What do you do when an author you love is a terrible person and anti-Semitic but her books have given you so much pleasure over the years? How do you justify continuing to read her work and even promote it to others? I’ve become more and more unsettled by Georgette Heyer the author, even as I will eagerly read a book of hers that I haven’t yet gotten to. Is this a case of separating an artist from her work? I’ve often thought that’s a pretty facile argument – I will no longer watch a Woody Allen movie – but is that what I’m doing here?
My First Heyer
I read my first Georgette Heyer in high school. It was The Black Moth. I adored it. I read it over and over again. My friends and I read all the Heyers we could find in the school library, and we talked about them endlessly.
A good friend handed me The Grand Sophy, and I loved every bit of it. What was not to love?! There was a monkey! There was a heroine who defied all the rules. She had a gorgeous black horse and she got the best guy. She saved the family from ruin, too. Right? That scene with the moneylender, I mean, it was not great, and it was icky, but hey, that’s how they thought back then. (They didn’t, not necessarily, according to histories of Jews in England). And she pulls her pistol on him and saves the day.
My Favorite Heyer
Over the years I’ve read probably two dozen Heyers, including a few of the mysteries and the histories and the non-Regencies. It might have been more, but I keep re-reading the ones I love. Cotillion is my absolute favorite, as I’ve raved about before. Heyer is a master of the screwball comedy and farce.
My other favorite Heyer is A Civil Contract. It is a quietly sad and ultimately hopeful novel about an arranged marriage. I’ve practically worn out my copy (you’ll hear this a lot from Heyer fans).
Every Heyer fan has their favorites, and we can talk about them endlessly. I love Heyer fans as much as I love Heyer.
So what is it about Heyer that’s problematic?
Anti-Semitism and The Grand Sophy
The scene with the moneylender in The Grand Sophy has been discussed by the reading community for years. It’s gross. The first time I read it I brushed right by it – I wasn’t reading for social commentary. I was just reading for the endorphin hit. (Confession: that’s still why I read.) At the time, I had been more confused by the description of Sophy’s stepmother, the sleepy Spanish lady, who was also grotesquely caricatured.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I went back and re-read The Grand Sophy. It didn’t hold up for me, but that was okay – Cotillion more than holds up. The moneylender scene was repugnant, now that I had a few decades of reading experience behind me. And as other Heyer commentators have noted, TGS came out in 1950, when everyone knew about the Holocaust. Heyer could have been trying to say, well, that’s what Regency attitudes towards Jews were like, but for an author known for her historic detail, that’s not historically accurate. Additionally, knowing when it was published, one has to think, was it intentional? The description is malicious. In most of her other books, she just talks about characters going to the Jews, ie, going to borrow money. In The Grand Sophy, damn, she writes it like she means it. It’s intentional.
Georgette Heyer, Lady Writer and Snob
If that’s not bad enough (it is bad enough), the casual classism is endemic to the books. In A Civil Contract, the heroine’s father Jonathan Chawley is a nouveau riche merchant who is truculent, unsophisticated, and childlike in his angry rages. Heyer holds him up as a foil to the hero, Adam Deveril, who is smart, self-controlled, polite, and well-bred – everything that Chawley is not.
The Chawleys – Jonathan and his daughter Jenny, whom Adam marries in order to save his patrimony – are constantly set up as oafs and buffoons. Here are a few of the things Jenny gets wrong:
- She wears too much jewelry
- She doesn’t know how to be kind to servants. (Adam calls the housekeeper his friend; I wonder what the housekeeper thinks of that?)
- She doesn’t know how to entertain
- She has a hard time with her pregnancy and with childbirth, most unlike Adam’s mother, who just popped the kids out with no problem
- Oh, and she’s fat and plain
Despite all this, it’s a lovely story. I think Heyer put more of herself in Jenny than in any of her other characters. And that bit of humanity, which I admit I am literally reading into a novel I love, is why I can’t just write off Heyer. I may be fooling myself, but A Civil Contract is a helluva book and a marvelous character study. It’s a master class in turning the classic romance structure on its head. I think Heyer likes Jenny, and it comes through.
The Rich are Different – They Get Away with Everything
Rogues. Rakes. Gamblers. Cads. Drunks. The Heyer-verse is populated with all the bad boys. They fight duels, kidnap women, and get away with murder. Rape. Theft. In book after book, you can almost hear Heyer saying, Oh, you. In Heyer’s world, the rich can do no wrong. Or rather, the rich do wrong, but there are never any consequences. It’s all just – charming. In Devil’s Cub, which I liked quite a bit, the hero shoots a highwayman and a fellow peer, killing the first and wounding the second. It’s like she thinks they should get away with everything, just because they’re rich?
In April Lady, the heroine’s brother is an alcoholic and a gambler. He gets into all kinds of scrapes. Oh you, Heyer says. And the whole plot of April Lady is that the heroine hasn’t paid her dressmaker bill, and the dressmaker is dunning her. Tradespeople dunning the elite is a common subplot in many Heyers, and Heyer makes it clear she does not like it when the common folk try to get what’s owed them, no she does not.
So part of this is traditional Regency romance, but Heyer doubles down on the rich bad boys, so that if someone else exhibits the same behavior in one of her books, but isn’t of the upper class (or heaven forfend, is of the merchant class), they get punished for it. An example of this is in The Corinthian, when the carriage driver almost runs over a street child. He’s excoriated for his carelessness and he’s described as low-bred. If Dysart from April Lady did that? Shit, he’d totally get away with it.
The Corinthian is actually an interesting example, because at least the heroine and the hero have some semblance of obligation to the poor and working class, but still.
This attitude of entitlement is off-putting in some of Heyer’s books. The characters in Bath Tangle are selfish and shrewish, and I include the men in that too. They are so unpleasant, it’s the one Heyer I’ve ever only read once. (Seriously, I have a sickness. I know.) She drops the pretty façade in that one. Maybe she didn’t like the characters either. But yeah, it’s like someone else wrote the book and forgot to Heyer-ize it. These people suck.
The Problem with Georgette Heyer
Writers smarter than I have discussed the Problem with Georgette Heyer. My thoughts? I think she’s one of the smartest and influential writers of her day. She created a genre – the Regency Romance – that is a publishing powerhouse. Were it not for Heyer, Bridgerton would not exist.
Is the solution to edit out the moneylender scene in The Grand Sophy, as some editions have done? What about the other bits of gratuitous racism? What about the sexism? Do we add footnotes? Maybe this blog and the other commentary are the footnotes. Do we solve the problem or do we acknowledge that it’s complex?
In the years since re-reading The Grand Sophy, I’ve changed my approach to Heyer. Instead of leaping on each novel with giddy expectation, I’m more cautious. I read with a critical eye. I still re-read my favorites and always will, but it’s with a sense of sadness now, and less forgiveness. It might not be enough – there are plenty of romance readers who have moved on, and I get that. The romance genre is so vital and growing and breaking new ground almost daily, that an author who started writing in the early part of the 20th century is not even on most readers’ radar.
So have I mentioned Cotillion and A Civil Contract often enough? April Lady, False Colours, The Corinthian, Devil’s Cub (although geez, the hero is a dick in that one), Lady of Quality, and Black Sheep, are all my re-reads. I can’t guarantee there’s nothing bigoted in them, but they aren’t my favorites because of safety reasons. They’re my favorites because of what Heyer does best – she writes screwball romantic comedies.
Enter at your own risk.