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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Historical Fiction: Celebrated Writers whose Names are Syonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part I: Mary Renault and the Bronze Age.

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A horrible fight…

There are some writers of historical fiction on particular historical epochs who acquire such widespread  fame that they are often described as having ‘Made that era their own’.

One of these is Mary Renault, famed for her strong writing and thorough historical research.

Born in 1905 in a middle class home, strongly influenced by her father and suffering from an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Renault attended Oxford, became a nurse, and had a life long relationship with another woman with whom she emigrated to  South Africa in 1948. Although many of her novels deal with the theme of same sex love and sexuality, and she acquired a strong gay following, she did not define herself as a gay writer. However, she always saw herself a something of an ‘honourary man’.

Renault  tried various sorts of writing before concentrating on novels set in Ancient Greece. She wrote various novels about Alexander, and also a duo set in the Bronze Age, featuring the mythical hero Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ (1958) and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ (1962).

In these novels, Renault depicts Theseus as the initiator of the overthrow of the ancient matriarchal societies by the new system of patriarchy.  Although Renault was influenced  by the writings of Robert Graves, author of ‘The White Goddess’ and other works on the ancient Goddess religion, Renault, in line with the conventional views of her era, depicted  their destruction as the inevitable result of historical progress, while Graves’ sympathies were all with female power.

In her introduction to the ‘The King Must Die’, Bethany Hughes comments:  ‘It is perhaps odd that  Renault should choose Theseus, a macho warrior with a bloody biography, as her favoured hero.  The myth cycles of antiquity declare Theseus to be a hero who tricked, bludgeoned and raped his way through life. There are lurid, ancient descriptions of his rape of the eight year old Helen…’

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‘Tanglewood Tales’ with its depiction of the Ancient Greek legends, was read to me when I was about five. I was so horrified by the Minotaur that I couldn’t put my fear into words, and talked instead of being scared of the dragon in the ‘dragon’s teeth’ myth. I was in awe of Theseus for being brave enough to go and fight such a terrible monster, and never having investigated the darker side of the myth, my feelings for him remained benign when I grew up.

This is certainly why, when I read ‘The King Must Die’ and its somehow fragmented sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ , I was startled to find that Theseus obnoxious. When I finished the book and looked over the reviews on the internet, I was dismayed to find  that these books are recommended enthusiastically by not only male readers, but by a fair amount of female readers too.

While I quite agree that an historical society must be depicted to the best of the author’s ability as it was – not sanitized according to modern sensibilities- there are still ways in which the author can use the narrative tone and plot devices to distance herself from the ugly attitudes of the age. This remains true, even if a first person voice is chosen, as it is in the Theseus series.  It seems to me that Renault, having failed to do this, leaves this reader at least with the uneasy impression that on the whole she  sympathized with Theseus  (and many male readers of this series) in thinking that a society that sacrificed one man a year is somehow more bloody and barbaric than one which brutalises countless women.

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I was dismayed by the internalised misogyny which Renault displays. This so detracted from my engagement with the stories, that the lively narration and vivid depiction seemed to me to be tainted by it.

Renault  tries to be fair, but given the attitude towards women in the era in which she is writing, this is difficult.  Though she was in a marriage type relationship with another woman, she seemed to illustrate her generally low view of her sex by her various dismissive quotes (ie, the one on the possibility of a female Shakespeare quoted by David Sweetman in his biography), and she saved her admiration for male figures.

This was probably typical of the women who identified as ‘masculine’  in the era when she was young. By the time feminism and gay liberation appeared, Renault was, in middle age, unable to identify with them.

In this series, only masculine woman  (like the Amazon Queen Hippoylata, who suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after her capture) are depicted as admirable. More conventionally ‘feminine’ women are seen as devious, motivated by vanity, and untrustworthy.  There is the extraordinary assumption that the Amazon Queen, though raised apart from men, is nevertheless boyish because she is athletic and courageous. That it is possible to be athletic and physically brave without being mannish was not an idea that seems to have occurred to Renault’s generation.

To be fair to Renault, she does depict some splendid matriarchal women,  such as the wonderful matriarchal Queen who is Theseus’ first wife (or rather, he is her last out of maybe a dozen Kings for a Year, bringing about her own death), and Theseus’ own mother.  I was less sympathetic towards the apostate Amazon Hippoylata.

The result of all these influences is that in ‘The King Must Die’  particularly, the reader is assumed  to b e quite happy in cheering  Theseus on in his onslaught on female power. While  its oddly inchoate sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ has been interpreted by critics as ‘The Goddess’s revenge’, this is incompletely depicted. Theseus in the end kills himself by jumping off a cliff, an anti climatic end. It is surely less drawn out and painful than that which he gives his errant wife Phaedra when he chokes her to death (I have always been puzzled why, as a supposedly brilliant wrestler, he didn’t use the strangle – cutting off the blood to the brain – rather than the clumsy choke – cutting off air to the lungs;  Renault, usually meticulous in research, fails there).

In fact, all of Theseus’ three wives (counting Hippoylata) die through his actions (or inactions) so that I have always felt that the title should be altered to, ‘The Queen Must Die’.

However, my reaction is that of a minority. Most readers of Renault are wholly admiring, or, if they find that internalised misogyny offensive, are able to ‘get past it’ better than I am. Today, sixty years after the date of its publication, ‘The King Must Die’ is still selling well – 30,533 in the Kindle Store at Amazon.co.uk.

Renault’s influence has been pervasive- to the point when her name is almost equated with the fictional depiction of that  period – despite the fact that her style is old fashioned, and that modern research to some extent disagrees with her interpretation. This poses a  problem for subsequent writers on the Bronze Age.

Such writers are invariably, because of Renault’s continuing influence, compared to Renault, and all too often, to the detriment of experimentation.

I have, since reading Renault’s series, come on a couple of excellent ones which take an opposing view of the destruction of the ancient female centred cultures, seeing this as the beginning of warlike cultures, typified by aggression, rape and brutality.

However, while I would find this portrayal sympathetic, it would not be enough for me to have a great admiration  for them, if they were not brilliantly written. For me, these books have all the advantages of Mary Renault’s scholarship, without incorporating that dismal internalized misogyny.

On this, I have just discovered that back in 1971 a male author – Poul Anderson – wrote a novel  ‘The Dancer from Atlantis’, which is actually based on Renault’s own. This is an inverted version, where Theseus is dipicted as the brutal destroyer of the civilisation of Ancient Crete. I would be interested to read this, and wonder it has received so little attention.

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Another story based on the Theseus legend is the brilliant, but eminently tragic, duo by June Rachuy Brindel,  ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Phaedra’, published respectively in 1980 and 1985.

Another saga set in the Bronze Age about the destruction of the ancient matriarchies – though not about Theseus – is Rebecca Lochlann’s excellent ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series of eight books, which is still ongoing, the first book having been published in 2011.

Frequenters of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of this writing. I  have been exasperated by the wearisome tendency of some reviewers – including some males clearly stung bythe unflattering portait of the patriarchy contained in it – to make those invidious comparisons with Renault of all works of fiction about Bronze Age Greece, including Brindel’s and Lochlann’s work.

Renault wrote an interesting, thoroughly researched and vividly portayed series – one which I personally found distasteful, but many will disagree. It was  based on the views of her time. Sixty years have gone by since then.  Surely it is time for readers to move on from interpreting Bronze Age Greece and the Greek legends through Renault’s specific lens, and to investigate new fictional explorations of Bronze Age Greece, ones which are fairer in their treatment of women and female power.

The view that any age or indeed, any aspect of writing is the domain of, or should be depicted using the same approach of, some celebrated author is surely ridiuclous and stifling.

Of course, there will always be a hardcore of admirers of some writers of yesteryear who simply don’t want to move on – who think that particular writing can never be surpassed. However, most readers are hopefully not of so rigid a mindset, and surely the same argument must apply even more to the rest of the publishing world, who are supposedly ever eager for new ideas or new approaches to familiar themes.

But this post is becoming too long: so more on these, in my next post.

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