AVAILABLE UNTIL OCTOBER 30, 2019
LEARNING! WITH GEORGETTE HEYER
BY CLARA SHIPMAN
Nonpareil. That was what started it, my journal of words I did not know and would have to investigate. I was fourteen years old and just embarking on my Heyer journey, having come across a battered copy of Frederica on my grandmother’s bookshelf.
“Oh, Heyer,” she said, pronouncing it “Hare” in the very proper English way (my grandmother was Cincinnati’s answer to a top-lofty dowager duchess). (Top-lofty. That was another word for the journal.) “You will love her. You will never look at those sparkling vampires of yours in the same way again.”
She was right.
Ten years later, I look back at my early fumbling with Heyer’s beautiful, accomplished language with fond indulgence. Whether it was the slang of the time she wrote so perfectly, the ’pon reps and the Banbury stories and the bits of muslin (maybe a little inappropriate for a teenager), or the elegant use of words that you just don’t hear anymore, each Heyer novel was an education in its own right. A glance through my journal shows me I had to look up “florid” and “importuning” and “prodigious,” and those are just a few from The Black Moth.
And the people! Bonnie Prince Charlie. Golden Ball. William the Conqueror. The Prince Regent. Beau Brummell and Charles Fox and Wellington. Historical figures I’d never heard of and, perhaps, would never have known about, came alive in such a way that studying history became fascinating, essential. I started reading Wikipedia pages about these celebrities of the past for fun.
What is most telling is how much good my love of Georgette Heyer’s writing has done for my academic achievements. When we studied Emma in high school, I found Jane Austen’s language a breeze, because I had cut my teeth (another little something for the journal) on Heyer, and did not have to watch Clueless to understand what was going on like most of my friends. When we did Henry V in AP English, I had a template for not only the language but also the content, mostly gleaned from Simon the Coldheart. When I read War and Peace for my freshman Russian Lit class, I understood the context of the Napoleonic Wars and marveled at seeing them from the Russian point of view, having spent so long immersed in them from the English side in The Spanish Bride and An Infamous Army. I was usually more of a C student, but in those cases I was an A+ brainiac, all thanks to my Heyer-provided education.
But Heyer has helped me more than just in school. Her characters have now burrowed so deeply into my psyche that I consider them as role models—or as cautionary tales. When a boy started a rumor about me in my senior year, even though it added to my consequence (another journal word) I took note from Arabella Tallant’s mistakes and immediately denied it to all who would listen. I know what can happen if you let these things run wild, unchecked—and no, it’s not that you end up eloping with the much-older nonpareil (that word again) who loves you.
When I started a job right of out of college with a male colleague who thought he could order me around, I channeled my inner Grand Sophy and would not let him intimidate me out of doing what I thought was right. Eventually, he learned to back off and stop micro-managing me. A year later, I became his boss. (And did not end up married to my cousin.)
When a friend and I went on a blind double date but really liked each other’s guy, I pulled an Ivo Beresford and made the switch so we wouldn’t end up in a Boston Tangle, accidentally dating the wrong people just to be polite. (My friend Lena is now expecting a baby with her guy. You could say that Georgette Heyer created a new human.)
There are those who suggest that the Romance genre is pulpy and unnecessary, that it is derivative and predictable and bad. But in Georgette Heyer’s work (some of which is somewhat derivative, as anyone who has ever read April Lady and The Convenient Marriage back-to-back can tell you), along with that of many other writers in this field, I have learned more history, more language, and more social graces than from even the most dense and learned history, etymology or self-help books. Not to mention geography! And it doesn’t stop there.
It is true than not every lesson in Heyer should be learnt. The elitism of the upper classes, the misogyny and institutional racism, all of that is of its time and definitely not of ours. But even there, seeing what was wrong with the past, feeling echoes of it in our present and constantly striving to do better in our future—there is an easily-absorbed lesson there as well.
Georgette Heyer was a writer with a fanatical attention to historical detail, who included real people in her works and whose vivid word pictures opened up whole new areas of study to a barely-passing fourteen-year-old who was not even motivated enough to read Wuthering Heights even though it was Bella Swan’s favorite book. It is not an exaggeration to say that reading the novels of Georgette Heyer changed my life.
The cutest part? My grandmother is so proud of herself.
Clara Shipman is a voracious reader of all kinds of Romance, Mystery and Women’s Fiction (whatever that is). She lives on the outskirts of Boston, where she spends her days writing algorithms and her nights writing reviews for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, when not on long walks with her dog, Lufra.