Georgette Heyer’s Regency World

I confess herewith to a miserable lacuna in my otherwise generally comprehensive literacy:  I have never read a single one of Georgette Heyer’s twenty-six Regency novels, published from 1935 to 1972, and forming what is surely one of the more beloved and impressive oeuvres in modern literature.  So I embarked upon my survey of Georgette Heyer’s Regency World—an explication, exploration, loving tribute to, and erudite partial concordance of those sacred texts and the historical soil from which they sprung—with a timorous yet bold humility akin to that of a penniless suitor approaching the rich and landed gruff male guardian of the beautiful young heiress whom he dared to worship.

But inspiration instantly struck, in the form of a whispered appeal from the book’s Appendix 6, wherein Kloester engagingly summarizes all two dozen-plus Heyer novels.   Having swotted up my facts from her précis, and steeped myself in the mannered ambiance of the plots, I was able to appreciate the elegant corpus of the book in the eager yet bemused fashion of an anticipatory virgin eavesdropping on the anecdotes of a rakish hellion.

What Kloester offers is nothing less than a sweeping and entrancing social history (dull politics and war, religion and commerce, begone!) of the period from 1780 to 1830, the reign of the dashing Prince of Wales, later King George IV, or, as we in the bon ton fondly call him, “Prinny.”  She begins by outlining the distinctive strata of British society.  She moves onto the domestic scene, including household staff and appurtenances.  She meanders gaily and exhaustively through sports, courting, gambling, fashion, travel, dueling, dining and the dozen other mundane enterprises which occupied the daytime and nightlife hours of the privileged male “tulips” and female “prime articles.”  We are introduced to the famous icons of the age—both historical and deriving from Heyer’s fiction—and the scandals and triumphs they embraced.  Particularly engrossing is the amusing and juicy vocabulary of the period:  a lady’s maid was an “abigail;” a woman of easy virtue was a “Cyprian.”  And so forth.  As a member of longstanding in Grub Street, I deem this book an essential resource for both writers and readers enamored of this yeasty time.

And finally, we cannot depart this fervent encomium without complimenting the robust yet delicate work of the associated pensman, Graeme Tavendale, whose perfect vignettes, at once vintage and modern, brilliantly evoke this vanished world.

To end on a queer note:  because Regency England reads to us today so much like an alien world, something out of Jack Vance perhaps, the period has inspired a contemporary branch of fantasy known as “mannerpunk,” in which warped analogues of the etiquette and protocols and social structures of Heyer’s favored period are blended with fantastical conceits.  Long live Prinny’s exotic milieu!


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.