With this article, the Beau Monde brings to a close its year-long celebration of the eightieth anniversary of the Regency romance novel, the very first of which, Regency Buck, was written by Georgette Heyer and published in 1935. Yet today’s final article in this series is about a book which is neither a Regency nor a romance, My Lord John. Nevertheless, this book was very close to Georgette Heyer’s heart. Kalinya Parker-Pryce, historical romance author, explains why this book was so important to Heyer and where it stands in her body of work. She also provides some good advice for readers who are coming to this book for the first time. Advice that will enable them to get the most out of this tale in which Heyer invested so much of herself.
As always, please feel free to share your views about this book, historical romance and/or Georgette Heyer, in comments to this article.
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There are only two books I would recommend to anyone wishing to learn about John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, third son of Henry IV and ultimately, Regent of France.
Georgette Heyer’s unfinished historical novel, My Lord John; and Ethel Carleton Williams’ biography My Lord Bedford, 1389-1435 published in 1963. The latter is out of print now, but can usually be found in public libraries.
Both books are meticulously researched, and both closely examine the life of John of Lancaster, a man most worthy of their efforts, and one well worth reading about. Ethel Carleton Williams’ 250 page book covers his entire lifespan and manages to convey what it meant to be a young prince during the critical age in which he lived, and his transition to Regent of France.
In My Lord John, (about 400 pages) Ms. Heyer presents the first 21 years of Lord John’s life (please note that she did not reach 1413 as stated in the Preface), with a liberal dose of fiction added for storytelling purposes. As she was writing historical fiction, not a biography, she was at liberty to do this. Lord John did not occupy a prominent position on history’s stage during the years covered in this book, so she had plenty of scope in which to play with fiction without messing with real history.
Ms. Heyer started work on My Lord John in 1948. Intended to be the first book in a trilogy spanning Lord John’s lifetime, it was this body of work that was closest to her heart. But writing in stops and starts, always interrupted by the need to write another romance, must have been soul-destroying.
Until very recently I had assumed My Lord John was the unfinished draft of the first book in the trilogy, so imagine my reaction when I read, in the Preface to the book, the following statement from her husband:
‘The first three parts here [in this book] were finalised by her. The fourth, unfinished, is from her rough draft: this has necessitated some editing.‘
Whoa! The first three parts are in their final form? Really?
Whether draft or finalised copy, we can only read what we have. The difficulty for many who try to read this book is that Ms. Heyer seems to have put into it every scrap of research pertaining to this part of John’s life. Given that he isn’t involved in any of the action in the early years, all but the most patient could find it dry and bogged down in detail. Everyone who was anyone is mentioned by name, be they living or dead, and each of them really did exist, be it during his lifetime or at some time pre-dating his birth.
Given that this book does not cover John’s adult life and his career as Henry V’s companion-in-arms, or his achievements as Regent of France, many people view it as anti-climactic. But Ms. Heyer has produced a very full background of John’s early life without straying into the realm of the patently untrue; and established an extraordinarily strong foundation for his later life which—sadly—she did not live to write. Some may question her fictionalised account of how the members of John’s immediate family interacted on the emotional level, yet here again Ms. Heyer demonstrates her outstanding capacity for storytelling and her underlying talent for psychological insight.
But nobody is perfect, and sometimes her judgement is wanting. I doubt, for instance, that historians would agree with her opinion that the wardship system of the late Middle Ages was seldom badly abused. Nor does her view of the age allow Parliament or the common folk to play their part as they did in reality. Still, this is a work of historical fiction, not a history text.
A common complaint among online reviewers is the use of multiple names for an individual. It was customary, however, for one’s name to change as their rank, station or office changed, so yes—it happens a lot in the story. Add into the mix forms of address reflecting familial relationships and it can get confusing. For instance, John’s grandfather—John of Guant—is identified by four different names at the beginning of the book: M. de Guyenne; Bel sire; M. d’Espagne; and (naturally) John of Gaunt.
My advice? Keep the list of characters handy, but keep reading.
Another wrinkle for many will be the very liberal use of archaic words. If the use of archaic language is not to your taste, or if you are not already familiar with the restrained elegance of Medieval English to be found in works such as The Book of Margery Kempe, you will probably grow frustrated. There is a Glossary for your reference, but do you want to be flicking back and forth between the story and the glossary? Make yourself a copy of the glossary — take pics of each page with your SmartPhone if you must; but make yourself a copy, keep it close, and keep reading.
Those who do persevere will discover a rich story that is, at its core, a cleverly rendered portrait of a close knit family who can always rely on each other when things go pear-shaped—and in this era, with so many greedy eyes fastened on one’s crown, pear-shaped is far from pretty and usually bloody.
Stick with this young prince’s story and you will be rewarded with discoveries of places, customs, laws, politics, people and the daily life of royal princes at the turn of the 14th century. Take a leaf out of John’s book and cultivate patience, and you will see him grow into his early teens and the responsibilities he must shoulder while still a boy. You’ll see him learning to manoeuver the volatile political landscape, and you’ll applaud the teenager as he quietly forms the values and beliefs that will make him his brother’s most trusted advisor when Henry (aka Harry) is crowned Henry V. Note though, that Henry IV still rules at the point where this book ends.
The following excerpt foreshadows the future, still more than a decade distant. The scene takes place in April 1400, before the middle of the book. John and his three brothers have been invested with the Order of the Garter after which they attend a great feast to celebrate. John is 11 and Harry (proper name Henry), Prince of Wales and the future Henry V is 13. Harry has been susceptible to stomach complaints since birth.
The young princes enjoyed the subsequent feast; Harry demeaned himself manfully, and spent the next two days recovering from it.
‘Harry, why does this happen to you?’ John said, looking down at him in concern.
‘God knows!’ replied Harry, prostrate on his bed. ‘If I could school my belly to hold rich meats I would, but since I can’t I shall forbid all feasts when I am King! And another thing I shall do,’ he added, smiling at John, and stretching out his hand, ‘will be to make you my Chancellor, or my Lieutenant, or some such thing! Which will you be?’
John took his hand, and held it. It was slender, but very strong. It did not seem possible that anyone with so vital a hand could be sickly, however often his belly might betray him. He was comforted, and replied: ‘I don’t mind. I’ll be anything you like!’
This is not a romance. Nor is it a story for those wanting a quick read. Its dialogue is not the effervescent repartee romance readers are accustomed to, and it is not a comic romp like Ms. Heyer’s Regencies. This story describes acts of violence, intrigue, distrust and betrayal, along with beheadings, impalements and death by being burned at the stake. It takes you from one end of the country to the other and back again, and curling throughout are dynastic jealousies, rivalries and resentments; the underlying superstitions of the time; and the heavy hand of the Church.
Be patient, and you may well relish the richness and texture of this generally accurate picture of the medieval world.
If at the end, you want to know what happens to young John of Lancaster, pick up Ethel Carleton Williams’ book and start reading from the section break on page 23, just before Henry IV’s death. This book also contains an extensive Bibliography and other sources some might find useful.
Born and raised in Australia, Kalinya Parker-Pryce relocated to the UK for a decade in her early 20s. She’s been a nurse, a teacher, an international air stewardess, and a welder building fuel tanks for trucks. After several years in Defence, she discovered a talent for art, and another for creative writing which saw her resurrect her interest in history. This year she spent several months in the UK researching aspects of the historical period in which she now writes. Her debut story, Perfect Trouble, due for release next year, was a finalist in the Historical romance category of the 2015 Emerald City Opener contest.