Hessian Boots and Pale Yellow Pantaloons: The Novels of Georgette Heyer

Stacey Wenz is working on her MLIS (Masters in Information and Library Science) degree at the ISchool (Information School) at the University of Washington, where I teach courses in Adult Services in the Public Library and Reading Genres for Adults.  In the latter course, each student is required to read 10 novels, 2 each in the mystery/thriller; romance; commix; science fiction and fantasy; and western genres.  Here’s what Stacey has to say about some recent reading that she’s done for the class:

Guest Blog by Stacey Wenz 

For the classic half of the romance module, I chose to read Georgette Heyer.  About two years ago, I thought I would give Georgette Heyer a try, so I picked up a copy of False Colours.  About a third of the way into it, I gave up; the plot was slow-starting, and I felt that the language was forced.  Also, the principal character’s mother got on my nerves. 

I took LIS 524, Adult Readers’ Advisory, with David Wright online this last winter.  One suggestion provided to me in one of the class assignments was Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy.  I discounted this suggestion because of my first experience with Heyer; but another student in the class urged me to reconsider, saying that this book was one of Heyer’s best and really worth reading.

So, I gave The Grand Sophy a try, and I’m really glad that I did.  Since finishing it, I have also read Frederica and Arabella.  To a certain extent, the debt that Heyer owes Jane Austen is obvious:  Sophy reads a lot like a retelling of Emma, and Arabella felt like a combination of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.

 Although Georgette Heyer is often compared to Jane Austen, I feel Jane Austen’s novels have more depth than Heyer’s.  Austen implies; Heyer hits you over the head with Hessian boots, pale yellow pantaloons, and neck-cloths.  Austen’s heroines reflect; Heyer doesn’t really introduce us to the thought processes of her heroines.  Austen uses a very sardonic tone to render certain characters ridiculous (such as Mrs. Bertram or Mary Musgrove); Heyer’s tone with similar characters (such as Lady Ombersley) is much less ironic.  Austen’s works to me are subtler; they do not operate within a formula.  Finally, I think of Austen’s novels as more character-driven while Heyer’s novels are more plot-driven (and I find that the plots are all similar, for the most part).  Another aspect of the comparison is that Heyer wrote several centuries after the setting of her novels, while Austen wrote of the time in which she lived.

Of the Heyer novels I’ve read so far, the bulk of the action happens in London, so the setting is much different than Austen’s novels.  In addition, they will most likely include:  a brother with gaming debts, boisterous dogs of dubious parentage, likable heroines, and extremely fashionable heroes (always wearing Hessian boots) who are most likely described as a “nonpareil” at one or most likely more points in the book.  Also, they brim with generally sparkling conversation between the hero and heroine. 

I hear my sister in my head telling me to quit being such a snob about Jane Austen.  I really liked The Grand Sophy, Frederica, and Arabella.  I’ve gotten my sister hooked on Heyer, too; and she said that while Heyer is not Jane Austen, you can see that people who like Jane Austen will also probably like Georgette Heyer.  I think this is because of the beloved plots we continue to recognize in stories today (like Pride and Prejudice and Emma).  Heyer certainly capitalized on these in her own writing, and it is always delightful territory to revisit.  As my sister pointed out in a recent email exchange about Georgette Heyer:  “It is SO MUCH FUN to read.”

I think it is the spirit of fun that continues to draw readers to Georgette Heyer today.  It is delightful brain fluff that puts us in mind of other stories and delights us with these associations.  

 Now (and this is Nancy again) if that doesn’t make you want to pick up one of the Heyer novels that Stacey mentions—and I would add Sylvester and The Reluctant Widow to the list—I don’t know what will.  Many people discover Heyer because their grandmother read her; I came very late to the Heyer game and haven’t regretted a moment spent reading her, or the amount of bookshelf space her novels occupy in my home.

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12 responses to “Hessian Boots and Pale Yellow Pantaloons: The Novels of Georgette Heyer

  1. Heidi

    At Nancy’s suggestion on the radio once, I picked up Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophie and enjoyed it so much I have read everything my library has by her. My favorite by far is The Masqueraders for it’s quick wit and more complex plot. Georgette made a difficult summer much more fun!

  2. Hi Nancy,

    Great posts! I’m a big fan of Heyers’ and re-read her Regency romances as a sure cure for winter blahs. Unlike Austen (who of course is amazing), Heyers writes for 20th century readers and gives more detail about things like fashion and food.

    Tackling The Spanish Bride (an excellent novel of the Pennisula Wars that I did not expect to enjoy), led me to an interest in the endless wars of the Napoleonic era and a few late night googling expeditions introduced me to Patrick O’Brian’s awesome 20+ volume Aubrey-Maturin series. Okay Ladies, I know blood and gore is probably not your first choice, but these novels (which begin with Master and Commander) are the mens’ view of the same world that Austen inhabits. Indeed it is not by chance that O’Brian’s protagonist, Captain ‘Lucky Jack’ Aubrey, shares Jane Austen’s initials. As with Austen and Heyer, the language is rich and makes few concessions to the uninitiated, but fortunately, three excellent volumes exist that will guide the reader through the mysteries of the ‘little wooden world’ of a British naval warship: Dean King’s ‘A Sea of Words’ and ‘Harbors and High Seas’ for maps (also excellent for maps of fashionable Regnecy London), plus Richard O’Neill’s book, Patrick O’Brian’s Navy. There is adventure, romance, rich details about life ashore and afloat; and two of the most complex, fully drawn characters ever created. It’s worth the work to discover why many rate O’Brian’s books as the best historical fiction ever written.

    • nancy pearl

      Great comparison with the Master and Commander series, and thanks for the tip on the other three titles. I’m putting them on hold at the library right now! Nancy

  3. Lynn

    I was told Georgette Heyer was an excellent introduction to Jane Austen. I think it worked for me. I read Heyer until I really felt I understood the era and then I tackled Jane Austen (again) and I enjoyed it a lot more.

  4. Pingback: Two New Things « Miss Grammarian

  5. Nan

    I discovered Heyer because my grandmother (a retired library director) read her — our shelves had lots of discarded library copies and they were the only romances we had in the house. I particularly love The Nonesuch and the Toll Gate is lots of fun, too. The library where I work now has those on the shelves, in great old buckram-covered editions. No, she’s not Austen — but she is head and shoulders above most popular romances published in the last 50 years. And I love the language; I don’t even care whether it’s historically accurate or not.

  6. I thoroughly support A Civil Contract.
    And, I’m thoroughly in love with Avon, from These Old Shades (Georgian, rather than Regency – say 1750s).
    The Peninsula War veteran is a common hero – including Adam in A Civil Contract.
    But also – again, among my favourites – The Toll Gate (Jack) and The Unknown Ajax (Hugo). Neither of whom are dandies.
    I think what I like the most about this quartet, is that the heroines aren’t fashion plates.
    Jenny (A Civil Contract) is a short, plain looking cit.
    Nell (A Toll Gate) is very tall and has acted as estate manager for years.
    Anthea (The Unknown Ajax) is similar.
    Leonie (These Old Shades) has been living as a boy for 7 years!

    • pearlspicks

      And then there’s Horatia in A Convenient Marriage, with her thick, black, straight eyebrows and little lisp. And love of card games and gambling.

      It’s always so nice to hear from Georgette Heyer fans.

  7. A CIVIL CONTRACT – terrific! I’ve read mostly Heyer’s mysteries which I hadn’t even known existed until last year. I’ve been planning to read some of her romances as well. I’m sure I’ll like them. I think, maybe beginning in January sounds like a good time. A modern day writer who is similar to Heyer is Mary Balogh. I’ve been reading her for years.

  8. The Foundling! Venetia! A Civil Contract (Heyer’s best and most realistic novel)!

  9. Mary Brogan-Sizemore

    Thanks for the shout-out to Georgette Heyer, and to the jolly good fun that she provided. I found her on drugstore bargain paperback racks, not through my grandmother, and introduced her to MY mother. Ah, “Sprig Muslin!” The household had great fun speaking in Georgette, requesting that one another not “fly up into the boughs” about something annoying, and other faux archaisms.
    Of course these entertainments are merely pale wraiths of vulgarized Austen. My only wistful problem with the novels is similar to my problem with Wodehouse: I’ve reread the print off the pulpy pages so that the stories are too familiar, alas, to nourish as comfort food for the weary modern soul. Zombies, indeed. The very outside of enough! Thanks for recalling the joys of discovery.

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