Before Christmas I started reading Jane Aiken Hodge's 'The Private World of Georgette Heyer', and now realise I only got about halfway through it. Even so I think it's probably a better biography than Jennifer Kloester's 'Biography of a Bestseller', mostly because Hodge was writing early enough not to be perturbed by a number of Heyer's prejudices, or feel any need to apologise for them.
Heyer was a snob, her outlook is high Tory, and that's particularly obvious in 'Frederica'. But then she's not a writer you turn to for social realism and she's nothing worse than more or less representative of a good portion of her age and class. And despite that social conservatism, as romances her books are curiously subversive.
In 'Frederica' we have the eponymous heroine who is attractive rather than beautiful, her younger sister who is a stunner with an equally lovely personality but is a bit dim, and a rich Marquis who is persuaded to help them enter polite society and do the London season. Quite a lot of the book is devoted to the adventures of Frederica's younger brothers though - and that isn't typical romance.
Our heroine is 24, and responsible for 3 of her 4 younger siblings. The fourth, Harry, who is ostensibly their guardian and head of the family is quite happy to leave all the responsibility to his sister. When Heyer's father died (when she was in her early 20's) she became financially responsible for her mother and brothers, as well as supporting her husband whilst he experimented with various careers and then trained as a barrister. 'Frederica' is very good on the reality of responsibility with all its frustrations and joys.
Something else that's typical of Heyer, but not necessarily typical in romance novels, is that love is based on mutual respect and a shared sense of humour. If Heyer's characters don't generally seem to be in a any particular hurry to get into bed with each other they always seem eager to share a joke or lend support when it's needed. It also means that the main impediment to a happy ever after in this book isn't some unlikely life or death situation, but that Frederica is to busy running a household and managing children to give any thought to love.
The real appeal of Heyer though has to be her world building. Her regency England is a fantasy, full of lovely houses, lovingly described clothes, and any number of intriguing details. Reading her with google is an extra pleasure - I can look up all sorts of things now - including inflation calculators...
Heyer's research was impeccable, so when she mentions money here it felt worthwhile to see what she meant. Frederica and her sister have £5000 each, which if my guess of an 1820 setting is more or less correct comes out at about £475000 in today's money. When another character says he has about £2000 a year that's an income of around £189000. The best part of half a million sounds like a more than respectable dowry, but neither girl has many job options beyond wife. If you could hope for an income of between 3% to 5% of that amount you're looking at something between £15000 - £20000 a year in today's money. You can live on it, but it's not wealth.
Marriage to a rich man means a considerable staff to manage and social, possibly political, influence as a hostess. When Frederica gets her happy ever after she's being guaranteed a life of comfort, but also the prospect of an interesting job compared to a make and scrape existence on minimum wage.
This post is stretching on, I've deleted at least as much as I've written, and without even touching on what I think Heyer might be saying about 1965 (I find this book feels more socially conservative than some of her earlier ones and am tempted to see that as an older woman feeling nostalgic for the certainties of the past in a very fast changing world).
'Frederica' hadn't been a particular favourite, but re-reading something familiar primarily because of the year it was written in is an excellent way to reassess previous impressions. One of the many things I love about Heyer is that her books always give me something new every time I read them. She's not perfect, but she's interesting.