Pages of Powder and Patch

MUSINGS Georgette Heyer was an honest seller of escapism, and more than just a Jane Austen for beginners

M any months ago a friend sent me an article written by a history professor from Jamia Millia Islamia on anti-Semitism in Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy. His case was indisputable, but what surprised me was that scholars were writing thoughtful essays about Heyer.

Georgette Heyer is a staple of lending libraries. She wrote historical romances, mostly set in the late 18th Century, in which the women wore empire gowns and flirted at balls. She also wrote whodunits set in the 1920s, in which witty repartee had more impact than blunt instruments. In my teens, I read every one of her Regency romances, including Arabella, Venetia and Powder and Patch, and I knew my phaetons and curricles before I learned my sines and cosines.

Thanks to Heyer, when I first read Jane Austen I was already fluent in the language and fashions of her era. As for 18th Century customs and constraints, well, isn't that where many Indian girls grow up? So my first reaction to the opening of Pride and Prejudice was that it was rather ordinary.

I soon found out how wrong I was. Reading Austen after Heyer is like tasting Riesling after Limca. The fizz is familiar at first, then we realise it is something else entirely. Austen did not write for the market, after all. Each of her novels was an original. She unveiled her clear line drawings of English life with diffidence, but her strokes were assured and fluent. She told the unflinching truth about female success and failure. She wrote about her own time and her own values: a mate must be intelligent, money was necessary, and respectability was paramount.

Take away the frocks and bonnets, and Austen's characters still sparkle. My favourite screen adaptation of an Austen novel always will be Clueless.

Heyer's work would not stand up to that kind of stripping, even while her Regency novels pay homage to Austen. She too values intelligence and money, though not respectability. She sexes up her stories and lays on details an inch thick. Dialogue is littered with fustian, jeremiads, and daffish notions. There are more lords within walking distance than Austen would put in an entire novel, and more footmen and pages than anyone could afford. Rakes are conveniently labelled so that a girl knows who the bad boys are. They spy, rob and seduce, and not one of them is as dangerous as Austen's smooth Mr Elliot in Persuasion.

Heyer was an honest purveyor of escapism, but in her own way she was an original. The historical romances she spun around William the Conqueror and the Duke of Wellington were carefully researched. All that detail about the theatre, card games, balls and even battles of the time may be superfluous but it all rings true. Her lords talk like lords, her pages talk like pages, even her Elizabethans talk like Elizabethans. Apart from Tom Stoppard, what modern writer has managed that? Heyer's authenticity is admirable, and her Limca hits the spot.


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