I’ve just finished Cotillion, which is one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels so far. Like The Grand Sophy (which was the one that helped me finally “get” why people enjoy Heyer so much), it’s laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also very sweet. I was so pleased with the resolution to the romance plot, which turns on its head the expectation that the dashing rake will settle down under the influence of a good woman — or just that the dashing rake is in any way the best marriage prospect. Sure, he’s the sexiest one . But this time sexy just means trouble — and in fact, so far I haven’t read another Heyer that is as explicit about someone’s rakish behavior, including his intention to make a beautiful young innocent his mistress (or one that is as blunt that this young girl’s mother will happily prostitute her daughter if she can’t score a rich husband for her). In this one respect, Cotillion is not just one of the funniest Heyers I’ve read but also, in the interstices, one of the darkest.
It got me thinking, though, that while Jack’s sexiness is set up as a particular kind of problem in Cotillion, due as much to his particular character as to the behavior itself (he’s quite the smug amoral rascal, is Jack), I have found Heyer’s novels generally much more romantic than sexy: in the ones I’ve read (still a relatively small sample, I realize), there’s been really no perceptible acknowledgement of desire, little of the frisson of physical attraction. And I’m not thinking just in comparison to other more contemporary Regency romance novelists I’ve read (Mary Balogh, for instance, whose books are both much less funny and much more sexually explicit, or Cecilia Grant, whose books conspicuously up-end conventions), but in comparison to 19th-century novelists including Jane Austen (the obvious comparison) or George Eliot.
I’m thinking, for instance, of the intensity of the scenes between Anne and Wentworth in Persuasion. Remember when he helps get her naughty nephew literally off her back?
In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.
Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. . . . neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.
Yes; he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her, which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. He could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.
She’s so overcome with her feelings that “Her answers to the kindness and the remarks of her companions were at first unconsciously given.”
Or the equally intense encounters between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, when for all their hostility they can hardly take their eyes off each other? Their deliciously awkward encounter at Pemberley is quite erotic enough without a wet shirt: “They were within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight. Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.”
And speaking of blushing, what about Dinah, in Adam Bede? She can’t be in a room with Adam without becoming suffused with feeling: “It was as if Dinah had put her hands unawares on a vibrating chord. She was shaken with an intense thrill, and for the instant felt nothing else; then she knew her cheeks were glowing, and dared not look round.” The details of Arthur Donnithorne and Hetty’s affair may have been specified to what some contemporary readers found a shocking degree, but we know what they do (and what consequences it has), not what they feel in the moment.* It’s impossible to miss, though, that Dinah’s attraction Adam is both physical and nearly irresistible.
Who has not felt the beauty of a woman’s arm? The unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently lessening curves, down to the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness. A woman’s arm touched the soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago, so that he wrought an image of it for the Parthenon which moves us still as it clasps lovingly the timeworn marble of a headless trunk. Maggie’s was such an arm as that, and it had the warm tints of life.
A mad impulse seized on Stephen; he darted toward the arm, and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist.
Are there “mad impulses” in Heyer? There may be, but so far I have yet to detect any such erotic undercurrents. More, I have sometimes felt mildly uncomfortable at the romantic resolutions precisely because the relationship considered as a sexual relationship seems inappropriate given the heroine’s youth — not just in years, but in outlook and behavior. This was most conspicuous to me in The Corinthian, but I had a similar reaction, if milder, to Sylvester, and even to Cotillion — where things are not improved in that respect by Kitty’s openly thinking of Freddy as a big brother pretty much until they finally kiss. Even Esther squirreling away Alan Woodcourt’s flowers in Bleak House seems more like an adult awareness of sexuality than anything I’ve read in Heyer.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m not complaining: just observing, and then wondering what, if anything, the novels’ aura of innocent fun might have contributed to their enduring popularity. Unlike the 19th-century novels I’ve quoted, her novels surely would not “bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.”
I’ll be interested to hear from those of you who’ve been reading Heyer longer than I have. Do you think I’m right that her novels give us love but little or no desire? Might it be Heyer, not Austen, who fits G. H. Lewes’s remark that “there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot”? Or am I missing something (see fn below!), or have I just not read the sexy Heyers yet?
*This is arguably not true. It hadn’t occurred to me until I read the notes to the Broadview edition of Adam Bede, for instance, that in this scene after he kisses Hetty in the woods, we may be meant to understand that Arthur has an erection:
Arthur too was very uneasy, but his feelings were lit up for him by a more distinct consciousness. He hurried to the Hermitage, which stood in the heart of the wood, unlocked the door with a hasty wrench, slammed it after him, pitched Zeluco into the most distant corner, and thrusting his right hand into his pocket, first walked four or five times up and down the scanty length of the little room, and then seated himself on the ottoman in an uncomfortable stiff way, as we often do when we wish not to abandon ourselves to feeling.
I may just be being equally obtuse about the sexiness in Heyer — there may be signifiers I’m just not attuned to.