Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Georgette Heyer's Regency World - when good ideas go bad

I don't think I'll be making a lot of friends with this post, and despite Elizabeth Bennett's admonition that "Honesty is a greatly overrated virtue. Silence in this case would have been more agreeable," I feel compelled to share my thoughts on what I don't like about Georgette Heyer's Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester.

It's not the writing--Kloester is an excellent writer and the book is not only easy to read and interesting, but it is fun to read all her references to Heyer's Regency novels, especially those that I have read, which is about a quarter of the total.

My issue is with the premise. Because it is well-written and well-researched, it's easy to forget that this is a history of the manners, customs, even geography of a fictional world. Because Heyer's novels are set in Regency England and not, say, Middle Earth, there is an overlap between historical Regency England and Heyer Regency England. My problem with the book is that while Kloester never says she is doing anything other than writing about Heyer's Regency England, the reader has no way of knowing where one ends and the other begins.

I know that I shouldn't fault the book for being what it is, but I am concerned that readers, especially young ones, will take this book as being about the Regency. It's about a fictional world.

I compare it to a book like The Complete Guide to Middle Earth, which my son got when he started reading the Lord of the Rings books. However, readers know that Middle Earth is a fictional place, but with Kloester's book it's not as easy to recognize that Heyer's Regency England is also a fictional place.

So what? Not recognizing that Heyer's Regency England is a fictional world decked out in some of the trappings of the historical Regency England is comparable to not recognizing that Margaret Mitchell's fictional world in Gone With the Wind is a not faithful rendering of the United States during and after the Civil War. I think most modern readers know that the lives and attitudes of the slaves, for example, in GWTW create a gross, some might say obscene, distortion of the misery and inhumanity created by slavery.

Heyer's Regency novels are fun and relaxing and somewhat, in a limited way, historically accurate. My problem with Kloester's work is that she treats them as primary sources, and they are not. They were written in the first half of the twentieth century; the world they depict is a fictional world; and if we are to study history in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past, then we have to study real history, real primary sources.

The frustration I felt reading this book was that Kloester spent her time and energy and produced a book that I felt I couldn't trust. Where does Heyer end and reality begin? I wanted to read a book about Regency customs, clothes, geography, transportation, etc. but the backdrop of the novels undercut the credibility and I ended up doubting everything. Maybe I overreacted and should have gone with the assumption that since Heyer was known for doing her homework, it is not only valid but right that her stories should be used to illustrate the details of Regency life that Kloester gave. The problem is, I wasn't willing to do that.


  1. Jane, I agree with you that if you want accuracy, you need to go with the primary sources. Even though primary sources can contain inaccuracies, basing anything on a secondary source, unless it's the only source you have, isn't a good idea, because it soon becomes a game of Chinese Whispers.

    It depends why readers buy this book. The title is very clear, it's a book about Georgette Heyer's Regency World, not Regency England. I imagine this book would only be bought by fans of Georgette Heyer, rather than by those looking for historical accuracy.

  2. Scratching my head here Jane. I read this book. I don't remember the author stating that it was anything but a reference book to Heyer's books, not a history of the Regency-era.

    Heyer is renown for her historical research and accuracy, are you saying she got it wrong? If so, so what! It is fiction, not a primary source on history, who cares if she did? I am not grading her by her sources, but by her style and story. The title is "Georgette Heyer's Regency World" not "A History of the Regency", by Georgette Heyer. Do readers really use it as a history source? Just asking?

  3. Although the title really does spell out what the author is about, I was assuming I would get more proof that Heyer did get it right. When Kloester uses examples from Heyer's to illustrate the details in dress, custom, etc., she is only proving that Heyer's world is consistent in and of itself. I have to take it on her world that Heyer got it right--that's a lot for this skeptic to swallow.

    I would have liked the book far better if an example from a Heyer book had been verified with a historical reference.

    And yes, I think readers will use it as a history source. The promo blurb from PW on the cover says, "Meticulously researched yet splendidly entertaining, Kloester's comprehensive guide to the world of upper-class Regency England is a must-have." The blurb on Amazon finishes the thought with "...a must-have for both Heyer readers and those generally interested in the society and customs of the early 19th-century."

    However, anything I read in this book I would have to verify with another source so it's not "guide to the world of upper-class Regency England." It's a great companion to the Heyer novels, but I think it would have been a better companion had it showed how Heyer did get her details right.

  4. I would compare this to people watching Oliver Stone movies and thinking they are entirely true. Yes there is some basis in reality but the majority is made up. That's why you find this in the fiction section, not the non-fiction section!

  5. Oh--my apologizes if that last bit came off sounding as though I were chiding you--not my intention in the least!

  6. Lisa - :)

    I have never seen an Oliver Stone movie; I just never bought the conspiracy theory approach to life. I like fiction...no, I love fiction, and I believe that fiction can be true, but I have a hard time with fake history. I'm currently reading Little House, Long Shadow, so fiction, history, biography, and truth are very much on my mind these days.

  7. I agree that the book does appear to be about reality, and further that it doesn't ever give us a clue of where the line may be drawn. We know that Heyer made up some of her slang, but not which words. I always took it on faith that she had done meticulous research, but I have been a number of times jarred in GH books (Cotillion, The Foundling, . . .) by the characters going out shopping and coming back with dresses. Nowhere have I seen any historical reference to suggest that this might have been possible. (I do seem to recall a reference in a Jane Austen letter where she says she wishes she might be able to buy a gown ready-made.) I remember thinking that a few of Kloester's definitions or references didn't seem quite right.