Originally published on 13 June 2013.
When I first started reading Georgette Heyer at 12, she was a guilty pleasure, not because it’s embarrassing to be seen reading romance novels (because people might think you’re a romantic), but because the message I got at that age was that romance was low class literature, or rather, not literature at all.
Heyer is special for many many things, but most of all her romance novels (still haven’t read her murder mysteries) are the most re-readable ones I’ve ever encountered. At 26 I’m on my fifth read, and my grandmother at 88 still has an annual read.
My fourth read, between jobs in 2009, was when I realized that for me, she was the best writer in the world. Plots, sub-plots, character, themes, historical accuracy, style, everything is impeccable, but the humour, of the “ready sense of the ridiculous” school (to quote her), outshines everything.
One of the greatest criticisms levelled at Heyer is that her Regency era alpha males are offensive. Heyer herself wrote from 1932 onwards. This sort of thinking from the second wave of feminism is represented best by Germaine Greer in her The Female Eunuch, in which she firstly makes the mistake of trying to get two birds (Heyer and Barbara Cartland) with one stone.
Jennifer Crusie would be the ideal person to soberly refute every single bit of Greer’s criticism of both Heyer and Cartland, if she were of a mind to do so. Her defenses of the romance genre were life-changing for me. As for me, since my lack of college education has accustomed me to not having to justify my opinions at all, I’m going to say that Greer’s analysis of Heyer (I can’t talk about Cartland, not having read her) strikes me as singularly superficial.
She doesn’t look at the enormous quality of the actual stories in Heyer’s books, nor does it appear that she’s read anything other than Regency Buck, which she uses as her example. She’s hugely offended by the initial description of Lord Worth in Regency Buck:
…Exploiting the sexual success of the Byronic hero in an unusually conscious way, Georgette Heyer created the archetype of the plastic age, Lord Worth, the Regency Buck. He is a fine example of a stereotype which most heroes of romantic fiction resemble more or less, whether they are dashing young men with an undergraduate sense of humor who congratulate the vivacious heroine on her pluck (the most egalitarian in conception) in the adventure stories of the thirties, or King Cophetua and the beggar maid.
“He was the epitome of a man of fashion. His beaver hat was set over black locks carefully brushed into a semblance of disorder; his cravat of starched muslin supported his chin in a series of beautiful folds, his driving coat of drab cloth bore no less than fifteen capes, and a double row of silver buttons. Miss Taverner had to own him a very handsome creature, but found no difficulty in detesting the whole cast of his countenance. He had a look of self-consequence; his eyes, ironically surveying her from under world-weary lids, were the hardest she had ever seen, and betrayed no emotion but boredom. His nose was too straight for her taste. His mouth was very well-formed, firm but thin-lipped. She thought he sneered.
Worse than all was his languor. He was uninterested, both in having dexterously averted an accident, and in the gig’s plight. His driving had been magnificent; there must be unexpected strength in those elegantly gloved hands holding the reins in such seeming carelessness, but in the name of God why must he put on such an air of dandified affectation?”
Nothing such a creature would do could ever be corny. With such world-weary lids! With the features and aristocratic contempt which opened the doors of polite society to Childe Harold, and the titillating threat of unexpected strength! Principally, we might notice, he exists through his immaculate dressing–Beau Brummell is one of his friends–but when he confronts this spectacle–
“She had rather have had black hair; she thought the fairness of her gold curls insipid. Happily, her brows and lashes were dark, and her eyes which were startlingly blue (in the manner of a wax doll, she once scornfully told her brother) had a directness and fire which gave a great deal of character to her face. At first glance one might write her down a mere Dresden china miss, but a second glance would inevitably discover the intelligence in her eyes, and the decided air of resolution in the curve of her mouth.”
Of course her intelligence and resolution remain happily confined to her eyes and the curve of her mouth, but they provide the excuse for her naughty behavior toward Lord Worth, who turns out to be that most titillating of all titillating relations, her young guardian, by an ingeniously contrived mistake. The Female Eunuch, 1970
This stuff goes on for quite a bit, but I don’t think I can include more without this becoming a Greer post.
I’m going to start by agreeing whole-heartedly with Greer about Heyer consciously or unconsciously conveying certain messages about women’s sexual fantasies. I shudder to think of the poverty of my self-induced orgasms over the last 14 years without Heyer’s “plastic” alpha males. Which means that the sexual fantasies in Heyer’s books are a matter of personal taste. So if someone says to me, “I don’t like that sort of opposites-attract story,” or, “I don’t like dom/sub narratives,” that makes much more sense than a lengthy theoretical reaction.
I’m not going to respond much to the text following this excerpt, in which Greer criticizes the heroine for fainting after being forcibly embraced and kissed by the Prince of Wales. Whalebone corsets, duh! As for being rescued by her “father-lover”, Lord Worth, who’s accused by Greer of protecting her throughout the book unbeknownst to her, I actually kind of like that he fell in love with her in the beginning whereas she took a long time to fall back in love, as they reveal to each other at the end of the book. Today’s romances are often the other way around.
The funny thing is, there’s nothing submissive about this heroine, which is why Lord Worth likes her. As he tells her years later in The Infamous Army, “You know my taste runs to Amazons.”
When I read Greer’s criticism I’m reminded of my second-wave self at 17, and I feel kind of sorry for her. The “ingeniously contrived mistake” is called a plot device, you! And it sounds perfectly natural! And now I’m going to say something more offensive than the entire genre put together: This scale and breadth of offense at the sexual fantasy reeks of deep and unwilling arousal. I guess I’m privileged to be living in an age in which Jenny Crusie exists and BDSM is is getting very articulate about itself.
The thing about Heyer’s alpha males is, they’re all actually represented as vulnerable (as Greer would have seen if her research had been a bit more thorough). They’ve been brought up by servants, spoiled as heirs to lordships, flattered and toad-eaten, and denied non-matlabi friendships and family love. They usually have one manservant or sidekick with whom they can be completely honest, but not much more. They’re objects of the heroine’s rescue fantasies (i.e. the heroines want to rescue them from their respective emotional wastelands), which is actually the battle I’d pick if I wanted to say Heyer is offensive.
I’m tired of narratives in which the woman in a straight couple is working alone at two emotional lives.
Sneha Rajaram divides her time between her living room and bedroom. She likes to eat Maggi noodles (atta) and read fantasy and sci-fi, chicklit and speculative fiction (whatever that is).