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.
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.
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.