Georgette Heyer, False Colours (1963)
The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.
As with Terry Pratchett, I saw Georgette Heyer’s books on the shelf for years before I picked one up. I had her pegged as a “romance novelist,” and romance was not a genre I was particularly interested in. Wasn’t she one of those formulaic, swoony writers like Barbara Cartland? So I passed her by, until who knows what whim prompted me to take home one of her books from the library and start reading.
Well, that book, False Colours, had me hooked from page one, with its witty banter, well-realized period setting, intelligent, likeable central couple, and screwball-comedy-style plot. It starts when Kit Fancot, returning home from the Napoleonic wars to his mother’s London townhouse, learns that his twin brother Evelyn is missing on the eve of an important appointment … for which the twins’ mother begs Kit to stand in for Evelyn for just one day … which stretches into weeks, during which the masquerade becomes more and more difficult, particularly as he finds himself falling for Cressy, his brother’s potential bride …
Yes, this is a Regency romance; Heyer basically invented the genre, and she practiced it in a way that many have tried to imitate, but few have bettered. Her Regency is not the lived one of Jane Austen, but a constructed universe that is slightly unreal, a bit too technicolor. Her period slang is genuine, but nobody would really run it all together in one speech the way her characters do. Her female characters, while behaving with a thorough understanding of the proprieties of the time, have a slyly modern side that allows them much more knowledge of certain “unmentionables” than was probably the case. And no writer of Austen’s era would spend so much time on descriptions of clothing, especially masculine fashions.
But such alterations are clearly not the result of sloppy research and careless writing (which sometimes drive me mad when I try to read other Regencies). It was Heyer’s choice to consciously craft this fictional world, full of details from a time she clearly loved and knew much about, but with an internal coherence and logic all its own. She did it brilliantly, and most importantly she used it to tell wonderful stories about people who come to life on the page, so that we care about them and want them to find happiness with each other.
I was enchanted by this world, and by Kit and Cressy and all their friends and relatives. Most notable in this particular book are the twins’ flighty mother, who seems to be modeled on the Duchess of Devonshire, and her portly suitor Bonamy Ripple. Heyer uses them to poke fun at some of the excesses of the era, but her humor is more light-hearted than coldly satirical. We want this unlikely couple to find happiness too, even as we laugh at them.
After my first Heyer, I went on to read as many others as I could get my hands on. Not a one-note writer, she wrote with astonishing flair and facility in a variety of genres and historical settings. Quite a few of her other novels are better than False Colours, which has too much talk and too little action, and suffers from Cressy not being given enough to do (aside from a memorable scene in which she puts paid to the blackmailing mother of one of Evelyn’s paramours). It’s when Heyer’s heroines really get to shine, as in The Talisman Ring or Friday’s Child or Cotillion, that her books are at their best, I think. But every one has pleasures of its own, and if you haven’t yet discovered them for yourself, I hope you will soon.
Thanks to First Impressions Reviews for inspiring me to write this post for her Georgette Heyer blog hop! Please visit the other posts for more about this author and her marvelous books.