Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Heyer 2009: Laura Vivanco: 'The Nonesuch as Didactic Love Fiction'

My academic work is currently focused on the romance genre but I began as a hispanomedievalist, writing about death in fifteenth-century Castile as well as texts such as Celestina and the Spanish sentimental romances which are about love, but which definitely don't conclude with a Harlequin Mills & Boon happy ending.

In ‘So educational!” she said. “And quite unexceptionable!”: The Nonesuch as Didactic Love Fiction’ I began by suggesting that one could compare The Nonesuch itself to the presents, described in The Nonesuch as “a book, or some trifle,” which Sir Waldo brings to “amuse” Charlotte Underhill during her convalescence. When Mrs Mickleby, learning of these presents, launches a brief attack on “romances,” Ancilla Trent defends some of them as being “well-written” and I believe that Heyer would have been very happy to accept this as a description of her own novels.

Ancilla continues by noting that a puzzle Sir Waldo brought Charlotte is “So educational! [...] And quite unexceptionable!” Again, this is a description which can also be applied to The Nonesuch itself. It may be deemed “quite unexceptionable!” because it is a "sweet" romance that avoids any description of sexual activity beyond a kiss, and its "educational" nature is suggested by the fact that it is a novel in which both the hero and heroine educate others.

The heroine, Ancilla Trent, is a governess and the hero, Sir Waldo, is a role model to the many young men who aspire to emulate his sporting prowess and fashionable mode of dress. Laurie and Tiffany are secondary characters who serve as demonstrations of the negative consequences of a lack of suitable education. Their bad habits and traits were learned easily, but effecting changes in their behaviour is rather more difficult and requires both knowledge and cunning on the part of their teachers. Miss Trent, for example, is described as using “unorthodox” methods, including lies, in order to guide Tiffany. Sir Waldo also uses his cunning to teach the besotted Julian about Tiffany's faults: he subtly provokes her into “betray[ing] the least amiable side of her disposition” with such skill that “His trusting young cousin” remains unaware “that Waldo’s lazy complaisance masked a grim determination to thrust a spoke into the wheel of his courtship.”1

Heyer herself can perhaps also be thought of as having employed subtle educational methods since she concealed the didactic elements of her novels beneath a highly entertaining outer layer. The authorial approval for the modest yet brave Patience Chartley, and the disapproval of the vain and selfish Tiffany, for example, serve as examples of both the right and the wrong way for a young woman “to go on in society.”

The Nonesuch can thus be classified as what Deborah Lutz terms “didactic love fiction - romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living ” rather than as “amatory fiction” which “cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally.” Sometimes “the enemy lover” of amatory fiction, “Contrary to all expectation […] appears in […] didactic fiction” (3), but when he is the hero of a work of didactic love fiction he is “set up as dangerous only to then be reformed in the end” (3). This type of hero does appear in some of Heyer's novels:
my youthful fans [...] seem (from their letters) to be convinced that my Ideal Man is the prototype of what I call the Heyer Hero, No. I pattern – a horrid type, whom no woman in the possession of her senses could endure for more than half a day (Aiken Hodge 197)
He does not, however, appear in The Nonesuch, which is therefore more completely didactic in nature.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of Heyer's didacticism is to be found in her use of historical detail. As is apparent from the size of Jennifer Kloester's Georgette Heyer's Regency World, Heyer did include a lot of details about the Regency period in her novels. The accuracy of these details allow us to date the chronological setting of the novel very precisely to June 1816, a “couple of years” after the death of “Lady Spencer – the one that [...] was mad after educating the poor.” Heyer's attention to accuracy is also suggested by the presence in John Bigland’s Yorkshire volume of The Beauties of England and Wales (1812) of an engraving of what he calls the “Dropping Well” at Knaresborough, which may have formed the inspiration for the one spotted by Heyer’s Lord Lindeth in Leeds. Heyer also recognises the less pleasant aspects of Regency life via her mention of Leeds' charitable organisations and the presence in the novel of a “ragged urchin” who has to be reassured by Patience Chartley that he will not be handed over to “the beadle (an official of whom he seemed to stand in terror.” Again, Heyer seems to have been drawing on contemporary sources, since John Ryley in his Leeds Guide (1806) describes the beadle, along with the Chief Constable, as “personages who are, to vulgar thieves, as terrific as the Chief Justice himself” (89).2

The Nonesuch is a Regency romance populated by fictional characters but Heyer also wrote some works of biographical historical fiction, including The Conqueror (1931) and The Spanish Bride (1940). Heyer seems to have wanted to write more works of biographical historical fiction but after her death her husband revealed that “The penal burden of British taxation, coupled with the clamour of her readers for a new book, made her break off to write another Regency story.” Jennifer Kloester suggested in her presentation that there were other reasons why Heyer eventually concentrated her talents on Regency romances, and she promises that all will be revealed in her forthcoming biography of Heyer. Whatever the precise reasons, I concluded that most of us of who are fans of Heyer's work are probably very glad that circumstances pushed her to write more of these only somewhat “educational” yet “quite unexceptionable” novels.


1 I didn't mention this in my presentation, but I thought I'd note here that it's interesting that Heyer uses this particular metaphor to describe Sir Waldo's actions. Sir Waldo has a reputation as a nonpareil, a "nonesuch" at driving and it was he who taught Julian to drive. Now he takes a metaphorical spoke and pushes it into the "wheel" of Julian's courtship so as to prevent Julian from hitting a dangerous obstacle and driving off the straight and narrow path towards a respectable and happy marriage. Julian, of course, currently believes that the obstacle is his destination, and he would therefore consider the spoke-poking to be sabotage. For this reason, Sir Waldo has to use all his skill to prevent Julian from realising that his carriage is quite deliberately being redirected.

2 In my presentation I didn't have time to give more details about Heyer's description of Leeds. I hope that if/when the paper is published in full I'll be able to include more about this. I'd also like to acknowledge the assistance I received from Greta Meredith, Assistant Librarian, Thoresby Society, who kindly pointed me in the direction of useful primary and secondary sources about Leeds, and from Louise-Ann Hand, Information Librarian: Local and Family History Library, Leeds City Council, who was a fount of useful information about the streets and inns of early nineteenth-century Leeds.


  1. Thank you for this. I did so enjoy your talk - looking for a Georgette Heyer word 'spirited' comes to mind - but would not have remembered all the details. It would be very good to see the full paper

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Hannah! I'd like to see the full paper published too, because I had to cut out quite a bit and a lot of what was cut had to do with Leeds. Having heard jay Dixon's paper on place, I wonder how The Nonesuch's Leeds setting would fit into the city/country division. In some ways Leeds is feminine since it's depicted as a shopping destination for the ladies, but it was also a rapidly expanding industrial centre and it's men who, in the novel, run businesses, organise many of the charitable activities, and administer justice (there's the Beadle, of course, but one could perhaps also think of Sir Waldo as taking on that role when he finally tells Tiffany some rather blunt truths).

    It's also an interesting case study, I think, because it demonstrates that although Heyer might, as jay Dixon suggested, have described places such as London, Bath and Leeds in a few sentences, there was a lot of research underpinning those sentences!

  3. It would, indeed, be great to see this in an expanded, published version, Laura. This kind of analysis can be very enlightening. One of the points that always interests me is how much of the pattern that we can see was conscious on the author's part, and how much was almost instinctive, the result of her clear vision of the characters, plot and setting.

    Incidentally, as I am sure you already know (maybe it is even mentioned in The Nonesuch, but I can't recall), King George III approved of the then new 'dissected maps' for the teaching and entertainment of his own children in the later 18th century. This much-maligned monarch was a true man of the Enlightenment, fascinated by the expanding geographical knowledge of his era as well as by the great range of scientific advances. One imagines that the fact that dissected maps had found a place in the Royal nursery a generation earlier would have given them the seal of approval as 'unexceptionable' gifts for youngsters.

  4. Incidentally, as I am sure you already know (maybe it is even mentioned in The Nonesuch, but I can't recall), King George III approved of the then new 'dissected maps' for the teaching and entertainment of his own children in the later 18th century.

    No, I didn't know that. How interesting! No-one says anything about it in The Nonesuch, but that's probably because Ancilla Trent is far too ladylike to mention it in connection with her own didactic methodology. If she had, Mrs Mickleby would probably have gone off thinking that Ancilla was puffing off her knowledge of royalty. ;-)

    I went off to find out more and came across Megan A. Norcia's "Puzzling Empire: Early Puzzles and Dissected Maps as Imperial Heuristics" Children's Literature 37 (2009): 1-32.

    the fifteen royal children of George III played with dissected puzzles commissioned by their governess, Lady Charlotte Finch (1725–1813). Finch’s puzzle cabinet, now housed at Kew Palace near London, contains sixteen dissected maps of various parts of the world including England, North America, Africa, Ireland, and Asia. (9)

  5. Norcia begins her essay with some quotes which I thought might perhaps add something to a discussion of didacticism in Heyer:

    "Knowledge of spaces wavers between description and dissection . . . Part-spaces are carved out for inspection from social space as a whole."
    —Henri Lefebvre,
    The Production of Space 91

    "Because observations of developing children and stories of growing up are tales of gaining power [. . . there is a] link between juvenile pedagogy and national politics, between child-watching and cultural studies."
    —Mitzi Myers, "'Anecdotes from the Nursery' in Maria Edgeworth's
    Practical Education (1798)" 241 (1)

    Heyer's works weren't written as juvenile fiction (though as Sam Rayner mentioned, Devil's Cub was once published in a children's imprint) but some of her readers were/are relatively young women. As far as the imperial context is concerned, Heyer did write quite a bit about military history e.g. the Norman conquest in The Conqueror, the English fighting the French during the Middle Ages (in Simon the Coldheart) and the Spaniards in the Elizabethan period (in Beauvallet, which is about one of Simon's descendants), there are the Napoleonic wars, of course, and national stereotypes about the French and Spanish appear in her work. There are also a few "nabobs" who have obviously made their fortunes in India.

    Norcia writes that:

    puzzles and children's literature grew up together. In his study of the rise of children's culture, J. H. Plumb notes: "In 1730 there were no specialized toyshops of any kind, whereas by 1780 toyshops everywhere abounded, and by 1820 the trade in toys, as in children's literature, had become very large indeed" (310). Like children's reading, puzzle play in Britain was licensed not only as a pleasurable activity, but as a practice through which future stewards of national prosperity could be shaped and molded. (1)

    So we're back to links between education, entertainment, and history.

    Norcia also states that she will

    trace the historical development of puzzles from their eighteenth-century inception through the period of high imperialism one hundred years later; during this period, empire changed from an Enlightenment enterprise driven by anthropology and discovery into an administrative project fueled by commerce, military strategy, and evangelization. (3)

    "Commerce, military strategy, and evangelization" are all subtly present in The Nonesuch, thanks to the discussions of Leeds' industry, the references to Waterloo and the Army of Occupation, and the need for the education of the poor. Maybe I'm stretching this too far, but it's interesting that these are activities Norcia particularly associates with the Victorian period, because Sarah Annes Brown commented in response to my paper that "there is something oddly Victorian somehow about The Nonesuch."

  6. What a perceptive comment -- that there's something oddly Victorian about "The Nonesuch" -- I would most certainly agree. Possibly the fervour to improve, to educate and to elevate the lives of those around them? Sir Waldo was not frivolous altho he wielded his not inconsiderable charm as a weapon.

  7. Laura, I'm glad that my remark took you on such a productive search for further details! I am a fan of poor old George III's, but I think I knew about his children's dissected maps because of having contacts at the British Library.

    I agree with Sarah's remark about the 'Victorian' feel to The Nonesuch: the representation of the philanthropic mind-set allied with the glimpse, however brief, into the development of grim urban slums that accompanied burgeoning industrialisation are perhaps even more significant in conveying that impression than the concern with knowledge and teaching.

    The realisation that there was so much NEW information to learn, for cultured adults as well as for the young, seems to me central to the Enlightenment, and therefore firmly pre-Victorian. Until the early 18thC, the well-educated person based his knowledge on Graeco-Roman and Biblical texts and a generally literary/historic approach. By the late 18thC, there was so much more to know, with the rapidly evolving natural sciences and the advances of mechanisation.

    In Frederica, Felix's passion for information about the mechanical and industrial illustrates an emerging generation of those who, though still firmly 'gentlemen', felt it was relevant to know about more than the Classics in order to play a full part in a changing world. And paradoxically, those changes also helped to open doors to status and influence to those who were not 'gentlemen' by birth.

  8. I agree with Sarah's remark about the 'Victorian' feel to The Nonesuch: the representation of the philanthropic mind-set allied with the glimpse, however brief, into the development of grim urban slums that accompanied burgeoning industrialisation are perhaps even more significant in conveying that impression

    I wonder if that's partly due to Dickens. He's a Victorian who's rather well known for his thieving urban urchins. "Grim urban slums" were a concern in earlier periods too, though, I think. Certainly one gets that impression from reading John Ryley's Leeds Guide (1806) and, from an earlier period, there's Hogarth's Beer Street and Gin Lane.

    Obviously, though, the grim urban slums must have increased in size and number as a result of industrialisation, so maybe that's another reason why they're most closely associated with the Victorian period.

  9. Dear Laura

    Sorry if this is going to everyone
    -- but l wanted to thank you for a very fair summary of what l said.
    l was a bit worried about over-simplification -- and conscious that l had had to rush the end -- and also worried about coming to Heyer via Austen and not the other way around -- but this does give a very acceptable resume for those who weren't there.

    All good wishes for your own work.

    Mary Joannou

  10. Thanks, Mary, and I'm very glad you didn't feel I'd missed out anything crucial. It's a bit of a worry when summarising something that is, in itself, already a summary, in the sense that all of us were having to resort to simplifications at times (or at least had to omit interesting details, quotations, etc.) because of time constraints. That worry about having to over-simplify/generalise because of time constraints was something that Kerstin Frank mentioned at the end of her paper, too.

  11. I cannot believe that a novel or romance can be disected in such a way. When I read a book, it makes me feel good and I never reach beyond the words that describe the characters or their actions. There are authors that I read and reread and there is a warm feeling every time. Other authors, I read their books and have to put the book aside because it does not grab me. Or else I cannot wait to finish it because it simply does not attract me. Heyer is always a comfort read and no matter how many times I read her books, it is always such a treat. But no analysis for me, no thanks! Jeannine Pellerin, Montréal, Canada

  12. "Heyer is always a comfort read and no matter how many times I read her books, it is always such a treat. But no analysis for me, no thanks!"

    I'm very glad to hear that you enjoy reading Heyer so much, and there is, of course, absolutely no reason why you should read analyses of her work if you don't want to.

  13. I do agree that Heyer is a comfort read - like comfort eating but with fewer calories. Generally if my husband or I see the other reading a Heyer book we pick up the signal of stressful times! But thanks to the excellent conference at Lucy Cavendish I have found it possible to be more willing to be open about enjoying Heyer for her own sake - less lowbrow literature panic!