“He turned from her to meet Miss Marlow, and his gloomiest forebodings were realized. She had neither beauty nor countenance, her complexion was poor and her figure worse, her dress was tasteless, and the colourless voice in which she murmured how-do-you-do confirmed him in his instant belief that she was insipid. He wondered how soon he would be able to bring his visit to an end.”
- Sylvester, by Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer is a hidden gem, worshipped by historical romance writers and nearly forgotten about, as far as I can tell, by everyone else. All genres have their geniuses and way finders, and Heyer was one of the first great writers of historical romance as it exists today. She wrote in the 1920s-50s, and was renowned for her broad and flawless research, her devastatingly accurate depiction of human nature, and her mastery of period language and detail that rarely feels superfluous or boggy. She purchased letters and journals at auctions and mined them for phrases and cultural norms, kept detailed notes, and frequently had bits of slang and plotlines stolen by other authors. One of Heyer’s skills is the ability to do without an antagonist, always a mark of great writing. Rarely is an opponent portrayed without sympathy. Anyone wishing Austen had written more books (or more good ones) will be absolutely delighted with her.
Her heroines are either awkward tomboys or impulsive beauties, but always forthright, observant, and resourceful. Her heroes are cool, well-dressed, and arrogant to a fault, begging for someone to take them down a peg.
Sylvester features a young lady who has anonymously published a novel that satirizes everyone she met in her first season in society. She then finds herself the object of a marriage proposal from the man she modeled her villain after. It’s a funny, rollicking adventure story full of misunderstandings. I like this one especially for the male best friend of the heroine, who has to rescue her from her scrapes almost as often as the hero does.
Cousin Kate begins when its title character, finding herself in desperate straights, goes to stay with a wealthy aunt she has never met. The longer she stays in the gloomy, pretentious old house, with her unstable but charming cousin and her domineering, heritage-obsessed aunt, the more gothic and mysterious the family seems, and the possibility of extricating herself becomes more and more distant. This novel is at least half mystery novel—Heyer also wrote mysteries—and less lighthearted than the first, although Kate never quite succumbs to the gloom of her surroundings.
My favorite Heyer novel so far is Venetia, a good place to start when reading her works. Venetia is living with her teenage brother in the country and managing the farm/household after her father’s death, when a disgraced neighbor arrives home for the first time in decades. Although he’s a neighborhood byword for seducing women and gambling away his inheritance, Venetia finds him kind and charming. Unfortunately her nosy neighbors and jealous suitors do not. Venetia’s relationships with her town and her family are realistically difficult without ever being vicious. Heyer beautifully depicts the joys and problems of being part of a community, capturing the temptation to abandon everyone you know for the one person you’ve finally found that knows you.
I can’t recommend Heyer’s books as vacation reads unless you are vacationing alone, because I recently flew out to California to visit a friend and found myself frantically finishing Sylvester (the second time I’d read it, for shame) on the beach while my friend twiddled her thumbs and tried not to interrupt me. I’ve never regretted reading one of her books, and I have an avid reader’s pleasure in knowing that she was a prolific writer, so I have many more to look forward to.