Hazel McHaffie

Unseen unsung dedication

I was a teenager when I discovered Georgette Heyer, and by the age of 24, I had acquired most of her Regency novels from secondhand book shops  – lighthearted romances set in a particular period of history. A shilling each, as I recall! Sadly, back then, I had no notion of the background research required to make a period novel flow effortlessly. Nor had I recognised that the author was only a lass of seventeen herself when she first began writing.

Best known for her Regency tales, she wrote forty-two romance and contemporary novels, as well as eleven detective stories, relying on her barrister husband to supply the plots for the latter.

I have just found a copy of the last novel this prolific author worked on, My Lord John, and learned that Heyer’s own favourite period in history was actually the Middle Ages: especially late 14th-early 15th Century. She planned to write a trilogy set in this time frame with John, Duke of Bedford, the younger brother of Henry V, as its central protagonist, calculating it would take her a period of five years to accomplish, but circumstances contrived to thwart her good intentions, and she only managed to complete a third of the whole project. In the published version an historical note has been added to round out the story and there has been some editing to present the unfinished tale in this form.

But what is most impressive is her husband’s account of the background work Georgette put into her writing.

Her research was enormous and meticulous. She was a perfectionist. She studied every aspect of the period – history, wars,social conditions, manners and customs, costume, armour, heraldry, falconry and the chase. She drew genealogies of all the noble families of England ( with their own armorial bearings painted on each) for she believed that the clues to events were to be found in their relationships. She had indexed files for every day of the year for the forty years she was covering with all noteworthy events duly entered on their dates. She learnt to read medieval English almost as easily as modern and amassed a large vocabulary. One summer we toured the Scottish-English borderlands, learning the country and visiting seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys (or their ruins). Her notes fill volumes.’

Wow! Now that’s dedication to one’s art if ever I heard it. And how many readers appreciate that unseen slog behind her entertaining books? Most like me, I’m sure, just love her feel-good tales as pure escapism.

‘Entertaining’ is not a word I’d use for this last book, however. In My Lord John the cast of characters (with their connections and titles) alone runs to 3 pages!

The language is of the period, the terms for clothes, furniture, food, customs, games, are unfamiliar – indeed, there’s a four-page glossary included. Titles, honours, dukedoms, even crowns, are lost and won on rumour, pique and expediency. Princelings are no older than my teenage grandson; brides are betrothed in the cradle, handed over to their husbands before they reach adolescence. Life, loyalty and allegiance are cheap. We hear today of our own Queen conferring titles, appointing knights to the Order of the Garter, granting folk castles and estates; in the 1500s these actions carried grave responsibilities, oaths were sworn, battles fought, rebellions were to be overcome.

Harsh times. Complex relationships with so many political and strategic as well as domestic alliances being forged. Heyer is to be commended for her diligence and mastery of the period, but given her legendary easy-reading style, I was rather disappointed by the lack of sparkle and pace in this one. It feels to me bogged down with scholarship. Definitely not an easy read; only my stubbornness made me persist to the bitter end. And even so I certainly wouldn’t fare well in the Mastermind black chair on the subject of Lord John of Bedford!

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