My eye recently fell on an enjoyable reader rant against the onlie begetter of the Regency Romance, dubbing Georgette Heyer Heroes “utter douchebags”. (For the gentler sort of reader, the usage is North American, informal, referring to an obnoxious or contemptible person, typically a man.) A tweet from @Georgettedaily directed me thither and I am grateful. The ranter made some good points. But I disagree with her on Heyer heroes.
Heyer herself classified her heroes as Mark I (brusque, savage, foul temper) and Mark II (suave, supercilious and dangerous). I disagree with her, too. It is a gross over-simplification. After all, the Duke of Avon in These Old Shades is the epitome of suave, yet an excellent case has been made for him as a Mark I.
I have also seen essays by readers on Heyer heroes asserting, for instance, that although one of these gentlemen may think he’s a Mark I, in his heart of hearts, he’s really a Mark II. And vice versa. Sigmund Freud could take their correspondence course.
From which I conclude that authors should shut up about their creations and let readers follow their own imaginations, by the way.
I take the ranter’s criticism to mean that Heyer heroes are arrogant pigs, shamelessly dictatorial to women, contemptuous of anyone unlike themselves and with a high sense of entitlement. In other words, nasty sods. And yes, that’s what some of them do look like — at least at the start.
So, never mind the heroines, why did I fall for these Heyer Heroes?
Case Study: Sir Richard Wyndham
In The Corinthian, our hero’s immediate family call on him to tell him he must marry. In a scene of pure Restoration comedy, mostly provided by brother-in-law George who wishes he was anywhere else in the world, we see our hero brought to agree to marry. We learn he’s cynical and not at all romantic and would never do anything unbefitting a man of fashion. He also knows Duty to the Family trumps Personal Inclinations.
He’s kind to George, though. And I’ve already signed up to liking George, who’s hen-pecked but tries hard to be loyal to his brother-in-law. By the time reprobate Uncle Lucius arrives, I am rooting for the Boys’ Club.
In itself, that is seriously interesting because the received wisdom is that, in traditional romantic fiction, the reader is on the side of the heroine.
Romantic Heyer Heroes?
“There is something excessively vulgar about persons under the sway of strong emotions,” says the Honourable Miss Frosty who is half-promised to him. She repudiates with contempt Sir Richard’s suggestion that she might, some day, fall in love — possibly even with him. The chill thunders off the page like wind off an iceberg.
So, if this hero is romantic, he isn’t getting much encouragement. And see below for his reputation in his social circle.
Is He A Nasty Sod?
Well, Sir Richard is endlessly polite to his mother (jealous of his house), his managing sister (bossy) and Miss Frosty (’nuff said). As he is, in the course of the story, to all sorts of other people whom he might well crunch and doesn’t, though his ironic comments to them are often very funny.
After the encounter with Miss Frosty:
- Sir Richard wanders off for a drunken stroll on a Greyish Night of the Soul
- he’s going to sacrifice himself for Family but he doesn’t even care all that much; this is despair on a grand scale
- outside the Frosty house he calls himself a damned fool; he’s right
- no railing against fate, or Miss Frosty either, for this chap; it’s his own decision
- he helps a fugitive climb out of a window
- even drunk and despairing, he gives a fellow human being a competent helping hand
Not a nasty sod; a man in near catatonic depression but still just about fighting his corner.
At the end of Chapter Three, his sister outlines his character. “If one thing is certain, it is that Richard has not one grain of romance in his disposition, while as for adventure—! I dare say he would shudder at the mere thought of it. Richard, my dear Cedric, is first, last and always, a man of fashion, and he will never do anything unbefitting a Corinthian.”
Really? The reader is not fooled by his creation of a style of cravat named The Wyndham Fall.
Heyer heroes may emulate Beau Brummell in cravat matters but there is more to man than his image. As, indeed, there was to the Arbiter of Fashion and Manners.
Oh, Cursed Manliness
The fugitive turns out to be a girl. (Bet you’re not surprised.) She’s running away from her aunt’s house and an unwelcome marriage. Also she is a lot younger that he is and very innocent.
So hey presto, they have the same problem of Distasteful Duty to the Family. Within hours they are running away, in tandem, on the stagecoach.
And I think this is where our first critic would fall out with him. He takes over conduct of the journey. I’m pretty certain this would count as domineering Manliness, which pisses her off royally.
I suppose you could say he is high-handed, the way he just announces his decision. And it’s true that the fugitive resists to begin with. But then “she abandoned her conscientious attempt to dissuade him from accompanying her on her journey and owned that his protection would be welcome.” And not because she’s a wilting flower, afraid to go on her own, but because she isn’t used to doing things alone.
Now I’m OK with that. I can even identify with it. Doesn’t feel like denying her autonomy to me.
What’s more, our heroine has a major share in all subsequent decision-making, starting off with the choice of transport. And our hero comes to loathe the stagecoach. Maybe because a bunch of drunks take over the driving and the coach crashes. It becomes one of their shared jokes. Happy sigh.
Case for the Defence Summarised
His sister is wrong. Sir Richard is immensely capable of a whole lot of stuff unbefitting a Man of Fashion, though it takes most of the book for him to discover it. Wrong, too, I contend, is anyone who thinks he is a nasty sod.
- This Heyer Hero is an unhappy man in near-crisis
- The Heroine inspires him to run away
- In doing so he finds himself
- Has a lot of fun
- Discovers aspects of his character which his nearest and dearest would have denied with their last breath
- Including his own romantic ambitions and abilities.
I fell in love with Sir Richard the first time I read The Corinthian. And it’s stuck.
In sum, all I can say is: read the book. It’s a cracker.
Me too, Sophie. I am extremely fond of Sir Richard. And the way he lets the heroine discover her own heart is restraint personified.
Can’t beat that old-fashioned chivalry, can you, Jan? Bliss.
Do so agree with you both. Am currently rereading The Toll Gate and was touched by the marriage scene. Nell’s grandfather is trying to browbeat her into marrying on the spot: “You’ll do as you’re bid, miss!” But lovely, chivalrous Jack says: “No, certainly not. She will do as she wishes, now and always!” He does then proceed to persuade her to agree to instant marriage but I think he would not do so if she were really determined not to go through with it. Bliss again.
I haven’t read that one for years, Joanna. Must do so. Something to look forward to.
The Toll Gate is one of my favourites. But then so is The Corinthian and Frederica and The Grand Sophy and Sylvester and, and, and. Great post. Thank you.
So glad you enjoyed it Natalie. Thank you.
In fairness, The Duke of Avon comes across as very nasty on his first encounter with Léonie, even if he is saving her/him from her abusive brother. ‘I have bought him body and soul’. If Georgette weren’t such a nice person, how might that have turned out?
Completely agree. The Duke of Avon has a lot of personal growth to undertake in the course of that book.
I have liked most of the Heyer heroes and also most of the heroines. Not so fond of the Duke of Avon (but I DO reread his story). Not so fond of some of the girls either, But no one can hit st the top of the scale all the time and Georgette comes very close.
Reading the discussions of the complaints (rather than the complaints) it occurs to me that the complainers are committing the sin genealogists call presentism. That is, the men and women are acting within the social structures and strictures of the 18th and early 19th centuries in which they live. The complainers are judging them by the standards of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in which they have lived. Presentism is a true sin — unfair the the characters of an earlier age.
It is to Georgette Heyer’s skill in writing that she manages to keep her characters so in keeping with their own times and still have they be interesting to read about from our point of view.
And, as Sophie has pointed out, the characters change and grow. And first appearances often spring from as yet unknown backgrounds.
I agree that there is an element of éducation sentimentale in a lot of the relationships in Heyer. Very rarely is just one of the parties wholly in control – or permanently on the moral high ground either.
Lovely blog, Sophie. I’m very fond of Sir Richard. And Pen is delightful. Yes, she’s a lot younger than he is, but even so, isn’t she a great deal better off with him than with Cousin Fred-the-fish?
And the degree of delicate chivalry Richard shows towards Pen is quite lovely.
So glad you enjoyed it. It was great to revisit.
I’ve never really got hung up on age difference between hero and heroine, as long as they’re both adults. Pen is strong-minded and practical. What she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in her capacity to learn, her clear-sightedness about what she does and doesn’t want, and her wonderful open-heartedness.
And as far as love and the necessary pre-conditions for a good marriage are concerned, I reckon she’s ahead of Sir Richard for most of the book.
I adore Sir Richard, one of my favourite Heyer heroes, up there with Rule. Both suave, sophisticated men, bored and cynical, who find delight in the innocence of their heroines. Love it. And so agree with Lady Luttrell that girls of Pen’s age don’t commonly think of men of twenty-nine in the light of uncles. No, I don’t think so either.
You made me choke, Lizzie. (Note to self: don’t try and drink tea and read comments at the same time.)
Very true. Doesn’t Lady Luttrell also say that if she were Pen’s age, she would envy her extremely? Suspect that goes for a fair proportion of the readers. Count me in, anyway.
I’ve just revisited this post, as, following the initial reading, I immediately re-read The Corinthian and then couldn’t stop. And having just finished The Foundling, I wondered where Sale fits on the herometer. Like Sir Richard, he runs away and does an awful lot of growing up on his adventures, but he doesn’t fit the mould of either Mark I or Mark II. Cousin Gideon is still calling him “Little One” in the very last line of the story.
Absolutely agree with you, 100%, Lesley. Gilly is one of my great favourites and absolutely his own man (as indeed he becomes in the book) not even a Mark VI/b in his make up.
I always wanted to read Gideon’s story and was desperately disappointed that she didn’t return to him. Partly that was because he was so utterly gorgeous, handsome, competent and funny. But also, I now realise, because that last scene leaves at least this lady reader with a strong desire to take him down a peg or two. Master Gideon has lessons to learn.
Fortunately, fan fiction wasn’t respectable back in the days of my early passion for Gideon, or I’d probably have done it. I even know how I would start the book …
Oh, go on! Write it! With possibly one of the older heroines (24 – older? Huh.) I’m waiting…
Not sure there is quite a Heyer heroine in existence for the story I’d want to write. She’d have to be someone Gideon would expect to protect and order about — all in the most chivalrous way possible, of course — but who wouldn’t interfere with his boys’ club pleasures or expect to be his equal. And he’d Learn Different.
Oh the temptation…