UNDERRATED / False colours: The case for Georgette Heyer

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The Independent Culture
That - ' said the man in the bookshop, pointing at a copy of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, 'is what your mother says she reads. That - ' finger flicked on the spine of Georgette Heyer's Sprig Muslin, 'is what she really reads.' Nuclear offspring laugh derisively.

The name with its inbuilt diminutive doesn't help - Georgette, a fancy kind of curtain material or a girlish deb? And, like Barbara Pym, that mistress of acidic brevity, she's not helped by the packaging of her books (I remember particularly the 1970s Pan paperbacks with their about-to-snog vignettes, chocolate box via Disney). But to dismiss Georgette Heyer as the blueprint for Barbara Cartland, as somehow intellectually inferior to Salman Rushdie ('another bleeding romance' as she said herself of Sprig Muslin) is to miss out on one of the delights of 20th-century fiction. Heyer, to dip into her own terminology (shamefully: she would despise the anachronism), is the Nonpareil of romantic historical fiction, she's the Top of the Tree Corinthian of acute social comedy; in short, in the dance of manners and morals, she's a Diamond of the First Water.

Between 1924 and her death in 1974, Heyer produced more than 57 varieties of detective or romantic fiction - all were bestsellers, though she never gave an interview or admitted her true identity as Mrs Ronald Rougier, the wife of a QC. 'You will find me in my work,' she is said to have replied to enquries about her private life. There is, in fact, no Mrs Ronald Rougier in the collected works of Georgette Heyer, but that's about all there isn't. The romances, set in the mid-18th and early- 19th centuries, are packed with historical facts and details, the documented trivia of daily life. I started reading her at the age of 11 and, by the time I came to Jane Austen, was on first-name terms with tigers and tapsters, I knew my curricle from my high- perch phaeton, my cotillion from my ridotto, I was familiar with the etiquette of Almack's and Tattersall's, and, more importantly, I could distinguish a Waterfall cravat from a badly made Wyndham Fall or a miscalculated Mathematical tie at 20 paces. Heyer's plots may be escapist, but the exactness of their research brings you back to earth.

Anyway, what is this 'escapist'? Here, certainly, is the comfort of familiarity - the Heyer 'types', for example: the bored hero swept up by the wildcat heroine (Friday's Child, The Convenient Marriage); or the sprig of fashion charmed by the cool woman of advanced years (The Nonesuch, Venetia). And there are delightful incidental characters - the Incomparable Beauties, the twitching Dowagers and the wonderfully inarticulate bucks ('Y'know dear old boy - not my business . . . dear little soul] Not up to snuff at all]' - straight out of P G Wodehouse), all drawn with fine ironic wit.

But there is something else going on, too, in the best Heyer novels - a sort of anti- romance (in which the vapours are to be acknowledged as an 'accomplishment'). Like Austen's, Heyer's books rest lightly upon a web of moral and social obligation. Self-control and manners are prized, not passionate abandon. Heyer has no time for meeting lips, for melting loins. Her protagonists quite often marry early and get over the sex bit pretty quickly; it's the coming to like it that takes the time.

Her protagonists don't fall madly, wildly, physically in love. They come to gradual understandings, to know one another as equals. Sometimes, it's almost despite themselves. In Faro's Daughter, the deadly Ravenscar 'began reluctantly to feel interested in the working of Miss Grantham's mind'. Georgette Heyer wrote romances, then, but reluctant ones.