Hapax, Heyer, Austen and the Language Attic (“ton” and “sprack”)

Six times, now, in the past few months I’ve been asked “Where was that blog post you put up about Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer?”

That question, in addition to our “Language Attic” series, caused me to reprise this riff, especially as the commentary turned out to be at least as as interesting as what I wrote.

So here it is again.

It was first inspired by an earlier book discussion gathering, and the subject of favorite books came up. One person was defending romances, saying that the fact that she’s getting exactly what she expects when she picks up a romance is a selling point. She pays down her money not for shocks or (unpleasant) surprises, but to see how the author guides the characters to the expected happily ever after.

Someone then called Jane Austen the first author of romances. I said that ‘romance’ in the sense that we mean it now was around far earlier—gave examples, like Mary Davys, Eliza Haywood, etc—and then I said that Austen didn’t actually write romances.

“Of course she does! Every one of her novels ends with wedding bells and happy smiles all around,” was one response, and another gave me the hairy eyeball. “Are you going to try to tell me that Georgette Heyer doesn’t write romance?”

Far from it, I said. She did write romances, in the Silver Fork tradition. Someone responded, “You’re talking like there’s a big difference between Austen’s romances and Heyer’s. I don’t see any difference.”

I offered the observation that Austen was writing contemporary novels and Heyer a historical setting, but then galloped off blabbing incoherently about how Austen turned the romance tropes inside out whereas Heyer faithfully reproduced the same ones established in the early 1700s, causing eyes to glaze.

If I were socially ept, I’d have the right words at the right time, succinct and witty. But I’m not. I am the mistress of the three a.m. realization of what I should have said.

Which is, “Do you know what a hapax legomenon is?”

No doubt someone would have scoffed and said, “Learned that in sixth grade: a hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once within the works of an author.”

After which I could point out that that the word ‘ton’ is a hapax legomenon in Jane Austen’s work. It only occurs once in all her novels, and as usual, it is used ironically. And the thing that makes it interesting to me is that this single word illustrates best the difference between the works of the two authors.

In Georgette Heyer’s novels the word ton* appears not only in its actual period form (as an adjective or noun meaning ‘high and exclusive or fashionable style, from the French for ‘tone,’ or ‘style’) but she also borrows the shift in meaning that actually became popular as the true Regency segued into the reign of George IV then began sliding toward Victoria’s rule, by using ton for the ‘upper ten thousand’—the leaders of society. Le bon ton originally meant the highest style.

And Heyer never uses it ironically.

It appears frequently in Heyer’s novels, as you’d expect of a word that represents the guiding principle and the goal for her heroes and heroines: being at the top of the social ladder. That is in essence what a Silver Fork novel is, a novel that holds up aristocratic society as the epitome of social success. Add to that marital success, and you’ve got a beguilingly popular subgenre nearly two centuries old.

silver fork ballroom

But Austen wasn’t writing Silver Fork novels. Her heroes and heroines are part of her own class, the gentry—for whom she was writing. Her audience knew the fashions of the time, so she never describes them. They knew the invisible social rules, so she doesn’t explain them.

As far as high society is concerned, except for two exceptions (Mr. Darcy, the son of an earl’s daughter, and Col. Fitzwilliam, the impecunious younger son of the same noble family, who is obliged to earn a living until he can marry a fortune) the tonnish crowd—the nobles and London’s social leaders—are arrogant, snobbish bores in Austen’s novels. Even ignorant snobs and bores, like Sir Walter Elliott. Or amoral, as we learn through the charmingly dissolute Crawford siblings.

The single instance where the word ‘ton’ occurs in Austen’s work is in Mansfield Park, Vol. 1, chapter 9. “A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress.” ‘Ton’ means ‘style’, a word borrowed from the French during the eighteenth century, and is not a metaphor for haut monde, or she would have said ‘lead,’ not ‘set.’)

The dialogue goes on to defend the calling of clergyman. Just as Austen’s nobles are mostly risible snobs, Heyer’s clergy are mostly risible and servile fools. We find one kindly priest in These Old Shades—a novel that sets out most blatantly Heyer’s favorite message, that birth will always tell. No doubt Heyer read Austen, but I don’t think she took her as a model: the worldviews underlying the Austenverse and the Heyerverse are so different as almost to be in conflict.

Austen’s stories end with marriage because that was pretty much the only choice open to women of her social stratum, and she writes from a woman’s perspective, giving women’s points-of-views first place at the table. But her context is social criticism. She was quite familiar with the word ‘ton.’ It just was not important to her. More important was moral awareness, and also, what women thought mattered.

Charlotte Lucas was strikingly innovative for the time: a female character who used what little agency society granted, and she got exactly what she wanted. And was not punished with an early death for her temerity. Nor was Lydia Bennet Wickham, who transgressed even more strongly–she also got what she wanted. Mrs. Elton, though we despise her, got what she wanted, and for that matter, so did Mrs. Clay, though Anne Eliot despised her for her lower social status–while helping Mrs. Smith, a woman in exactly the same situation, but better born. Yes, Anne had blinkers, but again, she got what she wanted.

Actual Regency Era caricature of a ballroom crush. Not very romantic!

Actual Regency Era caricature of a ballroom crush. Not very romantic!

By the time Heyer came along, the innovations Austen had introduced into the novel were now accepted, even expected, tropes. The focus had shifted again.

While Heyer can get ironic, her scorn is mostly saved for the social climber—someone trying to rise above the station in life that birth placed them in. Social climbers also get Jane Austen’s quill stuck in them, but mostly for their lack of principle in attaining their goal.

For example, Mrs. Elton, in Austen’s Emma (arguably the most problematically social-rank conscious of all Austen’s books); she is not punished for her social climbing. She exposes herself and her pretensions by serving as an example of how not to behave with moral virtue. There is one chapter devoted specifically to her conversational solecisms, as that kindly man, Mr. Weston, attempts to talk to her.

Here’s where I think the difference is sharpest: the best conversations in Heyer’s books are the comic ones, for example in Friday’s Child, or the highly entertaining one in the otherwise fairly pedestrian April Lady (depending, as it does, on the hero and heroine not talking to one another for the entirety of the book) wherein the lively brother and his pals set out to become highwaymen for a day.

The sort of conversation that Austen valued most—witty exchanges in which moral principle is overtly or covertly in question—are pretty much absent in Heyer’s romances, replaced by vivid dialogues focused around male conflict and action, verbal battles (especially between the sexes), mistaken identity, etc: the stuff of highly entertaining romance.

In Heyer’s novels, the ballrooms are always magnificent, the haute monde elegant, the clothes gorgeous; in Austen, we get descriptions of the smudges on the walls (Emma), the hard-to-clean gloves (The Watsons), the embarrassing moments (the Netherfield ball in Pride and Prejudice.)

  • Ironically, by the time Wellington was Prime Minister, Mrs. Blessington’s interview with Byron makes it clear that Regency parlance was considered hopelessly outdated. According to the journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, who hung out with the highest of society, the word among them for high style and coolness was sprack.






Hapax, Heyer, Austen and the Language Attic (“ton” and “sprack”) — 71 Comments

  1. Heyer sometimes makes me laugh out loud, but Miss Austen makes me smile more often. She’s a marvelous example of someone “writing what she knows” and doing it brilliantly. Although the social setting is strictly limited the human interactions ring with truth.
    Servants must have been ubiquitous but they are rarely mentioned and even less rarely have a speaking part.
    The same is true of people in trade. The Coles in Emma provide an interesting contrast to Mrs. Elton. Despite Emma’s rejection of their society at first, they are portrayed as well behaved, worthy folk. Also in Emma are Miss Austen’s poorest characters, Miss Bates and her mother.

    • I agree with you about Heyer making me laugh out loud – a characteristic that I value very much. My biggest complaint with Heyer is one that Sherwood Smith mentioned above – and that was the “birth will always tell” message. I’m not sure what her message is when she has nobles getting away with murder.

      I don’t see Austen writing romances (using the most popular modern definition of the word). Characters fall in like, and marry for practical reasons.

      I believe Heyer’s characters really love each other (even if they need convincing) – and they do it without the “women’s porn” scenes which turn me off in many contemporary romances.

  2. Pilgrimsoul: yes. I think as Austen grew older she distanced herself from the interest in social ‘superiors’–note that her last book, Sanditon concerned itself sympathetically with people trying to get a health spa going. Business. And as always, there was an unpleasant titled lady for contrast.

  3. I think that many people have a different definition of “romance”, one that essentially means, “people falling in love, appropriately or not, and having adventures and difficulties until someone gets married and the cad loses/wins by cheating but gets his comeuppance”. Or something to that effect. Under that rubric, both Austen and Heyer qualify. Your more formal definition would leave most people gaping. It is that difference, rather than some perceived lack on your part, that makes it hard to communicate what yo meant: you were not speaking the same language, something I run into in computer issues all the time.

  4. Yogi: that’s a good point. I tend more toward the ‘people falling in love’, actually, than the truly formal definition–the one that enlightenment-era writers used, for example, as the concept of the novel as we understand it was developing.

    I guess I see a difference in Austen’s stories of marriage and other romances as she was presenting women’s perspectives, and women, for the most part, were constricted by the social rules of her day to seek a spouse. Her books examine all kinds of marriages, many of which are not happy, under the absurdity, and thus illustrates the wrong choices women make.

    Romance writers now are choosing to focus on that aspect of female perspective, whereas we have a lot more choices in what we can be and do. Also, romance today has developed certain tropes that are expected, so, for example, we rarely find the heroine falling in love with one man and then changing her mind and falling in love with another, as we see in EMMA.

    • Historical novels (and F&SF novels), have to have some characters with values that readers share. Which means that side characters can be boozing, gambling, sexist, greedy and ignorant. But we like viewpoint characters who, for example, like to read fiction.

  5. I agree with all of the above, but it also explains to me why A Civil Contract is my favourite Heyer, because it is much more about the day to day of marriage than it is about social aspiration.

  6. Farah: I wish I liked that one better, but I can’t help resisting the underlying melodrama. I think I would have respected it more if we didn’t have that awful driving plot of the heroine having been secretly in love with the hero and suffering all the way through as he pashed on her best friend (who is Unworthy), and the long, long ranting arguments between her father and the hero. I don’t think Heyer was up to the challenge of social criticism or domestic fiction on Austen’s level, though I love that she made the attempt to break the mold that she helped so skillfully to reshape for the modern reader.

  7. Over on Facebook writer Greg Feeley is describing his adventures, teaching a remedial-lit class at a local college. They are studying P&P, and his challenge is to get his pupils, many of them who are not readers or are ESL, to grasp what’s going on — starting with a brief precis of English inheritance law, for instance. (He spent much labor going over Charlotte Lucas’ situation, until finally a boy in the back exclaimed, “Bitch is UGLY!” and everyone understood.) But it is actually a better book for these pupils to start on than a modern romance, because there is no veil, no window. As you say, Austen is writing what she sees and knows, and so doesn’t describe it. So instead of getting all the description of fashion and setting, the meat and drink of the modern romance, we get down to the real issues.

  8. Ah the silver fork novels. One suspects a certain overlap with the silly novels:

    “Women’s silly novels, we are now convinced, are written under totally different circumstances. The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as “dependents;” they think five hundred a year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and “baronial halls” are their primary truths; and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister. It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers’ accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains.”

  9. I got into a fascinating discussion with a guy in a coffee shop last year, who dismissed both Austen and Charlotte Brontë* as “romance writers.” It became clear that he had either never read either, or had been force-marched through them in high school by teachers who didn’t care for them either. Half way through the discussion he allowed as how maybe he should re-read them before offering such blanket condemnation (“romance writer” was clearly a pejorative in his lexicon). When I asked him what sort of writing he liked, it turned out he was fascinated by sociology. “Austen is your woman,” I told him. He looked shocked.

    I don’t know if, as he promised, he went back and read Pride and Prejudice again with a different eye. I hope he did; I think he would have enjoyed them.

    *no one disses Jane Eyre in my hearing and lives to tell the tale.

    • There’s a character in the novel _The Rook_ who is introducing herself to a future self who lost her memory. It includes the following line:

      I wonder, are you made up of parts of me? Or are you a completely new person? You don’t know who you are, that much I can be certain of, but what else is gone? I suppose you couldn’t know that Jane Eyre is my least favorite book in the world. Or that anything by Georgette Heyer is my favorite. I like oranges. I like pastries.

  10. Heyer, I think, reflected the British class prejudices of her time. She started writing commercially just after World War I, when it was becoming obvious that the British class system had failed. Social climbers, therefore, we most hated as signs of the failure of the class system. As a successful middle class woman, supporting herself through writing, she was herself a sign of that failure. In some crazy-quilt way, I suppose her stories reflected this aspect of her life.

    …there’s more to say but, perhaps, later…

  11. . I don’t think Heyer was up to the challenge of social criticism or domestic fiction on Austen’s level,

    This interests me. There are lots of ways I think a person can fail at writing social criticism in particular, even when their interest is sincere. What do you think it is that holds Heyer back?

  12. Asakiyume, yours and Randolph’s comments kind of dovetail in my mind. Because from what I can tell, Heyer was born in the middle class, but she shared with Evelyn Waugh a fascination with the upper classes, and a yearning to be counted among them. I think it shows in their work.

    Heyer, I think, translated the Bright Young Things into Regency garb and an adopted mixture of men’s and women’s period slang that wasn’t actually used quite the way she uses it, one discovers in reading a ton of period stuff. It really stands out.

    But where Waugh and Heyer part is related to the Heyer/Austen divide, I think. Though Waugh was an inveterate snob and bigot (as was Heyer), after he converted to Catholicism, he was aware of moral conflicts, and it shows in his best work. Heyer seems to reflect the shallow amorality of the Bright Young Things, basically, nothing matters or means anything except style, wearing the right clothes, hanging with the right people, and sticking to the right addresses. If you’re at the top, you can do anything, but you must do it stylishly.

    When she tries to write about serious subjects, she descends into ranting and bathos. IMO, of course.

  13. Although her characters might take a moral stand (I am thinking here of the heroine of FRIDAY’S CHILD, who stands up for an unwed mother) there is no judgment by the author. You never get the sense that Heyer deplores sexual predation on the household staff and leaving the pregnant maids lamenting. It is just one of those wacky adventures that her characters get into.

  14. Heyer, much as I enjoy her, is desperate to make out that the class system worked, and to show everyone being happiest when nobody tries to get out of their assigned class pigeonhole. (Much like Downton Abbey. It seems to be a durable theme.) Thus her insistence that class is genetic – that’s where A Civil Contract fails for me, in the idea that Jenny could never have hoped to be as pretty, charming, elegant or lovable as her schoolmates because she came from a merchant family. I can handwave that sort of thing in, say, These Old Shades, but I can’t handwave it in a novel that’s trying to be realistic.

    The Heyerverse is a fantasy, which is what makes it romance for me, compared to Austen’s social commentary with romantic storylines. Austen writes happy endings for her central couples, but around that she examines how the class system and gender divisions don’t work, who they don’t work for, and what happens then.

    I’m fascinated to hear that Heyer’s slang isn’t quite how slang was used. I must find some actual period stuff to read.

    • Check out these three articles/glossaries on Regency and Georgian vocabulary and slang:

      Anachronisms and Other Sins

      Surprisingly Legal (words that had their current meanings during the Regency/Georgian eras)

      How to Make a Reader Jump (words that, if used with the meanings that they would have had at the time, would completely throw the modern reader)

      The writer is not at all fond of Heyerisms like “barque of frailty” or “bit of muslin.” They don’t bother me, as they sound like slang, at least…and it’s hard to find dictionaries of historic slang anywhere. The closest I can come is a dictionary of thieves’ slang from the eighteenth century.

      The Heyerverse is a fantasy, which is what makes it romance for me, compared to Austen’s social commentary with romantic storylines. Austen writes happy endings for her central couples, but around that she examines how the class system and gender divisions don’t work, who they don’t work for, and what happens then.

      I never saw anything in Austen about gender divisions. The class system…are you talking about how pettily snobbish Anne Elliot’s father and sisters were? Or Emma fussing about how Harriet Smith simply couldn’t marry a yeoman? Because that’s pretty much how high society operates, isn’t it? Money and snobbery? That’s not so much social commentary for me as it is deadly accuracy. How are you defining social commentary?

      • Yes, and you have to be careful with the so-called thieves slang dictionaries, as apparently a lot of that was made up when the author discovered how popular it was.

        Social commentary in Austen has more do do with what we might call ethical behavior: class is mixed in, but take for example Isabella’s behavior in Northanger Abbey. She and Catherine come from the same class, but there is a vast difference in their behavior. Ditto the two Tilney brothers.

  15. Chris. Yes–Heyer knew her ground when she stuck to romance. There she was queen, even if she professed to despise both her fluff and the readers who loved it.

    Re slang, I think she got a lot of the distinctive slang from Pierce Egan’s sporting pieces about life in London–and I also get the impression that he made some of it up, when he became really popular. At any rate, Austen shows us young people talking slang in Northanger Abbey, making really clear what you pick up reading letters, etc, when we look at how Isabella and her brother speak. The brother uses a lot of the slang that Heyer also employed, but the girls had their own slang.

    They didn’t use male slang because they had their own. (You can find the occasional period male saying, for example, “That was quite a bam,” though I’ve yet to find one outside of Pierce Egan saying “You’re bamming me.” And I have never seen a female use ‘bam’, not even Clair Claremont, who was the wildest of groupies during this very time. Or Caro Lamb, also quite wild, in her Mary-Sue novel Glenarvon.

    Clair Claremont and Mary Shelley and Jane Williams made up their own code words for certain subjects, but they never use male slang. I’d be interested to see a text where one does, but even so, I would remain convinced that the two sexes had their own styles of slang and idiom. It was Heyer, writing during the Bright Young Thing period, during which time it was quite daring and stylish for young women to wear male styles, cut their hair, smoke, drive, and use male language, who transposed that sense of daring and ‘style’ to the Regency–which, in turn, makes her Regency figures more accessible to us up at this end of the twentieth century, though a step farther away from the real Regency period.)

  16. My theory is that all writers carry their period with them, without noticing — the way fish do not notice their water. It is your element, surrounding you, and so you don’t see it. Once I read THE EGYPTIAN, by Mika Waltari — it was a best seller in the 50s. It is set in the Egypt of Ramese II but, mysteriously, it is flavored throughout with the Eisenhower era. You would never mistake it for a 21st century work.

  17. Wait, it sounds a little like you are saying that Austin’s books can’t be romances because they are *good*, which doesn’t make sense. I consider them romances because of the inevitable HEA, but they are also socially and ethically deep books.

    Heyer writes very different kinds of romances, so no argument there. Fantasy vs reality, for one difference.

    And I do like books like EMMA, where the protagonist chases after the wrong guy for most of the book, although the reader clearly sees the better match. I’m blanking on names, but there are definitely examples. Often it’s done with a Cyrano touch.

    It’s an interesting thought that in JANE EYRE she only chooses marriage after actually getting a choice — Jane could have just settled down with her vast fortune. A bit too melodramatic for Austin, though.

  18. You should go to coffee shops with me — I promise you that my eyes would NOT glaze over!

    Seriously, I love when you bring up this kind of discussion here — though as usual I have nothing to add to it.


    • I second that. This makes me wish I was 19 again, and back in school, when I could still justify spending my days just reading and discussing, because that was my “real job.”

      Now I just spend my nights reading and (sometimes) discussing and always feeling guilty because none of that pays the bills or puts food on the table (or gets the dust kitties cleaned out from under the furniture).

      I haven’t read Austin for years. But I’m certainly going to revisit her soon.

  19. I think that likely Heyer failed at engaging moral issues because she did not write enough about them. She didn’t write about them because she was making a living as an author and, well, morally challenging work is not popular.

    My sense of Austen is that she was a very radical woman whose life left little space to develop and act on her radicalism. What survives is incisive social criticism and close observation of her times. But her life is shrouded in mystery. She may have written much more which either did not survive or was destroyed–she certainly wrote a lot.

    • I agree about Heyer – she struggled financially and wrote things that she knew would be popular and therefore financially beneficial, not what she considered to be meaningful – it limited her scope on moral issues. Which i think makes her novels interesting is she was writing them quickly and with financial pressure bearing down but she still manages to make them witty. She was a very prolific writer (almost 50 books) so I think we can excuse some of her sillier works compared with austen who only left us 6 complete novels.

  20. Beth: not saying that Jane Austen’s books are not romances because they are good, I’m saying that she wasn’t writing romances, though she WAS writing romantic elements. She knew what romance was. She read them. But she was trying to break the rules of romance, because she wanted to criticize elements of society that she felt were false, hypocritical, etc, especially within the context of why people married, especially women. No “this is bad” and “this is good” implied. Just different types of novel.

  21. First, I ought to say that I adore both authors, but find them utterly dissimilar. However, what I treasure about Heyer (and why Heyer and Austen come together for me at all, unlike most of the Austen-sequels I’ve read) is that Heyer is actually funny, though again in an entirely different way to Austen. I’ve yet to read the Austen sequel that has actually made me laugh or even smile, except unintentionally…

    Also! I think the other thing I adore about Heyer is a genre thing: she reads (to me) like a straight-up fantasy novel. I always get the sense that she is world-building rather than telling a historical novel, so I actually appreciate the amalgam/mash-up of thirties/Regency slang and social mores she sets up (even when they don’t align with my personal politics, which is basically all the time). Maybe this is why she’s popular with so many SF writers…? Whereas if Austen were writing her novels today, I think they’d be shelved in the “realistic contemporary” section.

  22. Kali: I totally agree. Heyer really was a terrific worldbuilder, and that, along with her sense of pacing (in the earlier ones, not so much in the very last few novels) makes them such fun reads. And oh yes, re the appeal to SF readers–Heyer and O’Brian both.

  23. Lovely 🙂 This was very interesting! I never noticed that ‘ton’ was only mentioned once in all her books. This post made me smile

  24. There is another powerful proof that Heyer (and indeed much romance) is actually fantasy. Those men are as fantastical as the unicorn. Would you, presented with a harsh, profligate and possibly abusive man, assume that marriage will change his spots? Austen at least has a clearer idea of what marriage can do for a woman, for good or for ill. (Fanny Price’s mother is a fine example of a woman who could -not- reform her rake.)

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  26. Brenda, if I hadn’t seen it happening yesterday (and the day before, etc) in person, I would think it a fantasy that there are women who believe that marriage will indeed change a tiger’s spots. But I have, so I don’t.

  27. I have enjoyed both Austen and Heyer – First read P&P at age 11 and loved it.
    It seems to me that Austen would have lumped Heyer into the ‘Gothic Novel’ category- at the lighter end of the spectrum.
    Austen’s world is so real. When out in the rain I sometimes flash to Jane Bennet’s long walk to Netherfield Park. Modern shoes and rain gear are so much better!

  28. Great post, Sherwood. I confess I’d never heard the word hapax legomenon which I might have thought of what happens when a two-year-old crashes into a Lego structure. (Just kidding.)

    Seriously, loved the piece and learned lots.

  29. That’s fascinating about Heyer using ‘ton’ (and other slang) incorrectly – I read A. S. Byatt’s essay on Heyer years ago and for some reason thought she was completely authoritative when she said Heyer’s use of slang was absolutely accurate.

    As well as the point you make about a marriage being the socially acceptable goal for women in Austen’s time, I think she’s using the reward of a marriage ending as reinforcement for the quite serious moral lessons she imparts so lightly. I hadn’t thought of it in exactly this way before, but the happy marriage is an equally important reward for the men (who learn) as for the protagonists. Mr Darcy could as easily have ended up miserable with Caroline Bingley as Elizabeth with – well, Wickam wouldn’t have married her, and she’s not foolish or desperate enough to have accepted Mr Collins. Still. Same goes for Captain Wentworth and one of the Musgrove girls.

    Actually, it’s interesting thinking of Charlotte and Mr Bennet as a less obvious parallel in the book, isn’t it? Mr Bennet had all the power of choice Charlotte didn’t have, but chose foolishly, and then made the best of his bad situation in a very selfish way. For all I don’t believe we’re meant to condone Charlotte’s choice, I can’t see her retiring to her hens and her back parlour and abdicating parental responsibility in the future, can you? In a way, I can almost imagine her as an equivalent to the likes of Anne Elliot’s mother – or Henry Tilney’s, although not on the same level (morally or socially).

    • Yeah. Byatt probably hasn’t read deeply in period, is my guess, or was educated reading the language and tone of the Bright Young Things, which imbues Heyer’s language and tone. But at some point, when reading in period, it begins to be clear where Heyer got a lot of her slang; she was influenced strongly by Pierce Egan, and secondly, I think she also was influenced by the Bright Young Things who adopted male trousers, smoking, driving, and slang. Austen makes it very clear at the beginning of Northanger Abbey in the language of Isabella and her sisters that women had their own slang, and they did not use that of the males (as exemplified by Isabella’s brother)

      As for romance, exactly. Austen worked against the established tropes that the heroine must stand aside, innocent and passive, until the man chooses her. Elizabeth Bennet turned down Darcy until he did some changing. Lydia transgresses, and has to live with her choices, she doesn’t die of consumption because she sinned. Charlotte chooses a spouse against romantic notions, but gets exactly what she wants.

  30. My late aunt (who was born in 1899 I think) once startled me with the question ‘are you baming me?’ She was very old at the time, and tired and I suspect reverting to the slang of her youth.
    My grandparents were bourgeois Brooklyn (NY) – with a rather insular circle which my account for the archaism.

    • ‘a bam’ definitely goes back to the 1700s, but from anything I can tell, ‘bamming’ was closer to Victorian, not Regency.

      I’m rereading Smollett right now, and it’s interesting seeing the alteration in idiom from 1770.

  31. “Blood will always tell.”

    I had not noticed this attitude in Heyer until my recent read of These Old Shades, when it’s hard to miss. After this post and the ensuing discussion, I’m thinking maybe I was reading Heyer as if she were Austen, and adding the social commentary in my own head. I confess, at first I felt a bit disappointed that Heyer wasn’t as much ahead of her time as Austen, but then, why should I complain that an orange doesn’t taste like an apple?

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  33. Thanks, Sherwood — I missed this the first time around! Yes, delicious irony abounds in Jane Austen. Have to say I’ve never read Heyer, and after this discussion, I’m not tempted.

    • Heyer has her good points when she is really on. There’s a reason that a group of female political prisoners locked in a cell together for something like nine years retold one of Heyer’s stories over and over. (One of the few fan letters she treasured, because she was also a bigoted snob.)

    • Fridays child is the novel sherwood is referring to. Its a delight but you do have to suspend reality a bit.

  34. I love this conversation, even if I don’t feel like I can really participate. My first Heyer is still sitting in my to-be-read pile. And while I love P&P and enjoyed S&S, those are still the only two Austen novels I have read. Clearly, I need to get a work on finishing my to-be-read pile.

  35. Did you ever read Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography of Georgette Heyer? It made me sad, and diminished my respect for both authors (whose works I love): Heyer comes over as a crashing snob, and Hodge as a hagiographer.

    • It’s hard to hide how much Heyer despised Americans, Jews, Catholics, just about everyone but the English upper crust. That hagiography is well meant, but contains little info. The recent biography has a lot more info, and though the author did her best to present Heyer sympathetically, Heyer was a complicated subject.

  36. Jane Austen didn’t write romances because that meant something completely different. She was one of the first to write about real types of people living ordinary lives without mad monks or wicked rakes chasing after maids. Sir Walter Scott wrote romances, which Jane did devour, but she had her own unique style of writing. I love her witty social commentary and the HEA endings. I love Heyer’s Regency world because it’s a fun place to escape and she almost always makes me laugh. She did get a lot of the period details right with a limited amount of sources available.

    I recommend watching historian Lucy Worsley’s documentary “A Very British Romance”. It’s on YouTube for those of us not in Britain. She talks about Georgian authors who influenced Austen on to 20th century writers. She omitted Heyer and instead talked about Barbara Cartland.

  37. Interesting … I guess my shallowness will shine through.. never thought that much about Heyer’s works as anything but magnificent dialogue with an interesting set of characters.
    (Which just twigged me that it matches what I’ve always loved about David & Leigh Eddings… the world building was meh, but the characters and dialogue that supported them were what I loved)
    But any romance* (even Taming of the Shrew) starts with a Petroucio & Kate, we know the ending it’s the getting there that has to impress us.
    In contemporary romance, Lass Small (who is gone now) always wrote dialogue that was American Heyer… combined with a truly unique style (ala Ray Vukevich) that when I stumbled across one of the two novels that were published under the Lass Small name I immediately figured she was the author.

    Nora Roberts does a great job of moving the story from where you know it starts to where it has to end.
    PC Hodgell made her students read “Devils Cub” in her English Lit class at the college she teaches at.
    *that might be the definition of romance… you know where it starts and where it ends it’s the journey not the destination.

    • That’s a great definition of romance as it has evolved into what it is today. (The word has a pretty long history.)

      I agree. Heyer is at her best with dialogue, sparkling champagne!

  38. Of course, “romance” in Jane Austen’s day meant something very different from what it means today. Melodramas like The Mysteries of Udolpho were romances, not Austen’s novels. I think for Austen the romantic plot was largely a convenience—a frame in which she could paint the thematic painting that really interested her. In romance novels today (can I include Heyer in “today”?) the romantic plot is the point, and the rest (humor, interesting characters, etc.) is just decor. Austen was doubtless aware that there was a whole tradition going back at least as far as the Renaissance of the marriage plot being a place-holder for broader social commentary.

    • For purposes of this discussion, I think we can definitely include Heyer in “today.”