Miss Annis Wychwood, at twenty-nine, has long been on the shelf, but this bothers her not at all. She is rich and still beautiful and she enjoys living independently in Bath, except for the tiresome female cousin, who her very proper brother insists must live with her.
When Annis offers sanctuary to the very young runaway heiress Miss Lucilla Carleton, no one at all thinks this is a good idea. With the exception of Miss Carleton’s overbearing guardian, Mr. Oliver Carleton, whose reputation as the rudest man in London precedes him. Outrageous as he is, the charming Annis ends up finding him absolutely irresistible. - Sourcebooks blurb
I discovered Georgette Heyer just after I graduated from college. Having run out of new Jane Austen novels to read, I began to search for other regency stories set in similar settings. One day at the library, I stumbled across Charity Girl and Arabella, and my love affair with all things Georgette began.
In those days I was barely older than the youngest of Heyer’s heroines, and could identify closely with The Grand Sophy. I reveled in Georgette’s world filled with bored aristocratic gentlemen who, usually as they traveled by coach or horse to a country inn or walked the streets in London in the middle of the night, stumbled across an innocent and disarming chit who needed rescuing. This plot device was a popular one with the author. Another one of Georgette’s plots was that of the “older” beautiful, rich, and independent spinster (almost on the shelf, but not quite) who is determined to live her life as she likes it and skirt convention when she can. Because she has independent means, she rules her roost and will brook no interference from any man. Invariably, these strong willed women meet their match in an even richer, stronger-willed man, usually a Duke or Earl, but not always as in a Lady of Quality.
I learned about Bath through Georgette Heyer’s eyes, not Jane Austen’s. Oh, Jane mentioned Molland’s on Milsom Street, and her characters take the waters in the Pump Room and attend assembly balls in the Upper and Lower Rooms. But Jane is spare in her descriptions, and could barely be bothered to describe dresses, fripperies, and interiors, or how well a man’s broad shoulders fit into his tailored coat, or that his valet polishes his tasseled Wellington boots with champagne. Georgette revels in these descriptions, and takes them to the extreme. Her characters are rather shallow and predictable, and she uses the same “type” over and over again. However, one doesn’t read a Georgette Heyer novel to learn something new and wondrous about the human character – one reads her stories to learn about Regency manners and mores, and how bored the aristocrats are with their privileged lifestyles, and about carriage rides in Hyde Park, and intrigues in Bath, and elopements to Gretna Green, and for descriptions of satin ball gowns and sprigged muslin day dresses. Georgette’s world is filled with high perch phaetons, and visits to Gentleman Jackson’s salon and Astley’s Amphitheatre, and a night at the opera. When I think of Georgette’s descriptions of matrons, I think of formidable ladies dressed in puce and ostrich feathers, bosoms heaving, and faces pinched with displeasure. Or I think of an older, fluffier, high maintenance woman dressed too young for her age, wearing too many ruffles, always fainting or expostulating about something inconsequential, and driving everyone but our heroine to distraction.
Jane Austen’s novels are meaty and take a long time to digest; Georgette’s frothy, sparkling, and often funny romances are as light and sugary as a meringue, and just as filling, which is to say that one becomes hungry to read more after having just finished the previous book. I have read all of Georgette’s regency romances, but I can barely recall one plot from the other, whereas Jane’s six novels are different and distinct. There is no confusing Persuasion with Pride and Prejudice!
To give Georgette her due, she KNOWS her stuff. Not only was her own “breeding” impeccable, but she married well. She and her husband rented rooms in a grand house in Mayfair, and they knew London inside and out. Georgette visited museums, and filled her notebooks (right) with drawings of costumes, uniforms, carriages, and the like. One of the characteristic that sets Georgette’s books apart from all other romance novels is her use of language and aristocratic cant. She made up many of her phrases, including “A Banbury Tale,” but they sound so authentic that other authors began to copy her, much to her dismay. A frustrated historian, who yearned to be recognized for her serious historical novels, she lived long enough to see her regency romances take off in popularity, and printed in many languages all over the world. Her artist of choice for her hard cover book jackets was Barbosa, (illustration of second book cover) whose talent for portraying the regency world was incomparable.
Georgette and her husband rented space in Albany House in Mayfair, London for 24 years. Turned into bachelor chambers in the early 19th century, its famous renters included Lord Byron and Lord Macaulay.
Georgette is a sweet romance writer, which means that she writes no X-rated sex scenes. In fact, she writes no sex scenes at all. Her characters might kiss and hug, but that is towards the end of the story to seal the deal. Unfortunately, Georgette’s light-hearted books have inspired other, lesser writers, like Barbara Cartland, whose awful repetitive romances about barely post-pubescent heroines with heart-shaped faces and huge liquid eyes are barely digestible. Writers like Cartland have given the entire genre a bad name. As with all genre writers, there are good ones and bad ones. Georgette’s works stand out as among the best. Having said that, her plots about 18-year-old misses catching the interest of 38-year-old dukes attract me the least. When I was young I could barely stomach the age difference, and now that I am longer in the tooth and a tad world weary, I refuse to read them. However, her novels about the older feisty heroine of independent means verbally sparring with her hero still strike my fancy.
Which brings me to the real topic of this post: a review. If you haven’t read a Georgette Heyer book, and you are of a certain age, I would like to recommend that you first read a Lady of Quality, which combines both of Georgette’s two basic plots. The book starts predictably, with our older, stubborn heroine, Miss Annis Wychwood, who has set up her own house in Bath (in a fashionable part of town, of course), returning from a visit with her brother and sister-in-law. Her chaperone is a meek mannered spinster cousin, who doesn’t dare to cross her rich patroness, which is exactly how Annis had planned it. The hero of the story is Oliver Carleton, the uncle and legal guardian of a silly chit, (Lucilla) who has run away. Annis becomes her protector, which sets up frequent opportunities for Annis and Oliver to verbally spar with one another.
He came forward to shake hands with Miss Wychwood, paying no immediate heed to Lucilla, following her into the parlour. “You can’t think of how relieved I am to see that you haven’t brought your cousin with you,” he said, by way of greeting. “I have been cursing myself these three hours for not having made it plain to her that I was not including her in my invitation to you! I couldn’t have endured an evening spent in the company of such an unconscionable gabble-monger!”
“Oh, but you did!” she told him. “She took you in the greatest dislike, and can’t be blamed for having done so, or for having uttered some pretty sever strictures on your total want of conduct. You must own, if there is any truth in you, that you were shockingly uncivil to her!”
“I can’t tolerate chattering bores,” he said. “If she took me in such dislike, I’m amazed that she permitted you to come here without her chaperonage.”
“She would certainly have stopped me if she could have done it, for she does not think you are a proper person for me to know!”
“Good God! Does she suspect me of trying to seduce you? She may be easy on that head: I never seduce ladies of quality!” He turned from her as he spoke, and put up his glass to cast a critical look over Lucilla. “Well, niece?” he said. “What a troublesome chit you are! But I’m glad to see that your appearance at least is much improved since I last saw you. I thought that you were bidding fair to grow into a Homely Joan, but I was wrong: your are no longer pudding-faced, and you’ve lost your freckles. Accept my felicitations!”
“I was not pudding-faced!”
“Oh, believe me, you were! You hadn’t lost your puppy-fat.”
Her bosom heaved with indignation, but Miss Wychwood intervened, recommending her not to rise to that, or any other fly of her uncle’s casting. She added severely: “And as for you, sir, I beg you will refrain from making any more remarks expressly designed to put Lucilla all on end, and to render me acutely uncomfortable!”
“I wouldn’t do that for the world,” he assured her.
“Then don’t be so rag-mannered!” she retorted.
An experienced reader of romance novels can divine the plot from this short scene, in which Lucilla is induced to speak to her uncle after having run away from him. One thing leads to another, with many plot twists and misunderstandings and heaving of bosoms, until Georgette neatly ties up her various threads, and her hero and heroine live happily ever after. The author was nearly seventy years old when she sent this note to her publisher about the book’s progress:
“I’ve left [Carleton] making himself thoroughly obnoxious to Lord Beckenham in the Pump Room, and must go back to him, and think of a few more poisonously rude things for him to say…I have only to add that Mr. Carleton is not merely the rudest man in London, but has also the reputation of being a Sad Rake, to convince you that he has all the right ingredients of a Heyer-Hero.” (Hodge, p 196*)
SourceBooks is issuing a select number of Georgette Heyer novels in Trade Paper for the first time. Click here to enter the site and see the selections. If you find my description of the book intriguing, then you will not be disappointed reading it. Georgette’s breezy romances are a perfect accompaniment for a summer’s day at the beach or a relaxed afternoon in your lawn chair.
For additional information about Georgette Heyer, click on the links below:
- *The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, The Bodley Head, London, 1984. Quote and illustration of Heyer’s notebook and house are from this book.
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