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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The Seven Most Annoying Heroes in Famous Novels – Uncharitable New Year’s Rant

Before I get on to being what followers of various forms of New Age ‘Courses on Miracles’ would call ‘negative’, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and especially wish one  to my wonderful fellow writers and to my readers. Thank you for all your inspiration and support.
The ‘negativity’? Well, as I was watching a James Bond film (not such a bad one as they go; at least the replacement ‘M’ was a woman and called him a ‘misogynistic dinosaur’) I reflected that he probably was the hero I detest most in books (all right; that particular film doesn’t come from a book; still, the character does) . Then in a truly charitable fashion, I effortlessly remembered another male lead of a book I disliked even more; but then I realised that I detested another hero of a well known book yet more – and before I knew it, I had a virtual shopping list of the Heroes I Detest Most.

As none of these novels were written by currently living authors, I don’t see why I shouldn’t publish this bitter list to give a laugh to those who, like me, feel a bit jaded after over indulging in the recent festivities, so here it is.

I warn readers that the list is based on personal prejudice and some of these heroes probably don’t, as ‘heroes’ go, deserve to be on it at all; there are probably much nastier or annoying male leads out there I have yet to meet and find objectionable.

Oh, and anyone who wants to nominate a vain, annoying, Marty Stu or downright obnoxious male lead in a famous novel by a deceased author is very welcome to do so.

Have I a list of annoying, obnoxious heroines, who may or may not be Mary Sues? Yes, but unfortunately my complaint about all these female leads tends to be the same – that once she gets together with the male lead she loses all her independence of mind and becomes half of a smug couple, or even if she doesn’t, that she loses all critical faculties regarding the man of her dreams. Therefore, my list needs some more work to make it in any way entertaining; but by way of a hint, Hippoylata in Mary Renault’s series on
Theseus, his captive Amazon who fights by his side against her former Amazon subjects and Fanny Burney’s Evelina are both on it.

Number One

Dominic Alistair, Marquis Vidal, the ‘hero’ of Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Devil’s Cub’ is totally obnoxious. Even at fourteen, I cringed when I read this. Oh dear. This fellow’s got problems; in fact, he needs intensive psychiatric treatment and a good kick up the backside (sorry!). He likes killing men who annoy him, and he half throttles the heroine at one time, and at another, tries to rape her. This doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him, though.
To be fair to the heroine, she does have the sense to try and shoot him during the rape attempt, but she’s so sorry to see him in a fever as a result of the wound she’s inflicted that she longs to ‘kiss his bad temper away’.
To be fair to Heyer as well, she never again had a would be rapist as a hero, and it’s unfortunate that the publishers have seen fit to keep this one in print. It still gets glowing five star reviews as a lot of woman readers think that the fact that the woman shoots at him makes things even.
I don’t. If he was shown as at least repenting of it, it might be different, but the whole sorry episode is happily swept under the carpet by heroine and many an avid reader alike.

Number Two

Theseus in Mary Renault’s ‘The King Must Die’ and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ .
By the living lord Zeus, this man annoyed me! OK, so he is meant to be over confident and machismo, and the men of the age didn’t see why women had any problems with being taken as war prizes (of course all Theseus’ war prizes adore him), but I detest him anyway, if only because the reader is expected to cheer him along as he avidly sets about destroying the nasty king-for-a-year sacrificing matriarchies wherever he goes (it’s worth noting here that it’s always on the one day a year that the King is due to be sacrificed that he comes across them). Everyone admires him, which isn’t surprising, as he generally kills off anyone who doesn’t.
I don’t see why the series isn’t called ‘The Queen Must Die’ as that’s what happens to all the women who marry him. He slowly chokes the unfortunate Phaedra to death (why, as an accomplished wrestler, he doesn’t use the quick and more effective strangle isn’t explained).
This fellow deserves to be made to clean the female lavs in Hades for a thousand years.
This series (brilliantly researched and in parts equally well written, by the way) also features the Hippoylata I mention above, who finds Theseus’ charms so irresistible that she joins him in promoting his patriarchal conquests.

Number Three

Heathcliff.

Now, I’ve said several times on the discussion thread on Goodreads that I started that I detest Heathcliff’s actions, not the pathetic character, who is clearly off his head. Also, I don’t believe that Emily Bronte intended him to be viewed as any sort of a hero, Byronic or otherwise. Still, I remain astonished that anyone can possibly find this fellow romantic, with his habit of boxing girls’ ears and bullying children. And then he’s so sorry for himself, and mourns his loss of Cathy for such a ridiculously long time.
I’m sorry to say many woman readers find his despising all women save his idol Cathy romantic. I can’t relate to that. I think too, that if he’d had his dream fulfilled he’d soon have tired of Cathy and started abusing her too. Also, he’s so mean that while he’s making a lot of money out of being a ‘cruel hard landlord’ he still rations the amount of tea the younger Cathy is allowed to offer to guests and has porridge for supper.

Number Four

James Bond. What can I say?
Well, I believe this fellow certainly suffers from serious sexual repressions of some sort as a compulsive Don Juan who goes in for such unimaginative seductions; for instance, why are the erotic episodes described so mechanically? Is it because I’m dyslexic that I particularly notice the way ‘his right hand went to her right breast’ or does this unconsciously betray the political bias of Ian Fleming?
This man deserves to be made to work as a peace campaigner for fifty years (zero hours and no pension).

Number Five

Charley Kinraid in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is almost an ideal type of a Marty Stu (I dislike the whining Philip Hepburn, the ‘real’ hero of the story, even more, but Charley Knraid is clearly meant to be the romantic interest so he gets the listing). It shows what an excellent writer Gaskell is that despite this, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is still one of my favourite novels.  Almost everyone, save the carping, envious Hepburn, admires Kinraid. He’s a brilliant harpooner, handsome, fearless, a good friend, a hard drinker, a bold fighter, irresistible to women and the life and soul of the party. Nobody dances the hornpipe like him.
This opportunist is indestructible and always falls on his feet with a merry quip.
There’s no pleasing me! Heathcliff exasperated me by mourning his loss of Cathy for twenty years; Kinraid annoyed me by forgetting Sylvia six months after his dramatic parting from her.
He starts off his glittering career as ‘the most daring Specksioneer (chief harpoonist) on the Greenland Seas’ during the French Revolutionary Wars. When on shore, he’s a dedicated flirt and heartbreaker, causing at least one girl to go into a decline when he loses interest in her. At one point he seems to be engaged to both the eponymous heroine and one of her neighbours at the same time (weirdly enough for Gaskell, this ridiculous situation isn’t portrayed humorously).
I disliked him for that, but I did applaud his standing up to a press gang operating illicitly, though I was sorry he shot dead two of its members. With his invariable luck, he escapes hanging for this through being ‘kicked aside for dead’. Later on, however, after he’s press ganged into the Navy, Kinraid goes in for more heroics, though this time on their side, and is promoted to Captain. As all Naval Captains had to rely on press gangs to raise enough men to go to sea, and couldn’t be too scrupulous about the rule of their having to be sailors, he’s obviously happy enough to collude in the press gang’s activities and forget he shot dead two men for doing what he now endorses.
When Kinriad comes back to claim Sylvia, whom he has sworn he’ll marry or remain single, only to find she’s been tricked into marriage by Philip Hepburn, he’s forgotten about her and married to a pretty heiress in no time. This silly girl admires him nearly as much as he admires himself.
Hepburn dies expiating his sins, while Sylvia, overcome with guilt over renouncing Hepburn for his trickery, dies of a broken heart. However. the shallow opportunist Kinraid complacently faces a glowing future in the new century. I found him and his undeservedly good fate supremely annoying.

Number Six

Lord Heriot Fayne in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’.
I disliked this hero initially for his habit of threatening to throw Jewish money lenders out of windows. For the rest, for some reason I found this cardboard baddy turned goody totally exasperating in that everyone who meets him feels inexplicably awed by his ‘air of command’. He inspires respect, it seems, even when he’s togged up as ‘Coster Dick’ to get hammered and brawl in a music hall. He’s so macho that when one of his opponents caddishly sneaks up behind and hits him over the head with a cut glass decanter, knocking him out, on coming to, he suffers no sissy symptoms like nausea, but happily lights up a pipe and strolls through the streets, rescuing the odd waif.
He also rescues the heroine when her pony bolts towards a disused quarry (he’s disguised as a tramp at the time). Then he saves a little girl who gets lost in a forest somewhere in South America (he’s gone there as a ranch hand). His reformation is effected by his going round the country as a busker. This course of behavioural modification is seemingly so swift and effective it is obviously to be recommended as a way of taming all young tearaways.

Number Seven

Ludovic Lavenham in Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’.
To be fair, this fellow, who serves as a sort of ‘secondary hero’ , probably doesn’t deserve to be on here.

This is another Heyer historical romance I read at fourteen when snowed in. I  re-read it a year or so ago during several visits to a doctor’s surgery. I found this swaggerer purely infuriating as a teenager, and cringed with embarrassment at the way he flirted with his ‘little cousin’ when lying on his sickbed after being shot by excisemen:

Him: ‘Is that a tear, little cousin? Don’t you like your cousin Ludovic?’

Her: ‘Oh, yes! But I was so scared that you would die.’

After that scene, I’m sorry to say I almost wished he would. Reading the story again all these years later, (this research on romances) I expected to regard him more kindly. I didn’t. To be honest, I don’t know exactly why I find this Heyer hero in particular so annoying. True, he’s stupid and arrogant and full of over-the-top macho posturing, but that does tend to be so of several of Heyer’s young heroes and ‘Sherry’ in ‘Friday’s Child’ is equally idiotic. Ludo Lav is also, like Charley Knraid, really only a secondary hero, the real one being Sir Tristam Shield (get the names) his older and acidic cousin.

So, there’s the list, and probably in the case of the male leads who don’t go in for rape, throttling their wives or at least hanging their spaniels, quite unfair. Charley Kinraid, Heriot Fayne and Ludovic Lavenham are at least portrayed as being fairly gallant, even if they are Marty Stus. I’m sure there are many heroes out there, particularly in classical literature, who are far worse than even Dominic Alastair.

So, there’s a highly uncharitable post to start the 2015. How jaundiced; I think I’d better go and do some weights or change my resolution to vowing to be kinder about such male lead characters in general…