This post will almost certainly contain spoilers, but for a book that's been popular, and in print, since 1935 I think that's okay. Regency Buck has been the most recent Georgette Heyer Readalong title (a favourite of the organiser, but not, it turns out of many others). There are very few Heyers I don't feel some level of affection for, and I've come out of this slow read with more respect for this particular title than I had going into it.
One reason for the general group skepticism over this one is that it doesn't work brilliantly as a romance, and most of the readalongers are there for the romance - which is fair when you're in a group dedicated to a woman famous for writing romances. For me, the evergreen appeal of Heyer is that romance is only a part of what she offers - and I will argue repeatedly and at length to anybody who will listen that I don't think it's even her primary focus. Or if she is a romance writer it's in a more old-fashioned sense and along the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson (who can also be very funny).
The traditional romance convention would be that a heroine needs rescuing, preferably by a hero who can materially improve her lot along with being generally splendid and capable. The heroine here (Judith) is young, beautiful, exceptionally wealthy, independently minded, and a little bit spoilt. The situations she needs help with are mostly social and given her fabulous wealth fairly low stakes. The hero opens the book by being an absolute arse who assaults Judith when he first meets her. They then find out that he's her legal guardian - which is awkward and emasculating. Judith has an annoying younger brother, Perry, who somebody is trying to do away with. Not because he's exceptionally annoying (a bad, but tempting, motive for murder) but because his equally vast inheritance will go to Judith and somebody would rather have all the money than half of it and an annoying brother-in-law.
The book is set in 1812, but as much fun as the historical details are they're basically fancy dress. This novel belongs firmly to the 1930s. Heyer wrote and then later suppressed a couple of contemporary novels, as well as 12 detective novels. I've read the murder mysteries, and think they're fun, some of them are really good, others are a bit clunky - they use more or less the same characters as the historical novels, but stay truer to genre conventions. I'd really love to read the suppressed books to see what kind of issues she covers in them.
Which brings me to the point of what I like so much about Regency Buck. Judith should have the world at her feet, but she's constantly held back by a double standard that says men can behave thus, but women cannot and it's still depressingly familiar. Time and again we see Judith subjected to unwelcome attention from much older, more socially powerful men, who won't take no for an answer. Heyer makes no comment on Judith's experiences, but the way she writes these scenes doesn't leave much doubt that she's experienced this kind of behaviour, and that she didn't like it.
It's a bold move to have the hero behave the way he does when we first meet him too, it makes a lot of sense in terms of the thriller elements of the plot, and back in the day (or even the 1980's when I first read this) it might have been seen as something of a romantic fantasy - but Heyer never quite lets him off the hook for it, we know he knows he's behaved badly, and that it will colour their relationship and understanding of each other to the last chapter.
Heyer has plenty of faults, and she's really not going to appeal to plenty of people, but I find her consistently interesting as well as entertaining, especially in the way she shows women's lives. Maybe it's because she doesn't offer much commentary that what she's written has stayed so relevant - but the nature of her observations coupled with the way she pushes at the boundaries of the romance genre say more than enough. Regency Buck will never be a favourite, but it turns out it'll almost certainly always be worth reading one more time.