There are writers that I return to time and time again in moments of illness, crisis, sadness, or just plain ‘in need of comfort’. Ever since I was about twelve or thirteen, my go-to author at these times has been the late, great Georgette Heyer. I once thought people might secretly scoff at my liking for Regency romance, which got a bad name with the advent of such lesser writers as Barbara Cartland. But Heyer is a different kettle of fish altogether – and I’m not alone in being a big fan. Even a literary writer like Margaret Drabble loves her!
A fine academic historian in her own right, Heyer did her period research meticulously and well – and since I’ve been writing my own historical novels, I’ve got added respect for that. Also, her ear for the conversational tone of the era is second to none. I have learned many fine and useful (but no longer in use) words and expressions from her books, and am entirely likely to describe one of my kids as looking ‘as queer as Dick’s hatband’ if they are pale and ill, or, alternatively, ‘shamming it’, if they are only pretending to be so. Her heroines are no milk-and-water creations, but tend to be intelligent and to think for themselves, despite sometimes adverse circumstances of fortune. Some of her rather masterful heroes I like less, especially the ones very ‘high in the instep’–indeed they often set up my (feminist) bristles–but then no Regency romance is complete without one, so they have to be borne for the pleasures of the rest of the writing.
I was re-reading one particular book of hers, An Infamous Army, last month for another reason. On June 18th, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – and ‘an infamous army’ was how Wellington described his troops. My historian grandfather, not a man of romantical tendencies, having survived terrible battlefield injuries and then a German prisoner of war camp from 1915-18, was the person who introduced me to Heyer’s books. He always said that her description in An Infamous Army of the battle of Waterloo was, bar none, the best he had ever read. I would have to agree, adding that the descriptions of life during the Peninsular War inThe Spanish Bride run it a very close second. Those are two of my favourites, along with Frederica, These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, Beauvallet and Devil’s Cub.
If you’ve always thought that historical novels are dry and boring, think again, and give Heyer a go. With Tanya Landman’s brilliant historical novel, Buffalo Soldier, having just won the Carnegie Medal, history writing is in the news, and I say hooray to that. It’s where some of the greatest stories of all time are to be found!