"‘Do you know,' said Lord Stavely conversationally, ‘if I were going to elope at midnight, I believe I should not drink too much brandy at ten o clock?"
Words to live by, though ignored by their intended recipient: young Mr. Hatherleigh becomes thoroughly foxed, falls fast asleep, and all unwitting sends his rival to keep his amorous appointment for him.
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That this muddle redounds both to everyone's happiness and everyone's gentle comeuppance is typical of Georgette Heyer, the undisputed queen of historical romances. Writing from 1929 until her death in 1974, usually about the Georgian and Regency periods, Heyer distinguished herself on many fronts—but especially by her ability to pull off the high-stepping jigs and pell-mell coincidences of romantic farce with a whole-hearted glee more bracing and dignified than the most sophisticated cynicism.
Romance is a genre so mocked by the wise and so abused by front cover illustrators that it can afford a kind of perverse protection. Doing my background reading over a quiet pint, I was approached by one of the ardent sapiosexuals who haunt craft breweries. He asked what I was reading. I showed him the 60s paperbacks I had pilfered from my grandmother, most of which featured bosomy damsels in heavy blue eyeshadow, gazing out with a degree of repulsive coyness or abject swoonery quite at odds with the text.
He retired in defeat.
Snowdrift, the new collection of Heyer's short stories in which Lord Stavely and young Mr. Hatherleigh appear, is at least spared these indignities. The cover features no swooning maidens, only prancing blue horses traversing a snowy background, their harnesses embossed with gold. Several of the 11 stories can be found in other collections, but "Pursuit," "Runaway Match," and "Incident on the Bath Road" appear for the first time outside the magazines in which they were originally published.
Most of the plots closely follow the pattern of delightful coincidence typical of the author: a carriage overturned by the eponymous snowdrift facilitates a chance encounter; a couple finds themselves thrown together by their wards years after the bitter termination of their own youthful engagement; a man drunkenly elopes with a woman he has won at cards, only to encounter his own betrothed at the posting inn.
Present as well are the merrily tripping rhythms of Heyer's sentences, and her immersive command over the customs and colloquialisms of her chosen era (so thorough was Heyer's scholarship that she once won a plagiarism lawsuit by proving that a particular bit of Regency slang appeared only in the letters of a private collection to which the other novelist had no access).
Despite the design improvements, reading an unabashed romance in public still feels like a dangerous advertisement. One can read smut with a knowing wink, but a love story is different. There is danger in expressing all desire: that of vulnerability and rejection. To admit that one wants a good rowdy roll in the hay is comparatively low stakes—who doesn't? To admit that one wants some alchemical mixture of tenderness and honesty and desire and courage that comprises in whatever proportions a big and gallant love—much more fraught, much more exposing.
Heyer tapped into the vein of pulsing adrenaline beneath the subject of her work, and channelled into the swashbuckling hijinks of her stories. Disgraceful brothers, outraged honor, gambling debts about, and, most persistently, the convoluted deceptions and confusions of mistaken or disguised identity make up the meat of her plots.
Take, for instance, a pivotal scene in "The Convenient Marriage." Rich, sophisticated, cynical Lord Rule has married schoolroom miss Honoria Winwood in a fit of admiration for her gallantry in requesting that he marry her instead of her sister, for whom he has already offered and whose heart belongs to another. It is to be a marriage of convenience, Honoria assures him. She will rescue her family's fortune, he will contract an unimpeachable alliance with an ancient name, and neither them will interfere with the other.
Of course, nothing proves so interfering as the disposition of a man in love.
Honoria thinks her husband cannot love her, and flirts atrociously; Rule sees his rival as further proof that his wife only cares for his money. Neither can unburden themselves, only privately interpret the other through the lens of their own insecurity, and so misunderstanding piles on misunderstanding. The turning point comes at a masquerade. Honoria refuses Rule's request that she abstain, and Rule wants to know if she refuses because she cares for the attentions of his loathsome rival, or to spite him. To find out, he himself attends, meets his odious rival, steals his costume, pitches him into the lake, and goes to romance his unwitting wife.
Complications and calamity ensue, including a game of cards for a lock of hair and a stolen kiss; but more importantly, so do revelations. Honoria learns something about herself; Rule resolves the question he came to answer, and learns something new both about his wife and what she is up against.
Heyer's women defy and dash their way through all this action until finally submitting to the embraces of their men, who are by turn laconic and volcanic. Anyone who traffics in types lays herself open to ridicule, but neither Heyer nor her characters are vulgarian. Her heroines are sensible and brave, her heroes genuinely zealous and tender; both are surprised and humbled by love. There are occasional missteps, but for the most part Heyer reads not like someone hewing to some unutterably tedious "common sense" about men and women, but someone who has discovered the thrilling possibilities of convention, of moving within narrow confines on light and nimble feet.
Gender roles are one masquerade among many: balls, veiled ladies, highway robbery, and most of all, the performance of indifference, contempt, or antagonism: a performance so convincing that the heart is able to fool itself.
Costume and subterfuge are fruitful and necessary devices in the theatre of intimacy: they make tangible the enormity of the channel to be crossed, the degree to which the experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and intentions of even those we love best are hazardous territory. Attempts to cross are subject to misreadings, mis-speakings, mischances; moreover, the full weight of desire for or relationship with another can mute the necessary words.
Disguise protects us, and sometimes even carries us across a threshold. To be open with his young wife, Lord Rule must first pass as his rival. Couples in full bridal splendor often seem rendered individually anonymous by it. Beatrice and Benedick can speak from the heart only when confronted with third parties' fictitious versions of each other.
Gender roles write theatricality into a romance's characterization, and improbable resolutions into its plot. The missteps, the tangles of circumstance that silence lovers' words seem inseparable—until, suddenly, they aren't. They are not patiently accommodated, but suddenly removed through the sudden heroism of declaration or glorious deus ex machina. They are a mask upon the face of the story: once stripped off, its direction becomes retroactively inevitable and obvious.
But fruitful and necessary as disguise is, there is a danger to it: that the mask will not come off, that there will be no turn, no third act reversal. The matchmakers of Beatrice and Benedick set things in motion by a lie that becomes true through the action of the characters—the danger for Heyer's heroes and heroines is that the careful independence, the exaggerated mercenariness, or the cultivated enmity will be the lie that becomes true through action.
If this sounds like a dizzy flim-flam world, that is because, like ours, it is. Love, it is occasionally, said, knocks you off your feet. This is true for Heyer's characters, who resist in a state of personal disorientation within a perfectly formulaic narrative. Perhaps this explains why, when not writing regency romances, Heyer, excelled in perhaps the exemplar of English genre fiction—country house murder mysteries. The country-house murder, with its narrow coziness and dawning realization that not everyone is who they say they are, is the comedy of intimacy's macabre inverse.
Murder and marriage plots illuminate social life with colored lanterns. Paperback romance at its height remains delightfully frivolous while dramatizing something true—the armies of misjudgment, fear, and pride arrayed against the heart, the happy conspiracy needed to bring even the most unexciting lovers to the point where they can say, with A Clandestine Affair's Miss Tresilian and Lord Iver:
"‘What a vulgar couple we are, love!'
‘Well, who cares a rush for that?' he demanded. ‘Oh, my darling, what fools we have been!'"