To celebrate reaching 100 Twitter followers, Heather Rose Jones offered a choice of blog topic to the 99th and 100th. One of the winners, Ursula W., noting that two of her friends both wrote Regency-era romances, requested a blog trade. When Heather suggested each discussing how our stories interact with Heyer, especially in regards to how we use class difference to create conflict in our books, I was sold! My post is up at Heather’s blog if you’d like to read it. An excerpt:
My relationship with Heyer is complicated. In some ways, I relate to her like a critical mother. Her work has influenced my genre and my writing so heavily, she’s written some of my very favorite romances, and yet…I know she wouldn’t approve of me (apart from anything else, I’m Jewish!). I’m unable to simply set aside the places we disagree. Instead, they inspire in me frustrated stomach churnings if I think too much about it.
Because here’s the thing about Georgette Heyer and class issues as a roadblock to romance:
In Georgette Heyer, real class difference is an insuperable barrier to romance.
Heather’s debut novel Daughter of Mystery (Bella Books) is concisely described as a “Ruritanian Regency lesbian romance with magic and swashbuckling” (okay, I clearly need to check this out) and features Margerit Sovitre, an aspiring scholar who unexpectedly inherits a fortune…and a bodyguard named Barbara.
Here’s Heather’s post!
A romance author’s most important task is to keep her protagonists apart. Seriously. Without roadblocks to the romance, you may have a happy couple undergoing adventures together, but you don’t have a romance novel. One of the attractions of historic romance is exploring the palette of roadblocks specific and appropriate to the time and place of the setting. And one of the classic failures of historic romance is overlooking barriers rooted in your novel’s era in favor of more modern motivations and attitudes.
Any Anglophone romance novel set around the turn of the 19th century will inevitably find itself in dialog with both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Austen, because she gives us a boots-on-the-ground view of the attitudes, assumptions, goals, and aspirations of the time. Heyer, though she’s less bound by historic realities, because she essentially invented the concept of the Regency romance and mapped out an amazingly prolific array of character types, plots, tropes, and resolutions that form the basis for the genre. One may follow their lead or consciously write in contrast to them, but one cannot ignore them.
My novel Daughter of Mystery aimed, in part, for the look-and-feel of a Heyer romance, though differing significantly in the details. (It has fantasy elements, is set in the invented country of Alpennia rather than England, and concerns a same-sex romantic couple.) So I found it interesting to see how my characters’ problems compare to Austen and Heyer’s use of class, economics, social attitudes, and gender as romantic roadblocks.
Wait: “gender” as a romantic roadblock? But gender is what it’s all about! Gender is what brings the romantic couple together, not what keeps them apart. Or is it? Austen in particular shows starkly how the gender-segregation of Regency-era English society acts to slow or inhibit a potential romance. Think of all the maneuverings in the opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice to get Jane and Bingley into sufficient proximity to spark interest. “[T]hough Bingley and Jane meet tolerably often, it is never for many hours together; and…they always see each other in large mixed parties.” It isn’t until the end of the book when the deal is being clinched that the scandalous tactic of leaving them alone in a room together is arranged, and one hesitates to think of the consequences if Bingley hadn’t come up to scratch!
Heyer’s heroines are a bit freer in their interactions with the male sex, but the key role of barriers to opposite-sex socialization is still apparent. Prudence Merriot, in The Masqueraders, subverts the rules sufficiently to fall in love by passing as a boy. When the notorious Marquis of Vidal travels alone with a young woman in Devil’s Cub the only possible outcomes would be ruin (as originally intended) or marriage.
Because I was writing a same-sex romance, this entire category of barrier wasn’t available to me. In fact, my protagonists are thrown together from the start in the most intimate of circumstances with no one thinking anything amiss. This creates the need for obstacles of other types in order to maintain the romantic tension. After all, one of the somewhat prurient motifs in the popular representations of lesbians is the accessibility that women have to each other in intimate circumstances, even in otherwise sexually repressive contexts such as convents. So it was necessary to have other strong barriers to keep my not-yet-happy couple from discovering and expressing their attraction too soon in the story.
In a Regency context, of course, class is one of the standard barriers. The genre stereotype matches a girl of only respectable birth with a titled nobleman. Given how common the trope is, it’s worth noting its absence from Austen’s work. With the exception of the self-important baronet in Persuasion (the female lead’s father, not her sweetheart), her characters are drawn from varying levels of the gentry. As Elizabeth Bennet notes of Darcy, “He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” It is Heyer who is responsible for the startling proliferation of handsome young unmarried noblemen in Regency England, though she leavens the trope with the occasional (apparently) lower-class hero, as in The Unknown Ajax, and the common threat of the dashing but penniless army officer.
Class and status were major forces in keeping my heroines apart. Margerit may begin in the impoverished end of the middle class but that still puts her a world above Barbara who has no social status at all (not even the dignity of a surname) at the beginning of the novel. I took pains to build and establish the very rigid conventions of class in Alpennia: who may offer invitations, who may initiate closer relationships, how relative status is coded in every interaction. As Barbara points out early on to Margerit, their positions preclude so much as friendship. Nothing closer is even imaginable. Much later in the story, when the tables turn, those same barriers remain in place, complicating the path to their happy ending.
Historically speaking, the relationship between a guardian and ward was rarely treated as a bar to initiating a romantic relationship (or at least a marriage). A fairly realistic example comes in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where Colonel Brandon’s first love—a ward of his father—was coerced into marriage with his older brother for the sake of her fortune with no regard to romance.
Heyer’s characters have more delicate sensibilities in this regard and one of the surest ways to put a male protagonist off balance is to put him in a position of authority or responsibility over the heroine, as when the Earl of Worth finds himself the guardian of the beautiful Judith Taverner and her brother in Regency Buck or the far more complex responsibility taken by the Duke of Avon in These Old Shades for the apparent street-urchin Léonie.
The dampening effect of responsibility cuts both ways in Daughter of Mystery. When Barbara first confronts her growing romantic attraction to Margerit, she reminds herself that—above and beyond the barrier of class—her job as Margerit’s bodyguard is to protect her reputation. At the same time, Margerit—being totally unaware of Barbara’s internal conflict—squashes her awakening sexual curiosity with the knowledge of her own responsibility over Barbara’s life and the awareness that any repercussions for improper behavior would fall much more heavily on Barbara.
One of the hardest historic romantic barriers for a modern reader to grasp is the disapproval of society. We valorize those who—like Romeo and Juliet—love in the face of disapproval, overlooking the historic lesson that such loves often came to a bad end. One of the most common flaws I see in historic romances is a failure to internalize how important proper behavior and the approval of society was, not merely on an emotional basis but in a very real economic sense. Ostracism could mean not only social embarrassment, but financial and personal ruin. The re-admittance of Lydia Bennet into the family fold after her elopement is strikingly out of character for the time. More likely would be the fate prescribed by Mr. Collins, “to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence” in the firm conviction that “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this.”
Heyer is not as realistic on this point as her foremothers. Her heroines behave outrageously, plunge themselves into compromising situations, and contradict the will of parents and guardians with no lasting damage. The titular character of The Grand Sophy escapes all reasonable consequence for flouting convention by a combination of force of personality and the tacit approval of her absent father. The runaway Amanda of Sprig Muslin is saved more conventionally by being taken willy-nilly under the protection of a respectable man.
In Daughter of Mystery, Margerit dances around the edges of this sanction, not for her as-yet-unrealized romance, but for dismissing the conventional goal of marriage and its attendant rituals in favor of pursuing scholarship. When her Aunt Bertrut paints a picture of her “sit[ting] here alone with your books and writings… When no one of any sense or standing will greet you in the street because you’ve trampled every convention they hold dear? When even your family refuses to receive you because you destroyed the hopes they have for you?” Margerit brushes it off, failing to understand the grinding loneliness that would be the least of the consequences.
But here the nature of Margerit and Barbara’s romance again changes the rules, for wealth, power, or a reputation for amusing eccentricity will only excuse so much. There is no place in Alpennian society into which an acknowledged romantic relationship between two women of good birth will fit. Bertrut’s threat comes back to haunt Margerit as both she and Barbara face the need to sacrifice their own happiness to preserve the other’s standing in society.
For all that people often discuss Regency romances as if they were a homogeneous unified genre, Heyer does an excellent job of showing the great variety of barriers and solutions that her setting can generate. Neither her heroes nor her heroines are all of a piece. One of my favorite stories is Cotillion, where she mocks her own tropes and stereotypes by turning the dashing, sporty Jack Westruther into the villain and the staid and proper George Standen into the hero. There are no hard and fast rules for who deserves to win love. It is not the natures or behaviors of the characters that turn them into successful romantic figures, but the ways in which they bring their own personality and skills into solving their puzzles and moving past the roadblocks set in their way. My heroines face many of the same challenges as the opposite-sex lovers of mainstream Regency romance and tackle them with the tools at hand, joining their voices into this long on-going conversation.