By Georgette Heyer
Coming back from vacation, I picked up an old favorite of mine, and a bit of a guilty pleasure. Georgette Heyer is known for her Regency romance novels (and, strangely, also for meticulously researched historical battles). My mother has all of her novels, so they were some of the first adult novels I started reading. Luckily for my tween sensibilities, the romance is actually quite light in these books, comparable in raciness to Jane Austen, I would say.
The Talisman Ring is one of my favorites, since it includes a murder mystery as well as romance. Heyer also does a bit of a switcheroo, where the first 50 pages features a young and somewhat insipid heroine before a more mature and much more interesting heroine is introduced, I believe in a conscious play on traditional romance tropes. Almost every review of Georgette Heyer mentions her humor, lively characters, and witty dialogue, and this one is no exception. Her characters and the farcical plot lines are what make her books such a pleasure to read.
What is not so much a pleasure to read is the racism. Heyer lived from 1902-1974, which of course was significantly more racist than today, and while most of her books don’t feature people of color at all, thereby avoiding racism by pure omission, a few are totally and irredeemably cringe-worthy. In fact, all of the reviews of Heyer’s novel The Grand Sophy are quite entertaining in how they start with how delightful all the characters and dialogue are, and you can just see each reviewer slowly winding down the praises in order to end up addressing the extreme bigotry. I just imagine all these slumped shoulders and heavy sighs, and the ominous tone in which they refer to the Goldhanger Chapter.
It can be quite appalling, and after rereading some of these scenes as a more culturally-aware adult (and an adult who couldn’t quite understand how I’d overlooked them as a tween), my pleasure in Heyer’s novels both diminished and became ethically confusing for me.
I was pleased to run across the essay “How to be a fan of problematic things” online just recently, and was somewhat comforted that I perhaps didn’t have to swear off all things Heyer as long as I stayed entirely open-eyed about the problematic things. Which, I mean, they are blatant enough that it would be really hard to try to explain them away.
The Talisman Ring doesn’t feature any people of color, but has some class issues instead. People of status and wealth are invariably smarter, kinder, and just better all-around human beings than middle- and lower-class people. My increasingly socialist heart couldn’t take quite the joy in seeing the aristocratic young smuggler best the poor working detectives that my teenage heart could.
So, this ended up being quite a negative review about a book that is very close to my heart, but I guess in the end, after all the very problematic issues, I can’t quite quit this author, and that says a lot, doesn’t it?