The Romance of the Regency: Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Silver Fork Novels

I discovered Georgette Heyer in high school, after reading an entire issue of the fanzine Niekas devoted to it, somewhere around 1967-8. At that time I hadn’t yet read Jane Austen, though I’d loved historical novels ever since I checked out Mara, Daughter of the Nile in grade school. My favorite by ninth grade was Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree, based on real people during the Napoleonic period (though I was to discover it was every bit as romanticized as most of the memoirs penned by the surviving principals later on) so I was instantly intrigued.

The first Heyer I read was A Convenient Marriage, and as Horry was a couple years older than I  (she was all of seventeen) I had no problem with her romancing a world-weary Earl in his mid-thirties. Seventeen was so old and sophisticated!

From then on I had to read them all. My library only had four or five, so for several weeks I walked the three miles to the stop for the downtown bus, which was almost a two hour ride one way, to check the Los Angeles Main Library, where I found a gold mine—they had everything, even the ones she later suppressed (though I could immediately see why, young as I was).

I was thoroughly entranced.

When I was done with those, I looked around for anything like them, encountering (as did many of my agemates) Barbara Cartland, then Clare Darcy, and others. Regency romances took off in the wake of Heyer’s popularity, which zoomed when her books began to appear here in the States in paperback. Those seventies Regency romance writers seemed to be doing their research in Heyer’s novels, often not only reproducing her plotlines, her character types and dialogue patterns, specifically the slang. It got so that when the young heroine admonished her best friend, or her scamp of a brother, or a tall, sardonic handsome hero not to make a cake of themselves, you knew a Heyer plot was coming. The question was, which one?

In college I discovered Jane Austen, and it was as if a door had opened where before I’d had a peephole. I devoured those novels, I devoured her letters, then I devoured all the novels she must have read, and the plays, and publications like Spectator, and moved on to collections of letters and diaries. When I came back to Heyer, which I often did as a comfort read, I began to perceive the differences not just in dialogue, but in paradigm.

The Regency Monde

Gradually I worked past Austen’s era, and discovered that the Regency bucks, beaux, and dangerous ladies became objects of fascination in the 1830s, in spite of Lady Blessington’s interview with Byron, who by that time had been away from England so long she found him quaint and slightly peculiar in his old-fashioned Bond Street beau clothes and his out-of-date idiom.

There is something about the Regency period that has remained fascinating down to today. Such events as the Cyprians’ Ball of 1818 could take place, at which people of high degree mixed with low, capturing the imagination with a bewitching mix of arrogance, raffishness, style, and glamor. The London of high society during the Regency was graced by buildings and furnishings of brilliant artistry, without being scarred (unlike Paris and the rest of Europe) by twenty years of war. High society during this period was looser than the days of stiff crinolines and satin coats, yet language was somehow more refined: by 1818, ‘mistresses’  or ‘women on the town’ (such as was mentioned in Pride and Prejudice) were ‘tender connexions’ and ‘Cyprians’, words like ‘bowels’ and ‘cholic’ were no longer acceptable in the drawing room, and women were no longer ‘breeding’ but ‘in the family way.’ This refinement was not so much of moral nicety as of social boundary. Above all, the time was filled with remarkable personalities, captured not only in various romans à clef, but in the anecdotes of Captain Gronow and others.

One of these personalities was Lady Caroline Lamb, who penned a roman à clef of her own, called Glenarvon, in which she enthusiastically skewers every one of the high ranking people she knew personally, to their gasping dismay and fulminating rage when the book came out—and sold out. Her chief target was Lord Byron, with whom she’d had an affair as brief as it was stormy. The novel includes his last letter to her, a high-handedly pointed effusion making it crystal clear she was being dumped. Harriette Wilson insists she discussed this letter with Byron, and he said he deliberately made all those letters as ridiculous and melodramatic as possible. Maybe it’s even true!

In Glenarvon, Lady Caro gleefully inserted herself as a classic Mary Sue not once but twice, first as the helpless innocent with whom everyone is in love, and so who gets to die a tragic and beautiful death of consumption, throwing the world into mourning, and also as the Byronically tragic female war leader, who gets a Byronically dramatic death as she rides off a cliff. (Modern audiences will feel sorry for the horse.)

Silver Fork Novels

The thing to remember is that Jane Austen was not writing Regency novels as we understand them today. She was writing contemporary novels, sometimes revised to be up-to-the-minute. The Regency historical novel focusing on the glamorous life came later; I think it was a fashion launched by a young Bulwer-Lytton in his ultra-glam and self-consciously, archly witty Pelham in 1828, described below. After its extreme popularity, the genre was launched by publisher Henry Colburn, who made his name in publishing by instituting such well-known works as Burke’s Peerage. He made a killing in fiction by schmoozing bored aristocrats and  aristocratic wannabes into writing novels.

Since in those days most novels, especially by women, were published anonymously, he just had to let gossip get out that someone “high” was coming out with a roman à clef. Not only was that an assured sell for the middle classes, who apparently had an endless appetite for the high life and the low life, but it also assured sales among the beau monde who wanted to see who was caricatured in it—after they made sure their own name wasn’t there, either in easily penetrated cipher, or by the coy em-dash, as in Duchess of  D——e.

Propelling taste for insider info on the high life was courtesan Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, published after she systematically blackmailed all her former clients, saying “Pay up or I’ll put you in a book.” When Wellington, among others, said “Publish and be damned,” she was as good as her word. Those memoirs are entertaining now, though hardly what modern audiences would consider scandalous. Like all lady memoirists of the time, Harriette strove to present herself as ever young, frail, largely innocent, and of course of impeccable ton.

Lady Charlotte Bury, Henry Luttrell, Lord Normanby, Robert Plumer Ward, and T.H. Lister were among Colburn’s lofty authors, and Theodore Hook and Benjamin Disraeli among the wannabes. Hook’s lavish, admiring descriptions of dinners among the high and mighty prompted a critic to mock him, giving birth to the “silver fork” label; Thackeray later lambasted Bulwer-Lytton’s penchant for lionizing high society, calling him a “silver fork polisher.”

Silver fork novels might contain an element of satire—there were two novels about Almacks, both called Almacks, castigating it as nothing but a marriage mart for aristocrats—but underneath the caricatures was a sustained and unquestioning admiration for birth, riches, and exclusivity. The most risible satire is bestowed on instances of mauvais ton; otherwise, authors hadn’t a thing to say against flagrant consumption, as long as it was done with style.

Country house parties, risqué behavior, gambling, and duels filled the pages, though central was always an edifyingly “good” heroine and if the young hero began his life with careless abandon, he was sure to repent just enough to marry and settle down by the end of his three volumes. It is true that there were exceptions. Lady Charlotte Bury, in A Marriage in High Life, sees to it that the immoral Lord Fitzheury, who marries a banker’s daughter and then rejects her on her wedding night in favor of his mistress, dies of consumption after too late recognizing his wife’s purity.

But none of these reached the pinnacle of popularity of Edward Lytton Bulwer’s Pelham, the Adventures of a Gentleman.

In the first chapter, Henry Pelham’s mother is about to run away with her lover, the most popular rake in London, when she flits back to get her overlooked china dog. There she meets her husband on the stairs.

“I have observed,” (says Henry Pelham), “that the distinguishing trait of people accustomed to good society, is a calm imperturbable quiet, which pervades all their actions and habits, from the greatest to the least; they eat in quiet, move in quiet, live in quiet, and lose their wife, or even their money in quiet; while low persons cannot take up either a spoon or an affront without making such an amazing noise about it.”

The couple carry on as if nothing happened, except that Mr. Pelham senior introduces the rake to Brooke’s Club, and invites him twice weekly to dinner for a year.

People nowadays who have only heard of Bulwer (or Bulwer-Lytton, as he soon styled himself, acknowledging his mother’s wishes) via the contest for the worst opening sentence, assume that he was a terrible writer. Bulwer-Lytton was actually extremely popular throughout the nineteenth century, and had far more influence than one might think.

His influence begins with this novel. In a move that I suspect was influenced by Goethe’s Werther, Bulwer has Henry Pelham’s stylish mother tell Henry in an impishly Chesterfieldian letter that he looks better in black than blue. Henry (who of course has the ideal slender, aristocratic physique) instructs his valet from now on he will wear black coats day and night, and without any padding. Thus, the Regency tight, padded blue coat with its golden buttons, made fashionable by Beau Brummel, overnight became outmoded. For pretty much the next hundred years, men wore black coats for formal wear, and without padding.

It took me many years to get a copy of the 1828 edition, which he later smoothed a bit to make it more family friendly, when he rebranded himself as a writer of great fiction. And his contemporaries considered him a great—in his autobiography, Anthony Trollope discusses the prominent writers of his day. Bulwer is fourth after Thackeray, Elliott, and Dickens, and before Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins, and others.

In his early twenties, full of wit and eagerness to please the great hostesses of the day (early in the novel there is plenty of praise for Lady Caroline Lamb, one of the hostesses who launched Bulwer into society), Bulwer set out to make a name for himself. And he did, with his insouciant wit that must have been an influence on Oscar Wilde:

“There was also Mr. Wormwood, the noli-metangere of literary lions—an author who sowed his conversation not with flowers but thorns . . .he had never once been known to say a civil thing. He was too much disliked not to be recherché; whatever is once notorious, even for being disagreeable, is sure to be courted in England.”

And this famous line, spoken by the Brummel character whom Pelham meets, “Give me the man who makes the tailor, not the tailor who makes the man.” Georgette Heyer later made use of this line.

Shortly after Bulwer hit the bigtime, the silver fork novel reached its pinnacle with the works of Catherine Grace Gore, in which high life was brilliantly mixed with wit and an eye to complexity of character, and sympathy for women trying to make a place in the dangerous world of what by then became known as the haut ton. Silver fork novels continued to be popular, though later in the century, writers shifted them up to contemporary times. A couple of examples are E.F. Benson’s Dodo and Anthony Hope’s Dolly Dialogues.

I don’t think Jeffrey Farnol fits into the silver fork tradition except at the edge, but he was definitely an influence on Heyer with his adventurous historical novels. Finally, I think Nancy Mitford’s work is in the silver fork tradition, glorifying the lifestyle of the Bright Young Things, which is another influence I see in Heyer’s work.

So when Heyer began zeroing in on the Regency period, I think she took all these influences and reinvented the silver fork tradition. I don’t know if anyone else sees the connection; one of the reasons why I write these riffs is to check my ideas against others’ perceptions. But when I went back after some years of reading all these novels, I was struck by a resemblance between Mitford’s work and Heyer’s, specifically the cadences of language, and the outlook: Mitford wrote about Bright Young Things with the charm one remembers of one’s youth. Heyer wrote about them with the charm of one who admired that life, only she sets them in Regency garb, and gives them Regency era slang instead of the distinctive twenties “too-too sick-making” idiom. But, like twenties Bright Young Women, Heyer’s heroines show a tendency to use male slang, specifically that from Pierce Egan’s popular works, which you don’t actually find much of in Austen or her contemporaries. They also show the twenties freedom from constraint, though they are still ladies of birth and breeding.

In Austen’s Northanger Abbey the Thorpe sisters speak in female idiom, which is quite different from that employed by the Thorpe brother. The latter uses a few terms familiar from Pierce Egan’s work, and Austen shares her contemporaries’ disgust for the habits of some teenage boys of otherwise good birth who loved acting like coachmen, boxing the watch, and behaving like ruffians. In Heyer’s novels, the younger brothers take this behavior sometimes to an extreme degree while remaining lovable, like the wild young men of the Bright Young Things; also during the twenties, young women of birth adopted male dress, and male habits like short hair, smoking, driving, the wearing of trousers, and young men of their class found that attractive. Heyer’s heroes seem to find male slang and outlook attractive in her heroines, though in Austen’s contemporaries, females behaving similarly are universally made fun of. (Austen writes about all kinds of women, but none ever drive a perch-phaeton, fire off a pistol, or dress in breeches.)

Ton: Austen vs. Heyer

Whether or not my theory about Bright Young Things holds any water, the element that truly places Heyer firmly among the silver fork novelists is her persistent theme that Blood Will Always Tell.  This is very much in the silver fork tradition, going right back to Pelham. Though one could call Bulwer’s witty prose Austenian at times, I think Jane Austen would have objected to the matter-of-fact way that the narrator ridicules his host, while accepting his generous invitation, in a passage like:

“Sir Lionel Garret was a character very common in England, and, in describing him, I describe the whole species . . . It was no wonder, then, that to this set belonged Sir Lionel Garrett . . . pinched in, and curled out—abounding in horses and whiskers—dancing all night—lounging all day—the favourite of the old ladies, the Philander of the young . . . He cared not a straw that he was a man of fortune, of family, of consequence; he must be a man of ton; or he was an atom, a nonentity, a very worm, and no man. No lawyer at Gray’s Inn, no galley slave at the oar, ever worked so hard at his task, as Sir Lionel Garrett at his.”

Pelham then goes on to ridicule the company that he will triumph over with his social finesse. Austen would have despised such hypocrisy. The only two aristocrats she presents in a good light are Mr. Darcy (not Lord; he is the nephew of an earl through his mother) and his cousin, Col. Fitzwilliam, the latter being the earl’s youngest son who must follow a profession. We know how Darcy has to change before the daughter of a country gentleman will agree to marry him. Without exception, the rest of Austen’s aristocrats are stupid, vulgar, boring, and arrogant. Heyer reserves that kind of opprobrium for social climbers.

I think that Heyer’s Bright Young Things in Regency dress succeed so well because they bridge the gap between the Regency paradigm and that of the twentieth century. I just don’t see any of Heyer’s favorite heroine types in the actual Regency, though there are some shared traits. For an example of the most radical Regency young women—the closest to modern times—one might turn to Claire Claremont’s journal or letters. She doesn’t even remotely talk or behave like a Heyer heroine. Even less does Mary Shelley. Reading their journals, one is struck by how much female attitudes have changed in 200 years.

Heyer’s great strength is her plotting and humor, but her characters are pretty much types (she even admitted it, calling her heroes Mark I and Mark II) with superficial differences. They seldom have depth: her attempt at a ‘serious’ Regency, including middle-class  people (A Civil Contract) reads (at least to me, though I know many readers disagree) like melodrama, with a lot of just the sort of ranting that Austen pillories in a couple of her books.

That is the most telling difference between Heyer and Austen for me: Austen disliked tonnish behavior. She certainly knew the word, but in all her novels she uses it just once, in chapter nine of Mansfield Park, when the tonnish Mary Crawford is twitting Edmund Bertram on his determination to become a clergyman. Miss Crawford says such men are nothing. Bertram retorts that they are hardly nothing, though “A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress.”

Here, as in Bulwer-Lytton’s work, and indeed, most letters and literature of the actual Regency period, ton means ‘tone,’ or style. Heyer’s novels refer to the haut ton, a noun comprising her upper ten thousand, a change in the meaning of ton that I don’t see widely adopted until well into the silver fork period.

Jane Austen is accepted as a genius. Is Georgette Heyer a genius? If she is, it is a different kind than Austen’s. I think Heyer’s genius was in successfully creating an alternate Regency that is the epitome of the silver fork novel, that skillfully blends past with present so that character, story, and even paradigm are easily accessible to a modern audience.

Heyer was a meticulous researcher, immersing herself in literature of the period, down to every detail of dress, something again that you do not find in Austen, who, in writing about her own time, assumes that everyone knows those details. There are few hints about clothing in Austen’s novels, outside of Fanny being complimented on her white gown with the glossy spots in Mansfield Park. Heyer gets rid of what she doesn’t like about that period, and gives her reader what makes Jane Austen so popular for so many readers: the agreeable life of the upper reaches of society, the tranquil existence that never sees the horror and anguish and squalor of the manufacturing cities.

Heyer created the ideal Regency haut ton—that is, ideal for aristocrats. When she does permit the ugliness of early industrial life and the grinding misery of the poor to enter a novel (Arabella), or the nastiness of economic underpinnings (any book that mentions Jews) she wisely confines it to single instances that she can have her heroine or hero solve, then she whisks the evidence out of the way so that the reader stays firmly in her secondary universe, and does not start thinking about the tragedies of reality.

Heyer’s reinvention of the silver fork novel was so convincing, enchanting, and pervasive that Regency romance readers for many years expected the plots to follow the same general lines as Heyer laid down, the characters to resemble her types, and Heyer’s distinctive slang to be faithfully reproduced. And it is still pretty much the case. Readers who love Heyer’s novels know that there can never be any new ones, and so they turn to authors who write similar books in order to extend the pleasure they find in the originals.

Besides discussion among those who know Heyer, Austen, and the period, what I hope this riff might spark is an interest in the real Jane Austen and her contemporaries, if one has enjoyed the various Austen-related movies and mashups. Jane Austen invented the modern novel, by quietly but effectively breaking through the eighteenth century stereotypes and writing about real people, with real reactions, with insight, and wit. If a person has read enough Heyer and others who emulate her, he or she ought not to find Austen’s language impenetrable, and will probably be able to comprehend the wit. Anyone who loves, say, Friday’s Child ought to laugh out loud at the absurdities of Mrs. Norris, or enjoy the sly selfishness of Isabella Thorpe—or recognize how John Dashwood, so continually worried about his position in society, becomes more servile than his servants.

Sherwood Smith



The Romance of the Regency: Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Silver Fork Novels — 45 Comments

  1. Heyer is some pretty sweet eye candy all right. She did what she did very well, and her imitators continue the dilution of the real period, speech, dress, and manners. I can’t read them, but fortunately Miss Austen re reads very well–over and over.

  2. I haven’t read Heyer in years, although I owned dozens of her books (and re-read them often) when I was younger. Fortunately for me, the two libraries I had access to had a lot of her books (and I encountered Heyer at the point where Bantam was reissuing many many of her books, and Ace most of the rest). Venetia was my first, and in some ways formative, Heyer.

    I think you’re totally on target with the Silver Fork identification. Heyer wasn’t really writing about the Regency (although her research was meticulous–the books that concern themselves with the war, and particularly with Waterloo, show that she read widely and deeply about the period and understood the military aspects, which is more than I did). She was wedding the “silver fork” fascination with manners, position, and style with the society pages of her time, and a touch of Graustark.

    Oddly, as I grew older, I came to like the Georgian books better than the Regencies. (And what did you make of her sadly leaden medieval books? She loved that period, and earnest-ed it to death.)

    There was a point where I could pick up a Regency Romance and tell, pretty accurately, whether the author had bothered to read anything outside of Heyer. I was lucky that, by the time I wrote my first Regency, I’d abused my English professor’s patience by researching and writing about aspects of that period, and my theatre professor’s patience by designing costumes and set for a Regency-set production of Hamlet which never happened. So I had a little more to go on. Still, if I look at my early writing, Heyer is stamped all over it. I wonder what she would have made of that.

  3. From the hagiography that Joan Aiken Hodge wrote, I gather that she likely would have got somewhat shirty with you! Have you read that bio? Though the family oversaw it, which is probably responsible for the fulsome tone and praise of her novels, what comes through is a picture of a formidable woman who felt, when someone dedicated a Regency romance to her, as if worms had crawled over her skin. She didn’t like Americans, or fans. Or Jews. Or the middle-class. (Though apparently she made exception for the Romanian political prisoners who kept their sanity by retelling Friday’s Child over and over) The thing is, she seems to have cordially despised her fellow Regency silver fork novelists.

    Her medieval stuff is so stodgy it’s nearly unreadable. I think the worst of all of them is the unfinished “great novel.” My working theory is that she despised Christianity so much that she was trying to reinvent the middle ages without the Catholic paradigm, and so she has no contact point whatsoever with her historical personages.

    I also prefer her Georgians. Masqueraders remains my favorite.

    Re Infamous Army I was impressed by it until I did a lot of Waterloo reading, and discovered that she had thoroughly mastered the officers’ memoirs and the existing data on Wellington and his officers’ orders, but not so much with the grunt’s eye view–or the German or French viewpoints. Overall, it reads like a keyhole glimpse now, though a vivid one. And there are some terrifically visual scenes, especially of the aftermath.

    • What you failed to discuss, and one reason Heyer is so popular, is she can be wildly funny. My brother adored the discussion of Nemesis (in Friday’s Child?) and the terminal scene in The Grand Sophy (one of my favorites) is hysterical, especially with the ducklings wandering around and the absent minded poet abstracting the only lamp. Her final scenes are so artfully planned they cry out for stage production–but Heyer’s one experience with a film of her work soured her on anything further, as may well be understood when one suffers through the hamhanded efforts of Hollywood with any historical novel you can name. (IF you want to see a faithful and marvelous film evocation of a famous historical novel, try to get hold of a recent Polish film of Quo Vadis. But run fast and far from the disgusting Hollywood version of many years ago, despite Peter Ustinov’s Nero.)

      The major problem with Heyer’s imitators is they have NO taste or judgment, and the errors they commit in titles, dress, common manners and common knowledge are legion. The attempt of a young lady to patch up a fellow who cut his finger on what the author failed to describe as a pen knife is especially notable–she ran for “Plaster of Paris” rather than sticking plaster. Oy! But that is only one such. Heyer’s accuracy was famous, and I have heard that The Infamous Army is used at Sandhurst. if true, that will go down with Anna Russell’s hilarious take on the Ring Cycle being consulted in musical academies…

      • There are some great comic scenes in Heyer’s books. While the imitators do make a great many errors, Heyer also made some (like the odd counting of years in the generations of the Alastairs) and some artistic decisions that erred toward how she wished to see the aristocracy, rather than the way they really saw the world.

        But that’s okay, because her worldbuilding is so very complete and detailed and accessible to modern eyes.

        I too have heard about the Sandhurst thing, and wonder how true it would be; she certainly read Wellington’s dispatches, and some other accounts, but not all of them. Her view of the battle skews heavily toward the aristocrats. I wonder how useful that would have been, especially in world war two.

  4. I didn’t discover Heyer until after I read Cartland and Austin. By that time, Heyer’s originality had been copied so often she became a cliche.

    Some of Cartland’s early work was written as contemporary (1950s) romance and is much better than her later pot boiler Regencies. In the early work she actually has a plot and in-depth characterization.

    Ironic that I indulged in the 5 hour A&E rendition of Pride and Prejudice last night. The production is exquisite Austin, but the Kiera Knightly version is better cinema.

    Might be time to dig out the books again. It’s been a while.

  5. I read Austen long before Heyer, and while I’ve made several efforts to get into Heyer – so many of my friends love her – I know far too much history to make myself at home in the world she has built.

  6. As usual, Sherwood, your incredibly interesting and thoroughly instructive insights into the literary world make me want to pick up every single book and author you mentioned in your blog post and thoroughly immerse myself! Too many books and not enough time…

    When I was a teenager in Germany, I remember enjoying my first Heyer’s novel (translated into German) and devouring Selinko’s Désirée (as well as what I thought of as Golon’s racy Angélique series). It was great fun to find that I could still enjoy a recent re-reading of Friday’s Child with our book group. I got such a kick out of the antics of Sherry’s friends Gil and Ferdy. One can easily see how the characters are reminiscent of “Bright Young Things in Regency dress”. The wit, humor and sparkling dialogue really do make Heyer an easy and comfortable read.

    At a recent JASNA luncheon, one of the guest speakers, Edward Copeland, gave a wonderful presentation on the Silver Fork Novel. Afterwards, we had a chance to see a sampling of Silver Forks held in the Sadlier Collection at the UCLA Young Research Library. We also had a chance to hold and browse a three volume Pride and Prejudice first edition! Happy thought indeed!

    Thank you for a very entertaining post.

  7. Gerda: thanks for stopping by! One thing I discovered when I finally read Desiree in its original German is that some was cut for the English translation. So I recommend anyone who likes the novel to read it in the original.

    And Angelique! I read those as a teenager. A Dutch friend had been secretly reading them as they were translated into Dutch from the French, before they came out in English. She used to tell us incidents from the stories, only in whispers so the teachers wouldn’t overhear.

  8. Good grief! Did everyone of our age read Angelique??! I remember being unable to stop reading them, even though the plots never came properly to a conclusion — perpetual cliff hangers.

  9. @ green_knight

    Your experience makes perfect sense to me. As an “advanced” reader I was introduced to Miss Austen far too soon. I was twelve and thought her boring. Heyer would have fit my immaturity better, but once one can really experience Miss Austen then anything else . . . well . . . it just seems flat and shallow.

  10. I sat down and read all the Heyer romances — what is it, about eighteen of them — in one terrific binge, over about ten days. After that I felt the way you do after eating far too much chocolate — kind of logey and ill. To get it out of the system I immediately wrote my own Regency, a short story — which is just up here on BVC!

  11. I also cut my teeth on my Mum’s edition of Desiree (which I loved so much that I named a doll in historical dress for the heroine) and my aunt’s collection of Angelique novels (such thrills, such excitement and hint of sex, too). When my aunt discarded most of her books upon moving into a smaller flat, I begged the Angelique books from her, because I had loved them so much. Elisabeth Barbier’s Mogador saga about a French family is another series I remember from those days, though I eventually tired of them, because all the characters I liked grew old and died and the story just went on and on.

    Oddly enough, neither my aunt nor my mother nor my grandmother ever read Georgette Heyer at the time (I introduced my Mom to Heyer much later, when they were reissued in German). I suspect that Bertelsmann, whose book club provided most of the reading material for our extended family, did not have the rights to Heyer’s work.

    As it was, I didn’t discover Heyer until I was at university, long after I had read all of Jane Austen and went in search of something a bit like Austen and found a stack of vintage Heyer paperbacks at the used book shop. I didn’t even know she was famous at the time, but I thoroughly enjoyed Heyer – apart from her bouts of anti-semitism.

    I agree with you that Heyer is closer to the silver fork tradition and to twenties high life than to Austen and other actual women writers of the Regency. However, the bright young things of the twenties are almost as far removed in time from us today than the Regency was from Heyer, so the parallels are easy to miss for the contemporary reader. And the silver fork novels did not even exist, as far as my English professors were concerned – I found Bulwer-Lytton on my own.

    What used to be called traditional regencies obviously borrowed from Heyer. I read many of those, once I ran out of original Heyer, and most of them were completely forgettable second and third hand Heyer clones, though there were some trad regency authors whose work I enjoyed. However, I still vastly prefer the now defunct traditional regency genre to what passes for Regency historicals today. I’ve given the regency historical subgenre several tries, including well regarded authors, but I just cannot stomach the modern attitudes and blatant inaccuracies in those novels. At least Heyer had some idea of what she was doing.

  12. Angelique! I have them all in paperback and want to get rid of them, but somehow… they’re still here. After reading a few of them, I found a similar but inferior series about a young woman named Marianne or Mary Anne and she was described as the most beautiful woman in the world–and I immediately drew up short and said, “She can’t be. Angelique is! This writer is copying Angelique!” Ah, to be fourteen again….

    I still love the Heyers and Austen, too. I’m easy that way.

  13. Joffrey, disguised as a pirate, freed Angelique from a harem in exchange for his secret gold washing techniques. Somewhere along the line they emigrated to Canada with their kids. I think there were more novels afterwards, but I never read those.

  14. They ended up in Canada, which is where I lost interest. I didn’t want to read about them on the frontier, but in Paris, and also, the storyline was feeling contrived, the way they kept putting things in the way of the pair, though by then they had grown kids!

  15. Can I still play if I admit that I never read Angelique? I did read Desiree years after I got my Regency bug, but I’m not sure I’m allowed in this company.

    And Sherwood: yes, she looked down her nose on Jews, the middle class, and peasantry that wasn’t earnestly tugging its forelock. On the other hand, compared to the Baroness Orczy and some of their contemporaries, she’s remarkably restrained…

    • I actually haven’t read Angelique or Desiree, even to this day. I was pinching all my mother’s adult SF novels instead–White, Bova, Zelazny, Sturgeon, Heinlein. The Ballantine fantasies after plowing through Western fairy tales and folklore. She handed me Heyer on the way out the door to college. Austen I love but have done as I do with all favorites–I leave a couple until I desperately need a novel by that person, a new novel.

      But Sherwood explaining Silver Fork novels to me once made me realize why I preferred SFF to Regencies. I didn’t like what others were doing in their Heyer knock-offs–I liked Heyer’s Silver Fork Bright Young Things. At least they were amusing, even as I finally decided that like Vonda, I didn’t want to live in the past, I wanted to build a better future.

  16. Oh dear, yes. Baroness Orczy managed to cram so many -isms into The Scarlet Pimpernel that I ended up thoroughly disliking both novel and character. It probably wouldn’t have been quite so bad, if I had discovered her in my teens. But by the time I read her, I was already well into my twenties and literally could not stomach her.

  17. Madeleine: you are so right. I could skim past that stuff at age twelve, but when I reread Baroness Orczy after the Anthony Andrews Pimpernel came out it was so painful I could scarcely finish it.

    Angelique suffers from bad translation; the female half of the authorship was also ripped off by her publishers, and it took her years to get the rights to her own work. The Internet revealed to her that she had fans, and she is finishing up the series, but I don’t know if it’s going to get a decent translation. Oh, to read French well!

  18. Awesome post! I really like the “Bright Young Things” idea…it explains a lot. And now I want to read more 1920s Silver Fork novels.

    I should also probably read PELHAM.

    I finally purchased the book that collects a lot of the Heyer reviews & criticism and such (Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective), though I haven’t started it yet; I think it’s going to be interesting reading some of the contemporary opinions on her work. I wanted to read through it before the new bio of Heyer comes out…next year, I think. It’s supposed to be more in-depth than the Joan Aiken Hodge one.

  19. This is one of those times when I am especially thrilled to have a Kindle. I just downloaded the sample chapters of a half dozen books referenced here, but won’t have them cluttering up my living space unless I fall in love and want to own them. Also won’t actually have to pay for the ones not in public domain unless I read the sample and want to keep going.

    I loved this article. Thank you for writing it.

  20. Pooks: good reading! (I think my Sony has paid for itself many times over, for the access to old treasures that used to take me years to find. Just recently I’ve been reading Duchess of Sagan’s memoir about the Vienna Congress. As usual, it’s full of delicious detail–yet just as usual she makes no mention whatsoever of the fact that she was conducting a torrid affair with Metternich! She presents herself as the devoted wife and mother.

  21. Victoria: I have high hopes for the new Heyer bio. Re Heyer criticism, I once went hunting it down, and found a lot of very dated stuff–most of what I saw was either fulsome squee, or else sniffy dismissal of romance just because it was romance. It might be interesting to take the books one at a time and get a discussion going. (Either that or find some site where Heyer readers have already done just that. O tempe, she fugits!)

  22. There is a yahoo list where they are doing just that. This month they are finishing a discussion of Sprig Muslin. I forget what comes next, but they’re taking them in chronological order.

  23. Sherwood: I had to adapt Pimpernel for the Classics Illustrated series. What I remembered was the Leslie Howard film, which has moments of…stateliness, pacing-wise, but also has some wonderful set pieces–the scene at the wall of Paris, the one where Chauvelin waits (with the snoring Percy) in the library for the Pimpernel to appear. Those scenes are, in fact, in the book, but they are o-so-minor compared with the last half of the book, in which Chauvelin rides all over France with the Pimpernel, disguised as an elderly Orthodox Jew, sitting next to him. The anti-semitism rolls like fog over everything–the bad guy is disgusted with having to sit so close to the contamination, hell, even Percy is grossed out at the part he’s playing. Trying to figure out a way to make this a) interesting enough for a comic and b) not revolting to modern sensibilities was a fascinating challenge.

  24. Madeleine: I remember! I was aghast at just how bad it was, in every possible way, including atrocious prose. No wonder the various screen versions play fast and loose with the story. (My fave is still the Anthony Andrews one despite the astonishing eighties big hair) but the Elizabeth McGovern three hour one is entertaining, though more removed from the storyline.

  25. What a great post! Thank you so much for taking the time to post it!
    I’m a long-time Heyer fan – discovered her almost by accident, when I was working as a librarian as a Saturday job. Then Dunnett – another person who gets it perfectly correct. And George MacDonald Fraser – he makes Flashman come alive, partly because of the deep research he did for every book.
    When you get the history right, you have a whole world to play in, and stories just come to you.
    But neither Dunnett or Fraser are silver fork novelists – they just write in the same spirit of verisimilitude.

  26. Lynne: thank you for reading! Dunnett and Fraser do indeed show the results of formidable research. I do think that Dunnett blends some modern attitudes with historical paradigm, particularly in dialogue, but she does it consciously, and well. Fraser . . . I think he’s writing satire, at least in the Flashman novels, which is a different sort of thing, but just as entertaining.

  27. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Blogging Around: Heyer and Quinn

  28. An excellent post, which I happened on via Sherwood Smith’s link to it on her blog. The “silver-fork” thing makes me think of this quote from Emerson:

    “We honor the rich because they have, externally, the freedom, power and grace that we feel to be proper to man, proper to us.”

  29. I am actually nearing completing on a dissertation on fashionable novels that was sparked by 1) an early love for Georgette Heyer, and 2) deep conviction that calling Jane Austen the grandmother/ godmother/ progenitor/ what have you of Regency romance is profoundly wrong. (The dissertation’s argument has, I hope, evolved since then.)

    I taught PIN MONEY and Lister’s GRANBY in an undergraduate seminar last year with some trepidation but also some success. It’s great to see these novels read and enjoyed by people outside the academy, and I’d love to talk more about them or even recommend some of the better ones!

  30. Well, hopefully someday you will be able to read my book!

    (Speaking of: it has been a delight to discover your books as an adult. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to read them.)

  31. Pingback: Author Interview: Sherwood Smith | Book View Cafe Blog

  32. I haven’t been a big fan of Heyer’s plots, she shines in her humor. Her characters work. I have only read a couple of her predictable mysteries.

    Romantic humor is what works for me.

    It is interesting that we like to have characters who fit modern sensibilities to empathize with.

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