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?