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.
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.
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.