Love in the Ton: Georgette Heyer’s Legacy in Regency Romance World-Building

Georgette Heyer is widely considered to be the pioneer of the Regency romance. From 1921 to 1972, Heyer published thirty-seven romances set in the Georgian or Regency eras.1 But Heyer’s fiction never reflected the realities of life in Regency England. Although she was an avid researcher, particularly when a subject interested her, she nevertheless invented a world full of aristocratic dandies and feisty heroines having adventures in the ballrooms and pleasure gardens of Regency England. Her historical world-building was unique in its approach and application, and was imitated even in her lifetime. Historical romance writers today are in constant conversation with the world that Heyer created.

Over the course of her long career, Heyer transformed the conventions of the genre, popularizing the society-set romance in which the central struggle in a relationship between the two main characters (in Heyer’s case, always a man and a woman) often revolved around the tensions of searching for love in an era when dynastic marriages were still expected.2 Before Heyer, adventure romances had dominated the market. Heyer did not invent the historical romance, and indeed sought to imitate novels of manners by the likes of Jane Austen with her books set amongst the aristocracy and upper echelons of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British society. She was particularly interested in researching the famous locations and people of the Regency, and her books even contain dialogue that, according to primary sources of the day, was actually spoken by the Duke of Wellington.3 For this sort of historical detail, Heyer continues to be a source for Regency romance authors. Scenes set in the Almack’s ballroom or the Vauxhall pleasure gardens are de rigueur for historical romances, and that is due in no small part to Heyer’s own fondness for such scenes.

Georgette Heyer. (Wikimedia Commons)

Heyer was also obsessed with historical language. She collected slang dictionaries, colloquialisms, and information on dialect in the early nineteenth century. Heyer performed this research in the name of historical accuracy, but in trying to recreate Regency patterns of speech by applying her knowledge of historical colloquialism, she essentially created her own dialect. Critics commented on the inaccuracy during Heyer’s lifetime, much to her displeasure, and more recent scholars have called Heyer’s efforts a “coherent but completely artificial language.”4 No matter the artificiality of Heyer’s language, it is one of her most lasting legacies – even in modern historical romances, authors are expected to follow the conventions of dialogue and word usage that Heyer invented. Jane Austen wasn’t using phrases like “ton” or “Quality” to refer to high society, but thanks to Heyer, those phrases dominate the modern genre; her work more than that of any other author has ensured the survival of rakes and bluestockings as beloved character tropes. Heyer likewise introduced a generation of unlikely readers and writers to thieves’ slang, popularizing phrases like “bosky” (drunk), “plant a facer” (to throw a punch to the face), and “vowels” (an IOU), even inspiring online dictionaries of her phraseology.

Heyer’s legacy is not entirely unproblematic. Her books are characterized by a lack of diversity that fundamentally misinterprets Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. During the Georgian era, British society was consumed by debates over the slave trade. In the Regency period, many aristocrats bolstered flagging fortunes by turning to overseas investments, especially in the Caribbean and India, where indigenous and enslaved labor made profits possible.5 Heyer’s books ignore the sociopolitical debates of which her high-society characters would have been fully cognizant. Her books also conveniently overlook the fact that the Georgian era was a time of significant Black migration to Britain, and that in the Regency, there were tens of thousands of Black people in London, while Black populations would have been established in every other British city as well.6

Blue plaque erected in 2015 by English Heritage at 103 Woodside, Wimbledon, London SW19 7BA, London Borough of Merton. (Wikimedia Commons)

If she ignores Britain’s Black population, Heyer was also outright anti-Semitic in some of her novels. The Grand Sophy (1950) contains a scene in which the hero’s brother, faced with overwhelming debts, seeks a loan from nothing less than a caricature of a Jewish moneylender. Her anti-Semitism is made more complicated by the fact that Heyer’s grandfather was a Russian emigre, and likely came to Britain to escape the pogroms in Kharkiv, in modern-day Ukraine.7 Britain has a complicated legacy of anti-Semitic prejudice in life and in literature, but Heyer’s moneylender Mr. Goldhanger is a clumsy parody that lacks nuance, and there are no excuses for such a gratuitous inclusion in a side plot.

Heyer’s books always ended in a conventional marriage plot, as do most modern historical romances, but in many cases, they also emphasized a traditionalist view of the role of women and worked to curtail the adventurousness of her heroines. Heyer was not herself a feminist, and her views of the roles of women were quickly becoming antiquated in British society.8 Physical chemistry played almost no role in her romances either, on the page or otherwise. In the final pages of The Corinthian (1940), for example, the hero Sir Richard alternately refers to the heroine Pen (some twelve years his junior) as “young friend,” “brat,” “young innocent,” and “my little one” while keeping up a public ruse that trouser-wearing Pen is his nephew, before abruptly switching to “my darling” and “my little love” in the final paragraphs and kissing her, the ruse abandoned.9 In context, the kiss almost reads as an act of authorial performance, as if Heyer knew her audience would want a romantic story to end with a physical display. Over the course of the novel, the two main characters are at times playful or even sweet with one another, but it is only in the closing lines that any sort of physical attraction is implied. Heyer also never allows for the presence of queer characters in her novels, in spite of the knowledge we have of non-heteronormative historical figures in the Regency.10 Pen plays a boy in public throughout The Corinthian, and is even accused of a dalliance with a girl, but in the last act of the book, Richard declares “the sooner you put on your petticoats again the better,” and Pen agrees with a loaded phrase: “it seems to me that I have reached the end of my adventure.”11

Edmund Blair Leighton’s On the Threshold (of a Proposal). (Manchester Art Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

Modern historical romances continue to be overwhelmingly white, straight, Protestant spaces, and that is at least partly explained by the way authors commonly build their Regency worlds on the scaffolding erected by Georgette Heyer. The fact that an overwhelming majority of romances produced by American publishing houses, including historicals, are written by white women is also part of a systemic problem of racism and heterosexism that has plagued publishing since Heyer’s time. As author and critic Sarah MacLean acknowledges, “the modern Regency romance is Heyer’s construction, filled with posh French phrasing and clever historical inaccuracies designed to romanticise the time period … now so baked into the genre that correcting them summons a deluge of reader complaints.”12 Romance authors are some of the people best placed to challenge Heyer’s legacy, however, and many have taken up that mantle, in both literary critiques and through their own works. The rise of independent publishing and a commitment to diversity and inclusion on the part of some of the biggest names in historical romance have made it possible to see a course correction in some of the books being published today.

Though not all, and perhaps not even a majority, of historical romance authors are writing inclusive stories, there are still many that display a commitment to telling the stories that reflect the sorts of minority, lower-class, and otherwise marginalized people who lived in Regency England and were ignored or stigmatized by Heyer. Cat Sebastian, who writes queer romances, has written that “historical romance has been shaped in Heyer’s image; the problem is that this image is fundamentally hostile to marginalized groups.”13

But several authors who are admitted fans of Heyer’s works are working to change that. KJ Charles’s books, which center queer characters during the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian eras, do not shy away from the class conflict and political upheaval that in reality consumed Britain in the 1810s and 20s, but which are never so much as alluded to in Heyer’s works. Nicola Davidson tackles questions of class, queerness, and kink in her historical romances. Vanessa Riley centers women of color in her Regency romances, and Rose Lerner’s books commonly feature Jewish and non-aristocratic leads. These books show diverse characters fighting for love without relying on stereotypes and marginalizing characterization.

These authors and many others are moving beyond the restrictions of Heyer’s narrowly created Regency world, and in doing so they demonstrate that the biases both harmful and benign built into the setting Heyer pioneered need not hold to tell a good story in the twenty-first century. The Regency setting allows for escapism, but such escapism should never come at the expense of women, minorities, or the economically disadvantaged. Modern authors allow these characters to shine in full pursuit of their own happily-ever-afters, while still acknowledging some of the trappings that Heyer used to such advantage in her own novels: witty dialogue inflected with historicism, meticulously researched clothing, furnishings, and politesse, and an improbable number of adventuresome aristocrats.

Notes

  1. Formally defined as the period from the reign of George I through the regency of the eventual George IV, 1711–1820. Return to text.
  2. Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 128. Return to text.
  3. Maroula Joannou, Women’s Writing, Englishness, and National and Cultural Identity: The Mobile Woman and the Migrant Voice, 1938–1962 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 76. Return to text.
  4. E. R. Glass and A. Mineo, “Georgette Heyer and the Uses of Regency,” in Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective, ed. Mary Fahnestock-Thomas (Saraland, AL: Prinnyworld Press, 2001), 430, excerpt from La performance del testo: atti del VII Congresso Nazionale dell’Associazione Italiana di Anglistica, Siena, 2–4 November 1984 (Siena: Libreria Ticci, 1986), 283–92. Return to text.
  5. See, for example, Catherine Hall et al., Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Return to text.
  6. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life before Emancipation (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 136.; see also David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Macmillan, 2016). Return to text.
  7. Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (London: William Heinemann, 2011), 11. Return to text.
  8. Kloester, 134. Return to text.
  9. Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian (London: Heinemann, 1940; Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2015), 365-9, Overdrive ebook. Return to text.
  10. Heyer wrote three romances featuring a heroine in breeches: These Old Shades (1926), The Masqueraders (1928), and The Corinthian (1940). Additionally, an early work of historical fiction, The Great Roxhythe (1923), has strong homosexual undertones that Heyer was seemingly unconscious of when she first wrote the manuscript. By the 1950s, Heyer was working to prevent the reprinting of this novel. Kloester, 60. Return to text.
  11. Heyer, The Corinthian, 292. Return to text.
  12. Sarah MacLean, “Introduction,” in The Transformation of Philip Jettan by Georgette Heyer (London: Mills & Boon, 1923; New York: Modern Library, 2019), Loc. 57, Kindle edition. Return to text.
  13. Cat Sebastian, “The Heyer Problem: A History of Privilege,” in Heyer Society: Essays on the Literary Genius of Georgette Heyer, ed. Rachel Hyland (Boston, Lincolnshire: Overlord Publishing, 2018), 35. Return to text.

About the Author

One Comment

Ruth

Really interesting! I’m off to track down some of those other writers.

There is a very rare reference to poverty with Jemmy the chimney sweep in “Arabella” – Arabella is painted as being very aware of social issues because her father is a vicar, and it’s clearly awkward for her godmother who doesn’t share these concerns. And in “Cotillion” when Olivia runs away with Camille it’s pointed out that Camille is Catholic – shrugged off by Freddy, who says Olivia will just have to convert. But those are definitely exceptions of acknowledging those outside Society circles.

Reply

Share your Thoughts