I’ve been meaning to read some Georgette Heyer since reading about her in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”. Certainly less forgotten than most of the featured writers, she is regularly taken out in the libraries where I work and was a great favourite of my partner’s mother who was known to stay up the whole night whenever she re-encountered one of Heyer’s titles.
Selecting “a member of staff’s favourite author” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge gave me a chance and I chose one of her later historical novels published 44 years into her lengthy career. I think I was fully expecting a strong Jane Austen influence and that is very much present in this Regency tale.
After settling down with the endearing opening where the Marquis of Alverstoke tries to avoid hosting a ball to introduce young female relatives to “the ton” at the start of “the Season” and whilst doing encounters distant family members who he is pushed to feeling responsible for I did find myself getting restless. Much talk of balls and society and possible suitors was making this feel a bit of a dense slog. It was, however, livened by the odd set piece- a runaway dog, a Pedestrian Curricle ride. I did begin looking out for unintentional double entendres, which is a sign I’m wandering when reading classic and historical novels- a childish habit I know. This was because I was finding Frederica Merriville’s attempts to get her stunning sister, Charis, paired up with an eligible man a little too predictable. However, mid-way through this book did come into its own with the stunning Charis (probably the least interesting character in the novel) taking a back seat as the two younger Merriville boys, Jessamy and Felix take a more central role. There is real drama in an expedition to watch a hot air balloon and it is from this point that this novel really lifts off (pun intended!).
I can’t say I got a real feel for the Regency London setting but there’s no denying the amount of research Heyer must have put into her works to get it sounding right. There’s a joyous use of contemporary slang and terms, many unfamiliar but which do not need further explanation. Characterisation really won me over and I couldn’t help but feel that if Jane Austen herself had produced this work that she’d feel rather proud of it. It’s certainly a long way from Mills and Boon historical novels and to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be. It’s actually a book that demands hunkering down with making it a better autumn/winter at home read rather than an on the beach one. I think if time and duties had allowed me to read it in a more concentrated way I would have got more out of it, certainly from the sections I was finding heavy going. I actually think my late mother-in-law might have had the right idea.
I now know that there is a lot to enjoy in Georgette Heyer and there are a lot of books to discover. She wrote 38 historical novels, 12 detective novels and 4 contemporary novels. Next time I might see how she fares in the world of crime.
Frederica was first published in the UK in 1965. I read the 2013 Arrow paperback reissue.