“The High Kick of Regency Fashion” by Juliet Townsend, The Spectator (2004)

In 2004, when a number of Georgette Heyer’s novels were being reprinted in new editions, The Spectator‘s Juliet Townsend took a fond look back at her personal experience, and the enduring legacy, of Heyer’s works…¬†Particularly remarkable is the reference to “Snowdrift” from the short story collection¬†Pistols for Two, in the final paragraph. Random, and delightful!

Few of the pleasures of adolescence endure through life, but one which has done so, in my experience, is the reading of the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer. Devil’s Cub was the solace of my O levels, The Corinthian attended my appendectomy, Regency Buck mended my broken heart after the collapse of my first teenage romance and The Nonesuch, all kindly solicitude, saw me through my Oxford finals. In fact, had these novels been among the set texts, my prospects would have been considerably improved.

My mother was also a devotee. In 1955 we went on the first postwar Swan Hellenic cruise to Greece and Turkey. In the company of such distinguished scholars as Sir Maurice Bowra, Father Gervaise Mathew and Sir Mortimer Wheeler, my mother lost her nerve and concealed her copy of the newly published Bath Tangle in the jacket of a book about the Greek islands. Professor Syme, the Tacitus scholar, on opening it to check some detail of Aegean geography, was amazed to find the fiery Lady Serena in the arms of the Marquis of Rotherham, her head flung back on his shoulder. “Detestable creature! Mannerless, conscienceless, overbearing, selfish, arrogant — oh, how much I dislike you! I’d as lief be mauled by a tiger!”

In her early novels Heyer dabbled in the mid- to late-18th century, most successfully in These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub and The Convenient Marriage, before settling down in the period she made her own, the years of the Regency between about 1805 and 1820.

She became an acknowledged expert on the minutiae of the fashion and social mores of the day. Her heroes are always ‘up to the knocker’, tying their cravats in the Waterfall or the Mathematical and brushing their hair into a Brutus or Stanhope crop. They shrug their shoulders with difficulty into the perfectly cut coats of Weston and Stultz — or Scott if they are military men. Their skin-tight pantaloons disappear into tasselled Hessian boots maintained in a permanent state of glossy perfection by the unremitting efforts of their devoted valets. On long journeys, driving their curricles or high-perch phaetons, all this finery is covered by a many-caped driving coat with a few whip-points thrust through the buttonhole. Meanwhile the ladies are paying a visit to their mantua-makers to be fitted out in the first style of elegance or the high kick of fashion before being escorted to the Assembly at Almack’s for an evening’s decorous dancing under the watchful eye of such august patronesses as Lady Sefton and Princess Esterhazy.

Unfortunately for admirers of her Regency novels, Georgette Heyer occupied much of her time in the 1930s and early 40s, when she was at the height of her powers, producing a dozen detective novels, which, although enjoyable in themselves, deprived her readers of even more Regency riches. To be fair, she did her best to make up for this in later years, bringing out an annual Regency novel of remarkably consistent quality. It was inevitable that she should, to some extent, become stuck in a groove but it is an extremely agreeable groove. Certain characters recur, notably the worthy but impecunious young officer, fingering the stiff collar of his scarlet regimentals, who aspires to marry the wilful sister of the hero. These heroes themselves tend to run true to form. There are several models, the most successful of which might be summed up under three brand names: the Rochester, the Beau and the Paragon. The Rochester is obvious to all:

His hair was as black as a crow’s wing, his complexion swarthy, and the lines of his face harsh. He had thighs far too muscular to appear to advantage in the prevailing fashion of skin-tight pantaloons. He was seldom seen in such attire, but generally wore top-boots and breeches.

He is also extremely likely to have ‘hard’ (and possibly cold) ‘grey eyes’.

The Beau is just as masculine, but conceals this beneath an apparently effete exterior. He has ‘fine legs’ which, unlike the Rochester’s, look at their best ‘sheathed in tight pantaloons’. He is a lazy, faintly mocking exquisite, much given to flicking imaginary specks of dust from his sleeve, while his nearest approach to a smile is ‘a faintly sardonic curl of the lip’. But do not be deceived. Beneath the perfectly cut coat are the powerful shoulders of a man whose idea of an enjoyable afternoon is a bout of singlestick or a sparring session with Gentleman Jackson himself in his famous boxing saloon. Incidentally, the Beau’s eyes are also grey and on the hard side, and ‘his habitual aspect one of coldness and reserve’. He, like the Rochester, is of course waiting for the perfect woman to come along to win his heart and put an end to all these tiresome affectations, and the delightful thing is that we can be perfectly sure that she will!

The third model, the Paragon, combines good sense with charm — Lord Carlyon in The Reluctant Widow or Sir Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch, both of whom wed governesses — ‘their eyes met, both pairs grey’. The incidence of grey eyes in Heyer characters must be far above the national average, so must great height. Many of her heroines are tall and Junoesque, as in The Toll-Gate, The Talisman Ring and The Grand Sophy. Luckily the corresponding heroes are even taller. Both of them must have towered above the general populace at a time when the average height of a British soldier was five foot four. The author’s occasional attempts to ring the changes by introducing an undersized, sweet-tempered hero, as in The Quiet Gentleman or The Foundling, are not entirely satisfactory.

Georgette Heyer wrote two excellent novels set in the same period but dealing with historical events. The Spanish Bride tells the story of Harry Smith and Juana, the young girl he married in the Peninsular war in a true romance which equals any in fiction. An Infamous Army contains a description of Waterloo which became recommended reading at Sandhurst. There is no doubt that this is Heyer’s chef d’oeuvre, although it is a severe disappointment to find Lord Worth of Regency Buck skulking around Brussels as a mere civilian, while his brother stars as the hero of both battle and romance. I own a letter written during the composition of An Infamous Army, in which the author describes the difficulty of mixing real and imaginary characters on such a grand scale, while toying with the title A Damned Fine Thing.

The problem with historical novels is that they are inclined to date, like old films such as Leslie Howard’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. Heyer’s earliest novels have indeed dated, particularly in their language, but those from the last 40 years of her long writing life have remained remarkably fresh. Her grasp of the fine detail of the subject has created an entirely convincing little world, which probably never quite existed but which we aficionados are happy to inhabit. Her characters have become valued friends. Little phrases of Regency slang steal into our conversation: ‘She was absolutely aux anges’; ‘no need to fly into alt.’ Of course all her readers will have their favourite novels. Among mine are Regency Buck, Frederica, Sylvester, Venetia and The Nonesuch. The last two are set in Yorkshire rather than London, for some of the best of the novels have a country setting.

Regency Buck, Sylvester and An Infamous Army were among titles reissued at the beginning of the year by Arrow Books. They are inviting to read, with generous margins and clear print. The covers show Regency characters through the eyes of artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which give them an oddly quaint air, especially as one clearly depicts a Victorian scene. An unusual choice for inclusion was Heyer’s first novel, The Black Moth. An extraordinary achievement for a 15-year-old author, but mainly of interest because it led on to better things, it contains the dismissive line: ‘My Lord yawned most prodigiously, and let fall The Spectator.’

Now that the hardbacks are out of print, this new edition is extremely welcome, and is being extended to include more of the Regency novels (a further six are scheduled for the autumn), giving pleasure to Heyer’s loyal army of admirers and enabling a fourth generation to sit round the gaming tables with the rakish Lord Vidal or drive with Sir Julian Arden as he expertly tools his curricle through the snow along the Bath Road.

SOURCE: Townsend, Juliet, The Spectator, July 3, 2004, p.41