Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Georgette Heyer's Regency World - when good ideas go bad
Posted by JaneGS
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.