness faces even more challenges when Ianthe takes an idea from the book, and attempts to spirit her dear boy away to France on her wedding trip.
Heyer’s talent with characterization includes terrific secondary characters. Here, memorable ones are Thomas Orde, the neighbor Phoebe considers a brother, and Sir Nugent Fotherby, Ianthe’s new intended.
Here’s an example of her subtle humor and characterization through dialogue from a scene between Sylvester and Sir Nugent. Fotherby is one of the richest men in England but also a fribble, Sylvester doesn’t mind if the man marries Ianthe, he just has no intention of having his nephew raised by Sir Nugent. The group is out riding when Sir Nugent brings his horse next to Sylvester’s:
"…for the purpose of drawing his attention to the circumstance of his having, as he phrased it, brought Lady Henry [Ianthe] bang up to the mark on time. [for the outing.]
"’You are to be congratulated,’ said Sylvester, in a discouraging tone.
"’Devilish good of you to say so, Duke!" responded Sir Nugent, acknowledging the tribute with a slight bow. ‘Don’t mind owning it wasn’t easy. Took a devilish deal of address. If there is a thing I pride myself on it’s that. "Lady Henry," I said-well, not to cut a wheedle with you, Duke, I put it a devilish sight stronger than that! "My love," I said, "we shan’t turn his grace up sweet if we keep him kicking his heels at the rendezvous. Take my word for it!" she did.’
"In spite of himself Sylvester’s face relaxed. ‘She did?’
"’She did," asserverated Sir Nugent gravely. "My sweet life," I said-you’ve no objection to that, Duke?’
"’Not the least in the world.’
"’You haven’t?’ exclaimed Sir Nugent, slewing his body round to stare at Sylvester, an exertion which the stiff points of his collar and the height of that Oriental Tie made necessary.
"’Why should I?’
"’You’ve put your finger on the nub, Duke!’ said Sir Nugent. ‘Why should you? I can’t tell. And I believe I’ve cut my wisdoms. "My love, I said (if you’ve no objection) "you’ve got a maggot in your idea-pot."
"’And what had she to say to that?’ enquired Sylvester….
"’She denied it,’ said Sir Nugent. ‘Said you were bent on throwing a rub in our way.’
"’Just what I said myself!’ "Oh!" I said.’
"’Not "my love"?’
"’Not then. Because I was surprised. You might say I was betwattled.’"
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Another of things I so admire about Heyer is the way she puts words together to create specific moods or atmosphere. The rhythm (or cadence) of the sentences can communicate her intent just as much as the words themselves. But that’s another story.
On a final note: that English Lit professor? Admitted to me after class that he had read—and enjoyed—her books.
Award-winning author Barbara Bettis has always loved history and English. As a college freshman, she considered becoming an archaeologist until she realized there likely would be bugs and snakes involved. And math. A former health insurance claims adjuster, a former journalist, a former journalism teacher, "Dr. Barb" plans never to be a "former" author. She now lives in Missouri, where by day she’s a mild-mannered English teacher, and by night she’s an intrepid plotter of tales featuring heroines to die for—and heroes to live for. Published with two medievals, she’s now at work on a Regency.
Connect with "Dr. Barb" at her blog: barbarabettis.blogspot.com