Friday, November 06, 2009

Heyer and Austen: Historical vs. Contemporary Fiction

This weekend I'm travelling (but not in the stylish conveyance depicted on the left) to Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where I'll be presenting a paper on didacticism and The Nonesuch at a colloquium titled "Re-reading Georgette Heyer." I'm planning to take notes of the other speakers' presentations so that I can write up a summary when I get back. In the meantime, I thought I'd leave those not able to attend with a post about Georgette Heyer.

Lillian S. Robinson, in her 1978 essay "On Reading Trash" states that "Most of this essay will be focused on a contrast between the works of Jane Austen and those of Georgette Heyer" (202). The comparison seems to have been prompted by the way in which Heyer's novels have been marketed:
Georgette Heyer is the acknowledged Queen of the Regency romance (later paperback editions make some such peculiar claim), and it is a clear selling point to say that the book you are touting is just like "a" Georgette Heyer [...]. But for Heyer herself there can be only one predecessor sufficiently glamorous and sufficiently connected in the public mind with the Regency period and that is Jane Austen. (208)
For Robinson "the comparison can only prove disappointing" (208) yet she suggests that "Once the absurd incongruity of any connection between the two writers is duly acknowledged and assigned its proper weight, it has much to tell us about female literary experience" (202). Robinson's sense of the "absurd incongruity of any connection" between Austen and Heyer is based on her assessment of their respective literary merit (or lack of it, in the case of Heyer). Having made the comparison at some length, however, she concludes that
I can imagine no greater waste of energy than an elaborate demonstration that Jane Austen is a better writer than Georgette Heyer. In drawing so extensive a comparison between the two, my intention has not been to belabor the obvious points about what makes a great writer great. (220)
Personally, I'm rather less sure of what "obvious points" there are that make "a great writer great." I'm fairly sure that some of the writers who've been acclaimed as "great" in one period have gone out of fashion in others, so I'd have been interested to know the criteria by which Robinson judged greatness.

In her essay, the "extensive [...] comparison" she makes focuses on the differing ways in which Heyer and Austen present details of customs, dress, etc. Heyer's novels, Robinson states, "concentrate on precisely those minutiae of dress and décor that Austen takes for granted" (208). Can the presence of such details be sufficient to determine a lack of "greatness"? Robinson describes this sort of material in Heyer's novels as "pseudoinformation not because it is untrue [...] but because, ultimately, it reveals nothing about the society that fostered an institution like Almacks as its elite marriage market" (212) whereas Austen "communicates a far more vivid sense than we can attain to of the daily reality" (216) of life in the Regency period. I think this perhaps underestimates the amount and variety of historical information that Heyer's novels do convey about the Regency period. The "pseudoinformation" collected and organised by Jennifer Kloester (who will also be at the Heyer colloquium this weekend) in Georgette Heyer's Regency World makes for quite a substantial book. Heyer's information may not be of the type that most interests Robinson, but I think she goes too far in labeling it "pseudoinformation."

In addition, that Austen can convey a "vivid sense [...] of the daily reality" of living in the Regency period must surely be ascribed, at least in part, to the fact that Austen was writing contemporary novels, for a contemporary audience. Heyer was writing historical fiction, for a modern audience, a fact of which Robinson is well aware. Sarah Bower (2004) has noted that
Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are not historical novels; their authors were writing about their own contemporary society, though, thanks largely to Andrew Davies, we are inclined to categorise them as period or costume dramas. The difference is, I think, self-evident.
Bower, however, does not seem to have found it so entirely self-evident as to make her own work superfluous, and her essay explores some of the ways in which "historical setting can heighten the effect of the romance." One of the ways derives from
the physical attributes of this “other country” called the past [which] can have an important role in raising the temperature of a romance. [...] What could be more romantic than Ivanhoe, armed and visored, under the escutcheon of the Disinherited Knight, tilting for love and English honour in the lists at Ashby de la Zouche?
As for the "pseudoinformation" so scorned by Robinson, Helen Hughes's response, as summarised by Sallie McNamara, might be that it owes its presence to the different requirements of historical fiction: "She argues that the language used, details of clothing, and so on, relating to the period, create a sense of verisimilitude" (85). Robinson acknowledges that they do serve this purpose but phrases her recognition of this in pejorative language:
Heyer [...] tells us about colors, cut, fabric, and trimming, [...] not only because the acquisition and display of clothing are more central to the existence of Heyer's heroines than they are to Austen's, but in order to invest the novels with that meretricious quality Henry James would have called "the tone of time." (208)
If Robinson had wished to compare like with like, she could perhaps have compared Heyer's novels to texts such as Sir Walter Scott's historical novels (including Ivanhoe, the novel mentioned by Bower), some of which were published before Austen's death but were set in much more distant historical periods. Robinson does not do so, however, and her insistence on comparing works of contemporary fiction with works of historical fiction, and then denigrating the latter because they are less authentic in representing the period in question than the former, suggests an inherent preference for contemporary fiction which neither Heyer nor any other author of historical fiction could entirely overcome. Robinson believes that
since historical fiction almost invariably takes the position that progress is desirable and that which in character, taste, or judgment most resembles present Western civilization is best of all, the context is created for a melioristic approach to historical process. At the same time, human personality tends to be portrayed as static, in that the most admirable and heroic characters have a modern view of themselves and what happens to them. The general impression one comes away with is that things used to be different (harder) for women way back then (whenever), but that women themselves were precisely the same [...] in what they needed, asked, or found in life. (207)
I think Robinson is correct in believing that historical fiction may have much to tell a careful reader about the period in which it was written but she gives little evidence to support her assertion that "historical fiction almost invariably takes the position that progress is desirable and that which in character, taste, or judgment most resembles present Western civilization is best of all." Perhaps some, if not all, offer authors and readers space to make comparisons between the past and the present which are less conclusively in favour of modernity. Sallie McNamara suggests that
The historical romance offers distance from the period in which it is written. Anxieties or tensions in relation to the contemporary society (of gender and sexuality) can be reworked within a constructed historical setting. (84-85)
Jane Austen may have been "aware that new social forces do encroach on the way of life - prosperous, decorous, and cultivated - that is the common heritage of Mansfield, Pemberly, Hartfield, Kellynch, Norland, and Northanger" (Robinson 214) but Heyer was also aware of "new social forces" encroaching, as is evident from her statement that she was "made violently unwell by the reflection that I am being forced to contribute towards a Welfare State of which I utterly Disapprove" (Aiken Hodge 122). Heyer, it would seem, did not believe that "present Western civilization is best of all," at least not in all respects. Sir Walter Scott, too, may have expressed in his novels some of the "Anxieties or tensions" which existed in his period. Sandra Schwab believes that "Sir Walter Scott, whose historical novels filled with knights, adventure and romance (Ivanhoe anybody?), certainly has to shoulder a large part of the blame" for Victorian medievalism which sought to "revive the spirit of the Middle Ages, the great ideals of "the days of old when knights were bold" (or at least what were thought to be the ideals of the knights of old)--in one word: CHIVALRY." Historical fiction which seeks to revive the spirit of an earlier age can surely not be read as an unambiguously triumphant statement to the effect that "progress is desirable and that which in character, taste, or judgment most resembles present Western civilization is best of all" (Robinson 207).

Historical fiction, then, while it may seek to teach the reader something about the period in which it is set, or at least be full of "pseudoinformation" may also, obliquely, suggest much about its authors' views of their own historical period, and those views may be rather more varied than Robinson seems to have recognised.


  1. Have a great time in Cambridge, Laura!

  2. I wonder if sometimes there is a danger of forgetting that many historical romances are written to entertain. They are not historical treatises, nor are they academic papers! Historical novels, historical romances and romantic historicals cater for different markets, and different readers. A writer can never forget his or her reader, and some readers simply like more detail than others. Sometimes it is enough to let a phrase or two give a flavour of the period. The story is what matters, that is what most people are interested in.

  3. Jane Eyre is a historical novel. Written and published in the mid 1840s, it is actually set about 1813 or so.

  4. Thanks for this, Laura. Very interesting. It is astonishing the number of people who lose track of the fact that a novel written in the past often was a work of contemporary fiction, which changes everything.

    As for Jane Eyre, was it really set in the Regency? It feels so much a Victorian work -- and is always presented as such in film, isn't it? -- that it takes something from the book, perhaps, if it was intended to be about another age.


  5. That made me curious, so I looked. I know the internet isn't necessarily reliable in it's opinions, but it does seem to suggest that there's no actual year given in Jane Eyre. From cross-ref it:

    "Because of varying date references, it is difficult to date the action with any certainty. Details of social behaviour, books and decorative taste often seem to belong to the early decades of the nineteenth century, but other references place it closer to the novel’s date of composition in the 1840s.

    In the final chapter, Jane says that she has been married to Rochester for ten years, and if we assume that a work that on its title page describes itself as an ‘Autobiography’ ends somewhere close to when it was written, this would again take the action back to the 1830s. The inconsistencies in dating (all of them reference to poems or books of poetry) need to be seen as part of the thematic and metaphorical texture of the novel."

    There's also a fascinating essay somewhere on the way the dates Bronte uses in book (eg, Nov 15th) relate to the readings for the day in the Book of Common Prayer.

  6. Without wishing to enter into a detailed debate about the dating of Jane Eyre, I really do NOT think one can describe as 'historical' a novel set a mere quarter-century or so before the time of its composition, and therefore very likely within its author's own lifetime and memory, and certainly within the personal memories of older people known to the author.

    If I were to write a novel in 2010 set in 1980, I should be very surprised indeed if anyone were to label it 'historical'. Indeed, I would also repudiate that label for a novel set in the 1950s, which I remember well enough, even though many adults today do not. Only when a period is well beyond the memory of all living generations should that definition be used.

    On another subject: the Heyer colloquium was hugely enjoyable. Seldom have I attended a conference with a better atmosphere, or a more focused, knowledgeable and fully engaged audience. The papers were well-chosen and professionally put together, and they gave rise to lively discussion. Laura's paper was excellent, as we might all have expected.


  7. AgTigress: Yay for the Colloquium. I can't wait to hear about it from those involved and I'm so thrilled that IASPR was able to sponsor it to some degree. Thanks for the little teaser of how it went. But I have to say, that's how all romance conferences I've been involved in have gone!

    Maybe someone should do a Georgette Heyer conference in the States. That would be SO cool! ;)

  8. Sarah -- IASPR's support was very publicly acknowledged and was greatly appreciated.

    I think the range of topics addressed, and the way in which all the speakers felt that they could quite easily have talked for an hour instead of 20 minutes on their chosen theme, suggests that there is plenty of scope for further meetings on Heyer alone.

  9. Many thanks again to Laura and to any other speakers who may be reading this! And of course to everyone else who made the discussion so interesting.

    Sarah - would you like me to put you in touch with the speakers with a view to pursuing a publication perhaps? Or shall I send speakers a holding email if that's more of a longer term project?

    I have written up some thoughts on the day here ...

  10. I'm looking forward to hearing about the conference!

  11. I'm back now, and still working my way through my notes. I did indeed have a good time, Sandra, thanks.

    I wonder if sometimes there is a danger of forgetting that many historical romances are written to entertain. They are not historical treatises, nor are they academic papers!

    Is that comment directed at me, Carol, or at people like Lillian S. Robinson?

    I can't speak for Robinson, but it seems to me that, as I was arguing in my paper about Heyer, it's quite possible for a work to be very entertaining and also educational, though that education takes a form which is very different from that of an academic history book or paper. Certainly lots of people seem to mention that they've learned about some aspects of history due to reading historical romances.

    It is astonishing the number of people who lose track of the fact that a novel written in the past often was a work of contemporary fiction, which changes everything.

    I agree with you Jo that it does make a huge difference. At least, I assume it must make a huge difference to the author and the kind of work he or she has to do, and it certainly makes a big difference to me as a reader in terms of how I relate to the characters, what kinds of situations I find plausible in the plots, the kinds of emotions that can be evoked easily, the amount of detail I might need to be given about certain aspects of daily life, etc.

    Thanks for doing the background research on Jane Eyre, Marianne. I've read it, of course, but I certainly wouldn't have been able to say when it was set.

    Tigress, as always you can be depended on to clarify definitions! Thanks. I agree with you that it seems a little premature to classify something as "historical" when the events depicted are supposed to have taken place only a few decades before the date of publication. I have the feeling, though, that the Second World War is already treated as "historical" in films and fiction. And in terms of it being taught as history, that was already happening in the late 1980s/early 1990s when I was at school.

    Maybe nowadays the pace of technological change makes people feel that something becomes "historical" sooner? On the other hand, life expectancy is longer, so there are more people living who have memories that go back over 5 decades or more.

    Thanks for the compliment on my paper. I'm very glad you thought so highly of it.

    Sarah (S. G. F.) and Victoria, I'll try to get my report up as soon as possible. I think I'll have to post it in segments, as I took rather a lot of notes and it's taking me a while to write them up. In the meantime, as Sarah (A. B.) has said, she's got her summary up already. I hope what I have to report will still be of interest after everyone's read Sarah A. B.'s post!