Georgette Heyer’s Unruly Eighteenth Century

Dr Stephanie Russo (Macquarie University, Australia)
Session 5.1: History and Romance

Abstract:  Georgette Heyer’s fame, both in her own time and in ours, is inextricably connected to her representation of Regency England.  However before Heyer wrote about the Regency, she was writing about the eighteenth century, setting her first novels in both England and France… this paper considers Heyer’s representation of the eighteenth century as a time of extremes: a time marked both by radical possibility and aristocratic decadence and violence…

Far more than Heyer’s Regency World, her eighteenth century is fundamentally unruly and unsafe.  It is filled with excess – gambling (Faro’s Daughter), violence (pretty much all of them), aesthetically excessive (see the description of Avon below).

However as the time period progressed, so too did the heroes.  They become progressively less violent, and more visually identifiable with the modern masculine aesthetic.  Regency heroes are coded masculine to our standards. Romance is one of the safe spaces for women even when the heroes themselves are unsafe.

Cross dressing – more in 18th century novels than regencies, the fashions of the time allowed this.  But at the same time, mid 18th century masculine aesthetic is problematic for current sartorial standards.  The men are dressed in flamboyant colours, frills, wigs, jewels etc, face makeup, and patches.  Whereas their Regency brothers had to conform to rigid expectations of masculinity set by Beau Brummel, which is more familiar to our contemporary standards.

Heyer’s 18th century novels provide the most space for imaginative play for crossdressing, and the fashions of the period allow the space for that play,

NOTE:  A previous discussion of cross dressing in Georgette Heyer novels can be found here.

These Old Shades:

  • Avon – beribboned, wigs, silks, powdered faces & beauty spots, high heels etc
  • Leonie – dressed as a man, expresses distress at dropping the masquerade and having to wear petticoats

Powder and Patch:

  • Not a cross dressing novel, it’s a gender swap to makeover novel
  • Easily identifiable to modern reader, coded as contemporary masculine
  • Makeover trope turn on its head to it is the man who must be made over to be worth of he woman
  • Like any rom com – he tries on new clothes, gets his hair done, puts on makeup. Must be worth of Cleonie
  • Once he is transformed, she doesn’t like it. His behaviour to her is changed, and he flirts with others etc and like typical men and Cleone realizes she wants the old Philip in place of the “painted puppy” he has become.

Devil’s Cub 

  • Callousness of ‘hero’ – murder, attempted rape
  • Only stopped because the heroine is gentry (rather than noble or working class)
  • Completely uncaring about his actions, non apologetic about duals, deaths, general bad behaviour.

[Unfortunately we ran out of time to discuss The Masqueraders, it would have been interesting to compare with the previous seminar I attended on it.]

The Eighteenth century novels contain a disruptive energy.  The turn towards the Regency novel is perhaps a turn from the discomfort with this disruption.

Victorian era – muted, genteel

Regency  – fits Anne Helen Petersen’s description of “too fat, too slutty, too loud”

Disclosure:  I worked with Steph for years when she was doing her PhD, she is fab.  We also had the same supervisor (although not at the same time). We are Sisters in Romanticism (it’s a Thing).

The Georgian novels of Georgette Heyer
Title Date of first
The Black Moth 1921
The Transformation of Philip Jettan
(later republished as Powder and Patch)
These Old Shades 1926
The Masqueraders 1928
Devil’s Cub 1932
The Convenient Marriage 1934
The Talisman Ring 1936
Faro’s Daughter 1941


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