I read one of Georgette Heyer's mysteries, A Blunt Instrument, this past week, and I think my relationship with her as an author really personifies the way that I have grown and matured as a reader. This is mainly because she's an author I've read so steadily for so long. I read my first Georgette Heyer novel, The Nonesuch, when I was a junior in high school. I am still making my way through her extensive catalog today.
When I first read Heyer, I fell in love indiscriminately with so many of the heroes and heroines. I loved Sir Waldo in The Nonesuch because he had such substance to him- not only was he a rich and attractive man, but he was very committed to helping others and was a genuinely nice person. I loved Sophy in The Grand Sophy because she stood up for herself and always knew just what to do and lived a truly glamorous, globe-trotting life. I thought the romance in Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, was wonderful because the hero realized what a completely selfish snob he was and began to reform his character. I loved imagining myself into a Regency novel, complete with the style and the horses and the balls and the witty conversation and the country homes and massive debts. I consider these later years of high school and my early years of college to be my naive stage in reading. I read almost exclusively fantasy and historical fiction, and I closed my mind to any hints of social unrest or prejudice or discrimination. I was very happy to read Heyer in the same way because her books never touched upon any of those subjects at all, either.
And then I read Regency Buck. This book is by far my least favorite Georgette Heyer novel, to the extent that both the hero and the heroine disgust me right from the get-go. I can't say much without giving away the plot, but I am pretty sure that the hero would not think twice about taking complete advantage (even against her will) of a woman who was not his social equal, and the heroine was selfish and really just wanted people to notice her (which wasn't really that hard, because she was apparently drop-dead gorgeous. Of course). In many ways, Regency Buck was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I realized that many of Heyer's plots were repeated from one book to another with slight variation. I realized that many of the male characters were insufferably smug and high-handed, and that many of the women were pretty vapid and prone to hysterics. Perhaps not all the characters, and not always the main characters, but slowly it occurred to me that perhaps Georgette Heyer's world was not as fun and frothy and amusing as I had first believed, particularly for a woman. I began to see how utter boredom could lead to very bad decisions, particularly related to gambling. I saw how being born into money could make someone feel better than everyone else, and treat them accordingly, take advantage of relative positions on the social scale.
It was only after I graduated from college that I started reading Heyer's mystery novels, and they only accelerated the fall and shattering of the rose-colored glasses for me. I started blogging and participating in online reading forums, discussing books and their impact again and learning so many more titles to explore and nuances to books I already loved. I entered the work force in a very male-dominated industry, in a very white office, and began to feel more acutely that I was a woman and a minority. I came to business school and faced the tension that exists for so many people to make a lot of money quickly or to do something that they love. I saw even more just how difficult the workplace can be for a woman, and how subtle prejudice can be. I started reading so much more about women's and racial history, and drew on my own experiences in life.
And I read Heyer's mysteries and began to feel very cynical about who she must have been and what she must have felt about certain topics. I realized that Heyer was extremely classist, and this comes out so much more in her mysteries than in her romances because the country home-dwelling characters of leisure interact with the working-class police inspectors. They are not generally treated kindly. She portrays the upper crust as suffering from severe ennui, so bored with their beautiful bodies and perfect lives that they just sit and bicker with each other over inheritances. There is always a bumbling, very slow-witted police officer who is an object of humor because he is so stupid he doesn't even understand when the rich people are mocking him.
I also saw that Heyer was really pretty racist, particularly against Jewish people, as described in multiple books by her, but my most recent encounter with it was in A Blunt Instrument (review posting soon). This was particularly disheartening to me because Heyer wrote most of her books between WWI and WWII, and some in the years directly after the war, and it was very hard to forgive her stereotyping when I knew what suffering that kind of thinking would cause.
There's also the very troubling way that Heyer deals with her romances, and the interplay between men and women, even in the mysteries. I realized that even though Sophy in The Grand Sophy is very much her own strong woman, she is brought to heel by a certain romantic interest who tells her what's what. Always, at the end of the book, the woman submits physically to the man by being taken into a "crushing embrace" that leaves her breathless and makes her realize that what she truly wants is a man who can match and tame her.
I wonder, if I were to be introduced to Georgette Heyer now, if I would love her the way that I currently do. I feel like I've grown up with Heyer and can track my own progress as not only a reader but as a person who is cognizant of her environment and the impact it has upon her against Heyer's extensive collection. I love Heyer, and when I reread a Regency by her, I am transported again to that perfect literary world that I created for myself those years ago. But now I am much more aware of the things Heyer does not mention, and the situations that her characters cheerfully ignore as they go about their merry lives. And so my relationship with the author has become decidedly more nuanced- much more gray than it ever was before, and much more challenging to my own goals and visions for what I want my life to be.
Is there an author in your life that has affected you the way that Heyer has affected me? Can you think of a time when you read a book and realized that you had changed?
I really must try Georgette Heyer...one of the authors who informed my life from early on was Margaret Atwood. I've also enjoyed Margaret Drabble and Beth Gutcheon.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Here's MY SUNDAY SALON POST
The first book that stretched my reading was Tom Sawyer. I had a very patient junior high school English teacher who stepped us through it, with love, pointing out things I never would have noticed on my own.ReplyDelete
Sunday Salon: A Slow-Book Manifesto. Hope you will stop by!
I did notice those thing you talk about..ok one thing, the ways females behave and the wayd men are in the 2 Heyer books have read. Sure I still enjoyed them, but I did not love.ReplyDelete
So hard to say since there is no author that I read back then and that I read now..I guess I should read a Cartland. They were utterly silly, I thought that even back then but I loved the HEAS. But if I read them now, how vapid are the females and how much of a bully are the men truly?
Yes, in some ways, that's why I don't want to go back and read books I loved when I was younger! I don't really want my Curtain of Idealism to disappear...Delete
I had never even heard of Heyer until blogging and still not sure if I will ever experience one.ReplyDelete
of her novels.ReplyDelete
That's completely fair- but is there another author in your life that has played the role that Heyer has in mine?Delete
Whoops, got distracted. I could (and often do) claim that The Hobbit was the book that showed me I was allowed to read 'big' stuff but I never went on to reading any other Tolkien until the movies came out! Uh... I can't think of an author. I read my share of Vonnegut in High School and I read many Irving Stone books (and Danielle Steele!) but I never really was the kind to latch onto an author and read everything they ever wrote. I went through phases and then moved on, I guess. Plus, you know, I never re-read books until YOU provoked me into it. :DDelete
I've never heard of Georgette Heyer but your post was really thought provoking. I can't say that there is one author that I grow up with and you make me experiencing that.ReplyDelete
Yes, it's hard to grow up with one author because most of them don't have enough books in their catalogs to pace yourself with! But sometimes you can read an author and enjoy him/her at one age and then think back on the book later and realize... that's not the sort of book you would really enjoy now.Delete
So far I've only read The Grand Sophy, which I liked. I've got a few Heyers on my to-read list, but I get her mixed up in my head with Joan Aiken, who I think of as similar even though I think they're quite different on a lot of levels.ReplyDelete
I do know the experience you're talking about, though. Most of my thoughts like that are about form and storytelling, though rather than more substantive content. Mercedes Lackey is an example; she was my first introduction to fantasy and I loved her books as a teenager. As an adult, though, I've come to realize how simplistic and black and white her storytelling is, and how heavy-handed she is with morality. There's no gray area anywhere, and I'm a little surprised that even my teenaged self didn't notice this.
But I still read her books, even some of the new ones. And it's interesting, because she's writing now, that I can see her change as a writer, and her ability to create a more complicated plot with more secondary characters has improved, but that her good guys are always great and pure, and her bad guys are always twisting-mustache evil. I love her like you love the things of your childhood that aren't actually very good, but that you eat anyway because they remind you of being little. Like candy corn.
Yes, that's exactly what I mean! You put it perfectly- thank you :)Delete
I've not yet read Mercedes Lackey, and I wonder now based on your post if I am past the age to try her. I don't like heavy-handed morality and lessons, and I prefer characters with gray areas, so maybe I just missed her.
Fantastic post today Aarti. I have only started reading Heyer in the last few years. There are definitely issues, but I have had to put a lot of those down to the time and circumstance of her life. Is that making excuses for her? Not sure. There are still some of her book that I read that I just love.ReplyDelete
In terms of authors who I have changed my mind about over the last few years, Philippa Gregory comes to mind for me. I can't even imagine picking one of her books up now, but The Queen's Fool was one of the first historical fiction novels I picked up when I first started reading again.
Yes, I am the same way. I suppose we always make excuses for the people we love, and Georgette Heyer's characters are people I love. I can't change her mind about things, but I can make sure that I think critically about the views that she presents to me. Maybe :-)Delete
Philippa Gregory is a great example! I read her The Other Boleyn Girl when I was in college, I think. I didn't love it because of the whole Anne/George thing, but I think I would not love it even more if I were to read it now.
Glad Gregory got you back into reading, though!
Coincidentally, I got A Blunt Instrument today for Easter. Heyer definitely has some depressing ideas/portrayals but, as I have only been reading her for the last couple of years, I never had a chance to grow up with her or have that change that you experienced. I always knew what kind of reads I was getting in for and I went into "period read" mode -- one in which I'm able to forgive social/political views of an author from a different era. I have to say that I like Heyer but can't love her -- especially because of those mysteries.ReplyDelete
I've been trying to think of an author I've had a similar experience with but I can't come up with one right now. But I've gone through the same sort of experience with director David Lynch. When I was in college, I fed off of the weirdness and the drama of his movies and tv but now I see all of the dysfunction and violence and I can't stomach it.
Oh, that is very much the same thing, I think, as reactions to movies can be just as emotional and visceral as reactions to books And I completely understand coming to Heyer later and not loving her, particularly if you read the mysteries first or in tandem with the Regencies.Delete
Your reaction to Heyer as an adult is how I reacted when I read one of her romance novels--the distaste at the way the heroine needed to be "tamed" by a man.ReplyDelete
I do have an author I have read and reread and come to think differently about, but he has worn rather more well with me. My post today, in fact, is about the first novel I read by him, and how every time I reread this novel, I consider different issues. Not better or worse ones, necessarily (as a college student, I focused as so many do on the existentialism/Catholicism aspects) but different.
I loved that post! Thanks so much for writing it and sharing it with all of us. And yes, in many Heyers, the woman does need to be "tamed." If not outright by being brought to heel by the end of the book, it's usually made quite obvious that the marriage will only work by the man taking a firm hand in it. Which I am able to handle a little more in Regency romances than in contemporary (post-women's movement England) mysteries.Delete
It's cliche, but I feel this way about CS Lewis. I read the Chronicles of Narnia so many times when I was a kid and didn't worry about the troubling gender, race, and religion issues. When I got a bit older, I noticed them and for a few years couldn't enjoy CS Lewis at all -- and then I got over that hump and loved him again, but more critically than in my childhood. Looking back on the different ways I've felt about him, it's kind of neat, because he never changed. Only I did.ReplyDelete
Oh, that's a great example! I actually think fantasy is a great genre to consider for this because many of our children's classics in fantasy are imbued with religious overtones and morals that we may not stomach as well as adults.Delete
Okay, this is the THIRD Heyer post I've seen in less than a week -- obviously, it's time for me to read some more Heyer! I read three of her books in a row in December and haven't touched any since. My second was The Quiet Gentlemen and I didn't feel like the heroine "tamed" the hero at all -- in fact, I think it was the other way around. Of course it's been a couple of months, so I may have forgotten. For me, they were just escapist fun reads. I enjoyed them but didn't read too much into them.ReplyDelete
Yes, that's the point I'm trying to make, really- that if you grow up with an author, you have the opportunity to look over your reaction to books differently. It isn't as though I didn't KNOW I was escaping into Heyer when I was younger, but now that I'm older, I am unable to view her books in that "pass no judgment" box any more, and think more critically about what she was writing. I don't like giving books a pass for classism or racism just because they're supposed to be fun any more, I suppose- I think it's harder for me not to see authorial intent in that.Delete
Great post Aarti. Sadly Heyer's anti-semitism between the wars was not untypical of the British upper and middle class - you get hints of it in Sayers and Christie too. You even get it to a certain extent with European Jewish writers such as Irene Nemerovsky, which does seem a really weird concept.Delete
I agree with Jenny about C.S. Lewis, but the other one for me is George Orwell. I've always loved Orwell from the moment I read Animal Farm aged 10. Of course at the time the politics went completely over my head, but I thought he was brilliant. My fave book though is Homage to Catalonia.
I guess when I first read it in my late teens it was the heroism and idealism that spoke to me. Now, much older, it's the cynicism of the latter part of the book. I think it's hard not to become slightly more cynical as you get older, but the situation of the Spanish Civil War made Orwell age dramatically in a short space of time, and as I've aged what I've got out of the book has been very different. I still love it though....
Wow, I didn't know even Jewish writers displayed anti-Semitism in their writing. That's sad. I wonder if they were just playing to their readership?Delete
I have not read Homage to Catalonia- in fact, the only Orwell I've read is Brave New World (not even Animal Farm, sadly). I agree that cynicism often comes with age, and that war can make you even more cynical- I remember that so well about All Quiet on the Western Front- just how cynical the soldiers were in that book. But I love that one, too, just like you love Homage to Catalonia still :-)
I've never read her, and I've been hesitating for reasons that fit well with what you're saying here, and yet I completely understand what you're describing, and how you could remain fond of them, even now.ReplyDelete
For me, that author could be L.M.Montgomery, whose books I devoured throughout my life, and still periodically revisit. But it's not quite the same as what you're describing, because part of the appeal for me lies in the fact that I discovered her journals, as an adult, which add another layer to the books she wrote for children (they not only provided her with a living but they offered her a way to deal with the darkness that she found in her own life/marriage), so that I still enjoy them a great deal, though in a different way.
However, I did re-read Gone With the Wind last summer and although it was not a book that I re-read as a teenager and young adult, and obviously there weren't multiple Mitchell novels to fall in love with, I had a completely different reaction to it last summer than I had when I was 16. It was such a shock to recognize the gap between that reading-me and the current reading-me. (My thoughts on it are here, if you're interested; I think it's closer to what you're describing with your Heyer experience, even though it's just one book for me there?)
I remember your post on that! I definitely see how your thoughts on that book could change as you get older- the first time you read it, you are swept away in the romance and history of it, and then the next time, the cracks begin to show in terms of racism and classism and all the rest. I have never read it, and I think now that I am too old to read it. Maybe instead, I'll read The Wind Done Gone...Delete
It's amazing how age and perspective change how we understand literature. what a great post!ReplyDelete
Aw, thanks, Marie :-)Delete
This post begs the question of whether or not high school kids have the right experience to appreciate the classics often thrusted upon them. Or is that the point?ReplyDelete
On the other hand, I recall some of my 'thoughts' on books and songs in high school and wonder how I ever thought up such 'crap' (judgment from my older wiser self.)
That wasn't the point, but you bring up a good one. I do think kids should be exposed to the classics, even if they can't understand everything. For example, I LOVED To Kill a Mockingbird the first time I read it, but I didn't appreciate just how huge that book was, particularly given the context in which it was written, until I read it again recently. I think it's important that kids don't think the classics are completely unreachable- but at the same time, I don't know if they always get the full effect of the book. Or at least, I didn't!Delete
This is such an interesting post! I don't know if I could pick one author. I don't think there's anyone that I've consistently read over a long period of my reading life. The only author that might count is Margaret Atwood, but I can't remember when I first read one of her books.ReplyDelete