is just discovering the joys of Heyer for the first time, and also since reading this ridiculous article
) about her, I have been pondering the merits of Heyer a lot this week. Inevitably the comparison always comes, 'But of course, she's no Jane Austen.'
It seems to me that there are two important pragmatic reasons why Heyer's writing is different from Austen's. First, Austen wrote contemporary novels while Heyer is best known for her historicals. That Heyer's historical period often coincides with Austen's lifetime does not make this point any less significant. Austen wrote her world from the inside, as she lived and breathed it, for a readership who also lived at that time and in that social circle. Heyer has to create that historical reality for herself and her readers. There is a necessary consciousness of this in her work. I'm never certain with Heyer how far her depictions of various historical settings are accurate. What matters to me as a reader is that they are internally consistent and externally plausible.
And second, Heyer wrote to earn a living. I don't know how much Jane Austen earned from her books during her lifetime, but I'm fairly sure it wasn't a lot. Certainly she did not depend on them to keep a roof over her head or food on her table. Heyer wrote to support herself and her family. She had to keep to strict deadlines and to produce books that would sell. This seems to have been increasingly the case, so that her later novels are a mixed bag indeed. She matured as a writer, producing some of her most accomplished work later in life, but she also learned the tricks of writing potboilers at speed to pay the bills. For many years she wrote one romance and one detective novel every year. Other similarly prolific authors (yes, Barbara Cartland, I'm looking at you) paid for their quantity of output by sacrificing all pretensions to quality.
And yet, given these constraints, Heyer's achievements were extraordinary. She established, practically single-handedly, the genre of Regency romance (and more widely, the genre of historical romance) and the associated vocabulary (some of which she literally invented and some of which was the fruit of her research). Her books have been continually reprinted for almost 90 years with only one (The Great Roxhythe) having fallen into complete obscurity.
She's not Jane Austen, it's true. But she is Georgette Heyer and that is no mean achievement.