The Unknown Ajax
June 5, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Like most families, mine makes frequent use of shorthand. In the case of me and my mother, much of the talk derives from the work of Georgette Heyer, the prolific author who created the genre of Regency Romance in the first half of the twentieth century. As my mother had, I read all of the books in my early teens, and even today, our exchanges are liberally peppered with the idiosyncratic language of Heyer’s novels—or, as she might put it, “Regency cant.”
Something popular is “all the crack.” Exaggeration becomes “doing it much too brown.” A young relative fresh from the sticks “needs a little town bronze.” A snob is “high in the instep.” And our favorite, of course, is “impervious to the most brutal snubs,” a phrase which one finds applicable with dismaying frequency.
Heyer was a famously scrupulous researcher with a vast archive of materials and detailed notes on all aspects of the eras she portrayed. (In addition to the Regency, Heyer set books in the Georgian and Medieval periods; she also wrote modern mysteries.) Her files contained subject headings like “Beauty, Colours, Dress, Hats, Household, Prices, and Shops.”
While devotees will argue passionately for their favorite Heyers (mine, not that you asked, are Cotillion, Devil’s Cub, and, of course, The Grand Sophy—I don’t like the May-December jaded-rakes ones) it can’t be denied that there are certain recurring tropes in her work. One biographer defined these as the “saturnine male lead, the marriage in danger, the extravagant wife, and the group of idle, entertaining young men.” To this I would add a mad chase at the book’s end, which oftentimes brings together disparate characters at a remote and random inn. But all are characterized by their real wit, fully realized characters, and utterly satisfying conclusions. (Okay, A Civil Contract, not so much.)
Heyer has been criticized in some quarters for the overwhelming barrage of period detail in her books, but it seems important to remember that in a time before a thousand and one Austen adaptations and the entire genre of “historicals” that Heyer invented, we had no mental image of this world. She had to recreate it from scratch, and she did. And the truth is, though we take it on faith that the Regency society she conjured is accurate in all respects—and I’m sure to the best of her ability, it was—she largely invented that world, and I’d imagine that many of her imitators have used her novels themselves as the basis of their research.
Heyer modeled her work on Jane Austen’s, and in creating her genre, she understood one very important thing: it is the framework of rules that makes these stories work. Social hierarchies, reputations, etiquette, a world governed by understood dicta—this is the framework on which to hang a story. Her books are tame by today’s standards—there is an occasional kiss, if that—but the stakes are real. By contrast, a modern historical will often take the trappings of costume drama—balls, country houses, servants, gaming hells—but allow its heroines to run wild at masked balls, stow away on pirate ships, and leap into bed with whatever duke takes their fancy. It’s not just that this sort of thing is anachronistic (that’s obvious), it’s that it strips the setting of its pleasures.
Heyer herself took a rather dimmer view of the enterprise. “I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense … But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.”