Georgette Heyer: The Space Between the Words

Re-reading Georgette Heyer’s  work in advance of Blue Plaque Day has been an unexpected voyage of discovery. I’ve loved her books for ever, of course. But typing out an extract from AN INFAMOUS ARMY gave me a real jolt.

It is the morning of the battle of Waterloo. Some men, sleeping out in the cold and wet, have died in the night and everyone is sodden: old soldiers became busy drying their clothes and cleaning their arms; young soldiers stared over the dense mist in the valley to the ridge where the French were beginning to show themselves. Read it aloud, as I did. In two paragraphs she gets all the terror of the impending battle, the imminence of death, the fear of the raw recruits, the numbness of those who have been here before.

And I realised exactly what makes her such a brilliant writer for so many different sorts of readers. It’s in the things she doesn’t say.  As Browning had it, she does the thing shall breed the thought. Then there comes that little electrical charge between what she has written and your imagination and suddenly, there you are, seeing what she saw, feeling what you feel.

Consider what Sarah McConnell was saying, in response to my last post, about that agonising scene in SPRIG MUSLIN. We readers have had a picture of Lady Hester – whose family think she’s a born spinster. She runs her father’s household and is regularly called in to nurse or babysit by her married sisters. She’s past the first blush of youth, not very pretty, turned down the only proposals of marriage she ever received and is really a bit vague. Then, suddenly, rich Sir Gareth Ludlow  with whom she has been friends ever since his spirited first love died, proposes. She turns him down and he, being a reasonable man, sets out the advantages of the match: her situation is not happy, she would be at no one’s beck and call, with a position of the first consequence and a husband who would not make unreasonable demands.

You may be sure that I should always attend to your wishes, and hold you in respect and affection. Would that not mean a happier life than the one you live now?’

Her face was very white; she pulled her hand away, saying in a stifled voice: ‘No — anguish!’

This seemed so strange a thing for her to have said that he thought he could not have heard her aright. ‘I beg your pardon?’ he said blankly. 

No more words but it’s all there: the pain of unrequited love and, worse, the sheer awful loneliness of pain unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable. In a sentence. God, she was good.

Or there’s my own favourite, the moment in FRIDAY’S CHILD — which up until then has been pure joy, as if Jane Austen had written Bertie Wooster — when the heroine runs away from her husband and his daft friends try to help her:

She bent her head, looking down at her tightly clasped hands. ‘Sherry – Sherry doesn’t love me, you see. He– he never did love me. If I had not been such a silly g-goose, I should not not have — For he never pretended that he loved me you know.’

George’s face twisted. He came quickly back into the room and laid his hands over both Hero’s and gripped them. ‘I know,’ he said in a moved voice.

She nodded. ‘Yes. I-I thought you did, George. So, you see . . . ‘

There was an uncomfortable silence. 

And you see that they are not just daft any more, not even George Wrotham who has been stamping about like Lord Byron at his worst and generally making a cake of himself over the Beauty. The feelings are real.  They hurt. You don’t want to spend too much time there, any more than you want to press on a bruise, but you know.

That was when it occurred to me – what a total gift to a film maker. The delicious prose, the mock heroic authorial comments, no you couldn’t put those on the screen. But these moments of truth coupled with some of the best dialogue outside Restoration Comedy or PG Wodehouse – what a treasure trove for a screen writer, for an actor.

Of course, those wonderful Georgette Heyer readers had got there first. There’s even an online petition you can sign. It had 1,238 signatures when I found it.

Now it’s got one more.



19 Responses to “Georgette Heyer: The Space Between the Words”

  • Leanne Davis:

    They’ve made a movie of one of Heyer’s books and it was a complete bomb. Otherwise, I agree with ever word you wrote. She had a knack for wittiness and her world was such fun to visit.

    • Do you mean the terrible Reluctant Widow with Jean Kent, Leanne? Unfortunately it was made at a time when the British movie industry was stuck in pantomime histrionics when something was a) historical and b) a love story. Compared with, say Hollywood’s depiction of Scaramouche, which must have been about the same time, it was just pure pudding. They used to form the second sitting in a two-movie programme and, by golly, you see why.

      I gather there is also an Arabella out there too. I haven’t seen it.

      I think everyone’s point is Heyer movies would have to be done well, with thoughtful, sophisticated script and some class acting. But that’s possible – a lot of good Jane Austen is out there. Not to mention Dangerous Liaisons which is the world (and many of the concerns) of These Old Shades to a T. The movie makers just have to up their game. They could hit pure gold.

  • Margaret Dean:

    She can also use it for comedy. One of my favorite laugh-out-loud lines in Heyer is one word: the scene in The Corinthian where Major Daubenay comes storming into the inn to complain that Sir Richard Wyndham’s young ward “Penn” Creed has seduced his daughter.

    Again?” says Sir Richard … with one word conjuring up an entirely specious picture of the disguised Pen’s male alter ego. Priceless!

    • Oh yes. That’s fantastic. Positively Woodhouseian.

      Made me splort, just reading it here. I completely crease up when I read it in context. Especially when the Major starts gobbling and Pen announces that she has no wish to be married. One of those scenes which just can’t be bettered.

  • It’s what makes great writers great, Jenny. They treat their readers as intelligent people who can fill in those spaces for themselves. And the editors let them.

  • Oh yes, yes, yes Jenny. That’s her great skill.

  • Natalie Kleinman:

    Another signature has been added but you have also promoted an itch that requires scratching. It must be a couple of years since I last read Georgette Heyer (Frederika it was). I’m not sure whether or not to thank you, Jenny. Time I can ill afford at the moment will be spent reacquainting myself with my favourite author. It will not be time wasted.

  • Wonderful insight, Jenny. And so right. She is a genius. Subtext – she never spells it out. Also signed. And sharing this to the FB Georgette Heyer group. They’ll love it.

  • lynne pardoe:

    I’ve never read any GH Jenny, but I love your intelligent look at her and am off to read some of her work. Its great that she is to have a blue plaque at last, its not just politicians and scientists that make the world.

  • Jan – ‘great writer’. It’s a big claim. But yes, after sober reflection, I agree with that.

    Beryl – also agree with ‘skill’. I suspect it was innate. Even in The Black Moth, her very first book, there’s terrific timing. And the fear which the abducted heroine feels, all the time she is still fighting her corner and keeping her dignity, is nail-biting stuff, I think.

    Natalie Good luck! Georgette Heyer usually puts a bit of pep into me and I return to the race refreshed. Of course sometimes I put the kettle on and settle down with the tea and the next one along the shelf. But I’m sure you’re stronger willed than I am.

    Liz – Thank you. I bow. Words from a master.

    Lynne – You are SO lucky. You have so much good stuff to come. Enjoy!

  • Henriette Gyland:

    Great post, and thanks for bringing our attention to the petition. I have now signed it. Completely agree with you about her wonderful prose. Imagine if a script writer like Deborah Moggach gave Heyer the same treatment as she did Pride & Prejudice? It would be superb.

  • jazz singh:

    Read them all every few years. I wish she’d written more

  • Patricia Franzino:

    I would only want to see a Heyer book filmed if the screenplay or teleplay writer did justice to it and took it seriously, and a casting director doing the same, otherwise it would only be disappointing and not worth viewing. It might have a better chance of being filmed for television, since the demographic age group on the screen for box office blockbusters is 18-24 and male.

    Heyer can be very subtle. Her work would appeal to a specific audience who are die-hard fans and who love Jane Austen’s work, too.

    It would also be more expensive to film, on television or the big screen, because it’s a period piece. Costumes and locations increase the cost. If it’s a teleplay and filmed in the UK, the expense would be easier as far as location shooting.

    Either way, I want to see the writer respect Heyer’s work. If the script is a solid representation of one of her stories, I’ll definitely see it.

    • You are so right, Patricia.I am hopeful that respect for her is growing all the time. Whether it has yet reached critical mass to impress a production company, of course, is another matter. We can only hope.

  • Many thanks, a great article. She is the queen of the Regency, and the things left unsaid speak louder and more deeply than the prolixity of anyone else

  • Heyer is my favourite author too. And I have also signed the petition. Let’s hope something comes of it, with good writers, of course.
    Love the blog.

Leave a Reply