One for Georgette Heyer fans/nerds mostly. Of which there can never be too many.

“Our appreciation of much-loved books changes as we age.” Discuss with reference to a favourite novel.

Don’t shoot me pleeeeez, but I’ve gone right off Annis Wychwood in Lady of Quality. I still enjoy the romance and the banter, but on a recent re-read I just felt, well,  Annis, get over yourself. (Disclaimer: this post written from a place of deep Heyer-love.)

lady of qu betterThe biggest sadness/trauma in Annis’s life was the restriction felt by a rich, independent woman forced to live a best-supporting-actor life in her brother’s house. Then guess what, she can afford to get her own place. Yes, it’s still boring, but for the times, my, did she have it easy. Her greatest anxiety in the book is that her protégée, Lucilla, might be thought ‘fast’ by the Bath Quizzes, thus damaging her prospects on the marriage-mart. First-world problems, Annis, first-world problems.

I’m not judging Annis by the standards of different historical times or fiction genres – even within the context of the historical period, and within the wonderfully integrated fantasy world that Heyer created, I think she is, as she might say herself, a poor creature – selfish, contemptuous and espousing values of extraordinary triviality. She can be kind to her sister, true, and she’s intelligent and beautiful – which helps: imagine if she wasn’t beautiful – she could never get away with being so snarky.

Compare and contrast your chosen novel with an earlier work by the same author.

sylvester-or-the-wicked-uncle-georgette-heyer

I couldn’t help comparing her to Phoebe in Sylvester. Phoebe has a proper Cinderella story – dead mother, weak father, cruel stepmother. Her response is to write a book – a creative response from within herself. Phoebe cares passionately about justice, about the underdog: she is more concerned with Sylvester’s moral character than with propriety or his status, but she is also capable of compassionate understanding of how the death of his brother affected him.

Phoebe’s behaviour is driven by her sense of justice, by remorse and self-criticism, by her care for others, whereas Annis’s behaviour is all aimed at her own comfort within a particularly limited palette.

All fiction is disguised autobiography. Discuss.

When I read Jennifer Kloester’s biography recently, I felt that the difference between these two heroines may well have been a reflection of Georgette’s own state at the time of writing. She was at her happiest and most productive when she wrote Sylvester; but Lady of Quality was her last book, and she was pretty unwell and tired. Stylistically, romantically, I think it is as good as any of her books, despite being very much a rehash of Black Sheep, but I think the narrowness and grumpiness of Annis’s inner (and outer) world, reflect the exhaustion, and dare I say it, rather self-righteous bitterness of a woman who had lived a life of both unthinking privilege and extremely hard work. I think there’s an autobiographical element in Annis, in Georgette’s idealising of Annis’s crossness, in the privileging of appearances over values and heart, but Annis lacks the saving grace of Georgette herself, whose achievements were hard won by her own graft. Annis was a daddy’s girl like Georgette, but Annis simply inherited money which gave her freedom. GH worked incredibly hard, and was the main breadwinner for much of her marriage, as well as supporting her mother and at times, her brothers. In a sense, she had earned the right to be a curmudgeon: Annis certainly didn’t.

I welcome comments and further discussion. It’s possible that you may not agree with the above!

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5 thoughts on “One for Georgette Heyer fans/nerds mostly. Of which there can never be too many.

  1. I think our actions and reactions are mainly influenced by the size of our world and the hand we are dealt. So for example my MIL is pretty housebound so her world is tiny and she worries and fusses about trivialities that I would not even think about but she has nothing else to occupy her mind. Similarly Annis led a privileged life and worries about the problems she has because they are all she has to worry about. Phoebe’s circumstances are far different and she has greater issues to cope with – and does. Who knows if Annis would have coped with all that Phoebe had to put up with as Annis has never experienced it and therefore, if you like, doesn’t have a chance to show what she’s made of. The smaller your world and experiences, the more you obsess about things which seem worthless to others. Now I need to remind myself that she is actually just a character in a book!

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  2. Hi Amy: I think you make good points here, but you need to change the word “graft” to “craft” because I don’t think our lovely Georgette would succumb to graft to get ahead! You might also think about the fact that GH never liked having to pay horrendous taxes on her work. I sort of see her anger at her father/brother in LoQ as anger at the patriarchy! Perhaps we might say that GH’s amazing output was a way to replace a beloved father or to please him or to even overmaster a life situation which had thrust her into being the family’s provider and major support too soon. And then to have another patriarchal power – the government – levy heinous taxes on her hard work must have felt like a major undermining of her efforts.

    I think a better comparison for Annis would be Abigail, her at least half-sister in Black Sheep. Abigail’s life is fairly charmed as well, with her being independent, stylish and rich. But, you also see how she feels guilty for wanting more and for abandoning her family responsibilities. In her, perhaps, you see the fatigue Heyer may have felt at times, being the responsible one. I think we identify more with Abigail and long for that rich nabob to come along and sweep us away from our previous identities to ones of greater fulfillment. In comparison, Annis and her rude partner (I’ve only read the book a couple of times b/c of the silly companion) are not as charming and witty.

    I like the idea of comparing Heyer characters, and will play with that in my mind for a couple of days. Arabella/Kitty, Kitty/Kitten, Abigail/Venetia — so many interesting things to consider! I still want Venetia to set up her own home in London, however!

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  3. Thanks Melinda, very insightful response. There may be a US/UK problem with the word “graft” – here in the UK, it can just mean hard work – but actually, I like the change to “craft”, because GH was indisputably a mistress of her craft.

    I agree that she was very much ‘all about’ her father – and as many people have commented, she didn’t really write mothers very much.

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  4. Love your headings. Very reasoned arguments and all interesting. I can’t get over the fact that it’s a rehash job of Black Sheep and not very well done. I agree GH was tired when she wrote it, and quite possibly lacked the fire to make it bright and witty in her usual manner. As an author myself, I do know some books just don’t take off and you struggle to make them even interesting, while others fly off the fingers without effort. And if you’re ill or tired, it’s almost impossible to write light as GH did. Maybe she had to write the damn book for the tax man and maybe that’s what’s reflected in the rather leaden feel in comparison to other books.

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