Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

Amazon delivered this to me on Saturday while I was waiting for Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth to come back from the New Writers' Scheme. I don't know much about Dr Kloester, except that she has written a PhD Thesis (while at, I think, the University of Melbourne) on Heyer.

Before discussing what the book is, I should point out what it is not. GHRW is not a guide to Heyer's novels. There is a set of very brief outlines of each of her Regency books (it excludes These Old Shades and The Talisman Ring, among others, presumably because they are outside her definition of Regency), but these descriptions are little more than you might find on the back cover of the recent paperback reissues. While the book describes itself as "the definitive guide to the people, places and society in Georgette Heyer's Regency novels", the people in question are the historical, rather than the fictional characters.

Nor is GHRW a source for the history of Britain in the Regency period. Another appendix has a timeline of significant events, but there is no discussion within the book of, say, the circumstances that led up to the Peterloo Massacre. This is not meant as a criticism; GHRW is what it claims to be. Julian Rathbone's Regency World, were it to exist, would be a very different book. It might well tell you more than you needed to know about Peterloo, and next to nothing about Gunter's or Almack's.

There is a comprehensive outline of the structure of GHRW at the Georgette Heyer website, so I won't repeat that here.

I will say that I found the structure logical and sensible, and Dr Kloester's writing style is simple and straightforward, making the book easy to get through. Her approach throughout is to give a clear description of the various aspects of life in Regency England (London, Brighton, Bath and "the Country") and to illustrate it with references to events in Heyer's books. With a great deal to cover in little more than 350 pages (including assorted appendices) Dr Kloester inevitably has to deal in generalities, and some of her statements seem a little sweeping, but she is usually very clear that she is talking in broad terms. She also makes it clear that while the Regency properly only lasted from 1811 until 1820, the period she is describing extends back as far as about 1780 and forward as far as 1830.

She begins with the shape of society. As this is Heyer's world Dr Kloester gives plenty of attention to the upper classes, and negotiates the complexities of the Aristocracy and Gentry without doing more than clipping a wheel on the status of Baronets. She does not, however, ignore the rising middle class, and she is also good on the roles and internal pecking order of servants in the second chapter. As with most chapters I was left wanting even more on some of this.

After a discussion of town and country life we learn about the different lives of men and women, before visiting the genteel attractions of Almack's and Hyde Park, then the more manly establishments in St James' and elsewhere in town, and finally Brighton and Bath. There are little maps of these places amongst the many illustrations to indicate where the various locations that crop up in Heyer's novels can be found.

The chapter on transport is good, but again too short. The speed of travel is one of the great differences between Regency England and modern England (life changed radically with the arrival of the railways very soon after the Regency). As a writer I am eager for anything that can get me inside the heads of people who would spend a day on a journey that I can do in an hour; unfortunately Heyer followed Regency practice in not dwelling overly on such matters.

After transport comes fashion (men's and women's), shopping, food and drink, and fun and games. Finally there is a chapter on business and the military, and a Who's Who of those historical characters that appear in Heyer's books. In addition to the appendices already mentioned there is one on slang, one on books mentioned in Heyer, and one on newspapers.

There are a few gaps in Dr Kloester's book, some of which reflect things about which Heyer says little. Churcg-going was an integral part of Regency life but beyond a passing reference to Hugh Penicuik (from Cotillion) there is little said about this. Smuggling, which is a major concern in The Unknown Ajax, is hardly mentioned. There is nothing much said of the role of Government at this time, although several Heyer characters are involved in Government (one of the Carlyons in The Reluctant Widow works in government, and Kit Fancot in False Colours is a diplomat).

Having noted that I would have like more on various topics, I should point out that Dr Kloester has included a short bibliography for further reading.

Overall, however, this is a very useful book, and as a guide to life in the early 19th century it is certainly better in every respect than What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which is perhaps the best point of comparison. Physically it is well produced, with illustrations by Graeme Tavendale that complement the text, and a cover that mirrors the style of the Heyer paperbacks recently published by Arrow.

Dr Kloester is apparently addressing the Historical Novel Society Conference on Saturday. I shall miss this event as it clashes with the Great British Cheese Festival here in Cheltenham.


mandy said...

Thanks, Stephen, a great review. I was hoping for a book on all the characters in Heyer, with brief biographies, but maybe some enterprising fan will write one.

If you want to get inside the head of someone who spends a day to accomplish an hour's journey, then buy a train ticket and you will have first hand experience. The resulting chaos will give you a pretty good idea of the frustrations of travel, including such Regency problems as being too cold (the heating doesn't work), too hot (the heating is going full blast and you can't turn it off, nor can you open a window), being uncomfortable (you can't get a seat), and arriving at your destination six hours after you set out to travel twenty miles. A carriage would often be quicker.

Or read Jane Austen. Darcy describes 30 miles as an easy distance, and Elizabeth disagrees.

For more details on Regency life, try Carolly Erickson's Our tempestuous Day and Venetia Murray's High Society in the Regency period. You need to cross check things, because there are some mistakes in the latter, but even so, both will give you a good idea of Regency life.

Stephen said...

Two books that are still to be written are: a guide to Heyer's characters, as you suggest, with family trees, and maps and all that good stuff; and a writers' reference guide to the Regency (broadly defined), which should contain such things as details of coaching routes with times and prices, a comprehensive Order of Battle for the Army and the Royal Navy, a comprehensive list of newspapers and periodicals, and so forth. Much of the latter is on the Web, but not in a form that is easy to use (nor entirely reliably sourced).

The former would need to be done in conjunction with the Heyer Estate, so I have probably burned my books on that front with my Heyeroines in need of a slap.

Linore Rose Burkard said...

Thanks much, Steven!
I followed your link from the Heyer list and found your review well worth the time. It IS disappointing that Regency travel details are murky even in this new work, for, as a writer of Regency lit., I have noticed the lack of reference material on the subject. There must be some sort of public coaching records that no one has satisfactorily compiled yet! I also appreciated your reference to "What Jane Austen Ate..." because that book, while engaging and interesting barely answers many, many questions and leaves one with the distinct feeling of having been politely brushed off!
Of course, I now have to purchase Kloester's book as soon as possible!
Thanks again, and
Linore Burkard

Kate Allan said...

I can't go to the HNS conference either as I have a date at the British Museum but hopefully next year as it does look good.