Who made Georgette Georgian?

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer with antihero the Duke of AvonWe are coming up to the centenary of Georgette Heyer’s first published novel, a Georgian romance called The Black Moth, in September this year. I, like many people, first encountered Heyer as the great exponent of Regency Romance. So it startled me, when I first read the The Black Moth, to find it solidly placed in the middle of the eighteenth century.

And that is not the only odd thing about the book. It is also clearly the prequel of These Old Shades, another Georgian romance. It is also a favourite of huge numbers of her fans, and her first runaway best seller. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but The Black Moth is clearly the back story – well, a good slug of it anyway – of the devastatingly supercilious Duke of Avon. But maybe more on that another time.

Writing The Black Moth

In February 1920, the Heyer family was staying in Hastings so that her younger brother Boris might recover from a serious illness. Bracing sea air would do the trick!

Um. Hastings in February? Windswept and cold, I have no doubt. Nothing much to do. The children – Georgette (17) Boris ( 12 ) and Frank (7) were all bored.

Georgette Heyer The Black MothShe started to tell them a story. With that audience, it had to be exciting, with lots of action, preferably life and death action, and a hero who was misunderstood but always held the moral high ground. Possibly with equivocal relatives in the past. And a villain, of course. It would have to be set somewhere exotic, too. Pirates in the Caribbean? No, highwayman in the eighteenth century.

But why a Georgian romance? The two best historical adventure stories available at the time had to be Kim and Treasure Island. Kim is set between the 2nd and 3rd Afghan Wars, so some time in the 1890s. But the ship’s log in Treasure Island mentions 1745 and the maps  are marked 1750 and 1754. So probably not long after that. Say, 1760ish.

These Old Shades of Mine

So why did she plump for the more distant time? Later, after her beloved father had died and she came to publish These Old Shades, the last book on which they had worked together, there is a clue. The book is prefaced by two stanzas of a poem from with the title is taken.

This Age I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful,
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:

Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

They are from the Epilogue to Henry Austin Dobson’s Eighteenth Century Vignettes, published in 1892.

This is a delightful collection of essays that range from an account of “Captain Corum’s Charity ” (later known  as The Foundling Hospital) to an account of “Mr Gray’s Library,” prompted by a Sale Catalogue.

Dobson was clearly the master of the telling detail. I can just imagine how much the following would have appealed to all the Heyer family:

 “But the two most interesting items of the Catalogue are yet unmentioned. One is the laborious collection of Manuscript Music that Gray compiled in Italy while frivolous Horace Walpole was eating iced fruits in a domino to the sound of a guitar. Zamperelli, Pergolesi, Arrigoni, Galuppi—he has ransacked them all, noting the school of the composer and the source of the piece selected—copying out religiously even the ‘Regole per l’Accompagnamento.’ The other, which we who write have seen, is the famous Linnaeus exhibited at Cambridge in 1885 by Mr. Ruskin.” 


highwaymanThere can be no doubt that Austin Dobson loved the Georgian era. Two years after his Vignettes came out, he published The Ballad of Beau Brocade. This small book included “other poems of the XVIII century”, including the one which ends this blog. And it was illustrated by fifty-five delicate line drawings by Hugh Thomson. I have photographed them from my own 1903 copy here.

The telling detail, from my point of view, however, is that Beau Brocade is a highwayman.

It is an exciting Georgian romance in one way. But the gallant highwayman comes to the gallows in the end, betrayed by a tavern girl:

“Everyone knows the speech he made;
Swore that he “rather admired the Jade!” —

Waved to the crowd with his gold-laced hat:
Talked to the Chaplain after that;

Turned to the Topsman undismayed…
This was the finish of BEAU BROCADE”!

But almost the greatest joy of this little book is that it has Notes, too. They support the authenticity of his invention by giving his sources. Possibly my favourite is Note 6 Page 9:

Highwayman’s Manners”—”On Friday in the Afternoon, between Three and Four o’Clock, the Bath Stage-Coach was robbed by a single Highwayman about two Miles this side of Maidenhead, who took from the Passengers between four and five Pounds, behaved very genteely, and made off” (Covent Garden Journal, 10th March 1752).

Austin Dobson

Born in 1840, Dobson went to work for the Board of Trade when he was 16. He studied part time at the South Kensington School of Art for a while before concentrating his spare time on writing. He published  poems in several literary magazines and made a name for himself as a poet and essayist.

While working as a Principal in the Harbour Department, he wrote biographies of Henry Fielding and Oliver Goldsmith, a foreword to the diary of John Evelyn, and the catalogue of the exhibition commemorating Pope in Twickenham Town Hall in 1888.

He was also a leader of the movement among English poets which aimed to transfer forms of early French verse by Théodore de Banville and François Villon into contemporary English poetry. Dobson had already composed a triolet and in 1876 he published the first original ballade written in English, The Prodigals. He followed this with poems in the form of a rondel, rondeau and villanelle.

It is this interest which makes me wonder whether George Heyer, planning to make a new translation of Villon’s work as he did, might have corresponded with Dobson. Possibly he also introduced his daughter to Dobson’s work. Maybe they even met. After 1868 until his death in 1921, Dobson lived in Ealing, only 10 miles from Wimbledon where the Heyers lived.

Dobson’s Reputation

fictional Blondes George EliotThough now largely forgotten, he had a considerable following in his day. He was published by a magazine edited by Anthony Trollope, encouraged by George Eliot and corresponded with Edmund Gosse, Andrew Lang and a young Alfred Noyes, among others.

Noyes, of course, brought out his own, much more famous, Georgian romance, The Highwayman story in verse in 1906. (In 1995 The Highwayman was voted the nation’s 15th favourite poem in a BBC poll.) Again he gave it a sad ending, only in his story the highwayman and the tavern girl are true lovers and their ghosts meet annually on All Souls’ Eve.

Noyes contributed an appreciation of Austin Dobson’s poetry, three years after the latter’s death, to the The Bookman, another London literary magazine. Dobson, he says, has suffered from a misplaced emphasis on the technical accomplishment of his poems:

“They were sometimes thought to be a little ‘precious,’ or even exotic — dainties for the literary epicure, exquisitely painted butterflies, emerging from cocoons of golden silk spun by Theodore de Banville, rather than creatures of a warm and breathing humanity.” Noyes likens Dobson to Longfellow, while nevertheless aiming some criticisms at various lines.

But then he finds what he calls “a flowing melody”. “There is a human heart beating beneath it in wistfulness and longing”, he says.

If there be any masquerading in it, it is merely the old device of hiding something that is deeply felt with a smile; and, if the reader cares to meet the poet halfway, he will find that these stanza — quietly repeated— have the true ecstasy pulsing in them.”

So here is the poem that Noyes so loved. I think I see what he means. But judge for yourself.


The ladies of St. James's! 
 They are so fine and fair,
You'd think a box of essences 
 Was broken in the air:
But Phyllida, my Phyllida!
 The breath of heath and furze
When breezes blow at morning 
 Is not so fresh as hers.
The ladies of St. James's! 
 They're painted to the eyes.
Their white it stays forever,
 Their red it never dies:
But Phyllida, my Phyllida, 
 Her colour comes and goes.
It trembles to a lily — 
 It wavers to a rose.

The ladies of St. James's! 
 You scarce can understand 
The half of all their speeches,
 Their phrases are so grand: 
But Phyllida, my Phyllida!
 Her shy and simple words 
Are clear as after raindrops
The music of the birds

Sophie Weston Author


23 thoughts on “Who made Georgette Georgian?

  1. lesley2cats

    I agree with Liz. A terrific blog to start the day, and, as with so many Liberta blog posts, has made me want to do my own investigations. Much to my surprise, I recognised The Ladies Of St James’s, but I don’t know from where – school, possibly. As Liz said, ypur literary knowledge is awe inspiring.

  2. Sophie Post author

    Sheer curiosity, Liz and Lesley. I always wondered about those self deprecating verses before These Old Shades.

    Dobson’s son and grandson seem to have cared a good deal about his legacy and donated his literary archive to Senate House Library, University of London in 1946 or so. https://london.ac.uk/senate-house-library/our-collections/special-collections/printed-special-collections/austin-dobson-collection. There is also an Austin Dobson Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

    He had 10 children, too, so there are probably living descendants. You can find some of his poems at various poetry sites on the Internet, too. Sad that he seems to have so completely disappeared from our collective consciousness, except for the Heyer connection.

    Am really glad that you remember The Ladies of St James’s, Lesley. It was a new one on me.

    1. lesley2cats

      It’s the repeated first line I remember, little else. I can remember it being used as a sort of derogatory description – a bit like “Fur Coat and no knickers”. Sorry for lowering the tone. All through the blog I was wondering if there was a connection with that other, perhaps more famous, Dobson. Obviously not?

      1. Sophie Post author

        Well, his brother James was a famous engineer in his day, according to Wikipedia, and helped complete the Buenos Aires port development. But I’m not aware of other distinguished family members. But I really have only gathered up a few readily accessible rags and tatters off the Net.

        At some point he was important enough to get a blue plaque of his own. Not in Ealing, where he seems to have lived from 1868 when he got married but in Redcliffe Street, near the present Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. So walking distance from me. Makes me feel quite as if we’re family.

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley

    How fascinating, Sophie. Dobson was also a close friend of Edmund Gosse’s, and he still has a number of quotations in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I can also detect a trace of Lord Byron in some of his poetry; for example:

    Fame is a food that dead men eat,
    I have no stomach for such meat.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh, that’s fabulous, Elizabeth. I never thought of looking in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Clearly I must pursue this further.

  4. Liz Fielding

    Fascinating stuff, Sophie. Always interesting to get a glimpse of an author’s inspiration. I was particularly interested in the piece from the Covent Garden Journal. I was brought up in Maidenhead and lived there for many years. The town had some grand coaching inns – my aunt was in service in one in the 1930s – and many smaller inns, because travellers stayed there overnight rather than risk crossing the infamous Maidenhead Thicket, a notorious haunt of highwaymen.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Goodness, how amazing.

      So Midnight in Maidenhead would be a Victorian Gothick, with runaways, pursuing guardians, a desperate flight into the infamous thicket and a heroic rescue from, or possibly by, highwayman? I can see it all.

  5. Sarah Mallory

    What a fascinating post, Sophie, thank you. You have given us lots of interesting background to Heyer’s love of the Georgian period plus that tantalising possibility of a link with Dobson. What a great answer to that age-old question, “Where do authors get their ideas from?”

    I remember The Highwayman poem from my own childhood – it was in a huge anthology for children that my parents had bought (from the 1930’s I think) full of wonderful stories & poems by the best writers of the time. It certainly helped to fire my imagination and my love for 18th century adventure stories.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I used to know someone who could (and occasionally did, with drink taken) recite the whole thing. I still remember ‘the moon was a ghostly galleon” and
      “And the highwayman came riding—
      The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”

      Fabulous rhythm, and seriously chilling, especially if we’d gone for the candles and firelight option.

      1. Elizabeth Bailey

        Absolutely adore that poem. I can still recite the first three verses without looking, but after that I have to check. We did a dramatic recital at an Arts Festival which I directed – went down a bomb. It’s got everything, a whole novel in a poem. I also love Flannan Isle, which is another chilling poem, I think of the same era.

  6. Liz Fielding

    I love The Highwayman, as does my daughter, but there was a bit of a fuss from some parents at school recently. Not suitable… Sigh. I remember the TV version of one of the Anne Shirley books when Anne, after a public reading, described it as “truly pathetic”…

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh no. That’s so sad. Cracking story. Great rhythm. Was it because they both died?

    1. Sophie Post author

      Ah, I thought he must have known about Austin Dobson, the moment I realised that he was one of the people writing triolets and villanelles. Thank you, Jen!

      I’ve got really interested in him now, especially because he ran his literary endeavours side by side with his full time job at the Board of Trade. I

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