Saturday, November 14, 2009

Heyer 2009: Kerstin Frank: ‘The Thermodynamics of Georgette Heyer'

Kerstin Frank works at the University of Heidelberg. She is the author of Die Erneuerung des Romans im Zeichen postmoderner Realitätsauffassung: Sinnstiftung und Sinnzerstörung in Christine Brooke-Roses Werk but has now moved on from studying postmodern British novels to working on the eighteenth-century fantastic and gothic genres. As a result, this year she is teaching a course on "Werewolf and Vampire: Manifestations of Otherness and the Transgression of Boundaries."

In "The Thermodynamics of Georgette Heyer: Variations on the Quest for Revitalisation" Frank drew on thermodynamics, a branch of physics which deals with the conversion of energy. [LV comment: at this point it might (or might not!) help to turn to Flanders and Swann's "First and Second Laws"

The lyrics to this can be found here or here]

So, thermodynamics explains that heat passes from a hot object, whose particles move around more, to a cold body, which has relatively little kinetic energy. Historical romances also depict the interactions between hot and cold bodies. Coolness tends to be used metaphorically to describe a lack of emotion (e.g. "as cold as a fish"). In Heyer's novels upper-class life is critiqued and described humorously. It can be thought of as "cold" because it is relatively static, with the boundaries of upper-class behaviour clearly defined. Members of the ton tend to have high social status, but they must demonstrate indifference to the details of money and fashion. "Warm" or emotionally exuberant behaviour is frowned on, as when Lady Bridlington is displeased by Arabella's rescue of a chimney sweep in Arabella. The ton is, however, fascinated by those who transgress the limits of polite, "cold" behaviour.

Heyer's heroes often show their "cold" indifference by stifling yawns or fiddling with their neckties. Many of them are affluent and have perfected an attitude of coldness and indifference. They despise society but nonetheless epitomise its rules in their exaggerated boredom and adherence to the rules of dress. Such heroes may have cynically bored eyes, sleepy eyes, sleepy gazes or may cast lazy glances. This indifference, arrogance and coldness are to be found in the hero of The Corinthian, who is called an "iceberg" and whose
air proclaimed his unutterable boredom, but no tailoring, no amount of studied nonchalance, could conceal the muscle in his thighs, or the strength of his shoulders. Above the starched points of his shirt-collar, a weary, handsome face showed its owner's disillusionment. Heavy lids drooped over grey eyes which were intelligent enough, but only to observe the vanities of the world; the smile which just touched that resolute mouth seemed to mock the follies of Sir Richard's fellow men.
Such heroes use their coldness to intimidate others. Even Freddy Standen, in Cotillion, uses a prop to coolly intimidate another by viewing him slowly through his quizzing glass:
Upon Mrs Scorton's reappearance, she found herself confronted, not by the fool of his family, but by the Honourable Frederick Standen, a Pink of the Pinks, who knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur, and who informed her, with exquisite politeness, that he rather fancied his cousin was tired, and would like to be taken home. One of the uninvited guests, entering the box in Eliza's wake, ventured on a warm sally, found himself being inspected from head to foot through a quizzing-glass, and stammered an apology.
The eye, hideously magnified by the glass, continued to stare at him for an unnerving moment. 'Ah, just so!' said Mr Standen, letting the glass fall at last. 'Come, Kit! Your very obedient, ma'am!'
These heroes' coldness is challenged by the arrival of their heroines. Particles start to clash and warmth is generated:
It was not the practice of young ladies to put up their chins in just that style if Mr Beaumaris levelled his glass at them: they were more in the habit of simpering, or of trying to appear unconscious of his regard. But Mr Beaumaris saw that there was a decidedly militant sparkle in this lady's eye, and his interest, at first tickled, was now fairly caught.
The heroes are forced to abandon their coolness and become engaged in the messy events of the plot. The tension between hot and cold is never resolved [LV comment: in the words of Flanders and Swann, they do not reach a state of "perfect peace"] because the heroes continue to possess enough coolness to sort out the tangles of the plot, as Freddy does in Cotillion or as Mr Beaumaris does in Arabella, while the liveliness and warmth of the heroines continue to provide a contrast.

Karin E. Westman, in "A Story of Her Weaving: The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer's Regency Romances," Doubled Plots: Romance and History, ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003), pp. 165-184, proposes three categories of Heyer heroines, each with differing degrees of maturity and control. The younger heroines who are less knowledgeable about society provide more of a contrast with their heroes. Older and more experienced heroines who know the ways of the world may satirise the hero's detachment. In Sylvester Phoebe may be relatively young but she is knowledgeable and she fights Sylvester verbally with the weapons of honesty and parody. She is not awed by his cool demeanour and he is eventually forced to reassess his emotional detachment. Sometimes, as in Venetia, heroines become an ally for the hero, sharing with him the fun of ridiculing society.

Heyer's heroines tend to be unconventional, possibly adopting certain aspects of masculine behaviour and language. This can unbalance the heroes and allow them to distance themselves from the social rules. With their heroines they can find a separate, private space where warmth is allowed. This private space remains very limited, however: the rules must still be adhered to in public.

Frank concluded by acknowledging that in her paper she had been forced into generalisations due to time constraints and she acknowledged that there is scope in Heyer's work for plenty of variations on the contrast between cold and hot.

She also stated that it is Heyer's humour, her awareness of clichés and patterns and her metafictional streak which set her apart from many other romance authors.


  1. I suspect that I was not the only person present to have felt slightly baffled, even intimidated, by Kerstin Frank's title, and to have been delighted to find that it all made perfect sense when she spoke, and raised all sorts of interesting ideas.

    The cool or detached demeanour that was regarded as good ton in the early 19thC casts a long shadow, and is tied up with the way in which the British, especially the English, are still sometimes stereotyped by others as 'cold' or 'reserved' today. Even a middle-class person of my generation was brought up to regard undue public display of emotion as vulgar and ill-mannered, and we are made extremely uncomfortable by it. Emotional reactions are supposed to be indulged only in private.

    The unseemly, almost hysterical public displays of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana in the 1990s were deeply shocking to some of us because we felt that this behaviour was both vulgar and 'un-British'.

  2. My knowledge of thermodynamics was very, very vague (and that's a somewhat generous description!). I had wondered if she was going to discuss the hot air balloon in Frederica.

    As you say, it all very quickly began to make sense once Kerstin started speaking.

    Even a middle-class person of my generation was brought up to regard undue public display of emotion as vulgar and ill-mannered

    That brings us on to class, which is the topic of the next paper. But obviously what Kerstin had to say does tie in with that, because clearly different classes were expected to express (or suppress) emotion in different ways.

  3. Forgive my ignorance: what is a metafictional streak? A good thing or a bad thing?

    Where would this author place Sherry? Always hot, imo -- willful and spontaneous. Ah, until he finally grew up and then he COLDLY ushered his uncle out of the room so he could confront his mother. Maybe Sherry had to go from hot to cold to perfect warmth w/Kitten.

    And Vidal? Cold, icy cold with every action, seemingly wild, made in a cold, deliberate way.

  4. According to Patricia Waugh, "the lowest common denominator of metafiction is simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement about the creation of that fiction" (6).


    Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text. (Waugh 2) [There have been lots of different editions of Waugh's book, so I should probably specify that I got this quote from Patricia Waugh's Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Routledge, 1988.]

    Sylvester's probably the most obvious example among Heyer's historical romances, since the heroine is an author, and she incorporates the hero into her fiction, which makes the reader think about the relationship between fiction and reality. Or as I mentioned in my paper on The Nonesuch, this is a novel which contains a discussion about the value of reading romances.

    I've written a few blog posts about metafictional romance novels. Here's the first one.

  5. Thank you for the explanation -- yeah, I see what it means.

    Back to Sherry though (noting that he's only one of my fave heroes of All Time :D ) ... do all Heyer heroes have to go through the crucible of cold --> hot --> equilibrium? What do you think? Because altho her hot-headed heroes are more rare, she does have a few.

  6. "do all Heyer heroes have to go through the crucible of cold --> hot"

    No, I don't think they all have to go through that process, and I don't think Kerstin Frank thought they did, which is why she said at the end of her paper that she'd been generalising. After all, Heyer wrote around 40 historical romances, and there are a fair few exceptions to the pattern Kerstin outlined. To take a different example, I wouldn't say that Hugo Darracott needed to be "heated." His aunt in fact thinks that if he has a fault it's that he's prone to get carried away by his sense of humour. He can and does act in a commanding way at the end of the novel, but I certainly can't see him fitting the pattern of coolness needing to be warmed up by friction with the heroine. It's more the case that he warms up the entire family!

  7. Thinking about this a bit more, I realised that Simon the "Coldheart" is actually named in a way that reflects the pattern and I think the examples that Kerstin used in the full paper were mostly from Frederica, The Corinthian, Arabella, and Sylvester, with Freddy from Cotillion as a variation on the theme since he can be coldly haughty when he wants to, and he's not deeply emotionally engaged with the world but then he unexpectedly falls in love with Kitty.

  8. That's interesting about Hugo, Laura, as I was reflecting after the paper that heroines aren't really allowed to be 'cold'. Cold women are generally viewed with disapproval in Heyer's novels and not seen to be capable of 'warming up' (unless they're simply shy). But I think The Unknown Ajax is one of the few Heyers where the hero is warmer than the heroine.

    @Janet - my favourite little example of metafiction (though it's actually metadrama) is Fabian's comment in Twelfth Night - 'If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction". I think there are quite a few little moments a bit like this in Heyer, though none so blatant perhaps.

  9. I think The Unknown Ajax is one of the few Heyers where the hero is warmer than the heroine.

    The secondary romance in Friday's Child might be another example, because George Wrotham is definitely hot and active, always challenging his friends to duels and being emotionally demonstrative about his love (he is prone to "turning pale at a snub; or being cast into rapture by a smile" and "had several times offered to blow his brains out, if such a violent act would afford her pleasure"), whereas Isabella, who on the second page of my edition "gazed coldly" is very reserved and only thaws towards George at the very end of the novel.

  10. Good point about Miss Milbourne (see, I can't even think about her except as formal and cold altho when her voice broke and she begged George to take her home, that was very touching!).

    OK, obsessive me here: I went downstairs to analyze all my Heyers. And I made a discovery: these titles are my constant re-reads over the years -- I didn't feel I could comment on others. Forgive me!

    (heroes all)
    Bath Tangle
    Venetia (altho maybe he's more sitting on embers and rose petals now)
    Friday's Child
    Powder and Patch -- he starts hot and moves to cold, somewhat, to attract the heroine in London
    * A digression: all Heyer heroes can, if called for or by the end of their books, can put on cold and aristocratic, if need be*

    April Lady (altho he moves to cold through worry over his marriage)
    Grand Sophy (warm to cold and his best friend worries that his horrid financee will deep freeze him)
    Civil Contract
    False Colours
    Faro's Daughter (bit hot/cold nasty mixture when he really falls hard)
    The Foundling
    Regency Buck (capable of the deep freeze)

    COLD: (all, of course, warm up to heroine!)
    Convenient Marriage
    Devil's Cub (he has hot action but a cold outlook on life)
    These Old Shades
    The Corinthian

    All mistakes and opinions are mine!

  11. @Janet - I liked your table and it made me reflect that in a sense the hot and cold heroes have more in common with each other than with the 'warm' heroes. I see these warm heroes as more feminised (and I think False Colours, Civil Contract, Cotillion, The Foundling figure quintessentially 'warm' heroes) - and that maybe fits in with my sense that most Heyer heroines are warm rather than hot (although a couple are, Serena for example) or, particularly, cold.