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?
I do love this book, and Heyer has several other books that also subvert the traditional romance heroines, The Foundling and The Quiet Gentleman spring to mind. But yeah, it’s kind of shocking how racist/classist she is. I realized a while back that I was reading her books at the same time I was reading a lot of classic sci-fi, which is, in general, even more racist and every other -ist, that I didn’t even notice her issues in comparison.
I also thought that the blog post you sent me had some very acute analysis, as well, though about Heyer’s approach toward homosexuality (not good), but I didn’t include it in the actual post since I was afraid I was going on too many other tangents. It’s a great read, though, and I think evidence of people doing a good job of being fans of problematic things:
This is one reason I’ve always been so glad that the Anne of Green Gables books were set in rural Canada. There was just not a lot of opportunity for discussion that I would find awkward today, so my love for those books can remain pure.
Yeah, steer clear of some of L. M. Montgomery’s short stories, though. They aren’t quite as problematic as Heyer’s worst cases, but she’s got some pretty bad throw-away lines.