pop culture series

Recent happy events have led to a hiatus in the progress of the master work that is the Bodis Riper, procuced by Seraphic‘s Inner Child.

Time to consider what may have been the inspiration for that work of art – though I am not privy to the artists deliberations, mind: the novels of Georgette Heyer.

Would you read this? Only with a discrete brown covering, probably.

Would you read this?
Only with a discrete brown covering, probably.

Fact is, I first learned about Georgette Heyer by a comment of that very Inner Tschild, telling the (deceased) authoress to eat her heart out, if I remember correctly (and though this is somewhat uncharitably phrased, I have to say it is not utterly without a foundation.)

Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) is not at all well known in Germany. This may have something to do with the atrocious quality of translation: Magdalena once picked up a copy for free, to return it after having read only a very few pages. Even readers of the English original might easily be deterred more than is warranted by the utterly awful covers of some of the editions. More recently, fortunately, the current publisher has gone back to more tasteful ones.

Heyer is credited with having established the genre of Regency Romances – romances set in the Regency Period, i.e. the time of Jane Austen. Of course, Austen is a formidable precursor, and it is easy to incur the disdain of her present-day fans. On the whole, I think, Heyer manages very well.

Maybe to start with the negative points:

If you read all the 50+ regency novels she wrote, you are apt to find some repetition of motif. But then: Would you read all her 50+ regency novels in a row unless you basically liked them? Sort of touché, I think. Another point to consider is that [correction] Heyer had to feed a family. Given that, it may be seen as quite astonishing that she does, actually, kep quite a standard of quality.

Mutch better already, ain't it?

Mutch better already, ain’t it?

There are, of course, a number of differences to Jane Austen. In fact, if interested, you might actually like to read the Wikipedia article (yes, I said this). Heyer gives information on stuff Austen’s reader would have known, when we do not. Things like who would dress which way, what did the dresses look like, what was the procedure in duels (no duels in Austen, I agree, but still the threat thereof). The remarkable thing is that these things are really absolutely unnoticeably slipped into the narrative – no case of Shown Their Work at all.

Another difference is that aspects of Regency society off-limits for Austen are referred to: While females of the upper classes were guarded strictly, lest their all-important reputation be lowered or lost, gentlemen were not necessarily thought worse of if they had their opera dancer or two, unless their trespasses did concern Ladies of Society. Austen’s female characters know nothing of this – in fact, it is never referred to. It is in Heyer’s works, albeit never in any crude or explicit way.

Related to this, there is a considerable number of male heroes who have to be classified in the category of ‘rakes’. Some of them are, objectively, sympathetic, and some are not. I would I had the reference of one of Seraphic’s posts on ‘falling for Mr. Darcy’, cautioning present-day females not to think a certain classy set of bad guys particularly attractive.

But then, on the plus side, is this:

These novels are extremely readable. No lapses of language (to my non-native mind), no anachronisms. In fact, Heyer was quite a specialist in her chosen period:

Determined to make her novels as accurate as possible, Heyer collected reference works and research materials to use while writing. At the time of her death she owned over 1,000 historical reference books, including Debrett’s and an 1808 dictionary of the House of Lords. In addition to the standard historical works about the medieval and eighteenth-century periods, her library included histories of snuff boxes, sign posts, and costumes.[38] She often clipped illustrations from magazine articles and jotted down interesting vocabulary or facts onto note cards, but rarely recorded where she found the information. Her notes were sorted into categories, such as Beauty, Colours, Dress, Hats, Household, Prices, and Shops; and even included details such as the cost of candles in a particular year. Other notebooks contained lists of phrases, covering such topics as “Food and Crockery”, “Endearments”, and “Forms of Address.” One of her publishers, Max Reinhardt, once attempted to offer editorial suggestions about the language in one of her books but was promptly informed by a member of his staff that no one in England knew more about Regency language than Heyer.

Wikipedia 🙂

Her novel on the Battle of Waterloo was considered to be a historically admirable piece of work by someone who should know about it (though it is too late for me to actually look up who). She researched period letters for the slang of young bucks, such as ‘to make a cake of oneself’.

In general, her prose is very, very readable (not like so many female ‘historical novels’ today!) Witty dialogues, nice plot twists, (unless, as I said, you read all 50 in a row),  high romance – including (mostly non-lethal) duels, and always a happy ending, i.e. two people, or even several sets of them, getting happily married.

The ideal girly yet modest thing (though there is passionate kissing, mind) to pleasantly rinse one’s brain and wistfully think of times when there was, at least in the privileged classes, a definite politeness and rule-book-to-follow approach between the sexes.

As close as it gets to unqualified recommendation from my side.

As I mentioned, Seraphic has started to continue writing chapters of the ‘Bodis Riper’. And once you have re-re-re-read, and re-re-re-re-read the whole thing, what do you do, waiting for new instalments? You proceed by association: great fiction with crush-worthy male protagonist –> Lord Peter Wimsey –> last Dorothy Sayers novel you gave your mother as a birthday present –> reference to Ruritanian novels.

Ruritarian novels. – No? –Well, well, well: ‘Ruritania’ seems to be the very equivalent of ‘Alice and Bob’ when referring to countries. More specifically, it has become a ‘generic term for any small, imaginary, Victorian or Edwardian Era, European kingdom used as the setting for romance, intrigue and the plots of adventure novels’.

And it all started with this novel: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by Antony Hope Hawkins (1894), and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau (1898).

Neither novel, and I would like to stress this, is great art (this is, after all, a series on pop culture). Nevertheless, it makes quite amusing reading, at the very least on a meta-level (I will come back to that phenomenon when addressing Star Trek). The hero is an English gentleman, and the whole story has a lot of stiff upper lip and of the ‘If’ spirit (which it predates, I know, I know). While there is a LOT of cheesiness, a minimum standard of good taste is still maintained in this respect. O yes, there is drama galore, including the story of an entire novel [moderate spoiler alert] with quite some casualties all starting just with a rather unnecessary, or at least imprudent, love letter. But even though you pretty well know what is going to happen (helped by plentiful foreshadowing) tension is kept, and within the rather unrealistic setting, WSoD* is relatively easy. What contributes to this, and also, IMHO, to the artistic value, is that both novels [Spoiler Alert] end sadly, in a way.

Informed by Wikipedia that the expressions of ‘Ruritarian’ and ‘Graustarkian’ novels are used almost synonymously, and seeing that the Graustark series consists of quite a number of novels, I valiantly dived into it. With regret, I have to say. There are very few novels I actually stopped reading. This one came terribly close. In fact, towards the end, I just scanned the text to see if the outcome was as I thought it would be, or if there would be some saving surprise (hint: it was, on the whole, worse than I had thought). The hero (as is the author) is an American, and all through the story, he is great just because he is an American (Not saying the Ruritarian novels are not full of, let us say, patriotic idealization. But at least it is far more subtle, and, within the story, deserved.) And that is another aspect: Even within the story setting, the characters are not only inconsistent and unbelievable, but outright vexing. No WSoD here, no. Towards the end [moderate spoiler alert] I would have viewed the beheading of Grenfal Lorry, if not with approbation, at least with relief. I am (in spite of what I will report on in this series) no reader of the sort of ‘romance’ novels sold at news agents as crassly coloured booklets. Still I suppose that, paradoxically, McCutcheons somewhat greater gift with language makes these his flights of improbable, implausibly, ouright annoying high emotion probably even more painful to read.

Enough. The conclusion of this first installment (and I am just warming up; there is better stuff , hopefully, coming up later): If you wish to pleasantly flush you brain, or are amused by retro pop-culture: Read The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau. Avoid the Graustarkian novels unless you are really thrilled by So-Bad-It’s-Good stuff (and maybe even then).

*Willing Suspension of Disbelief