Georgette Heyer and the Problem of Excellence

I’m just at the start of my acquaintance with Georgette Heyer, but I feel it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. No one who spends as much time as I have in the Jane Austen space can avoid hearing about her, but until now I’ve been kind of warily “meh.” No longer. This is a writer and a woman to be reckoned with.

Metrics: One thing to know about Georgette Heyer is, 1902-1974. Another, 49, the number of books she wrote. Another is $8.69, typical price of a Kindle edition of Georgette Heyer. (Why $8.69 exactly? For sure Amazon has a reason, and just as sure I will probably never know it.) People are giving away their contemporary homages to and knock-offs of GH on Amazon free, but our Georgette, dead since the Nixon era, can command $8.69. How cool is that?

But since I am a cheapskate, I started with “The Black Moth,” her earliest work, published in 1921 and out of copyright, hence free as an e-book. I was not initially enthralled. I read the first 25% over several months, in between more urgent library books with deadlines, and ran into trouble keeping track of the many characters, their aliases, and their relationships to one another. At the 25% point I knew I had to either give up or start over; I did the latter, and that extra degree of familiarity made the difference the second time through.

And this, itself, brings up an interesting question. Rereading before you’ve even finished: how often does that happen? To me, not very often. One activity I am fairly skilled at is reading fiction: I’ve four decades of experience, and I keep practicing. I am good at following a story, keeping characters straight. If I can’t make any sense of it, I blame the writer. One notable exception was the first book in a series that has since become a huge favorite: the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I had to read the opening chapter of “Master and Commander” THREE TIMES(!) before I had the slightest idea what was going on. After that, I loved it and never looked back. But if the book — itself a gift — had not come with the heartfelt recommendation of a friend whose literary judgment I respect (and who had been urging me for years to read POB) would I have made that third try? No. Which makes me wonder, do we give up on books too easily? Or should writers be trying harder to seduce us with those opening pages?

In both “Master and Commander” and “The Black Moth” I had the sense of being pitched headlong into an unfamiliar world, introduced to a lot of people at once, and subjected to strange new words. It was confusing, but also compelling. It felt worth the effort, and so I tried again.

“The Black Moth” is no “Pride and Prejudice.” It is no “Master and Commander.” It is, in many important ways, preposterous. It does lots of things fiction is not supposed to do anymore. It’s full of descriptions of dimples and lace and the hero’s very blue eyes, which sparkle, dance, turn icy, etc. And I don’t even like romance fiction as a category.

So why is this book so much fun? This is the problem that is troubling me today; Georgette Heyer’s work is in some mysterious way, excellent. Reading it makes me strangely happy; it’s the same innocent escapist pleasure that reading Agatha Christie or the stories of Sherlock Holmes has. I feel she is writing from a place of delight, not neediness: she feels no need to be important, to prove anything, to impress you with her craftsmanship or even her wit. Her characters have a certain sprezzatura, and she does too. But why? Is this ease something innate, or can it be learned? If it were easy to gain this ease, everyone would have it, and yet few do.

A serious problem. It demands more study. And more Georgette.

Great link: Here’s Vic of the excellent Jane Austen’s World on how she fell in love with GH.

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