If anything good can be said to have resulted from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, it is that people began reading books again, and grown women fell back onto the reliable comfort of reading the historical novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974), whose books have sold around 20 million copies as of 2023. Heyer was a prolific English writer who always had a loyal following among women, who arguably created the Regency romance genre that has been exploited by dozens of later (many lesser) writers, and whose works remained widely unnoticed for half a century after her death. She gave no interviews during her lifetime, although at least one of her books, The Foundling, was reviewed in 1948 by the New York Times, which stated, "Miss Heyer writes cheerful and highly unorthodox historical novels about Regency England, in which people never lose their lives, their virtue or even their tempers". As of 2023, public libraries noticed that her books are still frequently checked out, there is a Georgette Heyer podcast, Twitter is aflutter with tweets about her books (including a lively sale of older editions), and Vox declared: "When will Hollywood discover Georgette Heyer?". More than one woman might have wondered how NetFlix, in 2020, could choose to produce a Regency period TV series based on books by Julia Quinn instead of any one of several engrossing (but far less sexually explicit) novels by Georgette Heyer.
See a list of more than fifty Heyer novels (and how to read them for free) on the Works tab of this article.
Regency romance books
Inspired by the social setting of Jane Austen's novels, Heyer wrote about three dozen historical "romances", mostly set in England's Regency period (1811-1820) or earlier. The predictable social rules of Heyer's fictional world provide a stable canvas for her wildly inventive tangles of household and familial relationships, often about relatives struggling to control children and children struggling for independence, or about people who can't avoid their familial relationships but neither do they feel particularly fond of their family. Each Regency novel has a female lead and a male lead who sooner or later marry and eventually develop mutual respect and affection. Each book has Heyer's signature language: children are offspring, sporting men are Corinthians, vain men are 'exquisites,' and there is likely to be thieves' cant, travel by coach and horseback, and fortunes changed by the Napoleanic wars. Heyer's stylized language, which she meticulously collected and gleaned from historical artifacts of the Regency period, has been widely copied by other writers. But the settings are just window dressing; it's the family stories and the tension of a complex and unlikely courtship that dominate these novels.
Heyer published a dozen detective novels, which overall are less well-known, and probably less well regarded, than her historical romances. She also published four contemporary novels which have not received much attention, as well as numerous short stories.
Heyer has been criticised for anti-semitism, in particular for a scene in The Grand Sophy (published in 1950). Citizendium does not recommend this novel and has removed it from the list of Heyer works. Examination of family papers by Jennifer Kloester, who published a biography of Heyer in 2011, confirms that Heyer held prejudiced personal opinions.. Most of the Heyer novels have no mention of Jews, but a few (beside The Grand Sophy, the worst offender) briefly mention Jews in relation to aggressive private money-lending, which is an inaccurate and unfair stereotype.
In 2023, a new edition of The Grand Sophy has applied a posthumous "fix" to the offending passages. This edition is very controversial; some are against all such posthumous fixes generally and in principle, whereas others feel it is giving Heyer a pass for her prejudice.
A portion of the preceding section about anti-semitism was taken from Wikipedia, though we changed some of the references and added our own comments. Thus we need to state:
- Some content on this page may previously have appeared on Wikipedia.
Notes and references
- ‘You Can’t Hide It’: Georgette Heyer and the Perils of Posthumous Revision by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times Book Review, Oct. 30, 2023. Although the revision removes blatant Jewish stereotypes, it also stirred debate about whether to tinker with older works.
- Georgette Heyer Is Dead at 71: Wrote Regency England Novels. New York Times obituary, July 6, 1974.
- How I Fell Back in Love...with Georgette Heyer essay by a Niles-Maine District Library librarian, Niles, IL, Oct. 2, 2020.
- Author Recommendation: Georgette Heyer essay by Yonkers, NJ public librarian Shana Rosenfield. "I proceeded to borrow all that the (Heyers the) library had, and buy any that the local bookstore had in paperback." Last access 1/3/2023.
- The Georgette Heyer Podcast: Georgette Heyer's Regency romances discussed book-by-amazing-book available on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple, etc. Last access 1/3/2023.
- She was the Agatha Christie of romance novels. You’ve probably never heard of her. When will Hollywood discover Georgette Heyer? by Aja Romano in Vox Mar 11, 2022.
- BRIDGERTON, "The eight close-knit siblings of the Bridgerton family look for love and happiness in London high society. Inspired by Julia Quinn's bestselling novels."
- Heyer Novel Chronology on georgette-heyer.com, a website which grew out of an earlier Heyer list-serv. This page attempts to use clues from within the novels to determine the year in which the fictional events are set.
- The Grand Sophy contains an abhorrent scene rife with anti-semitic stereotypes. For details, see review of the The Grand Sophy by SB Sarah (Aug. 15, 2011); the latter parts of this review provide an exact description of the worst anti-semitic scene which limits and mars this novel.
- See the Wikipedia article on Jennifer Kloester, who published a biography of Heyer in 2011.
- Of froth and ferocity, a review in The Sydney Morning Herald by Brenda Niall, Jan. 7, 2012, states near its end that a study of Heyer's personal papers reveals racist and anti-semitic personal views.
- ‘You Can’t Hide It’: Georgette Heyer and the Perils of Posthumous Revision by Alexandra Alter on the New York Times website, Oct. 30, 2023. "A new edition of the best selling romance writer’s 1950 novel removes blatant Jewish stereotypes, stirring debate about whether to tinker with older works."