A decade ago, I did not like romance novels, unless you count Jane Austen as a romance writer, which I didn’t. Then one day some friends childishly double-dog dared me to read The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer, and bet that I couldn’t resist her. I lost the bet, but I won countless hours of blissfully absorbing reading. Much like a heroine in one of Heyer’s own romances, I fell in love against my initial inclination, but got a happy ending anyway. I devoured every one of her more than 50 books that I could get my hands on, and I’ve re-read my favorites an embarrassing number of times.
Georgette Heyer (1902–1974) was a British novelist who wrote in many different genres including historical fiction, contemporary fiction and thrillers, but she is best known and loved for her Georgian and Regency romances. So, how did she win me over? I‘ve always had a preference for escapist fiction: books that take me to places, times or worlds that I haven’t experienced. Heyer was almost obsessive in her attention to the details of every period she set a book in, and was determined to be as accurate as her source materials would allow. Her Regency world, especially, feels completely alive and convincing as a result. Even her slang, much of which she had to invent, just feels right as you read it. Both her imagined characters and her fictionalized historical characters are nuanced, well-rounded people. Once you factor in her never-failing wit, compelling (even when implausible) plotting and keen observation of human nature she is impossible for someone like me to resist.
This past year I read Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester, which I highly recommend to any Heyer fan. It was published in 2010, and the biographer had access to previously unknown and unavailable source material. When I try to describe Heyer’s romances, I often have difficulty summing up what makes them so compelling. I’m indebted to Kloester for her choice of words in describing Heyer’s book Black Sheep as “one of her satisfyingly unromantic romances.” Like all genre fiction, romance sometimes gets a bad rap for being formulaic. Are Heyer’s books based on a formula? No. Well, yes. But still no. Each book has its own internal master plan of character types and plot points, but that’s not formulaic, that’s just well-crafted writing. Heyer herself was a deeply practical sort of person, and though her heroes are sometimes knights or earls, they never seem like they should be wearing shining armor. Her plots are too intricate to be predictable. Even the mood of her books varies from title to title. Two of my favorites are good examples of this: the funny and frothy Cotillion, and the poignant, sedately paced A Civil Contract. To top it off, Heyer can make a romance sizzle without even ripping a single bodice.
So, if you’re already a Georgette Heyer fan, I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorites? Any good recommendations for a like-minded reader? If, on the other hand, you are feeling skeptical and stubborn about romances, you leave me no choice. Pick any Georgette Heyer romance and start reading. Just 25 pages and I bet you’re hooked. Go on. I double-dog dare you!