Almost fifty years after her death Georgette Heyer remains a perennial bestseller. With over thirty million books sold and most of her 56 novels still in print, she is loved around the world. Heyer is best known for her historical novels. Although she wrote short stories and books in different genres and time periods – including contemporary novels, medieval stories and detective fiction – she is best known for her historical fiction set in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is these latter two eras which were her particular forte and it is with the English Regency period that her name has become synonymous.
The English Regency 1811-1820
Of her fifty-five novels published during her lifetime, twenty-six are set specifically within the English Regency period of 1811 -1820 when King George III had been declared mad and his son George, Prince of Wales, was named Regent and ruled in his father’s stead. Heyer grew to love the era – not least because it was the time in which Jane Austen wrote and in which Austen’s novels are set. Heyer’s reading of Austen gave her a ‘way in’ to the period but she also read widely among the primary sources available to her at the time. She read contemporary Regency texts, including letters, diaries, travelogues, autobiographies and miscellaneous works about life and culture in the period. She loved being able to include in her novels the ‘recondite details’ or ‘sudden bit of erudition that every now and then staggers the informed reader’. Heyer had a remarkable ability to effotlessly distil a wealth of historical detail into her fictional stories.
Like all authors who write about a past era, Heyer could never divest herself of the perceptions and influences of her own time. She was born into the Edwardian era and raised by Victorian parents; her formative years were spent reading Shakespeare, Austen, Kipling and Dickens, as well as the Greek plays, the Renaissance poets and the great masters of Restoration comedy such as Sheridan. The wit and style she imbibed from these great writers would influence and inform her own writing. Heyer developed strong views about the world and grew up believing in Britain and the Empire. She also understood and accepted the English social hierarchy and, like her father and grandparents before her, strove to climb the social ladder. Heyer believed in manners and morals, hard work and tradition but she also believed in women’s intellectual independence and this, among other twentieth-century ideas, inevitably permeate her novels.
Bringing the Regency to Life
Heyer’s Regency world is a deliberately narrow one. Leaving aside the unlikely number of dukes, earls and viscounts, her novels come to life with their depictions of upper-class Regency life, its fashion, modes and manners. She had an extraordinary memory and her wide reading and research meant that she had the ephemeral detail at her fingertips. She also kept an eclectic set of notebooks, recording her discoveries in her characteristic handwriting and often tracing useful pictures of clothing or carriages or money or postage stamps into the books. She was frequently able to weave the historical details into her novels so deftly that it can sometimes be difficult to separate the historical from the fictional.
Heyer’s ability to ‘re-create the past’ is due, in large measure, to her immersion in the primary sources. Although she read widely among secondary sources, she preferred material from the period. Writers such as Fanny Burney, Thomas Creevey, Charles Greville, Sarah Lennox, the Duke of Wellington, Captain Gronow and Elizabeth Wynne were among her preferred authors. She had a vast reference library which included original texts such as Blackmantle’s English Spy; The Hermit in London; Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, all of Wellington’s Dispatches, Pierce Egan’s Life in London and many dictionaries of costume and language. She made good use of Francis Grose’s famous 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence (for a fascnating article read here). She also used contemporary magazines, guidebooks, sporting and domestic tomes. Heyer was meticulous in her description of Regency fashion, furniture, carriages, hunting, fencing, fist-fighting, gambling and domestic management. Her ephemeral detail helped to create a sense of the Regency that remains unmatched in fiction. Today her period dialogue has become a byword among historical novel readers and writers.
Heyer had no formal training in history. Until she was thirteen she was educated at home where her father, George, encouraged her love of reading and writing. He was a writer himself and father and daughter often read and edited each other’s work. It was only when her father went to war in 1915 that Heyer finally went to school. There she outshone her peers and found her intellectual equals among the teaching staff. She did not go to the university. Instead, her approach to history was influenced by the great literary historians: Edward Gibbon, Thomas Macaulay, James Froude and Thomas Carlyle, who were still widely read and admired when Heyer was young. From them she learned the importance of original sources. From historical novelists such as Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Mrs Gaskell, Alexandre Dumas (père), Charlotte Yonge and William Thackeray she learned how to invoke a vivid sense of a period, its key players and events. Although she never thought of her novels as serious history, Heyer took the history that she wove into them very seriously indeed.