Georgette Heyer (1902–1974) is best known for her Regency novels, the time period which lasted from 1811 to 1820. Frederica is set in 1818 and is the first book I’ve read by this author, although I’ve been aware of her for ages. Apparently, if you enjoy Mary Stewart’s writing, you might possibly like Georgette Heyer’s, so when I came across a secondhand copy of Frederica, I decided to give it a try.
Frederica Merriville is a very likeable, strong-minded young woman, like most of Mary Stewart’s female protagonists. She is basically bringing up her younger siblings after the death of her parents and wants to give her younger sister, Charis, an opportunity to make a good match. She hires a house in London for a year and appeals to one of her father’s ‘cousins’, Lord Alverstoke, to introduce Charis into the ‘ton’ or fashionable society.
It turns out that Frederica’s father exaggerated when he said that Alverstoke was his cousin. He was not a married man as she had presumed but a confirmed bachelor and a selfish rake who put himself out for no one. However, Frederica was unusual and diverting and very different to the simpering females with whom Alverstoke usually came into contact. He had every intention of saying no to Frederica’s request but surprised himself by taking an interest in the matter and even befriending her two younger brothers, Jessamy and Felix, who got themselves into various scrapes and relied on Alverstoke to deliver them out of them.
(Jessamy) buried his face in his hands and said in a stifled voice: ‘I shall never be fit, never!’
‘Not, I agree until you gave got the better of your tendency to fall into distempered freaks,’ said Alverstoke unemotionally. He allowed Jessamy a moment or two to digest this blighting remark, before adding, with far more encouragement: ‘I’ve no doubt that you’ll succeed. I won’t insult you by calling you a little boy, but you are not very old yet, you know!’
Dropping his hands, Jessamy managed to smile. ‘Yes, sir. I – I know. One should have fortitude of mind – not allow oneself to be overpowered, or to – to magnify even one’s own sins, because that’s a form of self-indulgence – don’t you think?’
‘Possibly. It is not one in which I’ve so far indulged,’ replied his lordship dryly.
Georgette Heyer uses a whole new vocabulary compared to any other writer I’m familiar with: ton, bumble-broth, ‘dicked in the nob,’ nipperkin, clodpole, looby…
Stephen Fry’s introduction from The Folio Society’s edition of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia had this to say about her:
‘From the absolutely appalling cover art that has defaced her books since she was first published, you would think Georgette Heyer the most gooey, ghastly, cutesy, sentimental and trashy author who ever dared put pen to paper. The surprise in store for you, if you have not encountered her before, is that once you tear off, burn or ignore those disgusting covers you will discover her to be one of the wittiest, most insightful and rewarding prose writers imaginable. Her stories satisfy all the requirements of romantic fiction, but the language she uses, the dialogue, the ironic awareness, the satire and insight – these rise far above the genre.’
It was probably the covers that out me off reading her books until now. I mentally put them in the Mills & Boons category, but that was a misjudgement.
‘…such is the game that Heyer plays with the reader: the recreation of an age faultless enough in setting and in prose to immerse us in the era so completely that we abandon our 20th-century attitudes and ethics…and slip into the sensibilities of another age. We, the reader, do not bring our thinking to her stories; she brings Regency thinking to us. We can mock, disparage and howl with outrage as much as we like at what we see as unchecked racism, sexism, snobbery and suppression, but this is how the world was, truly was, and if we enter it we had better leave our 21st-century sensibilities behind.’
Witty and fun, with a sprinkle of Sir Percy of the Scarlet Pimpernel sums up my impression of Frederica. A very enjoyable book that transports you to a very different era and society. Although it is light-hearted in many respects, it also has some sensible insights into character and family dynamics.