It’s Heyer week here at Romancing the Gothic! In film club we’ll be watching the 1950 film version of The Reluctant Widow. In book club, we’re reading The Quiet Gentleman (1951). On Saturday the class is ‘Rethinking the Gothic Romance: Georgette Heyer’. I’m aware that two quite disparate groups of people are interested in this week’s content and both groups might have their suspicions about exactly what Heyer and the Gothic have to say to each other.
One thing is clear; with the possible exception of Cousin Kate (1968), Heyer was not a writer of ‘Gothics’. By ‘Gothics’, of course, I refer to the publishing sub-genre of Popular Romance associated with writers like Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Michaels and Joan Aiken whose covers have become famous for their women with perfect hair fleeing assorted houses and castles.
If you’re interested in the diversity of that publishing sub-genre, how it developed over time and how it doesn’t conform to the simple formula it often gets tied to (woman + aristocratic overbearing man + hidden secrets + scary house) – check out Lori A. Paige’s The Gothic Romance Wave (2018). My aim today though isn’t to enter into a detailed discussion of the ‘Gothic Romance’ in this sense but rather to explore how Heyer and the Gothic are connected in ways which don’t fit within this sub-genre.
The Gothics above, of course, owe a great deal to the Victorian Gothic, and particularly to Jane Eyre (1847), in terms of aesthetic, plotting and thematic concerns. However, this was neither the first nor the last form of the Gothic and is not the form that Heyer was most interested in. In keeping with Heyer’s interest more generally in the Regency period and the late 18th and early 19th centuries, her work is far more influenced by the early British Gothic rather than the Victorian evolution of the Gothic. (You can find a potted history of the Gothic here.) Heyer frequently references writers of this period including Mrs. Radclyffe (sic), Monk Lewis, Robert Southey, Charlotte Smith, Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve. She also frequently incorporates elements from these early Gothic texts – kidnaps, attempted usurpations, family secrets, pursued flights across Europe, desperate self-defence – within her narratives.
Her works are, by and large, not, of course, works of fear and terror or productive of much in the way of horrified shudders. They do, however, often incorporate and utilise Gothic elements, show an awareness of and engagement with Gothic texts from that early British Gothic period and often function as Austenesque parodies of the Gothic; Gothic excess is rejected but a Gothic world remains uncovered beneath, as we find in Northanger Abbey (1817). Catherine Morland’s wild theories about the nature of the crime that has taken place in Northanger Abbey are shown to be false but her ‘Gothic lens’ has helped her to see a more everyday but equally Gothic and horrifying reality – the General’s true character as an avatar of patriarchal oppression in the most literal sense: a cruel husband, a tyrannical father, an immoral cash-grabbing man who is more than happy to throw a girl out of his house in the middle of the night for someone else’s lies. Similar realities often lie below the light-hearted surface of Heyer’s novels: realities she lets us glimpse before taking us back to our happy ending.
I’ll be discussing this more in the class but let me for now leave you with a little potted guide to some of Heyer’s most Gothic works across a range of the genres she worked in. Enjoy reading and do report back!
1.) Footsteps in the Dark (1932)
Footsteps in the Dark was Heyer’s first detective novel. It’s also the most clearly Gothic. A lot of her earliest work bears the hallmarks of Gothic influence more overtly than her later books. This is the tale of a group of bright young things (and an aunt) who move to a Priory which, according to local lore, is haunted by a mysterious figure called ‘The Monk’. At times, it functions as a somewhat heavy-handed Gothic parody with a seance interrupted by a bumbling policeman rather than the dead; the aunt’s reaction to a skeleton found in a priest’s hole being a great deal of disinfectant; and a quest for biscuits (rather than a curious search for truth) resulting in a nerve-wracking encounter with the monk himself. Having said that though, there are touches of genuine horror: murder, entrapment, a house invaded again and again by a mysterious presence…
It is essentially a detective novel in the ‘explained supernatural’ style – with the ghostly presence of a monstrous monk found to have quite natural explanations. It borrows and plays with Gothic tropes and techniques, mixing comedy, suspense and occasionally understated horror.
2.) Penhallow (1943)
Penhallow is often classed among Heyer’s detectives but it’s something of a misnomer. The murder doesn’t happen until almost two thirds of the way through the book, we’re always aware of the killer and nobody gets caught. Jennifer Kloester explores in her Biography of a Bestseller (2011) Heyer’s own understanding and labelling of the text as as ‘a problem of psychology’, ‘a family saga’ and a ‘murder-story’ combined. She also notes Heyer’s later question to herself: ‘Why on earth did I have to write this disturbing book?’
Penhallow is a bleak novel and reads as a Gothic tale of claustrophobic entrapment, family secrets, the unrelenting power of a family tyrant, a descent into madness and a solution to the problem which is no solution at all. It is also a work which builds on the intertextual legacy of Daphne Du Maurier in its depiction of Cornwall. Sites such as Dozmary Pool become Gothic palimpsets: legends of demonic pacts, overwritten by Du Maurier’s rendering of the otherworldly horror of Dozmary Pool in Jamaica Inn and once more overwritten by Heyer’s depiction of the pool as the site of a lonely suicide. Other borrowings and interactions with Du Maurier include an echoing of Rebecca (1938) in the motif of a painting of a former wife that dominates the home. But, in a move even bleaker than Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Heyer makes it clear that the house has never had any other master than Adam Penhallow despite his first wife’s strong personality. It also offers a bleaker understanding of that husband’s second marriage: the ingenue second wife cannot save him but only become a second victim of his pride, avarice and abuse.
It’s one of Heyer’s darkest tales and it’s not for everyone. My recommendation is not to go in expecting a detective story because you won’t get one. What you will get is a devastating study of a family on the cusp of self-destruction and one of the bleakest Gothic worlds in Heyer’s fiction.
3.) ‘Night at the Inn’ (1950)
‘Night at the Inn’ is one of Heyer’s short stories and was originally published in 1950 in John Bull and was later included in the collection Pistols for Two published in 1960. You can find a two part version to listen to online.
This story is a seemingly strange mix of light-hearted meet-cute romance with a tale of robbery, murder and potential cannibalism. An obvious antecedent is, of course, the story of Sweeney Todd but it also owes a great deal to the tales of robber bands and unsafe inns in early Gothic texts like The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796). Like Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, the protagonist John can not believe that such Gothic things could occur in the present day: he ‘imagined that they belonged to an age long past’. In a much more literal way than Henry Tilney, he’s quite wrong. The most Gothic of events are indeed happening in the inn – villainy is not just alive and well but there’s a thin line between the good and the bad and an abyss which yawns at our feet. After all, the only person who comes close to killing him is the detective who strangles him into silence to ‘save’ him. The horrifying implications of the story are barely contained by the traditional closed ending.
4) Cousin Kate (1968)
Cousin Kate is the novel that leaps to mind when you ask any Heyer reader which of Heyer’s romances are Gothic. It is definitely the one that fits in most clearly with a stereotypical conception of a ‘Gothic’. There’s a young woman (Kate Malvern) who just so happens to be an orphan. She is invited by her imperious aunt Minerva to a house in the country where she meets the dark and mysterious Torquil… There’s a big secret, a hidden danger, madness, cruelty, animal torture, murder and suicide.
It’s never been a favourite of mine, in part because of the depiction of a ‘generic madness’ which is sensational rather than an attempt to meaningfully engage with the effects of psychological trauma and the realities of mental health conditions. However, I’ve always found it interesting as an attempt at rewriting the Jane Eyre narrative.
If we read Cousin Kate as ‘just another Jane Eyre story’, I think we’re missing the point. Heyer constructs the tale to produce an echoing and rebuttal of some aspects of the Jane Eyre narrative. The domineering yet attractive master of the house has become an equally domineering but unequivocally vilified matriarch, who one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters tells us ‘deserved to be strangled’. The madwoman in the attic has become a young son described (despite his murderous actions) as a ‘poor, unhappy boy’. The changeable master of the house has become a mentally unwell youth whose erratic behaviour is not a source of attraction but a cause of worry and concern. The domineering romantic hero has been replaced with the supportive Phillip whose lower social status, kindness and practicality make him a sort of anti-Rochester.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that these changes are problematic in terms of the gender swaps and particularly the vilification of a female figure when she takes the place of the domineering master of the house (whose right to imprison mad people in his attic was unquestioned). Likewise, the villified figure of Bertha in Jane Eyre is redeemed in her masculine counterpart in Torquil. However, I think what we arguably find as well is an attempt to dismantle the assumptions of Jane Eyre – to highlight the monstrosity of the Rochester figure and to offer heroic alternatives. This, for me, is one reason that we find a female figure in the role of Rochester as prison keeper – so that there is no confusing or misplaced attraction to the dark master of the house. Our alternative is Philip who is hardly a dark hero – he’s just sort of there: dependable, patient, lovingly attentive to his elderly relative, intelligent, quick to laugh, supportive, ‘warm and appreciative,’sensible, ‘deeply reticent,’ and prosaically practical.
A side note here – there’s a lot of discussion in the Heyer community about Heyer’s Mark I (Rochester/Heathcliff) and Mark II (Darcy) heroes but they’re classifications which simply don’t cover the entire body of her work. Can we please stop using a single quotation from midway through her career (featuring a typical moment of self-deprecation as regards her romance writing) to try and define all her heroes. She speaks herself about a ‘new kind of hero’ in relation to Sylvester (1957) and Celeste Warner has explored at some length the way her heroes diversify particularly in her later work. Rant over. If we try and fit Philip into a Mark 1 or Mark 2 category, we miss his actual function in this text – he is the antithesis of the Gothic dark hero inherited from Jane Eyre and so very popular in the Gothics and offers an alternative model of heroism – the ‘quiet hero’.
Cousin Kate offers a seemingly formulaic ‘Gothic Romance’ narrative which deliberately unpicks some of the tropes associated with the genre. I’m not going to say whether I think it was successful or not but if you like a book which includes a tiny little middle finger to Rochester alongside some terror in the night and a soft romance, it might be for you.
5.) The Black Moth (1921)
The Black Moth was Heyer’s first novel and written when she was just 19. It bears some familial resemblance to the adventure narratives of writers like Baroness Orczy but is also the most clearly Gothic of her earliest romances. It’s not the sort of Gothic you find in the Gothics though, based on that 19th century Jane Eyre paradigm. Rather, it’s a return to the 18th century Gothic. It always reminds me just a little of A Romance of the Forest (1792) by Ann Radcliffe in its opening tale of kidnap although it doesn’t stick to a single Gothic plot. Rather Heyer engages with various Gothic narrative tropes and plots throughout the story to create a rollicking adventure.
So what’s so Gothic about it? It doesn’t have the brooding sense of overwhelming dread which you expect from a ‘Gothic’ but then neither do the 18th century novels of writers like Radcliffe, Regina Marie Roche, Charlotte Smith, Eleanor Sleath, T. J. Horsley Curties and Eliza Parsons. In these texts, the heroine isn’t just entrapped in mysterious houses trying to work out their secrets – she’s often fleeing across the United Kingdom or Europe to avoid persecution, engaged in long running and fraught love-stories sometimes with seemingly inappropriate men (based on social status rather than murderous potential) and solving long-standing injustices. This novel’s tales of kidnap, the threat of rape, a plucky heroine, a history of deception and usurpation are the bread and butter of the early British Gothic novel. The tale of a fearless robber hero who is inherently noble and has been undone by circumstance was another popular trope in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s perhaps most well known from Byronic works like The Corsair (1814) but was more widely popular in both Gothic and Romantic literature due to the influence of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robber (1781) and its tale of a noble outlaw.
Most Gothic of all, perhaps, is the novel’s villain – the Duke of Andover. As charismatic and perversely attractive as the Montonis and Schedonis of early Gothic fiction, he is a Marquis de Montalt reborn. De Montalt is the villain of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest – a sybaritic sophist who spends the novel kidnapping and attempting to ‘seduce’ his neice and usurping the inheritance of his brother by clever manipulation and murder. Andover spends the novels attempting to kidnap and force the heroine into a sexual relationship. He is also implicated in a scheme of usurpation (of a sort). He’s also quite clearly an immoral and devious hedonist. Interestingly, this particular character echoes the path of the Gothic villain through time in miniature. The charismatic villain of the early Gothic novel became the Byronic anti-hero who became the dark hero of romance. Similarly, the Duke of Andover, rewritten but hardly reimagined, became the anti-hero or dark hero of one of Heyer’s most famous novels…
6) These Old Shades (1926)
These Old Shades isn’t exactly a sequel to The Black Moth but the former novel’s charismatic villain gains a new name, the Duke of Avon, and becomes the anti-hero of the piece. In the back streets of Paris, he finds a young ‘boy’ (Leon) who is really a young girl (Leonie) and upon recognising in her the traits of a family he has longed despised he begins a journey of cruel and long-awaited revenge…
The novel is a love story. It combines humour with a budding romance and a mystery. It is undeniable though that the novel also borrows from the Gothic in terms of its settings (a decadent Paris reminiscent of some of the late 19th century Gothic depictions of London), its themes of usurpation and revenge and its refusal to make its hero any more than one step removed from a Gothic villain. I mean, his nickname’s ‘Satanas’ and it’s not just for show. ‘I come of vicious stock, and I have brought no honour to the name I bear. Do you know what men call me? I earned that nickname, child; I have even been proud of it. To no women have I been faithful, behind me lies scandal upon sordid scandal.’ The novel sees him relentlessly pursue and destroy a man for an earlier slight although as his affection for Leonie grows, significant fuel is added to the fire by his desire to punish the wrongs done to her. It all ends with him cold-bloodedly forcing a public suicide. His heroine doesn’t ‘save’ him (although she does introduce love into his life) but is supportive of his brutality with a distinct chip on her shoulder about missing out on the murder of the ‘pig person’ who is, incidentally, her own father.
A great read especially if you don’t mind your heroines a little bit murderous and your heroes on the cusp of full-out villainy!
7) The Devil’s Cub (1932)
I’m including Devil’s Cub here because it’s really the end of this little trilogy and we see another evolution in the ‘dark hero’. Vidal is the Duke of Avon and Leonie’s son and he’s just as wild as his two parents. The Duke of Avon remains and appears in this text as a ‘sinister person’ who’s almost omniscient and has a veritable knack for turning up just where you probably don’t want him to be. In contrast, Vidal is a more petulant, amoral (he does start the novel by calmly shooting down and abandoning the body of a highwayman) and youthful version of the dark hero. He’s also one who ‘just needs a good woman’ to calm him down (I’m doubtful honestly).
The novel itself is significantly less dark than These Old Shades with a great deal more humour and a generous dollop of parody. A lot of the parody is tied to the presentation of the heroine Mary Challoner who is nothing if not practical. Faced with the eminent possibility of sexual assault she follows through on her threat to shoot, making it one of the few narratives where a hero actually gets his comeuppance for his creepy non-con. Being kidnapped and carried across France fails to put her off her appetite and she more often than not takes charge of arrangements. She refuses to see Vidal as he sees himself and instead cossets the inner child and orders him about when he’s recovering from the aforementioned shooting. She couldn’t be more removed from a heroine of sensibility if she tried. Her foil is the much more typically Gothic heroine Juliana who faints and protests and swoons and talks a great deal about romance and strong emotions. When Juliana gets a tiny taste of what Mary’s been through, she realises that it’s not the stuff of the Gothic romance books she’s been reading. We, in turn, suddenly get an insight into how very stoic Mary Challoner’s been in the midst of a very Gothic world. Mary Challoner might not be the sort of Gothic heroine we expect from a Gothic novel of the early British Gothic (a mix of virtue, curiosity, emotion and fainting) but she is just the sort of heroine to survive one.
8) The Quiet Gentleman (1951)
The Quiet Gentleman is perhaps the best example among Heyer’s work of the Austenesque Gothic parody. It focuses, in a somewhat unusual move for a romance of the period, on the hero’s perspective. Gervase, Earl of St Erth, returns from war and a virtual exile from his family home (based on the family’s disapproval of his mother’s actions) to take up the family seat after the death of his father and finds himself in the middle of an attempt to take his life.
The text is light-hearted and mixes romance, a fascinating ensemble cast, character study, humour and an underlying mystery. As with Northanger Abbey, we find a fairly bleak Gothic world though hiding underneath this lighter reality. It’s a reality that has to be confronted by the text – betrayal, murder, a hunger for inheritance, cold-hearted villany, alienation, family secrets – but one which does not dominate the tone of the novel.
The novel engages parodically with a number of Gothic elements, each of which points to an underlying truth. The house is a warren in the Gothic style, the confusion of its layout and proliferation of passages produces comic excess – but also points to the underlying truth of an unsafe domestic space, haunted by the errors of the past and stalked by a murderous presence. The heroine, Drusilla, like Mary in Devil’s Cub is a seemingly anti-Gothic heroine type of heroine – incurably prosaic and more likely to interpret a ghost as someone in a nightgown than engage in metaphysical speculation about the nature of the undead. She too has her foil, Marianne, who is a more typically Gothic heroine who delights in the idea of ghosts but who can survive very little in the way of Gothic reality. In a fairly direct bit of intertextual referencing, Drusilla also goes through her own version of the Jane Eyre scene in which Jane compares herself to Blanche. Drusilla compares herself to the sort of heroine she could or should have been but realises that perhaps her own lack of swooning, steady hand and knowledge of first aid might just have been a bit more helpful (if less attractive) than the standard alternative of fainting at the sight of your beloved bleeding on the ground.
It’s one of my favourites … which is exactly why we’re doing for book group this week!
9) The Reluctant Widow (1946)
The Reluctant Widow is one of the books that most frequently comes up when you ask Heyer fans about Heyer and the Gothic. It is also the only novel to have an English-language film adaptation (however divergent from the book!) and, as you can see from the cover above, was partially marketed to appeal to the readers of Gothics.
Like almost all of Heyer’s novels (with the exception of texts like Penhallow and some of her historicals) the tone is predominantly comic. There’s a combative central romance, a heroine who has little time for the Gothic shenanigans that beset her house and a great deal of witty banter. However, many of the central thematic elements, aesthetic notes and plots points are as Gothic as the most Gothic of Gothic novels.
It’s a tale of a house riddled with secret passageways prowled by murderers and traitors. It’s an unsafe domestic space beset by secrets which a heroine has to navigate and survive. There’s even a shadow of usurpation in the background (a usurpation which is, mind you, only in the head of the soon to be deceased Eustace). The scope of the story reaches beyond the house and into the world of international espionage reflecting one of the early Gothic’s concerns and thematic key notes – French invasion or influence during and after the period of the Revolution. It also has a fabulously insouciant villain or villain adjacent figure in Francis Cheviot. It’s worth reading it just for him.
10) The Toll Gate (1954)
The Toll Gate is a good example of what we find in a number of Heyer’s novels – a Gothic subplot often focused on a mystery or crime. Heyer uses a number of Gothic tropes in the construction of the subplot creating an undercurrent of fear or even horror which can often take the reader by surprise. In the case of The Toll Gate the story is one of robbery and murder. John Staples descent in an ill-lit cavern and the graphically described discovery of a dead man buried in one of the twisting pathways as well as the final confusing confrontations in the cave system make ample use of Gothic atmosphere to build tension and send a frisson of horror down everyone’s backs!
Other novels which have similarly Gothically influenced subplots are the smuggling story in The Unknown Ajax (1959); the tale of robbery and murder in The Corinthian (1940); the kidnap narrative in Regency Buck (1935); and the tale of usurpation and murder in The Talisman Ring (1936).
Pick any of them up for a satisfying romantic read with just a little hint of the Gothic for flavour. I hope you enjoy your reading adventures!