What do I think about…

Georgette Heyer?  Hmn?

At the risk of making myself immensely unpopular, I shall say I respect her work very much.   I think she was a brilliant stylist, killingly funny on aunts, sisters and mothers.  I think she has a wicked sense of irony which few people appreciate, and I rate her work alongside that of P.G. Wodehouse in that they both created a bright comedic fictional world entirely of their own. 

However, I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century.  Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers’. 

(Curiously, no one ever mistakes Wodehouse’s fictional world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club for reality.)

At this writing, we know that over 5 million people died in the Napoleonic Wars.  Considering that the population of Great Britain in 1800 was only 16 million, that is a considerable proportion of the European population.  What we do not know, and may never know, is the number of civilian casualties.  Nor have I ever come across any attempt to discover that.  So those numbers remain unaccounted for, although they are likely to be at least another million. 

We know, from excavations of mass Napoleonic graves in Lithuania, that roughly 80% of Napoleon’s army was infected with syphilis; we also know that gang rape by Napoleon’s soldiers of civilians was commonplace.  Thus, there are all those women to be accounted for. 

Did they commit suicide as did the women who were so treated by the Russians in Berlin in 1945?  Or did they die a lingering and horrible death from the effects of syphilis?  We don’t know.  And no demographic study has ever been undertaken to try and answer the question of the female casualty rates at that time.  But what we do know is that the European population did not recover its former levels until 100 years after the French Revolution began. 

And all this, and so much more, has been lost or ignored, because who wishes to count the cost of human suffering on such a grand scale–and so much of it caused by one man’s imperial greed–when we can look away to that splendid shimmering quasi-historical world created by Heyer?

Napoleon used to say that he had an income of 85,000 men (some accounts of this saying cite 80,000).  Where are the novels of those families whose sons never came home to set alongside Heyer, or even Austen?

I do not mean to imply that Heyer’s research was in any way inaccurate.  It wasn’t.  It’s just that with the exception of An Infamous Army, the whole of her work is one-faceted and is set firmly within the boundaries of this fictional romantic comedy world she created.  Thus, what a shock to realise that Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, for example, is set at the same period and included much talk of the terrible harvests, the effect of that on the countryside and the introduction of the Corn Laws. 

I’m possibly ranting now.  Okay, yes, I am ranting.  And I do not wish to be a doom-merchant or a grumbletonian.  But I do feel that the interminable focus on the party and courting aspects of the early nineteenth century has robbed this period of both its human cataclysmic disasters but also of its great  triumphs of human courage, tenacity and sheer bloody hard work.  And the only equivalent I can come up with is this:  how would people feel if there was a whole genre of fiction devoted to parties and dresses and bonnets, set in Washington, D.C., circa 1860-1865?

If I may draw a parallel with another another historical novelist, a contemporary of Heyer’s, C.S. Forester, whose Hornblower series, like Rafael Sabatini’s works, drew a veil across the blood and guts of historical conflict.  As did almost all novels published in the 1930s and 40s.  It was the custom of the age.  

Subsequent novelists of the naval or military genres–Patrick O’Brian, Julian Stockwin, and Allan Mallinson–building on Forester’s work, have written much more seriously, much more accurately about the same period.  And they have been rightly lauded for so doing.  Indeed, one sometimes feels that O’Brian and Mallinson are historians first, novelists second.  Yet the novels of early 19th century home front, as it were, the British social and political front, or Heyer’s so-called world, have atrophied–stymied in the web of Heyer’s success. 

It’s curious too, that lacking Heyer, writers from other European countries have been able to set serious works of literary fiction in this period–Gilles Lapouge’s The Battle of Wagram springs to mind.

Still, I have always found The Corinthian particularly amusing–the sisters and mothers aspect, do you see?

8 comments on “What do I think about…

  1. JM Thierry says:

    Just some thoughts on the subject … I was surprised to see any mention of Heyer. As good as she is, and she’s a master at what she does, most people denegate her for her “froth.”

    But I enjoy reading Heyer too … some wonderful stories, much entertainment (The Toll Gate), but Heyer wrote light and entertaining stories, not serious fiction. If she had literary pretensions they were expressed in her other writing (her obsession with detail in writing her mysteries, for example, is legendary). However, there is no place for the nitty gritty of life in her “Regency” books … other people took care of that in their writing. Er, who were they again, BTW? (See, no one remembers them.)

    I will experience something disturbing once (death, dismemberment, war), and appreciiate the excellence of whatever it was … book, movie. And the movie, Braveheart, is a good example of nitty gritty historical acuracy, or so I am told. But will never watch that again! Distressing … who needs it? OTOH I reread my favorite Heyers when ever I was something light, well written, and relaxing, but not taxing! I get enough (too much) heavy material at work. There is a place in literature for Heyer’s kind of writing, I think. But, beyond the setting, her stories aren’t meant to be (and don’t need to be) social commentary or historical tracts.

    Sorry … don’t mean to be contrary. I am so happy to find someone else who likes Heyer!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I don’t know that there are any novelists besides Heyer in English, and I stress that, who deal with the Regency in any serious way.

      It has always been my impression that the publishing world feels the subject is closed or that Heyer is the doyenne of it and there’s no more to be said. Should one dare to include any element of society in a book about this period, one is compared to Heyer–whether or not there is any truth to the assertion or indeed whether the ‘comparer’ is actually acquainted with Heyer’s work. Which means one can write about the war or the navy as say Mallinson or Cornwell or O’Brian have done, but the political and social elements of that world cannot be fictionally treated without the glib comparison.

  2. O. Maltravers says:

    An interesting comparison with Wodehouse (who of course drew his male characters as unerringly as Heyer drew her women). Nobody expects Wodehouse to be a searingly honest portrayal of a society or to be the ultimate authority on British life between the wars. So why does the publishing industry (sorry, but they do) hold up GH as the sole yardstick for any discussion of domestic Regency life?

    Let me say that I love Heyer for escapism purposes, for her dry wit and for her powers of observation of character (particularly, as you say, the irritating female relations).

    Sad to say, though, I think atrophy is about right. Publishers don’t seem to be allowing either authors or readers to move on, or recognising that tastes have changed.

    As a parallel, take a look at WW2. After 30-40 years of books and films immortalising the combat elements (yes, I too grew up on Douglas Bader and Colditz) we’ve recently had several thoughtful, intelligent offerings about the home front – ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’, ‘The Land Girls’ and ‘Foyle’s War’ spring to mind. We’ve been allowed to move on from ‘Dad’s Army’, in other words. (Not suggesting that ‘Dad’s Army’ is in any way inferior, you understand…) We’re not teaching our children about Wellington, Nelson, Pitt or Bonaparte these days – too politically incorrect, no doubt – and whilst O’Brian and Stockwin and Mallinson have begun to fill the void in terms of the theatre of war, we deserve a more rounded picture of life in our own country.

    Not least because it was a time of such significant change. MM, your post talks about the colossal impact of the war on European society (no, I don’t mean ‘high society’, I mean the whole damn lot), but there is also the upheaval of urbanisation and industrialisation at home – the colossal social change leading up to the Great Reform Act in 1832, which created the demand and the opportunity for the Empire and for the globalisation of trade in the 19th century.

    And we think this period of our history is optional?

  3. junebugger says:

    I wonder how the people’s impression/understanding of the Regency era would have changed if writers like Patrick O’Brian, Julian Stockwin, and Allan Mallinson had published before Heyers…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      S’truth, I hadn’t thought about that one…I would hope, though it’s probably completely daft, that our impressions and understanding would have been less fragmented. Less divided along the juvenile lines of the girls on one side of the room and the boys on the other–age 12–and never the twain shall meet.

      I’ve not stopped thinking about this question since I raised it a few days ago, in some effort to pin down what it is about Heyer I find most maddening. Tolstoy includes many party scenes, many domestic issues, in War and Peace, yet no one would accuse him of frivolity or trivialising history, I think.

      Perhaps it’s Heyer’s relentless emphasis on female clothing and her stereotypical males which frequently are little better than caricatures? I know she based a lot of her work about young men and their pursuits on the Cruikshank “Tom and Jerry” cartoons of the 1820s. Equally, it must be said that with few exceptions, there are few mentions of soldiers, officers or naval officers in her works–yet Britain was most certainly a country at war, from 1792-1815, with only the briefest peace between 1802-3. (We’d think a book set in 1943 in London very peculiar if there were no soldiers to be seen, wouldn’t we?)

      Perhaps it’s not her work that I find maddening, it’s the subsequent assumption that the Regency was as she presented it, and that her work is used as a kind of yardstick for anything written about the period.

      Which is perhaps just my way of saying, yes, that was popular literary taste then (when she was writing); this is now–can we not move on from there? Please?

      • junebugger says:

        “…Heyer’s relentless emphasis on female clothing and her stereotypical males which frequently are little better than caricatures..” I found this to be true in every book of hers I read (I haven’t read that many though). There’s depth even in the party scenes of Tolstoy’s work, to me. But with Heyer…it’s all about fashion and humour. So I guess this imbalance in many of her books is what gave off the wrong impression of what the Regency era was like.

        And it’s mainly due to ignorance I should think. I remember you telling me that there wasn’t that much research material on the Regency era twenty years back. Who knows.

  4. […] More of all this, and the similarities between P G Wodehouse and Heyer, later. On this, and on Heyer and trivialisation in popular understanding of UK late eighteenth/early nineteenth century history, I have been anticipated several times. Here’s one blog post, by the late writer and historian MM Bennets.  here […]

  5. […] This fact was made by the late writer and historian M M Bennets so brilliantly in this article here,  that I am going to quote large parts of it […]

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