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The enduring appeal of Georgette Heyer

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From The Guardian: Stephen Fry on the enduring appeal of Georgette Heyer

From the absolutely appalling cover art that has defaced her books since she was first published, you would think Georgette Heyer the most gooey, ghastly, cutesy, sentimental and trashy author who ever dared put pen to paper. The surprise in store for you, if you have not encountered her before, is that once you tear off, burn or ignore those disgusting covers you will discover her to be one of the wittiest, most insightful and rewarding prose writers imaginable. Her stories satisfy all the requirements of romantic fiction, but the language she uses, the dialogue, the ironic awareness, the satire and insight – these rise far above the genre.

In the matter of period dramas it is a truth universally acknowledged that a period film or TV show tells you more about the period in which it is made than the period in which it is set. Watch, to take a more or less random example, Robert Redford in Jack Clayton’s 1974 The Great Gatsby and all you will be able to see is early 1970s style, cinematography and manner. Watch Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of the same story and it is the styles of the earlyish 21st century that you see laid out before you. In many period dramas today there is the added element of deliberate Blackaddery anachronisms and plain historical nonsenses that we find in comedies and romps like Bridgerton, The Favourite, The Great, etc. None of this is to criticise that style – it is a category in which we could place Shakespeare’s great history and Roman plays, after all. The aim of such a form of fiction or adaptation is to shine a light on this present more than on that past.

But there is another style of literary historical fiction whose project it is to research and reproduce the airs, modes and everyday details of a period with so much authenticity that you might almost be reading an author of that age. Georgette Heyer stands as first among equals in this approach. Give or take a few changes of typography and spelling, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that an early nineteenth-century reader could pick up her book Venetia and consume it as if it were a creation of their time. That is an exaggeration perhaps, but such is the game that Heyer plays with the reader: the recreation of an age faultless enough in setting and in prose to immerse us in the era so completely that we abandon our 20th-century attitudes and ethics (Heyer wrote from the mid-1930s to the 1970s) and slip into the sensibilities of another age…

Read full post on The Guardian

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