Yesterday, our friend Maura Tan began her reading of Georgette Heyer’s historical works — historically (ha! a pun!) not her bag. Maura recently read and enjoyed Heyer’s contemporaries and mysteries, but she has objected to historical fiction as a genre since she read Philippa Gregory’s slander of various dead royals, and, yeah, I get it.
But bravely, wisely, finally, she has given into the peer pressure of her fellow Heyer Society essayists, as well as the lure of Heyer’s perfection, and she kicked off with the first of Heyer’s novels, The Black Moth. In her review, she says of Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, that he is not only the villain of the book, but a “… REAL villain. If #metoo was a thing back then, women all over the country would have been #metoo-ing about the Duke of Andover constantly, given how much he apparently liked to kidnap and rape them.” She’s not wrong. But it got me to thinking… is there a worse villain in Heyer than Devil Belmanoir? Is it just me, or do most of her books not even have villains? Not of that caliber, anyway.
In These Old Shades, the Comte de St. Vire is pretty villainous, dooming his own child to a life of hardship and penury in order to get revenge on his brother for some reason. And both The Reluctant Widow and The Talisman Ring have awful family members up to no good, spying and murdering and that sort of thing, while also being vain and condescending, which is almost as bad. And there are nasty guardians, like Uncle Matthew from Cotillion and those Bagshots from Friday’s Child and my poor Gilly’s embezzling uncle in The Foundling. I guess most of The Unknown Ajax‘s Darracotts are pretty unpleasant, and no one likes Torquil from Cousin Kate–though it’s unkind to call him a villain when he was clearly undiagnosed bi-polar and he’s as much a victim as anyone else, those times being not very enlightened about mental illness.
But think about it, who is the villain in, say, The Grand Sophy? Is it Miss Wraxton? That’s a bit harsh. (Of course, some people would say it was Sophy, but they are wrong. Very, very wrong.) Who’s the villain in Frederica? Lady Buxted? Sure, neither are very nice, but they don’t plot or scheme destruction, or cause any real harm. They’re just kind of jerks about our heroines, which doesn’t exactly send them into villain territory.
What about in Lady of Quality? In Bath Tangle? In Sprig Muslin? Is family and societal expectation a villain? Because that’s the only real problem for anyone there. Indeed, I think that most of the time, the villain in Heyer’s historical novels — and especially in her Regency novels — is Society itself. The major conflicts that usually arise are all about what is expected of everyone by everyone else. Without Society’s rules, Venetia and Damerel could have fallen in love and gotten married in a heartbeat, and who cares about his reputation? Almost all of Phoebe’s troubles in Sylvester would have been averted if she’d been able to pick her own husband and also be an author if she wished. And in The Nonesuch, if it weren’t for what she thought was a big difference in their stations, Ancilla and Sir Waldo would have been calling out the Banns in a couple of days, because they’re just so perfect for each other.
The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with Heyer’s ability to create so many stories in which almost all the conflict comes, not from the words, deeds or designs of a Bad Guy, but from the fact that the world our characters live in is really controlling and judgmental and just mean to them.
So there you have it, Society at large is the ultimate villain in the works of Georgette Heyer. Except sometimes the villain is Napoleon. So maybe it’s a tie.
With thanks to Rachel Hyland for the assist.
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.