Celebrated Writers Whose Names Have Become Synonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part Two: Georgette Heyer’s Depiction of the Regency UK and ‘Life in London’ by Pierce Egan: ‘Corinthian Tom’ and his ‘Coz Jerry’ as the Original Source of Heyer’s Regency World and Sporting Heroes

 

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In my last post, I wrote about the influence of Mary Renault, whose fictional interpretation of Ancient Greece has become so famous.  I commented on how the writer’s particular treatment of Bronze Age Greece and of the rise of patriarchy, which necessarily reflected the views of her own age, sixty years ago, have been incorporated into popular understanding of that era.

However novel and stimulating Renault’s depiction may have been to the publishing world and to readers in the late 1950’s, it is now an almost stultifying influence. As I commented last week, it has reached the point where it is impossible for any author to write anything about Bronze Age Greece, the ancient matriarchies or the Theseus legend, without being compared – usually invidiously – with Renault.

The same is true of the depiction of the UK of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by Georgette Heyer.

Apart from being  writers of historical novels with a passion for detailed research, who were in real life fairly mannish women with a rather dismissive attitudes towards other women, they have little in common but their names becoming synonymous with an historical era.

The point I want to make here is is what they do have in common was a massive influence on popular understanding of the age about which they choose to write.  Heyer continues to be seen as ‘having made the Regency era her own’ just as Renault’s depiction of the Bronze Age is seen as definitive.

I have touched on this previously in an article published on Public Books last December. here However, as the articles on this site have to be under 1,500 words, I had to write a terse one, concentrating mainly on how Heyer’s  High Tory view of the UK’s history has had the effect of making an  ‘Artificial Golden Age’ out of an era which was in fact one of violent social change and upheaval, and my dismay that a fair number of readers seem to confuse that enticing, but artififical version with the historical reality of that time.

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Certainly, it has had the effect of  giving it a name for frivolity.  This fact was made by the late writer and historian M M Bennets, so brilliantly in this article here,  that I am going to quote large parts of it wholesale:

‘ I rate her (Georgette Heyer’s) work alongside that of P.G. Wodehouse in that they both created a bright comedic fictional world entirely of their own. However, I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century.  Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers’.

‘(Curiously, no one ever mistakes Wodehouse’s fictional world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club for reality.)

‘…With the exception of An Infamous Army, the whole of her work is one-faceted and is set firmly within the boundaries of this fictional romantic comedy world she created.  Thus, what a shock to realise that Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, for example, is set at the same period and included much talk of the terrible harvests, the effect of that on the countryside and the introduction of the Corn Laws.’

M M Bennett’s goes on, in  the comments section, to remark: –

‘I’ve not stopped thinking about this question since I raised it a few days ago, in some effort to pin down what it is about Heyer I find most maddening. Tolstoy includes many party scenes, many domestic issues, in War and Peace, yet no one would accuse him of frivolity or trivialising history, I think.

‘Perhaps it’s Heyer’s relentless emphasis on female clothing and her stereotypical males which frequently are little better than caricatures? I know she based a lot of her work about young men and their pursuits on the Cruikshank “Tom and Jerry” cartoons of the 1820s. Equally, it must be said that with few exceptions, there are few mentions of soldiers, officers or naval officers in her works–yet Britain was most certainly a country at war, from 1792-1815, with only the briefest peace between 1802-3. (We’d think a book set in 1943 in London very peculiar if there were no soldiers to be seen, wouldn’t we?)

‘Perhaps it’s not her work that I find maddening, it’s the subsequent assumption that the Regency was as she presented it, and that her work is used as a kind of yardstick for anything written about the period. Which is perhaps just my way of saying, yes, that was popular literary taste then (when she was writing); this is now–can we not move on from there? Please?’

This  concisely sums up my own attitude.

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I was interested in this reference to these ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons of the 1820’s. I followed it up, tracing it to Pierce Egan’s 1821  ‘Life in London Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq, And His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom in Their Rambles and Sprees Through the Metropolis’ (they liked a long title in those days).

Then Someone Lovely bought me a copy last Christmas.

I only had to read a page to realise three things.

One was that here was the author of ‘Boxiana’, a book on the history of prize fighting which I had read years since. It has the same florid, wordy style and excessive use of the sporting slang of the era. For this modern reader at least, it made for an excrutiating read.

The second was that Georgette Heyer did indeed rely on this book as a source on which she based her heroes and the fashionable world of Regency London, the venues, sights, sporting activities, slang, you name it.

The third is the explanation as to why Heyer’s males are often so puzzlingly lacking in  emotional depth. This is because they were literally borrowed from a series of cartoon sketches.  In fact, Pierce Egan’s macho cartoon heroes are more emotionally responsive than Heyer’s; though libertines, they are in some form of love with their mistresses. Corinthian Tom writes romantic doggerel to ‘Corinthian Kate’s‘ eyes: Jerry Hawthorn is besotted with two of his mistresses in quick succession, ‘Lady Wanton’ and Kate’s friend Sue.

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‘Corinthian Tom’ is depicted as a leader of fashion, but ‘handy with his dives’, having taken boxing lessons from the prize fighting champion himself, and ‘no dandy’ (ie, effete). He is handsome, cynical, blasé, a fine pugilist and swordsman, a famed ‘whip’  in his Sunday drives in the park,  wears a greatcoat with many cloaks and top boots,  has an acquiine profile, and has a roving eye for female beauty – whether it is paying compliments to the women of the elite at Almacks, or treating the ‘barques of frailty’ at the Opera to gin, or chucking the pretty chin of the beggar chit Polly in her rags in a ‘boozing ken’ full of  women like ‘Leaky Sal’.  His ‘Dear Coz’ Jerry is less clever, but full of mischief and ‘game till he’s floored’, with a physical presence that draws the eye of many women.

In fact, I am puzzled how few  of Georgette Heyer’s admirers seem  to know of this book. They constantly discuss Austen as her inspiration.  I have only seen about three references to ‘Life in London’ as one of Heyer’s sources online, besides that by the late M M Bennetts. I don’t know if M M Bennetts had got round to reading it before her sadly early death, though she was clearly an avid researcher on the early nineteenth century.

So far as I can judge, only a couple of these writers on Georgette Heyer have actually read ‘Life in London’ (this is only for the brave; the turgid prose makes for heavy going; but  – coughs modestly – I was not to be deterred from my research. After all, I was able to plough through all of Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’, through ‘Pamela’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘War and Peace’ ).

Of course, I am not accusing Heyer of plagiarism in borrowing from this book; you can’t plagiarise an idea, copywrite didn’t exist in the days of ‘Life in London’ – there were any number of imitations published in Pierce Egan’s time – and if even if copywrite had existed, it would long have expired by the twentieth century.

It was a brilliant stroke of Heyer’s to create characters appealing to a female readership out of a book intended for a male one, and her comic world has its escapist allure for many. But I share in MM Bennetts’ wish that the whole Regency era should not be seen as the domain of one comic writer whose emphasis was generally on the ‘fashionable world’ of the upper class.

The origin of Heyer’s heroines certainly cannot be found in Pierce Egan: there are no ‘respectable’ women depicted in any but the most superficial detail in ‘Life in London’. There, Jane Austen was the main influence for Heyer. Her heroines are updated, highly secular versions of Austen’s,  with a large part of the Bright Young Things of Heyer’s own youth thrown in.

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‘Regency Hoax’ My New Article on the Popular Conception of the Regency Era Published by Public Books

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Here’s my new article on the highly static and frivolous popular view of the UK of the Regency era, as taken from the twentieth century writer of historical romance Georgette Heyer, and her successors.

This is a topic that has perturbed me for a while, and I brought my thoughts together as concisely as possible for this article.

It might seem odd – at a time when global politics are particularly fraught, to trouble myself about this issue of the depiction in light genre fiction of a particular historical era.

After all, only a section of readers read historical romances and Georgette Heyer in particular. Still, a surprising number of people are influenced by the light in which popular fiction depicts a particular age, and in the last decade or so, with the rise of internet publishing, Heyer’s popularity has had something of a revival, with talk of several of her Regency Romances being turned into a television series.

Why do I think this matters?

For the reason that I always think that a consensus bound, romanticised view of the past will give us a distorted view of the possibilities of shaping the future. For those with little knowledge of  the real history of an age, the ‘historical knowledge’ gleaned from such a depiction as Heyer’s  may well contribute to a similar apathetic approach towards present problems.

It isn’t that I think it is wrong to enjoy a bit of light escapism.  Still,  I certainly think it is wrong to confuse it with historical reality, and Heyer’s influence has been sufficiently strong for the whole of the Regency era to be dismissed as an era of frivolity and high jinks where the common people as a whole are strangely invisible.

Interestingly, the Victorian age isn’t seen in the same light, and it just so happens that the most famous writer on and of  the Victorian era, Charles Dickens, did not portray a light and frivolous portrait of the age. When we think of Dickens’ Victorian age, we tend to think of workhouses and the shocking differences between rich and poor.

I wish I could make that picture of the boatman and the woman as large and splendid as it is in the article on Public Books,  here . Sadly, it wouldn’t respond to my editing.

 

Georgette Heyer is one of the most beloved romance writers. She is also one of the most reactionary. Her impact on the genre of Regency romances is indisputable; Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel says that Heyer’s “influence is felt in every historical romance novel written since 1921.” That influence has pushed “Regencys”—that is, romance novels set in early 19th century England—toward a static vision of the past: one in which conservative hierarchies and gender roles are celebrated, and the inequities of Regency society are seen through a roseate lens.

Born into a middle-class family in England in 1902, Heyer wrote novels set in Jane Austen’s era, filled with details of upper class life, earls, and balls. Heyer’s evocation of an earlier time was deliberate; she bitterly resented the rise of democracy and the social safety net. “I am getting so tired of writing books for the benefit of the Treasury,” she complained typically, “and I can’t tell you how utterly I resent the squandering of my money on such fatuous things as Education and Making Life Easy and Luxurious for So-Called Workers.

Wishing to write serious historical novels, but obliged to keep writing her bestselling Regency romances to support the upper class life style to which she aspired, in her novels Heyer transforms the Regency era into an artificial Golden Age.

Heyer’s fans defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?

Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change—no more than has the world of Bertie Wooster and his friends in the Drones Club to that of the early 20th century. Hopefully, few people would confuse the world of Bertie Wooster with historical reality. However, because of her thorough research on the Regency’s current events, topography, literature and, especially, the lifestyle of the upper class, Heyer’s depiction of the Regency UK is frequently held up as a standard of accuracy to emulate.

The American Regency romance writer Maggie Mackeever, for example, admits that Heyer’s Regency world never existed, but urges novice writers to “Immerse yourself in Georgette Heyer … Lots of people have written about Regency England since, but no one has done it as well. Read until you have the era fixed clearly in your head. Then sit down and start to write your own story.”

Heyer’s Regency population consists of the aristocracy and gentry, their devoted retainers, some vulgar, socially aspiring merchants, a handful of comic rogues, and a backdrop of contented peasants. That is hardly representative of the United Kingdom in that era. Heyer’s readers are encouraged to imagine themselves to be one of the 1.5 percent of the population comprising the gentry; or even as a member of one of the families of the approximately 300 titled men out of a population of maybe 9,000,000.

Of course, historically aware readers distinguish between “Heyer’s Regency England” and historical reality. However, many others do appear to believe that they can learn about history through the Regency romances. This article is typical. The poster discusses Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in the least “fluffy” of her “Regencies,” An Infamous Army, oblivious to the fact that Heyer’s emphasis is almost entirely on the officer class.

This obsessive focus on this tiny upper class goes arm in arm, unsurprisingly, with a strong status quo bias. Heyer’s untamed heroines and wild heroes are all rebellious and wild within a very narrow range, before they are reincorporated into society.

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Charlotte Brontë’s Anger

By Anna E. Clark

 

One example of this ‘conservative resolution’ is her 1959 novel The Unknown Ajax. Lord Darracott’s heirs have died suddenly and accidentally. His relatives are appalled to learn that as a result, his grandson through a misalliance with “a weaver’s daughter” is next in line to the title.

This grandson is Major Hugo Darracott, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a seemingly uncultured giant with a broad Yorkshire accent. He has no valet and dresses unfashionably. Lord Darracott wishes to civilize him and marry him to the heroine Anthea, who is appalled.

Hugo horrifies the family by reminiscing about being “transported” and living in a hovel with a mud floor—only to reveal that he is referring to his army experiences. Later, he admits that his mother was in fact the heiress to a wealthy mill owner, while he attended the prestigious Harrow School. He confesses to Anthea that he adopted that Yorkshire dialect to tease. He promises to show Anthea’s younger brother Richmond all of the manufacturing processes. In this era, mills employed children as young as five in appalling conditions, but the humane Hugo seems unperturbed by this detail.

Heyer here does a clever sleight of hand: Hugo appears to threaten the status quo, but his true attraction is that he does not trouble class hierarchy at all. When a blacksmith from a family with “subversive” ideas—depicted as wholly contemptible—forces his way into the mansion, in what is presumably meant to be a parody of revolutionary uprising, it is Hugo who throws out his “filthy carcase.” Anthea and all the family are finally won over when Hugo saves Richmond from the law when he is shot in a smuggling venture. Here, he is shown to have a greater respect for the law than his grandfather, who has turned a blind eye to local smuggling.

Heyer’s aristocratic bias, and that of many of the Regency romances written in emulation of her style, is thrown into sharp relief by Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn. A 2013 revisiting of Pride and Prejudice—from the point of view of the servants—Longbourn depicts the hard facts of their lives, the bedrock on which the gracious living of Austen’s characters depends.

Baker’s heroine, Sarah, like Hugo in The Unknown Ajax, comes from a “family of weavers.” That family’s fate is tellingly different from that of Hugo’s relatives. Beggared when their village is destroyed through enforced enclosure of the land, they have to put Sarah in the workhouse, later to be sent to work as a housemaid.

Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change.

The life of unrelenting toil of the servants is brilliantly depicted. Much of it is sordid drudgery. Unlike Heyer’s heroines—whom Heyer herself commented “Lived only from the waist up”1the females in Baker’s novel menstruate, entailing unsavory washing. The family’s chamber pots have to be emptied. In the daily round of unceasing labour, a few moments of stolen happiness are a delight.

In Heyer’s novels, the ugly aspects of life in the Regency UK—poverty, disease, filth and feces in the streets; public torture and death, massively high infant mortality and the low status of women—are ignored. With the exception of some ridiculous subversives, everyone is content with his or her lot. Injustice and misery are rarely portrayed, and when they are, they can be put right by some charitable works.

Heyer’s fans heatedly defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?

Heyer has for too long been viewed as Austen’s successor. Hopefully, novels like Longbourn will inspire talented writers to abandon the weary clichés of “Heyer’s daughters” in Regency romance, and to aspire to follow Jo Baker’s example in writing about the real Regency England—that of the working people. icon

  1. Quoted in Jane Aiken Hodge, The Private World of Georgette Heyer (Arrow 1984.), p. 204.
Featured image: Edmund Leighton, Courtship. Wikimedia Commons