Sunday, 7 June 2015

What Can We Learn From Georgette Heyer? by Gill Stewart

A blue pla

A blue plaque was unveiled this week to mark the house in Wimbledon where Georgette Heyer was born. I hardly need an excuse to write about GH, my all-time favourite writer, but I’m taking this as a little nudge to share my appreciation with the world.

I won’t spend time going over the history of GH, which is probably known to many of you and if not can be picked up from some of the lovely articles that have been written recently such as this one in the Guardian. What I want to ponder on is why so many of us love GH so much, and what we can learn from her and apply to our own writing.

What are the reasons for GH's abiding popularity? Many people have praised the historical accuracy of her books, and how well they are plotted. Both of these are true, but I have to say that for me there are two essentials that keep me returning time after time: the characters and the dialogue. Together these create the charm of the books which brings readers back again and again.

GH’s characters are an abiding delight, brought to life with the lightest of touches through their thoughts, actions and words. A description of Martin, the hero’s half-brother in ‘The Quiet Gentleman’ brings him completely to life in just a few lines:
Every change of mood was reflected in his eyes, so dark a brown as to appear almost black, and in the sensitive curves of his full mouth. Six years younger than his cousin, he had not altogether thrown off the boy; and, from having been the idol of his mother and the pet of his father, he was a good deal spoiled, impatient of restraint, thrown into the sulks by trifling causes, and into wild rages by obstacles to his plans.

GH is best known for her Regency and historical romances, but I also have an affection for her detective novels. Through the use of dialogue she creates characters that seem so real you feel you know them. This little snippet from ‘Death In The Stocks’ makes me smile every time:
‘Kenneth, whatever you felt about poor Mr Vereker when he was alive, I do think you might at least pretend to be sorry now he’s dead.’
‘It’s no use,’ said Antonia, spearing olives out of a tall bottle. ‘You had better take us as you find us Violet. You’ll never teach Kenneth not to say exactly what he happens to think.’
‘Well, I don’t think it’s a good plan,’ said Violet rather coldly.
‘That’s only because he said that green hat of yours looked like a hen in a fit. Besides, it isn’t a plan, it’s a disease.’

Overall, the characters and their dialogue create the tone of the books which is so entrancing. The understated humour, the knowledge that the writer and reader share the same slightly sardonic, gently satirical view of the world.

I said I would try to draw advice for modern-day writers from GH, but it’s hard to do so. You can’t just advise people to ‘write charmingly’ or ‘include witty dialogue’. Knowing it is desirable is so much easier than actually doing it. So all I can say is – read as much GH as you can. Read the mistress of the genre. And hope, as I do, that just a little of that wonderful talent rubs off on you. If there is anyone out there who hasn’t read GH, or not recently, I would recomment my own personal favourites: ‘An Unknown Ajax’, ‘The Grand Sophie’ or ‘A Civil Contract’. Go on, give them a try!

You can read more detail about the Blue Plaque event on Jenny Haddon’s blog (Jenny was instrumental in arranging the event) or in the lovely account of the day, with pictures, from Elizabeth Hawksley on the Historical and Regency Romance UK blog.


  1. My abiding memory of, and eternal thanks to, Georgette Heyer takes me back to a time when I was suffering horribly with post-natal depression. A cousin gave me a couple of her GH novels (I can't now remember which as it was nearly forty years ago) and said, 'It might help to lose yourself in those.' I did....and while it was a long time before I wrote an historical novel of my own I think the seeds were sown then.

    1. I can completely sympathise with reading them when you're having a bad time. And the long term influence they can have. I still re-read now, purely for research of course.

  2. I'm afraid I struggled half way through one of her books, which seemed to consist entirely of dialogue - page after page of it - and I never tried another. I'm unlikely to do so now. I am aware she has legions of fans and has brought pleasure to millions of readers so am delighted she has been honoured with a blue plaque.

    1. I think you must have started on one of the less good ones, Mary? (There are some). And I'm sure GH is not to everyone's taste. Like you I'm v. pleased she has been awared the blue plaque.

  3. Regency isn't really my genre GH has done as much as anyone to get me reading them. I loved the Grand Sophy and Black Moth - both just a bit different from the standard. I haven't read any of her detective novels) but maybe I should.