Georgette Heyer: Romantic but not Sexy?

heyer cotillionI’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.

Persuasion-coverAFOr, a bit later, when he assists her into Admiral Croft’s carriage:

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.

millflosspaperbackAnd speaking of physical attraction, what about Stephen and Maggie in The Mill on the Floss?

 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.

My First Romance? L. M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

bluecastle1

Once upon a time I had never read a “romance novel” — or so the story went. There’s a way in which that was absolutely true: I had never read anything marketed or labeled explicitly as a “romance novel” (a Harlequin, say). As with all literary labels, though, “romance” isn’t really that precise:all around the territory of the card-carrying Harlequin-style “romance novel” there’s a vast borderland populated by everything from chick-lit to Victorian marriage-plot novels, all of which have at least some key elements in common with romances, even if it’s only a structural similarity. I had certainly read a lot of books from that more nebulous territory before I ventured into the heartland, but (partly because I didn’t know, or think, much about what made something a “romance novel” instead of some other kind of novel, and partly because I hadn’t read any self-identified “romance novels”) I hadn’t recognized any of them as romances.

I just reread Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, which is why I’ve been thinking about how (and, a bit, why) we make these distinctions. I haven’t read The Blue Castle in over 30 years; though it was a favorite of mine long ago, our family collection of L. M. Montgomery didn’t move east with me, and the only ones I’ve restocked are the first two in the Anne series. I happened across The Blue Castle at the Women for Music book sale last weekend and grabbed it right up. And as I reread it, what I kept thinking is how similar it is to so many of the romances I’ve read in the last couple of years, particularly Mary Balogh’s: I can totally imagine the entire plot transplanted to one of her Regency settings. In fact, aren’t there one or two that are very similar? But asked about my recollections of it, I would never have said it was a romance: though I remembered the falling-in-love plot, it’s the heroine’s journey of self-discovery that has stayed with me all these years. (Of course the two things frequently go together, as they do here and in many of the romances I’ve read.)

The funny thing was that this time, though the whole of The Blue Castle was intensely familiar to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting all of its familiar scenes (it’s almost eerie, isn’t it, how you can reread something you used to know well and not even know how much you remember about it, but then at each moment find yourself thinking “oh yes, this is what happens”?), it also struck me as familiar in a different way: as exemplary of a particular formula. “Formulaic,” of course, is the derogatory term other people (who me? never! OK, sometimes…) use for genre fiction. Being formulaic is perhaps the defining quality of “genre fiction,” the way that we know it isn’t “literary fiction.” (Getting past the use of “formulaic” as a judgment is actually one of the key things I work on in my mystery fiction class. First of all, another word for “formula” is “convention,” and all literary works rely to some degree on conventions. And second, once there’s a formula, you can mess with it in interesting ways, and that’s its own kind of challenge, especially because readers get very savvy about formulas — which makes them hard to surprise and impress.) The Blue Castle read like a romance this time — which is not a criticism, but just a recognition that my reading has always been more promiscuous than I thought — or that labels are less useful. It also looked like a romance this time: look at that cover! The one I grew up with is below — quite a contrast.

bluecastle2The Blue Castle is a great example of a book written for the tortoise market, which is probably why I loved it when I was around 13 and moping about being undesirable the same way as Valancy does through the first half of the book. (Count me among those who have no nostalgia for their teen years.) Much older and somewhat less self-critical now, I still enjoyed her Cinderella-style transformation into someone joyful and confident in her own beauty and sure of her own values — and yet what I liked best about it is that unlike Cinderella, Valancy is the agent of her own transformation. I also liked the lyrical nature writing in the novel, which is linked in the plot to the books of Valancy’s favorite author and [spoiler redacted!], so that the descriptions, which are usually filtered through Valancy’s emotions, draw all the elements of the novel together. I’ve never been to the Muskoka region of Ontario, but Montgomery made me wistful for it in a dreamy kind of way, as a place I’ve never seen and yet somehow know intimately:

The stars smouldered in the horizon mists through the old oriel. The haunting, persistent croon of the pine-trees filled the air. The little waves began to make soft, sobbing splashes on the rocks below them in the rising winds . . .

October — with a gorgeous pageant of colour around Mistawis into which Valancy plunged her soul. Never had she imagined anything so splendid. A great tinted peace. Blue, wind-winnowed skies. Sunlight sleeping in the glads of that fairyland. Long dreamy purple days paddling idly in their canoe along shores and up the rivers of crimson and gold. A sleep, red hunter’s moon. Enchanted tempests that stripped the leaves from the trees and heaped them along the shores. flying shadows of clouds. What had all the smug. opulent lands out front to compare with this?

Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy

sophyI’ve tried Heyer before but without great success: I found Sylvester stilted and predictable when I read it a year or so ago, and more recently I finished The Convenient Marriage and though its madcap escapades amused me for a while, by the end the fun had gone out of it for me. Undaunted, I moved on to The Grand Sophy — and it completely won me over. I can’t remember another recent read that has made me laugh so often, and in such an uncomplicated way. Sophy herself is enormous fun, and Heyer manages the array of other characters and their mix-and-match relationships so deftly that there’s a wonderful air of inevitability as they arrive one after another for the dénoument. The only one I got a bit tired of was Eugenia (we get it — she’s no fun!), and Goldhanger the moneylender is an unfortunate lapse. But Charlbury and his “ill-judged” mumps (“‘I cannot conceive what can have possessed you, sir, to contract mumps at such a moment!'” “‘It was not done by design,’ said his lordship meekly.”), the hopelessly ineffectual poet Fawnhope (“I have abandoned the notion of hailing you as Vestal virgin: there is something awkward in those syllables”), the languid and well-fed Marquesa, dear sweet Cecilia, and of course, the upright, uptight, and inevitably seduced cousin Charles: it’s an irresistible ensemble.  And as if there’s not enough to enjoy in those last scenes, there are ducklings!

The Grand Sophy is not a particularly romantic romance. I’m starting to wonder if that’s the secret to success where my romance reading life is concerned. The minute things get too sincerely sentimental, I tend to disengage…which means I haven’t really read read the last 15 or so pages of most of the Mary Balogh novels I’ve gone through! I’m not so allergic to sappiness in other kinds of novels (I love Dickens, for crying out loud), so I wonder why the romances I’ve really liked so far have tended to be more comic than serious. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I kept trying with Heyer. I figured if so many smart readers have loved her for so long, there must be a door for me to go through. Now that I’ve found it, the only question is: which one should I read next?

Update: So far, the top recommendations coming through on Twitter are: Black SheepCotillionArabellaFriday’s Child, and Sprig Muslin. That sounds like enough to start with, but if any of your favorites are missing, let me know.

Confessions of a (Former) Non-Romance Reader; or, Everything I Know About Romance Novels I Learned on Twitter

Life is short, I’m busy, my TBR list is long and endlessly proliferating — so why would I waste my time on books that are shallow, badly written, and pander to silly, juvenile fantasies of finding Mr. Right? They’re so formulaic as to be essentially interchangeable and so numerous they are clearly also disposable. And their covers are so embarrassingly lurid!

Yes, I admit, these are things I have always (casually, without much reflection) thought about romance novels. Though I am not particularly interested in several other kinds of “genre” fiction (science fiction or fantasy, for instance), I have never dismissed these categories as, well, categorically beyond the pale, the way I have romance novels. I figured there were good or bad, trivial and significant, examples of science fiction and fantasy, and over the years I’ve tried some samples, but there is so much else to read that is more to my taste that I never felt motivated, much less obligated, to pursue them. Still, I always knew that was about me, not them. I’m not a voracious reader of mystery fiction either, but I know my way around the field and need  no persuasion to agree with Raymond Chandler’s famous proclamation that “an art which is capable of [The Maltese Falcon] is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything”–indeed, I’m on record making my best case for the arbitrariness of the genre fiction / literary fiction distinction in general and the literary potential of the police procedural in particular.

But romance? Not only have I always assumed that there’s nothing in it for me, but I’ve assumed too that there’s not much in it for anybody. Chick-lit is bad enough. I have hung out with lots of readers my entire life, and nobody I know reads romance novels! Enough said!

Well, maybe not.

I’m not about to make a big pronouncement in defense of romance novels. I’m hardly qualified to, having read approximately five from cover to cover. But I will say that I have recently been through a process of re-education about them that has been very interesting to me as a reader and a thinker, and also, not incidentally, rather revealing to me personally. If I were going to pronounce on anything at this point, it would be on the value of keeping an open mind, and on the value of Twitter and blogging for enabling unexpected conversations. It has been frequently remarked that the internet makes it too easy for us to seek out and corral knowledge that suits our existing ideas and preferences, ignoring or filtering out disagreement and contradiction. That’s true. You can friend and follow and subscribe to and like as select a group as you choose, eventually operating in a self-perpetuating bubble of the like-minded. But the internet in general, and social media in particular, can also bring you into contact with a much wider range of people and ideas than you ordinarily would, and even if you make those contacts initially because of some common interest, that one point of intersection may be the beginning of a more dynamic relationship in which both similarities and differences are important and valuable.

I have found this to be especially true of Twitter, perhaps because of the very large and constantly shifting network of connections every tweeter is part of. Through the mechanisms of linking and retweeting, for instance, I see not only the tweets directly from those I follow (a wide assortment of academics, journalists, critics, writers, quilters, publicists, bloggers…) but RTs from those they follow, which are sometimes themselves RTs from those they follow. Looking to see where a tweet or link originated, I often find myself following someone new, either on Twitter or through my Google Reader subscription. Connections proliferate! It’s overwhelming at times, not because of the triviality often ascribed to Twitter by those who haven’t used it or haven’t found a way to use it that serves their interests–but because far too much of interest and substance goes by than I can ever realistically hold on to.

Anyway, back to romance novels. Through the various intricacies of Twitter relationships, I have ended up with some wonderful “tweeps” who, among other things, are happy un-closeted romance readers. (One thing I’m now  aware of is that many romance readers are, in fact, in the closet about this particular reading taste–hence, as often reported, their rapid and enthusiastic embrace of e-reading.) My Twitter friends write and talk about romance novels in ways that made me first realize and then reflect on my careless assumptions about both the books and their readers. My curiosity piqued, I started peering at the romance titles available electronically from my public library–and though by and large what I saw of them seemed to confirm my prejudices (tawdry covers! cheesy-sounding plot lines with 2-dimensional characters!), I kept in mind and puzzled over the satisfaction books of this kind gave these strong, intelligent women who know perfectly well the challenges and rewards of other kinds of reading.

On Twitter, in the meantime, my tweeps joked, good-naturedly, about actually persuading me to read a romance novel someday, and they batted around titles they thought might be my “conversion” novel–so finally I took the bait and borrowed Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, apparently known to some as one of the best romance novels of all time, from the library. Well, that was a setback. I thought the novel was ridiculous! In fact, it was so much like what I had always snidely imagined romance novels to be that I wondered if it was a parody! Egad. Then I tried Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester–not a genre “romance,” exactly, but in the romance tradition. That wasn’t much more successful.

We went back and forth and gradually clarified that historical romance was not the right direction for me (I don’t much like generic historical fiction either, after all): I should try “contemporary” romance. This development was very educational for me. For some reason I hadn’t thought of romance as a genre that (like mystery fiction) comes in well-defined subgenres among which readers make informed choices. Because I didn’t really know how else to search the library’s online catalogue for samples, for instance, the romances I’d scanned were all Harlequin titles, of the ‘Billionaire’s Virgin Bride’ type, while the ones being recommended to me were “historicals” (including one about the Crystal Palace that I haven’t been able to find so far–I expect I’ll hate it, but I’m curious to see it anyway! Victorians and hot sex, always a good combination, right?). They seemed more alike than different, and not in good ways. (I realize some of this is the effect of marketing, not content.) If I’d been taking the whole genre more seriously from the start, of course, it would not have come as such a revelation to me that it is not one more or less silly thing but simply a form that (again, like msytery fiction) can contain multitudes. At this point one of my Twitter tutors suggested I look up Jennifer Crusie, and so I read Anyone But You next–and quite enjoyed it! And now I’ve also read Getting Rid of Bradley and am about half way through What the Lady Wants, and they’ve been amusing and entertaining as well.

Thinking about why I liked Anyone But You (not loved, mind you, but liked–to the tune of 2 stars on Goodreads), I realized that it is really a prose version of a romantic comedy, a movie genre I enjoy.  I actually have a collection of favorite romantic comedies I own on DVD, including Moonstruck (the best!), When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. These are not high art films–but then, almost none of the films I watch are! I don’t reject these films for being “only” what they are. I appreciate how well I think they do what they set out to do, which is tell a romantic story about people I can be brought to care about, with humour and a touch of grace. They indulge happily-ever-after fantasies, yes, but with just enough realism to be engaging and just enough tongue-in-cheek self-consciousness about their own love stories (sometimes, with overt meta-commentary on it, as with the invocation of Pride and Prejudice in You’ve Got Mail or of An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle) to give a little tartness to their sweetness. As mystery novelists work within but manipulate conventions, these films follow formulas but succeed insofar as they tweak them to make them new. There’s comfort in knowing how things will turn out (again, as in mystery novels, with the reassurance of order restored). They are feel-good movies. What’s wrong with a feel-good book? Anyone But You is exactly that. In fact, it would make a nice little rom com. I can totally see Meg Ryan in it! It even has the quirky secondary characters. If it’s perfectly OK with me to enjoy Sleepless in Seattle even though I know it is not a great, profound, or innovative film–just a charming one–then why shouldn’t there be a place for charming, light-hearted romance in my reading life?

Yet something still strikes me as particularly slight or insubstantial about my small sample of romance novels, and I’ll keep on thinking about this as I read more. I’ve been thinking, for instance, that one of the reasons it’s easier to take mystery novels seriously is that they trade in “important” things like law, justice, and, of course, death. Romance novels seem more trivial because they are “just” about falling in love. But then, the same is true of many literary novels, and falling in love–not to mention deciding to marry someone–can reflect as many complex and important aspects of character and society as crime. The romance novels I’ve read so far don’t really do this–but just as there’s no reason in principle why detective fiction can’t be as literary as The Maltese Falcon or the Martin Beck books, there’s no reason in principle why romance novels can’t be great literature too. In fact, many novels we already acknowledge as great literature follow that same basic plot. Is there a continuum, then, from (say) Jane Austen or George Eliot to Jennifer Crusie? Maybe, though the differences in both style and substance seem conspicuous and significant!

As for the personal revelations hinted at above, all I’ll say is that thinking through my assumptions about and reactions to romance novels has involved thinking about my own experience of and thoughts about romance, love, and marriage. Few of us (happily) have personal experience of murder, but most of us (happily or not) have been through our own experiences of relationships. It’s a commonplace in fiction that we get ideas about life from books. We also bring our life to our reading, and the things we find unrealistic, sentimental, naive, or foolish are as potentially revealing as the things we find admirable, desirable, dreamy, or delightful. Detection is something we are distanced from, and its various literary forms also typically emphasize and reward detachment. Romance, on the other hand, is a very intimate genre–and I don’t mean just the sex scenes!

My education is ongoing. I’m sure there will be some follow-up discussion on Twitter and elsewhere.

And yes, if you were wondering, I am ‘X.’