Saturday, May 9, 2009

Heyer and Higher

This will get me in trouble, should any of my devoted readers also happen to be devoted readers of Georette Heyer. If anyone does happen to be both, it might be best if this entry were skipped. Pick up a Heyer novel and let this be. I don't mean any trouble, honestly. It's just that I've tried her again, my fourth book by Heyer, and I simply can't. Try as I might.

If one works in a bookstore, it's likely the fans of Georgette Heyer are familiar. They are unlike most readers of genre fiction, at least insofar as Heyer's readers do not readily admit to being readers of either mysteries or romance. Georgette Heyer, according to every one of her readers I've ever met, is superior to genre. She really ought not even be shelved with such. She certainly doesn't deserve the undignified way in which, for example, her Regency novels are marketed, as if they were just, well, Regency romances.

Georgette Heyer is credited, rightly I trust, with having invented the 20th Century Regency romance novel. Taking the premise, period and setting of an Austen novel and making a working formula of it, and a fetish of her extensive research, Heyer produced one new romance every year for years, usually set in the Regency, but with some exceptions. Later, she expanded her production to include thrillers. For the thrillers, Heyer's lawyer husband provided the plots. It was a workable system. In fact, other than tax problems, Heyer seems to have been a remarkably clever business woman, and a remarkably successful popular novelist. That her books are still read, and largely in print, and her fans still so uniquely devoted, speaks well of her skill at what she did.

What she did though was hack. Many if not most great writers, at some point, have hacked, either as journalists, or copy writers, or middle school teachers, or editors of Christmas annuals. Writers must eat, after all, have a roof over their heads, earn some kind of living. Rare indeed have been the real aristocrats whose art was done entirely at leisure. Rarer still the writers who wrote to please themselves and ended pleasing readers. Not every budding Thoreau had a family pencil factory to finance pumpkin-sitting. Austen herself might have been too genteel to scrub floors, but I suspect she worked hard enough about the place, if not on her knees. And middle or working class writers were often grateful for the opportunity to write reviews between novels. Oliver Goldsmith, perhaps the most famous or infamous hack in our literature, accepted commissions to write just any damned thing on offer, often spending the commissions without producing the contracted work, or, if he did write the book he'd already been paid for, producing something like his natural history, so laughably inaccurate, even in his own time, as to be the subject of more jokes then praise. (Though even the least of Goldsmith's hack work was touched by something of his wonderful style, and often proved popular enough to go through multiple printings, at least in his brief lifetime.) There's no shame in hacking, except as a vocation. For Heyer, hacking was a business, and she was damned good at it. The problem I have, trying to read even a late thriller from her, is that her very real talent was never put to any better use. I think she might have done, but her last book was no better than her first, so far as I can tell, and not because she just wasn't a very good writer. I can't help but think she chose hacking, perfecting her formula to the detriment of her talent. That's what makes her maddeningly difficult to read for me, the awareness that she might always have written better than she does.

Josephine Tey was a very successful playwright when she took up writing mystery novels. That she seems barely to bother with the conventions of the genre, which I suspect bored her, is now what makes her very light entertainments still so surprising, and entertaining. I don't think there's any doubt that she wrote for money. I do think she became a mystery writer for that very reason when her plays ceased to be successful. But Tey, by the time she took the genre up, already thought and wrote quite unlike most of her peers. She wrote stories of murder and historical crime because it was a way for a woman to be successful, and because she discovered a facility for doing so. But every Tey novel is different. Her plots are irregular. In her first thriller she seemed to almost forget to kill anyone until the book was nearly over. Her detective is remarkably passive, for instance, when she has one, and she was as likely to stick him in a hospital and set him to solving the murder of the Princes in the Tower as to have him be on a train where a man dies in what may or may not have been an accident. Tey's novels make no claim beyond their genre, but they aren't made to serve the genre either.

Heyer clearly set out, from her first novel, to write commercial fiction. That she was brighter than the average, more meticulous in her research than most, and genuinely amusing, ought to have put her in at least the first rank of the strictly mercantile writers. Perhaps in her romances she deserves to be considered the best in her genre, though of what must be admitted is a truly sorry, sorry lot. I've read two of her historicals, one Regency and the other a novel of Charles II. Both are full of entertainment. I can quite appreciate how well she did what she did in her romances. The problem is that that is all either book ultimately was. Heyer never wrote a single memorable heroine or hero, so far as I can tell, or villain. In fact, I doubt she ever wrote a memorable character. Clever things are said in all her books, and in her historicals, everything said is said, as I understand it, just as it either was or might have been said at the period in which the book is set. She is not without real wit. Her plots, if predictable and completely unoriginal, are well made. Her writing is never clumsy or obviously bad. So why isn't she better than she is?

It was one of her thrillers I've just tried, Penhallow. Evidently she wrote a story of murder where there would be no mystery as to who did it, why, when or how, as much to break a publishing contract with which she was unhappy as to do something different. The idea that she was not writing a traditional mystery made me think that here at last I might, indeed, have found a Heyer novel superior to its genre. I was hopeful of that for a hundred pages or more, despite the many and obvious faults of the book, all of which are faults of genre; the cliche of the plot and setting; a bully too deserving of murder, a family tied to a manse, resentments and motives galore, the cliched characters; the dotty widowed aunt, the unhappy wife, the bitter and useless younger sons, the malevolent head of the family, and the cliched writing with which the bad guy "storms" and "rages," his victims "cower," etc. It is all pure melodrama, though better made perhaps than the average, but melodrama made to serve no purpose. Nothing is said of these privileged types that in any way challenges either their privilege or their place in a novel. There is no hint of a wider world, of interior lives beyond the uses of the plot or to generate emotion. Every chapter is a discreet scene, serving nothing but the advancement of the rather lame story. No one in the book changes, evolves or increases in interest, each being just as and what he or she was when met, except of course the guy who gets killed, who at least goes from living to dead, and not a moment too soon.

The problem with Heyer's novel then is not that it isn't good, though it ain't, but that it isn't better. Any writer who could do as well as this ought to have at least tried to do something worthwhile. Heyer never does. She is not so bad as to be sincerely so, not a hack, in other words, for want of talent, but rather only as good as she seems willing to be without extending herself, mentally or stylistically, beyond a lazy conventionality. Even her prejudices are predictable and dull; mocking the brutality of uneducated country gentry, and the pretensions of anyone inclined to art or even just urbanity, treating the working people about the place with something very like the disdain of their employers, when not ascribing to them an animal cunning. Heyer was such a complete and unrepentant bourgeois that nothing she seems ever to have said or written, about the rich or poor, the violent or the passive, the good or the bad, could ever have caused a moment's disquiet in her equally bourgeois readers. Nothing, it seems, ever moved the woman herself but cash, comfort and competence. That doesn't make her a bad person of course, but it does define the hack, no? That is, I suspect, the secret of her sustained popularity, the defensiveness of her fans, and her singular failure to write a single exceptional, or even really exceptionable book.

The comparison inevitably made is always with Austen. Fair enough, considering Heyer's obvious debt. But it does a disservice not to the romance novelist, but to the great one to see between them, or between their books, the slightest real resemblance. I may not always like what Austen has to say, but she has every right to say it, writing as she did of and in her own time and doing so better than any of her contemporaries, if not better than almost anyone since. Jane Austen may have been limited by her circumstances: provincial, a little pious, conservative, romantically silly, but her novels are never limited by either a failure of nerve or talent. Jane Austen wrote the best possible novels a woman so circumstanced ever could, and because she was a truly uncommon writer, a great writer, wrote some of the best novels ever written. If Heyer was not gifted with such an exceptional genius, it hardly seems right to judge her harshly because of that. It seems quite right though to judge her for her reliance on, or better, her exploitation of, the least, as it were, of Austen: the plots and props, the sets and costumes and slang. Heyer wrote her novels for no better purpose than to say nothing worth saying about a time not her own, people as dead on her pages as they already were by the time she came to write about them, and evidently with no other motive than to systematically, and profitably, produce commercial fiction using meticulous, unadulterated research, hackneyed construction, and a style of smug palatability seemingly suited perfectly to her devoted readers. The whole enterprise, to me, begins to reek a bit of sausage. Austen was a supremely talented and original artist. Heyer was, I must say again, a supremely successful hack.

The comparison I've found more telling than that made to Austen is with another, more modern and minor novelist, a truly original writer but one with whom Heyer seems to share a certain preoccupation not only with the past, but also with monsters. Trying to read Heyer's Penhallow, I was put in mind not of Jane Austen, but of Ivy Compton-Burnett. In Penhallow, the reader meets an aging monster, a brute and a sadist, who bullies his servants and family until, at last, the only option for his dependents seems to be murder. Compton-Burnett wrote just such monsters, male and female, in novel after novel. Here's Heyer describing her monster:

"... a mountainous ruin of a man, with a hawk-nose jutting between bloated cheeks; fierce, malicious eyes staring beneath brows that were still jet-black and bushy; and an arrogant, intemperate mouth."

This is Adam Penhallow, who, even before we meet him, is already "roaring" the house awake,and who "jeers" at his wife as soon as the scene is set with an inventory of his miser's room. We quickly learn that his knuckles are hairy, his mood bad, his temper short, his tongue sharp. We're told all this as well as shown it. He's a bad 'un. Not long after we meet him, propped up in his vast, ugly bed, chewing an apple and torturing his weepy wife for the fun of it, there is a furious exchange of exclamations, threats, ending in hysterical punctuation and the usual cruel laugh. One hears the swelling score in every gesture.

Now here's one of Compton-Burnett's monsters, from her novel Daughters & Sons:

"Sabine was a tall, lean, upright woman, with small, tired, acute eyes in a small, tired, acute face, and rather flat and formless features shaded by a fringe of dyed, dark hair, which had once taken from her years and now protected this period. Nothing about her, save perhaps the smallness of her steps, suggested her eighty four years, but her face told their tale, and her pale grey eyes were the eyes of a woman of a hundred."

Now there's a monster that will do damage.

Compton-Burnett understood that monsters must be human to be truly frightening to adults. And her monsters are not isolated cliches, her bullies are calm, clever, ruthlessly conventional, and motivated by more than the needs of the plot, to the extent Compton-Burnett's novels can really be said to have plots. Compton-Burnett, as evidenced by just that short quote, knew her monsters, and was not afraid of making them funny as well as hair-raising, nor was she either afraid of or embarrassed by her own curiosity. No need to show off what she'd "researched," to write what she knew. No need for just the right hat-pin or detail of saddlery. No need to reassure her readers that evil was hairy, girls good, and the best boys eager for marriage. Her style is everything Heyer's might have been had Heyer been an artist, or rather Heyer's novel is everything Compton-Burnett's might have been had she not. The comparison then is not between good and bad writers, or even good and bad books, but fiction and literature. I just can't quite read popular fiction as such anymore without comparing it to, and hoping it will be, literature, and that makes reading Georgette Heyer an unhappy experience. She never even tried to write anything higher than the most thorough and accomplished hack-work.


  1. "...all are the faults of genre..." Which as you know can be transcended even as they're employed. A vivid example for me right now (because I'm watching it right now)is not from books but TV. The Wire. You could make a check list of just about every cliche found in genre and they're all in The Wire, but the way the writers write those cliches lifts them up, so to speak.

    "(Austin)...romantically silly..." I'll get back to you, if I decide to speak to you ever again. Smile.

    Saw the new Star Trek at a special showing at the Academy with a bunch of fx creators. Eat your heart out, Chuckles!Good example of another way to make cliches work: Non-stop action and a thunderous soundtrack. Doesn't hurt either to stage your mano-a-mano confrontations on tiny platforms tens of thousands of feet in the air.

  2. Th Wire is so good, you will miss it badly when it's done, trust me.

    Now, Honey, you know I love me some Jane, but the woman did write some moony-eyed girliness now and again.

    Staw Twek! I think the key is to put Simon Pegg into every sequel and or remake of anything.