What is the best Georgette Heyer novel? Read on, read on.
In our latest Bookshelf show (episode 78), we got happily lost in a tangent about the time we both spend secretly reading Georgette Heyer novels. Having outed ourselves we thought it a good idea to put together a list of our favourites.
It has to be said, they are not for everyone. Laura’s cousin, who she was sure would love them, said ‘Laura, there’s far too many cousins marrying cousins for me!’ Fair enough. There are also some problematic scenes for contemporary readers: consider yourself warned and skip to the bottom if you want to know which novels to avoid.
Georgette Heyer wrote her first book, The Black Moth, when she was 19, to amuse her brother who was recovering from an illness. The book was published and became a success, and Heyer began to write follow-ups. She is generally credited with having invented the genre of the Regency Romance, and readers lapped up her meticulously plotted novels, still sought out today as the perfect form of escapism by readers in-the-know. Historical romances might not be your thing, but a few hours spent in the company of Heyer’s sparkling heroines and dashing Regency bucks may change your mind.
If you’re thinking of dipping in, here’s our rundown of the best:
Our favourite Georgette Heyer novels
The Grand Sophy – Kate’s all-time favourite
There are Georgette Heyer novels and Georgette Heyer novels – some are better than others and to my mind The Grand Sophy is the very best. It’s the one I would give to a friend who hadn’t read her before. Sophy is an unforgettable character and something of a feminst triumph although who knows how much of that Heyer had in mind. Brought up by her military father following the Duke of Wellington on the campaign trail Sophy returns to London to live with her cousins who are expecting an ingénue. Instead they discover Sophy not only knows everyone, and how to behave with every nuance of social distinction, she also has a very effective way of managing the people around her, including her overbearing cousin Charles. Before long she is putting the world to rights, making sure the right people fall in love with one-another and convincing the reluctant Charles that his carefully ordered existence is perhaps not what he really wanted all along. With a pleasingly mutli-layered plot that ticks along like clockwork, this novel is a delight from start to finish.
The Nonesuch – Laura’s all-time favourite
Surprisingly, my favourite Georgette Heyer isn’t set in the usual London milieu of balls, Vauxhall gardens and promenades in St James’s Park. Instead, we head north to Yorkshire where Sir Waldo Hawkridge has arrived to claim the inheritance of the crumbling Broom Hill. Not that he needs it. Sir Waldo is already fabulously wealthy, and the toast of society, known as the Nonesuch for his athletic prowess and ability with horses. Naturally, every mother in the county immediately sets her sights on him as a potential son-in-law. Meanwhile, the calm and cool-eyed Ancilla Trent, governess to the spoilt but beautiful Tiffany Wield, looks on with amusement. Relatively straightforward in plot compared to her other novels, The Nonesuch has a depth and heart to the characters, and the romance feels unusually authentic. I must confess I’ve read The Nonesuch at least three times now. As I flick through its pages, I can feel the fourth time coming on rather soon…
Other Georgette Heyer novels we love
Venetia Lanyon has lived her whole life in seclusion on her father’s estate, continuing to manage it after her father’s death when her elder brother remains abroad, while also looking after her younger brother, a teenage scholar with some health problems. She has heard tales of her infamous neighbour, Lord Damerel, who has long been absent from the area. When Venetia finally meets him while out picking blackberries one day his behaviour proves the gossips were right. Gradually, though, as she comes to know him, she begins to realise that his devil-may-care attitude masks a deeper feeling that she will come to love. Unfortunately this coincides with the dawning realisation on his part that a relationship between them will doom her to social ruin, and he sends her away. Brokenhearted Venetia heads to London, where she makes a discovery she decides could resolve her situation once and for all. Beautiful, intelligent and capable, Venetia is as captivating a heroine as Georgette Heyer could create, and will keep the reader happily absorbed until the end and you discover how it all turns out. (Note: this novel has a couple of episodes where men make physical advances on Venetia that make it a somewhat problematic favourite, however to snap the book shut at that point would, I think, be to deny yourself the enjoyment of the otherwise irreproachable pages that follow. What can I say, it’s a judgement call.)
Arabella Wedgewood is travelling with her governess to London for her first Season, one that her family can ill-afford. A broken coach-wheel sends her to a nearby house to beg for assistance, where she finds wealthy society figure Mr Robert Beaumarais. Years of dodging the attentions of fortune-hunters has made him cynical and he assumes Arabella is one of the same. Arabella, learning of this, is outraged, and resolves to teach him a lesson. She pretends to be fabulously wealthy, and although he isn’t fooled Mr. Beaumarais decides for amusement he will back up her claims. With his approval Arabella is soon the toast of London society with offers for her hand in marriage coming right, left and centre, but she discovers to her dismay that the person who interests her most is the one person who doesn’t covet her fortune. Arabella’s society manners can’t hide her kind and generous heart, and Mr Beaumarais soon finds he has more than her welfare to take care of when he agrees to look after a stray dog, a chimney sweep and finally her wayward brother. That Mr Beaumarais and Arabella are destined to end up together is never in doubt, the delight, however, comes in the elaborate set-pieces that lead our characters to their happy ending.
Our hero Christopher Fancot is returning from a posting in the diplomatic service to keep an eye on his wayward twin brother, Evelyn. Intuition has told him that something is amiss, and sure enough Evelyn is nowhere to be found. Reluctantly, at his charming and persuasive mother’s behest, Kit becomes embroiled in Evelyn’s affairs to the extent of impersonating him in order to rescue his engagement to Cressida Stavely. As time passes and Evelyn does not return Kit must use all his wit in order to maintain the charade. Kit Fancot is one of my very favourite Georgette Heyer heroes, but the character that keeps me coming back to this book is his irrepressibly extravagant mother, whose wardrobe and decorative schemes are ruinous to the family finances, but an unfailing delight to read about. Overall it’s as enjoyable a farce as you could wish for, and rest assured the right characters find each other in the end.
By the time you’ve read a few Georgette Heyer novels you’ll be familiar with her standard characters. The surprise here is that Freddy, a Bertie-Wooster-type whose main attributes are his good taste and impeccable manners, turns out to be the romantic hero. (The usual attractive grey-eyed nobleman turns out to be Freddy’s father, Lord Legerwood, but he has only a minor part to play.) Kitty Charing believes herself to be in love with her rakish cousin Jack, and when her godfather makes it a condition of his will that she marry one of his great-nephews, it is Jack who she expects will propose to her. He, however, does not like to have his hand forced, and so she concocts a plan with another of her potential suitors, Freddy Standen, a fake betrothal giving her a London season in which to consider her options. Kitty’s attempts to manage her situation get her into a number of social scrapes and increasingly it is the dependable Freddy who will rescue her. Little by little she starts to realise that perhaps flighty Jack is not what she wants in a husband after all.
Death in the Stocks
Probably because I’m not much of a crime-reader, I didn’t like any of Heyer’s 1930s crime fiction (though I have read them all, just in case). But there is one exception. Death in the Stocks is somehow different from the rest and for me it’s her most successful. Brother and sister Kenneth and Antonia Vereker become mixed up in a murder investigation when their wealthy cousin is found dead in some stocks at the village where he had a country cottage. Kenneth, an artist, and heir to the cousin’s fortune refuses to take the matter seriously and leads the police in an elaborate guessing game. It is left to Antonia and lawyer-cousin Giles to try to rein him in. Meanwhile Kenneth’s fiancée, the astonishingly beautiful Violet is growing frustrated with him, while Antonia’s fiancée Rudolf Mesurier begins to suspect that her heart is turning towards someone else. Just as it seems the murder will remain unsolved there is a second killing, which ups the stakes for everyone. With memorable characters as good as any in her Regency novels, this is the one Georgette Heyer crime novel I have reread many a time and recommend. (–Kate)
And the ones to avoid
Our love for this author does not blind us to her faults. Almost every Georgette Heyer is readable and engaging, even those that veer into the formulaic. But there are a few elements in her novels that are likely to trouble the contemporary reader.
In Kate’s favourite, The Grand Sophy, there is a disturbingly racist sequence when our heroine pays a visit to a Jewish moneylender. Lord Damerel, meanwhile, thinks nothing of amorously pouncing on Venetia until he learns she is a noblewoman (and therefore not to be treated as he would, say, a milkmaid).
The figures of the ton who people Heyer’s Regency Romances spare few thoughts for the less privileged classes of society – although to be fair Arabella does prod Mr Beaumarais into rescuing a young chimney sweep from the workhouse, while Sir Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch uses his fortune to set up charity houses for orphans. He keeps it a secret, though, it wouldn’t do for it to be known. Heyer, ever the scrupulous researcher, was careful to reflect the manners and mores of the people who were her inspiration without much intervention on her part.
On a further cautionary note, we’d recommend avoiding The Black Moth, a real stinker with an ongoing attempted rape sequence that turns the stomach. Also Cousin Kate (although fans of Gothic novels may enjoy), These Old Shades, Penhallow, Faro’s Daughter and her novels set in earlier periods of history, The Spanish Bride, The Conqueror, Simon the Coldheart and My Lord John, and see Kate’s note about the crime novels earlier in this post. We’ve never laid hands on a copy but by all accounts The Great Roxborough is also one to avoid.
All the others range from mildly diverting to great, and the fun is all in reading your way through them to figure out your own favourites. Also don’t buy them new, hunt for them in secondhand bookshops and rejoice when you find one you haven’t already read.
There’s many an episode where we mention Georgette Heyer, but we talk particularly about The Grand Sophy and our other favourites in this Bookshelf episode.
Worked your way through every Heyer and looking for more? The Female Scriblerian has put together an excellent list of suggested follow-ons.