Next in order of publication is Georgette Heyer’s Regency, The Corinthian. Romance author, Renée Reynolds, shares how she read this story for the first time and what this story means to her. She also explains how she views Heyer as a Regency romance author in comparison to authors writing today. If you have never read a Heyer Regency before, Reynolds makes it clear why The Corinthian would be a good first choice.
Please feel free to share your thoughts about this delightful novel in comments to this post.
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Although it is the fourth Regency-set novel in Georgette Heyer’s repertoire, The Corinthian was actually the first Heyer story I read. "Read" may perhaps be too tame a word. I devoured it. It is what I have come to consider Heyer at her best, a story full of witty dialogue and hilarious characters. It is a thoroughly engaging romp where the unlikeliest of heroes and heroines, Sir Richard Wyndham and Penelope Creed, form an unexpected alliance, only to suffer intrigues and outrageous coincidences, stumble upon murder, and fall irrevocably in love.
"I still consider the stage an abominable vehicle, but there is no denying we had a very adventurous journey. Really, to have gone post would have been sadly flat. We were over-turned in a ditch; we became — er — intimately acquainted with a thief; we found ourselves in possession of stolen goods; assisted in an elopement; and discovered a murder. I had not dreamt life could hold so much excitement."
Published in 1940, some have explained this light-hearted and lively romantic comedy as the author’s effort to escape the battle-weary times in which she lived. Others have declared the opposite, that she chose the Regency period precisely because it and she were so well-acquainted with war. Regardless of impetus, The Corinthian was a definitive step away from the serious natures of her previous tomes, as these new characters remained firmly and safely in England. Heyer stepped away from the scholarly and history-rich style of writing to inject an animation and carefreeness in character behavior, speech, and circumstance, with wonderful results.
"What is she doing here?" asked Pen, unmoved by his strictures.
"Heaven knows! I found her lying on the path. How does one make a female stop crying?"
"I shouldn’t think you could. She’s going to have a fit of the vapours, I expect. And I do not see why you should hug people, if you don’t know who they are."
"I was not hugging her."
"It looked like it to me," argued Pen.
"I suppose," said Sir Richard sardonically, "you would have had me step over her, and walk on?"
"Yes, I would," replied Pen promptly.
There seem to be three different belief systems about Georgette Heyer and her role in the Regency romance genre: those who revere Heyer as the source for true Regency romance, those who appreciate her foundation but also its evolution, and those who think reading Heyer is about as relevant as conversing in Latin, or as pleasurable as visiting the tooth puller.
I find myself firmly ensconced in the second camp, but I came to my happy reading place in a more roundabout fashion. Georgette Heyer did not provide my first experience with the Regency romance. Unlike most, I dipped my toe via the more contemporary Regency Historical, where the setting is the Regency period, but the prose, characterization, and/or plot are more modern in tone. Also, there is usually much more than chaste hand-holding or a stolen buss on the cheek. I stumbled into Regency romance quite inadvertently, through the questions of a friend about the historical accuracy of her romance novel.
"History in a romance?" I queried silently, looking down my English History degree-laden nose. Upon receiving my answer, she challenged me to read her offerings of two very historical, very British, and very romantic novels . . . and defied me to dislike them. Into my hands were placed A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh, and Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase.
These stories did not fit my stereotype of the romance novel. Yes, there was plenty of longing and love, and all manner of canoodling, but that was far from all. There was obvious research into historical settings and customs, and the manners and speech of the characters were very true to the time frame of the novels.
There was much more to this type of story than my preconceptions.
But the historian in me wanted to know how this distinct manner of novel began; thus my introduction to the Traditional Regency romance and Georgette Heyer. And because I’m one of those oddballs who never looks at the instructions before starting the test and eats dessert before her entrée, I began not with Heyer’s first book but her fourth, The Corinthian. I selected my first Heyer romance solely for its intriguing and so-very-period title. The term "Corinthian" is defined as a man about town, especially one who lives luxuriously or, sometimes, dissolutely. He did not disappoint.
Our hero, Sir Richard Wyndham, a man of a certain age (nine and twenty) and certain station (wealthy and single), knows he must marry eventually. According to his family and hers, there could be no better wife for him than Melissa Brandon. Unfortunately, when he finally resigns himself to commit to the deed, he finds Miss Brandon’s arctic disposition and plans for marriage less than suited to his humorous temperament and general affability. He retreats to his club to drink himself into a fog of forgetfulness, but eventually talks himself into doing the proper thing — marrying into misery. Thank heavens fate disagrees with his choice. While staggering home he spies a young “boy” climbing down the side of a building on a rope made of knotted sheets . . . which is too short . . . and the "boy" falls into Sir Richard’s arms . . . at which point he determines his catch is no boy after all.
The young lady he has rescued is one Penelope "Pen" Creed who is fleeing her proper fate in the form of a proposal from her unappealing, fish-faced cousin. She is fortuitously wealthy, and decides her best course of action is to scarper to Somerset, locate her childhood friend Piers, and marry him posthaste. Although she has not seen him in five years, that is not at all relevant to her plan. She is a young, naïve, seventeen year old, but she makes up for that with conviction, fearlessness, and bravado. Sir Richard — drunk, but not that drunk — resolves to be the gentleman and escort Pen on her journey west. He is drunk enough to dismiss the decidedly improper and impractical bent of his gentlemanly notion.
He leaned back in his corner, lazily enjoying Miss Creed’s flights into the realms of fancy, and wondering what his mother and sister would think if they knew that he was travelling to an unknown destination, by stagecoach, accompanied by a young lady as unembarrassed by this circumstance as by her male attire. A laugh shook him, as he pictured Louisa’s face. His head had ceased aching, but although the detachment fostered by brandy had left him, he still retained a feeling of delightful irresponsibility. Sober, he would certainly not have set forth on this absurd journey, but having done so, drunk, he was perfectly willing to continue it.
To insure success, Pen will remain disguised as a boy and Sir Richard will pose as her tutor/uncle. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, save a disastrous trip by public coach, a cavalcade of interesting side characters, the theft of a diamond necklace, murder, and the discovery that Piers has forgotten his childhood oath to Pen. By this point, Sir Richard knows he and the poorly-disguised lady with him are past the point of compromise, and that they must marry; oddly, he finds himself strangely satisfied by the prospect. Unfortunately, Pen is horrified: she realizes she has fallen hopelessly for Sir Richard (yay!) but does not want to be his by obligation (boo!). She turns her attention instead to uniting Piers and his new love, the flighty but beautiful Lydia, who are desperate to unite despite the objections of their parents. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot — and yes, there is still more that happens.
Amused? Confused? So was Sir Richard:
"I am recalling my comfortable home, my ordered life, my hitherto stainless reputation, and wondering what I can ever have done to deserve being pitchforked into this shameless imbroglio!"
In Sir Richard, Heyer has given the reader the now-quintessential Regency gentleman, with his aristocratic air, polished Hessians, and meticulously tailored look of ennui. We are also told he is muscular and well-proportioned behind all those starched points and trimmed waistcoats, which is terribly helpful in raising his character in our estimation. In Pen, we are given the archetype "modern" Regency lady: she is raised oh-so-unconventionally within the bounds of convention, flouts all manner of propriety with an innocent air, defies and flees her family when necessary, dresses as a boy, and gallivants across England in the company of an unrelated and unattached gentleman. Brava, demure Regency lass!
The experienced eye will recognize the origins of many romance tropes within the pages of The Corinthian, although I’m not convinced they can actually be called tropes here, at their birthplace. I would suggest at least a passing nod of thanks is owed to this novel for the inspiration of countless plot points found in many a Regency romance. Witness the bored aristocrat in need of a suitable wife. Observe the gently-bred lady in search of an escape from the prospect of a dreary marriage. Notice the mature lady determined to bend family and friends to her will. Behold the madcap adventures that overtake a simple trip to the country. Espy the jaded peer-about-town find the love of his life. Discover the unconventional miss attempt to free the man she loves from a forced marriage. Enjoy the witty banter and delightful dialogue between a quick hero and heroine. Raise a brow at the deliciously vulgar exchanges of cant.
"What’s a boman prig?" asked Pen innocently.
"There, now! If you ain’t a werry suckling!" said Mr. Yarde, almost disconcerted. "A boman prig, young gentleman, is what I trust you’ll never be. It’s a cove as ends up in Rumbo — ah, and likely on the Nubbing Cheat afore he’s much older!"
Much intrigued, Pen demanded a translation of these strange terms. Sir Richard, having pondered and discarded the notion of commanding her to exchange places with him, lay back and listened with lazy enjoyment to her initiation into the mysteries of thieves’ cant.
See anything familiar? Still think Heyer is for another age and out-of-date? Lud, her heroine is a cross-dresser!
I found this novel to be entertaining and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a comedy of manners that borders on the farcical, abounding in outrageous adventure and unlikely predicaments. The use of thieves’ cant is especially entertaining (and highly educational). What an enjoyable way to arrive at happily every after.
I stipulate that Georgette Heyer is relevant and readable today, in spite of the obvious differences between her Traditional Regency style and that of the more modern Regency Historical. Her prose, which some have called flowery and antiquated, is certainly not boring, nor is it an unmanageable verbal quagmire. It is unique, witty, and meant to be savored. This is not fast food Regency Romance. Her influence is indisputable as well. Read any number of blurbs from a selection of the genre’s most notable authors, and you will discover, at bare minimum, the essence of these so-called tropes outlined above. I declare Heyer deserves the credit — or the blame, depending upon your point of view — for much of the fascinating, exciting, and spell-binding Regency plots we read so enthusiastically today. I cannot fathom she knew what she had created, but thank goodness, she did.
I propose that while Heyeresque is not the only way to write nor read a Regency romance, neither is it an obsolete form. Heyer laid the foundation to the structure; those of us who follow merely add our own floors, rooms, or cornices to the building. Whether we write traditional or steamy, using period prose or something more modern, we authors of Regency romance must tip our fascinators in appreciation to the grande dame, Georgette Heyer. To appreciate her at her vaudevillian best, I recommend The Corinthian.
You can find Renée at:
Twitter: @eenayray (@eenayray)