Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Heyer 2009: Jay Dixon: 'Heyer and Place'

Jay Dixon has worked as an editor at Mills & Boon, is the author of The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s and also wrote a short essay, "An Appreciation of Georgette Heyer," in 2002 to mark the centenary of Heyer's birth.

Dixon began her paper, ‘Heyer and Place,’ by reading from the opening of Powder and Patch. Before starting work on this paper, Dixon had been under the impression that this description was a long one, but on returning to the novel she discovered that it is, in fact, rather short although it succeeds in summing up Sussex in one sentence. Indeed, Dixon suggests that Heyer's descriptions of place are, in general, not very long. Heyer and Dixon then took us to the bustling, bewildering London which flashes past the eyes of Judith Taverner (Regency Buck) as she arrives by coach. Again, Heyer uses few words but succeeds in capturing the essence of the place.

Dixon noted that although Heyer's descriptions of landscapes tend to be short, her descriptions of homes tend to go into considerable detail: a page in The Foundling and no less than four pages in Civil Contract in which the hero's new father-in-law refurbishes the hero's town house as a surprise after his marriage to the heroine. There is also considerable attention paid to items of clothing and to matters of fashion.

In Cotillion the reader accompanies Freddy and Kitty on a quick tour of the sights of London but on the whole Heyer's London is basically Mayfair, comprised of places such as Almack's and the streets in which the ton were to be found. It is a small social space, almost a village. The same is true of Bath in which Heyer mentions streets and place names: Upper Camden Place, the York Hotel, etc. It is these names, from both London and Bath, rather than long and detailed descriptions, which seem to conjure up the Regency period for readers.

Heyer contrasts the city, London, with the countryside, idealising the latter. Almost all of Heyer's heroes have country estates and the romantic resolutions of the novels often take place in the country, or are precipitated by the flight of others to the country. It is interesting to note that in the original version of Powder and Patch, which was first published by Mills & Boon with the title The Transformation of Philip Jettan and under the pseudonym "Stella Martin," in the final chapter the hero took his heroine to Paris but in the re-written version we are told that the couple will retire to Sussex, where they will live as a country gentleman and his wife.

Dixon referred to Susanne Hagemann's "Gendering Places: Georgette Heyer's Cultural Topography," Scotland to Slovenia: European Identities and Transcultural Communication. Proceedings of the Fourth International Scottish Studies Symposium, edited by Horst W. Drescher and Susanne Hagemann (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1996, pages 187–199). Dixon agrees that London is gendered as masculine. It is the site of male power since it is here that the Prince Regent is generally to be found and where the Houses of Parliament are located. By contrast men associated with the country, such as Gilly, the hero of The Foundling, are more feminine. Dixon sees Bath as a feminised space because women tend to dominate in Heyer's depiction of it. It is a small city set in the countryside where women such as the heroines of Black Sheep and Lady of Quality can live independently (albeit with a female companion), and young ladies do not need to be accompanied by a maid as they would in London. Although Bath features most heavily in these two later works, it also appears in earlier novels including The Black Moth, The Corinthian and Friday's Child.

Dixon concluded by musing on whether Heyer paid more attention to fashions in clothing and home interiors because they changed relatively quickly in response to fashion, whereas landscapes tend to change more slowly. Perhaps, however, what interested Heyer, who had often felt an outsider, was the evocation of a period, the Regency, rather than specific geographical locations. It was in the period of the Regency that Heyer felt at home.


  1. Interesting ideas - I love the idea of the gender of place, and yes, it feels right that London would be male and Bath female.

    Maybe the reason the Heyer didn't describe landscape much is because that was something she was less interested in? I know that my husband and I have very different outlooks in that he is very focussed on his physical surroundings and I much more inwardly focussed. Maybe she wrote more about interiors and clothing because she was simply more interested in them?

  2. "Maybe she wrote more about interiors and clothing because she was simply more interested in them?"

    I think that's true, but I also think that Heyer's descriptions of place are quite vivid and effective in spite of being brief.

    Her strong interest in clothing and interior decoration can be studied with advantage in her contemporaries, the detective stories. Removed as we now are from 1930s-1950s fashions ourselves, we can appreciate how vividly she evokes the subtleties of taste of her own time.

  3. I have been thinking a lot about this one since I heard the paper, and I think I have to express some unease about certain elements of jay Dixon's hypothesis, specifically the notion of gendering.

    The importance of physical setting in Heyer is undeniable, at every level from the vividly and often quite minutely described interiors to the more general, but still very effective, information she conveys about the natural or the built landscape: the contrasts drawn between town and country, and the clear preference for one or the other shown by some characters, form part of the atmosphere of the books, and are also used to evoke time as well as space. 'London' was, as has already been pointed out, a very different place in the early 19th century than it has become, and the modern reader needs to be reminded that areas that are now both central and expensive, like Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge, were both peripheral and unfashionable then, otherwise a modern reader (a Londoner, at least!) might get the wrong impression. To that extent, I found Dixon's paper interesting, valuable and thought-provoking.

    But I am really bothered by the notion of attaching the concepts of masculinity and femininity to any of these. This seems to me to be an academic version of the kind of focus-group exercise in which people are asked to say what colour, font, flower, animal, sex etc. they associate with a particular product, institution or place.

    The problem with this kind of analysis is that free association is usually extremely personal, and therefore unlikely to hold deeper, more general symbolic values that will be shared by the majority. This is why there is such a lot of terrible advertising around: the marketing people have consulted a focus-group.

    I think (as Laura has already mused in her comment on her own paper) that good arguments can be made for both feminine and masculine associations for the metropolis itself, for the emerging industrial cities like Leeds, for country towns, for seaside resorts, for villages, and for the countryside. In other words, though I do not doubt the possibility of many symbolic values in all of these, I do not believe that gendering is one of them.


  4. Agree that assigning masculine/feminine to places seemed pointless to me. I have all of Heyer's books and I think her descriptions of the countryside were as detailed as they needed to be for the story at hand. Certainly "country" evokes strong feelings on the part of the characters: think of Sherry's visceral rejection of the notion of selling one acre of Sheringham Place, or the fight between Gilly and his guardian when he decided to allow the gorgeous farmer (the beloved of the Purple Dress lady) to buy a property.

    For me the focus on fashion was necessary (and fascinating) because it was armour in a social sense and it also illuminated the character of those wearing it. Sir Montague Revesby always being slightly too florid for instance, in the eyes of men.

  5. Attachment to the Country Seat is something that is strongly associated with tradition, social status and family. Even those aristocrats who much prefer town life and leave the supervision of their estates to employees are typically shown to set great store by the ownership of those estates. Remember Stacy Calverleigh in Black Sheep: he has no real emotional attachment to his neglected demesnes, but is still shocked at the thought of selling the property to his uncle, because then he could no longer call himself 'Calverleigh of Danescourt'.

    Clothing fashions are used, as you say, Janet, to convey status and personal taste as well as the sense of place and time. Indeed, clothing invariably does do this in real life, and those who contemptuously reject the dictates of fashion are making just as strong a statement as those who follow them slavishly.

  6. Forgot to add: Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes, first published in, I think, 1982, is still the best and most readable guide to the social significance of clothing. I don't know if it is still in print.

  7. "Certainly "country" evokes strong feelings on the part of the characters"

    I'd agree with AgTigress that one shouldn't forget the social importance of owning land, so one shouldn't assume that the strong feelings are just due to an emotional attachment to nature. But to add a few more examples of characters in whom the "'country' evokes strong feelings," there's the hero in A Civil Contract who's prepared to make an arranged marriage in order to preserve his estates, and one of the characters in The Quiet Gentleman is prepared to murder in order to acquire landed property.

    That said, in These Old Shades, which is an early Heyer, the peasant is the one who shows a seemingly inbred love of farming. As Catherine Johns pointed out at the conference, though, this didn't reflect the reality of the British nobility's attitude towards their land. I'm vague on the details of the Agricultural Revolution, but landowners were certainly showing a lot of interest in making improvements to their estates.

    And I'd second the Lurie recommendation. It's a wonderful book (which I've drawn on for my (forthcoming) essay about Crusie and underwear). A revised edition was published in 1992 and it looks as though another edition was published in 2000.

  8. I agree that in These Old Shades Heyer is suggesting that a personal interest in farming is a trait of characteristic of a peasant, or at least of a member of the yeoman class, not of an aristocrat. But even leaving aside the fact that this was a comment on the French aristocracy rather than the English, it is, of course, perfectly possible to be genuinely attached for all sorts of reasons to a country estate without ever acquiring, or attempting to acquire, a practical knowledge of farming, just as it is possible to love good food without having a clue how to prepare and cook it. You just leave that side of things to the servants... ;-)

    The involvement of members of the English aristocracy and landed gentry in the agricultural revolution was crucial, not only in the development of new livestock breeds, but in the serious promotion of theories such as crop-rotation and the practicalities of drainage and the careful use of fertilisers. I see this as another aspect of the Enlightenment mind-set, as people chose to apply a scientific and experimental approach to these everyday matters, rather than blindly following tradition.

    I'm glad that the Lurie book has been revised and reprinted. I have the original edition, but might take a look at a more recent one. It is a very perceptive treatise.