At JASACT’s October meeting we decided to elaborate on the Regency theme of the recent JASA Conference in Canberra (which we hope will be repeated in 2 years time!) and discuss Georgette Heyer. The JASA Conference had featured some terrific talks from Jennifer Kloester about Regency life and Heyer in particular, so we diverged from our usual focus on Austen to give some time to Heyer instead.
I think it’s fair to say that the group members approached this topic from a range of perspectives. Some had read and enjoyed Heyer as teenagers, and of these some were looking forward to revisiting her books, and others were happier to let Heyer be a feature of their reading past. Other members were new to Heyer, and had been variously delighted and disappointed by her fiction. It made for a lively discussion.
- Her characters ‘steal into your heart and mind’
- Her novels can be re-read and enjoyed
- Her comedy (for those who want a JA fix)
- The names of her characters, and the wonderful covers on her books.
In the second camp were:
- Her language, diction, turns of phrase, dialogue, punctuation (contrived??)
- Her descriptions of fashion, attire, manner and social graces
- Her obsession with the Regency
These are all reasons to either like or dislike Heyer, depending on what writing style you prefer, and what you look for in a novel? These questions informed our discussion about Heyer’s works, and her comparison with Austen.
We particularly focused on An Infamous Army, which several group members had read, and the interesting background to the English presence in Brussels, the strength of the heroine who redeems herself and of course the famous battle scene. We also briefly discussed Sprig Muslin, which most members found a little light and fluffy, and A Civil Contract, which addresses the darker subject of unequal marriage and references Jane Austen and Mansfield Park.
Many group members expressed the view that Heyer is a great storyteller. However, her novels feel as though the characters are walk on parts to a Regency setting: the focus is actually more on the fashion, detail, personalities and events of the Regency than the characters themselves. This makes many of her novels – particularly those focused on the courtship plot – highly descriptive with relatively thin characters. We also discussed whether Heyer’s novels are classified as historical or romance fiction, and romantic format fiction in general.
The question that followed, is why is Heyer so often compared with Austen, whose novels are not particularly descriptive, and who is much more interested in character than setting? The discussion turned to consider who are Austen’s real inheritors – as opposed to Heyer, whose key resemblance to Austen is her Regency setting. Some names that were mentioned were
- Joanna Trollope
- Olga Masters (for her focus on small communities and women’s lives)
- Anthony Trollope (for his interest in the clergy, and his witty style)
- Elizabeth Jolley (for her wit and irony)
- Elizabeth Gaskell (and particularly North and South, which some argued is blatantly borrowed from Pride and Prejudice)
- Charlotte Bronte (particularly Shirley)
- Virginia Woolf (for her focus on women’s experience, and her narrative technique).
Who are Austen’s other literary descendants?