Today, I am very pleased to welcome author and fellow #DashItAll Avril Tremayne with a guest post on Georgette Heyer!
I’m admitting upfront to a case of author envy when it comes to Georgette Heyer – even though I write super sexy, ultra-contemporary romances that are a world away from Heyer’s bygone eras full of heroes and heroines who fall in love before they even kiss.
It comes down to the fact that the magic of a good romance isn’t about an era, the sex quotient, or even the happily-ever-after; the magic is strewn along the path the hero and heroine take to reach an understanding that they belong together – and Georgette Heyer strewed the kind of magic I aspire to strew: vivid characterisations, powerfully restrained emotion, super funny scenes, and the sparkliest of sparkling dialogue.
Heyer’s heroes are scandalous bad boys (think Vidal, Devil’s Cub, and Damerel, Venetia); suave, sporting sophisticates (Max Ravenscar, Faro’s Daugher, and Robert Beaumaris, Arabella); omnipotent enigmas (the Duke of Avon, These Old Shades, and the Earl of Rule, The Convenient Marriage); and implacably straightforward military men (Hugo Darracott, The Unknown Ajax, and John Staple, The Toll-Gate).
Her heroines are strong, independent women (Serena Carlow, Bath Tangle, and Frederica Merriville, Frederica); young innocents (Hero Wantage, Friday’s Child, and Pen Creed, The Corinthian); calm and classy ladies (Annis Wychwood, Lady of Quality, and Abigail Wendover, The Black Sheep); and downtrodden and/or plain Jane spinsters (Hester Theale, Sprig Muslin, and Drusilla Morville, The Quiet Gentleman).
I love the precision with which Heyer builds these “types” and mixes and matches them – but what I love more is when she springs a character surprise. It’s one of the reasons I try to give all my own characters something surprising – but I haven’t managed to reach the heights of Heyer’s Cotillion.
On my first read of Cotillion, I could have sworn Jack Westruther was being set up as the hero. He’s an alpha male, handsome, sporting, rakish; the heroine, Kitty Charing, has been waiting forever for him to love her; and none of his three cousins, who are thrown with him into a competition for Kitty’s hand in marriage, show to advantage by comparison.
All the ingredients for a rollicking good romance are there. I could see the plot unfolding, was anticipating it, getting ready to enjoy it…
And then one of the also-ran cousins emerged out of the blue as the real hero!
Freddy Standen is the kind of guy everyone turns to for fashion and etiquette advice, but no girl swoons over. He’s not handsome, dressing to perfection is an obsession, he’s more at home in a ballroom than undertaking any sporting pursuit, and he’s considered (even by himself) slow on the uptake. The way Kitty describes Freddy to his sister Meg is perfect:
“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons! And as for riding off with one in the middle of a party, which I have always thought must have been extremely uncomfortable, and not at all the sort of thing one would wish to happen to one – What is the matter?”
Meg raised her head from the sofa-cushions: “He w-would say it was n-not at all the th-thing!”
‘Very well, and why should he not?’ said Kitty, refusing to share in her hostess’ unseemly mirth. “If you were to hear of such a thing’s happening, you would think it most improper, now, wouldn’t you?”
Freddy wins the girl in the end because he’s good-natured and kind, and when called upon to save the heroine’s day, he does it with laudable common sense. So not really “heroic” – and yet, what a hero!
I think one of the reasons Freddy so plausibly emerges from the “extras” pool is because Heyer’s secondary characters are always personality-laden – whether they’re risible fops, hapless bachelors, crotchety aunts, or doltish cousins. I can’t hear the word “nemesis” without thinking of the amiably dim-witted Ferdy in Friday’s Child and his insistence that he and his cohorts are being followed around by a “Greek fellow” whose name he can’t remember, but who “creeps up” on a fellow and “puts him in the basket”. When a full cast of such crazies converges on the one place for all the subplots to come together at the end of a Heyer novel, the ensuing screwball-style chaos is laugh-out-loud funny. Sprig Muslin and The Grand Sophy spring instantly to mind. In my own novels, I always aim for this type of comedy in my ensemble scenes with the friends/family of the main players.
Of all the many things I admire about Heyer, however, it’s her witty dialogue that I really wish I could emulate. It’s sharp and clever. A cut and thrust, a parry. Seduction by words instead of touch.
Take the sparring sessions in The Grand Sophy between the dauntingly self-assured Sophy Stanton-Lacy and her uptight cousin Charles Rivenhall. We readers know Charles is a goner from the moment Sophy arrives at his family home as a guest and decides the household needs a good shake-up – and so does Charles’s engagement to his starch-equal, Miss Wraxton…
“Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton’s name, I shall be much obliged to you, cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!”
“But, Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton! She cannot help it, and I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters!”
“I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!”
“Yes, indeed, but you have quote misunderstood the matter! I meant a particularly well-bred horse!”
“You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!”
“No, no! I am very fond of horses!” Sophy said earnestly.
Just as often, Heyer’s dialogue is revealing for all the things that aren’t said. Such as in this conversation between Devils’ Cub’s Dominic Alastair, Marquis of Vidal, and his cousin Juliana, who believes her unsatisfyingly staid beau would benefit from a touch of Vidal’s volatile personality.
“But supposing you loved me, Dominic, and I – well, flirted if you must use that horrid word – with another man: what would you do?”
“Kill him,” said the Marquis flippantly.
She shook his arm. “You don’t mean it, but I think perhaps you would. Vidal, you’d not let another man steal the lady you loved, would you? Do answer soberly!”
The smile still lingered on his lips, but she saw his teeth shut hard. “Soberly, Ju, I would not.”
“What would you do?” inquired Miss Marling, momentarily diverted by curiosity.”
His lordship was silent for a minute, and the smile faded, leaving his face strangely harsh. A tiny snap sounded under his fingers. He glanced down at them, and the grim look loft his face. “I’ve spoiled your fan, Ju,” he said, and gave it her back.
Masterfully understated – and it paves the way for how he deals with his jealousy later in the book.
So how am I dealing with my own jealousy? Well, I’ve decided I don’t mind being jealous of Georgette Heyer, because obsessing over her fabulousness has got to make me a better author. So I’m going all out and giving her a cheeky nod in an upcoming series of books – a character name or trait, a reminiscence of storyline, and dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.
Today, I’m sharing a taste of my first venture – and it’s all about Sylvester.
In Heyer’s Sylvester, the impeccably behaved Sylvester Raine, Duke of Salford, decides it’s time to find a wife. A match is suggested with his mother’s goddaughter, the foot-in-mouth Phoebe. Of course, it all goes hideously wrong…then wonderfully right.
Here’s an early interaction between Heyer’s Sylvester and Phoebe:
“I was wondering only whether I ought to accept so much help from you – using your chaise – depriving you of your groom!” She added naively: “When I was not, at first, very civil to you.”
“But you are never civil to me!” he complained. “You began by giving me a heavy set-down, and you followed that with a handsome trimming! And now you threaten to deny me a chance to redeem my character!” He laughed, seeing her at a loss for words, and took her hand, and lightly kissed it. “Cry friends, Sparrow! Am I so very bad?”
“No! I never said that, or thought it!” she stammered. “How could I, when I scarcely know you?”
“Oh, this is worse than anything!” he declared. “No sooner seen than disliked! I understand you perfectly: I have frequently met such persons – only I had not thought myself to have been one of them!”
Goaded, she retorted: “One does not, I believe!” Then she immediately looked stricken, and faltered. “Oh, dear, my wretched tongue! I beg your pardon!”
The retort had made his eyes flash, but the look of dismay that which so swiftly succeeded it disarmed him. “If ever I met such a chastening pair as you and Orde! What next will you find to say to me, I wonder? Unnecessary, I’m persuaded, to tell you not to spare me!”
“Now that is the most shocking injustice!” she exclaimed, “When Tom positively toad-eats you!”
“Toad-eats me? You can know nothing of toad-eaters if that is what you think!” He directed a suddenly penetrating look at her, and asked abruptly: “Do you suppose that that is what like? To be toad-eaten?”
She thought for a moment, and then said: “No, not precisely. It is, rather, what you expect, perhaps, without liking or disliking.”
And here’s a peek at my own ultra-contemporary take on Sylvester and Phoebe, who are caught up in a modern-day arranged marriage…
“Maybe I should have gotten some Youtan Poluo petals. Much more exclusive. But I’m afraid the Youtan Poluo only blooms every three thousand years, and I’m not sure it could put out any earlier, even for you, My Lord Duke.”
The wrinkle between his brows deepened. “Why did you call me that?”
“Because you’re a little…you know…aristocratic. Or do I mean autocratic? Noblesse oblige. Come, my serfs, and pay homage to your liege lord. That kind of thing.”
“You’re saying I’m arrogant?”
“No, no, no. Not arrogant. Superior.”
“Because that’s so much better.”
“Well, you had the Minister quaking in his boots when you unleashed the nostril flare on him.”
“My nostrils don’t flare.”
“Nostril. Singular. The left one. Quite a skill, really, to flare your nostrils individually. Unless you thought he wasn’t worth a dual flair?”
Will my Sylvester and Phoebe find their happily-ever-after? I think you know the answer…
I’ll end with my top 10 Georgette Heyer recommendations, for those who’ve been contemplating entering Heyer’s magical world but aren’t sure where to start.
My top 10
The Grand Sophy
The Quiet Gentleman
Heyer, Georgette. Cotillion. New York: Putnam, 1953.
Heyer, Georgette. Devil’s Cub. New York: Dutton, 1966.
Heyer, Georgette. The Grand Sophy. New York: Putnam, 1950
Heyer, Georgette. Sylvester; Or, The Wicked Uncle. New York: Putnam, 1957.