Friday, November 13, 2009

Heyer 2009: Mary Joannou: ‘Heyer and Austen’

Mary Joannou is Professor of Literary History and Women's Writing at Anglia Ruskin University and she's listed in the database of researchers at "The Middlebrow Network [which] is an AHRC-funded project that provides a focus for research on the loaded and disreputable term 'middlebrow' and the areas of cultural production it purports to represent."

In Heyer and Austen Mary Joannou noted that Jane Austen has been a very important figure for twentieth-century women authors and their debt to her was perhaps particularly intense in the 1940s. In Leavis's The Great Tradition he wrote that Austen's place in the "great tradition" of English novelists had been secured by her "marked moral intensity" but Joannou observed that he both put a premium on difficulty (and Austen is not a particularly difficult author to read) and failed to take account of her humour and use of irony.

In the 1950s postmodernism was in the ascendant but so too was Regency-set fiction. Joannou suggests that one could perhaps see Heyer's irony and humour as a signal that she was a "postmodernist avant la lettre."

Austen took comic delight in absurdity and self-delusion, and playfulness is Elizabeth Bennet's most noted characteristic. It is a similar use of humour which readers also love in Heyer. She is "fun" and her heroines are quick-witted. Heyer was writing through the Depression and the Second World War and her humour perhaps provided an antidote to the bleakness of these decades. Although there are differences between Heyer and Austen, their use of humour leapfrogs over the seriousness of the Victorian period and Joannou believes that in order for Heyer to be taken seriously, we have to see that both she and Austen were writing intellectual comedies.

Both also draw on the work of previous women writers. Austen took her cue from Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney (Joannou sees borrowings from Burney in Pride and Prejudice), but she also parodies the gothic in Northanger Abbey. Similarly, Heyer's debt to Austen only goes so far. In The Grand Sophy, for example, the scene in Goldhanger's rooms evokes the outrageous. Austen's heroines would never have pulled out a gun the way Sophy does. Nor does Sophy's matchmaking interference much resemble Emma Woodhouse's. Emma may interfere, but she wouldn't have shot Charlbury. Austen's is only a very "partial, ironic tutelage."

So are Heyer's references to history more than "costumery"? [LV comment: this is a reference to Georg Lukács. As Lisa Fletcher has written:
Georg Lukács begins his famous study of the historical novel by discounting from his consideration those "historical novels" in which "history is ... treated as mere costumery: where it is only the curiosities and oddities of the milieu that matter, not an artistically faithful image of a concrete historical epoch" (19). (Fletcher 49) ]
The Regency was characterised by profligacy, philandering, excess. These traits find their way obliquely into Austen in the persons of Wickham and Willoughby. In Heyer sexuality is obliquely present: Barbara Childe in An Infamous Army is a femme fatale. The clergymen in Austen reveal her moral values, although not all of them are impressive. In Heyer the clergymen are different. Austen and Heyer also differ in their depiction of the gradations of society, for whereas Austen has Fanny Price and her family, Heyer concentrates on the ton and brilliant matches.

The Regency was also a period of political radicalism but neither Austen nor Heyer particularly deal with this. They pay more attention to matters of style, fashion, manners, breeding. It seems as though despite (or perhaps because of) the wartime austerity which surrounded her, Heyer was delighting in excess, and public events of the Regency era assume prominence. Austen, however, tended to avoid public events and "real solemn history" (to quote Catherine Morland) was not to her taste. She deals with the ordinary, with women's strategies for coping.

This difference illustrates the slippage that is inevitable because Heyer, in writing historical romantic fiction, was mixing romance, which tends to depict an ideal world, with history, which depicts a verifiable world. She weaves fact into her fiction and we are thus reading an artefact.

Austen's novels, however, are set in the present, so there is no need for explanations of familiar fashions. Heyer, by contrast, had to make the past seem vivid by describing such details. [LV comment: this is a point I brought up prior to the colloquium in my brief post inspired by the title of Joannou's paper]. Austen tends to draw attention to fashion when she wishes to show which people are morally worthless (e.g. Lydia). Heyer's emphasis on fashion, which has been disparaged, can be read as mocking the mainstream. It takes delight in the performative possibilities of dress which allows for game-playing. A new wardrobe of clothes is transformative, e.g. in Friday's Child. An ingenue can be transformed into a glamorous woman in this playful utopia, and fashion is bound up with dreams and yearnings. Even the word "cotillion" which Heyer used as the title for one of her novels, is the name of a dance derived from the French for "petticoats." It is not only women who are interested in Heyer's Regency world: her men can and do take an interest in fashion too, in a way which was not possible for men in the period in which Heyer was writing. This allows for some fluidity in gender, but also offers up the male body for display (and consumption by female readers).

Joannou concluded by noting that Austen's novels depict youthful heroines who enter into equal marriages in which the wife does not show deference to her husband. This is also to be found in Heyer, but her historical accuracy does not extend to the sensibility of the period or to women's feelings at the time.


  1. This was prompted more by reading LV's Nov. 6 post on Heyer and Austen, comparing historical and contemporary fiction, but I'm embarrassed to always be posting comments so late, and thought I'd put it here.

    This debate recapitulates the ongoing comparison between genre fiction in general and "literary" fiction. Literary fiction is considered superior because, among other things, it uses less description of material culture ("costumery").

    Without getting into a discussion of literary merit, I agree that literary fiction tends to use less description. I consider Heyer to be a genre fiction writer, one of the best. Her writing style and sense of comedy are superb--brilliant.

    I think Austen is the better writer, but that's not much of an insult to Heyer--I think Austen was better than almost everybody. And I admire Heyer greatly for being inspired by Austen but not imitating her to the point of writing pastiche, and instead finding her own destinctive style and genuius.

    As a writer struggling with these same issues (am I a genre writer? a pop fiction writer?) I appreciate this kind of discussion. (Thanks, Laura!)

    And of course, as a writer I'm also a reader. I dislike reading or writing much elaborate description for the most part, but I accept it and even enjoy it in Heyer because she did an excellent job of integrating the description into the narrative; it doesn't interrupt the story but adds to the often comic effect--and at the same time gives readers a great deal of information about the period.

    Heyer was the writer who put the Regency on the map; she was the one who first unearthed all this period detail that every writer of Regency romance since refers to and builds on. For that, we thank her. But it wouldn't be worth much if she weren't also a good writer. We still enjoy her stories a generation or two after she wrote them because her plots are exciting, her characters believable and sympathetic, her love stories moving and her comedy laugh-out-loud funny, articulate and witty. If all she'd done was dump a lot of facts into otherwise lifeloess prose, no one would have heard of her today.

    Heyer is proof that it's not the research that matters--it's what you do with it!

  2. Literary fiction is considered superior because, among other things, it uses less description of material culture ("costumery").

    But, interestingly, Heyer perhaps counterbalances the increased amount of description of "material culture" by providing less detail concerning the countryside/landscapes, which was something jay Dixon explored in her paper.

    I don't suppose all literary fiction is heavy on descriptions of place compared to descriptions of clothing, but I'm kind of intrigued by the possibility that one could distill literary and popular fiction down to these two elements and see if they always had opposite balances of them, with "middlebrow" literature having relatively equal amounts of description of place and "material culture."

    And if you think that sounds like an extremely whimsical approach to literary genre analysis, you'd be right. The metaphorical description of popular fiction as "formula fiction" set me off on a runaway train of thought about formulae and chemistry. Since it would be extremely dangerous to carry out chemistry experiments on a runaway train, it's probably a good thing that no-one would take this idea seriously. ;-)

  3. Description of material culture is, however, increasingly rejected in modern genre fiction, which tends to rely heavily on dialogue, obeying the arbitrary 'show, don't tell' rubric. This can result in passages that are more like a play script than a novel. Heavy use of dialogue (spoken, rather than written, English) also lowers the readability score, which I suspect may be an aim of some authors and/or publishers: such books are very quick and easy to read.

    The response to detailed visual description varies according to the type of reader. A visual thinker such as myself, who does not 'hear' words when reading, but simply sees the action as though watching a film, greatly enjoys detailed description of people, their clothing and their setting. If such description is scanty or absent, I still see the pictures, but they have to be of my own creation, and can be hazier because I am not sure how well they correspond with the author's vision. My mind wanders more readily. Just as some readers are bored by a minute description of a room's furnishings, I become bored by a long 'he said, she said' verbal exchange without any visuals.

  4. My vague recollections of the long-ago reading of medieval romances such as Parzival seem to include descriptions of tents, caparisons for jousts, food consumed at feasts, etc. in considerable detail.

  5. Where does Dickens fit into this dichotomy? I know of no writer with more vivid and detailed descriptions of the material of his scenes - and I've always thought of him as "literary" . . .

  6. Elspeth, my impression is that although Dickens may be considered "literary" now, he was very much a "popular" and "best selling" writer in his own time. According to Sally Ledger:

    In the Regency years the demarcation between high and low culture had not yet been set in stone, with satire and parody in particular equally the tools of both. Dickens's cultural positioning in Victorian England was rather more difficult, with the literary classes of the period generally rather suspicious of what some regarded as his vulgar embrace of the popular: whilst Anthony Trollope rather sniffily characterised him as "Mr Popular Sentiment' in The Warden, an anonymous reviewer for the Saturday Review derided Dickens's determined engagement with contemporary social and political concerns, remarking that 'Mr Dickens's writings are the apotheosis of what has been called newspaper English.' Others, though, valorised his cross-class appeal, lauding him as a truly popular writer. (3)

    Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

  7. Thanks for your response, Laura. I know that Dickens was hugely popular in his own time, but now we consider him "literary" - Shakespeare, the same. I often say to my kids (who don't want to read Shakespeare) that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be Steven Spielberg! It is certainly not possible to decide what is "literary" and what is not by some simple feature, such as the inclusion of description. I seem to recall some critic trying to prove that Tolkien was not literature because of the LACK of description! I think the only true test will be what future ages think.