Those Gorgeous Georgians

I’ve been drafting my next blog post in my head for what seems like weeks now, so I’ll try to keep it short so I don’t keep putting it off! (I have made it up with British literature, if you’re wondering. I reread North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell for the third time, after my brief dip into Chinese books.) After that, I ended up watching Ballet Shoes one night on Netflix after feeling rather down and thoroughly enjoyed it (I so wish I’d seen it or read the book by Noel Streatfeild when I was younger as it encourages girls to have ambition and to work hard to do what they love, whatever that may be and also has so many great strong female characters in it, who like a lot of different things, from dancing and acting to math and flying airplanes), which got me thinking that instead of feeling I must only ever strive to read the most difficult and punishing books so I can prove what a smart person I am, I could try to read what I love for a bit. And by that I didn’t mean the recent British comfort books I’ve discovered this past year through blogging, I meant my first book love, stories with ‘romance and adventure’ as I’ve always thought of it, or what they mostly were, historical fiction.

I got a stack of books from the library and ended up finally reading my first Georgette Heyer (The Corinthian) and there it was again: that romance and adventure. I was so teased by my brother for reading what he called ‘soppy romance novels’ when I was a teenager and later after taking advanced English in high school and then studying English in university I wanted to learn more about the classics that I often regretted ‘wasting’ my teenage reading years on these christian historical novels, when I could have been reading Austen or the Brontes or Dickens or even Dostoevsky as I’ve heard others brag of. But the thing is, much as the classics truly are great books and profoundly worth attention… I also like what I like. My experiences have shaped me and it seems foolish to ignore that, to deny myself the type of books and reading experiences I still yearn for (and the kind of books I’ve always secretly wanted to write, which is historical fiction, with romance and adventure!). I’m tired of the elitism which seems to go on, where ‘thinking women’s fiction’ is judged better than ‘feeling and emotional women’s fiction’ — why do women put other women down at all? This was the only problem I had with the Heyer novel, the heroine who’s particularly boyish puts down a more girly romantic character. Is this necessary in books or real life? Why is acting more like the male stereotype, being less emotional and focusing more on the intellect, automatically better? Why is it I’ve always felt ashamed of being romantic and emotional and tried to hide it behind proving I was smarter than the boys (not that difficult since smart boys are often just giant nerds who like having fun and don’t feel bad about it, much more difficult are all the other girls trying to seriously prove themselves too)? Why not feel ok reading both types of books (if that is one’s inclination), blending thought and emotion, and not like I have to justify myself like this?

Georgiana, with her crazy fashion hat

Anyways, past all that, I discovered something. The Regency era, which I’d previously viewed with some distaste due to all those crazy Jane Austen fans (so not like me, I’d tell myself, since I like her for her great writing not just the romance and the spin-offs and movies!), was actually quite fun to read about. There was lots of wit and humour in Heyer, which is also one of the things I like most about Jane Austen and there was an emphasis on fancy clothes, which I’ve realized I have a weakness for in books. I also thought the 18th century might be worth checking out, since I’ve always thought Jane Austen was most a product of the rationalism and satire of that time and not of the romanticism of the early 19th century. I ended up reading the biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (which the movie The Duchess was based on) and now I really want to learn more about the 18th century. The Georgians are a bit crazy and many of them gambled horribly (Georgiana was never able to clear all her debts in her lifetime or to fully stop gambling for decades, if ever), but they’re just more interesting and colourful to me than the Victorians. Their clothes are prettier! I may have found something I like for myself and not just because others like it. My interests in Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette and the age of sail all collide at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th in a way I hadn’t considered before.

So I’ll see what comes of this but hopefully I can finally settle down with a time period long enough to be able to research and write about it. The interesting thing about Georgiana’s biography was how much the movie had made her life only about sex (cold Ralph Fiennes of a husband scares her in bed, she meets sad friend who then sleeps with cold husband, but cold husband must produce an heir and then she finds true love Dominic Cooper only to have to…) when really, she was a remarkable woman in so many other ways, mostly for her involvement in the Whig (liberal) party politics. She kept the party together by hosting many meetings at her house and through close friendships with different leaders when male rivalry and ambition threatened to destroy it. Not only did she set fashions for decades, but she used her popularity for what she believed in, canvassing strenuously for the Whig leader, Charles Fox and as Foreman says, “should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity of public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda.” She was a very close friend of the Prince of Wales and often tried to keep him from doing anything too stupid. She was also a writer who published an anonymous novel as well as some popular poetry and songs and she even experimented in chemistry and mineralogy later in life. She also lived in Europe for a year or so during the French Revolution (while giving birth to an illegitimate child), not an easy feat!

I’ve now jumped into Fanny Burney’s Evelina and understanding the time period more (it’s an epistolary novel and as Georgiana herself wrote hundreds or thousands of letters to many friends which are quoted throughout the biography, it becomes easy to see the popularity of that form for many early novels then — with no phones or telegraphs the communication between friends seems to be much richer for all the letters written — could blogging now be a way to recapture that?) finally helps me to get past the first few slightly dull pages to what inspired Jane Austen herself.

13 thoughts on “Those Gorgeous Georgians

  1. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    Come and join our Georgian weekend at Raehills next June! It will include: Georgian menus – food and drink; visits to Georgian houses nearby (apart from Raehills itself); maybe meet the present Earl of Sandwich whose Georgian forebear invented the snack so he did not have to leave his gambling table for the dinner table; and in the year of the Olympics in GB we will also be celebrating the Georgian input into sport eg boxing (the Queensberry Rules) – the Queensberry family also have a house near by. Hope to see you then!

    • Elizabeth Roberts says:

      Also, curiously my French teacher at school knew Georgette Heyer – I think they had been contemporaries at Cambridge. the Georgian 4 day event at Raehills is in June 2012 by the way so no need to panic.

  2. Penny says:

    I ‘wasted’ my teenage years on Georgette Heyer and other historical novelists and don’t regret it a bit! In fact, while home-edicating the offspring, as well as introducing them to the classics, I also read GH, PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie aloud to them. As you say, we need a balance of the great and the good and light, comfort reading. (I’m paraphrasing…)

    Georgiana sounds fascinating, but as I already have ‘Evelina’ (free book) on my Kindle, I’ll start with that. Thank you for the spur to get me going on it! I agree, too, that Georgian fashions were much prettier than Victorian.

    The wit and humour in GH and JA are so important, aren’t they? But I’d rather thave known JA as a personal friend than GH! đŸ™‚

  3. litlove says:

    What an interesting post – as much for the shifting definitions of yourself as for the historical reading. It’s always intriguing to me to see how we rebound off notions of what we should/shouldn’t enjoy or be curious about, and how we return to those definitions in later life and often (on good days) try to make them kinder to ourselves, more in keeping with profound feeling than the need to present a coherent facade. It sounds like you have found yourself a project that will provide much pleasure and illumination in the coming months.

  4. Darlene says:

    It is every bit as important to feed your soul as well as your mind so absolutely, go where the flow takes you. I am sure you are aware of Amanda Vickery’s, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England but just in case…there you go. It’s delicious!

    And Foreman’s bio on Georgiana was a non-fiction pageturner, the very best kind.

  5. Tracy says:

    Actually, the Victorians were so straight-laced because they (or really, Prince Alfred) backlashed at the debauchery of the Regency era. I think. It’s not quite as linear an explanation as that, but if you’re interested at the relationship between the two eras, a good book to read is “We Two.” It’s about Victoria and Albert, but it helps explain the milieu they came from (the Regency era) and the one they created.

  6. Audrey says:

    I read Georgette Heyer for the first time this past summer and was smitten, for all the reasons you mention…and I just saw Ballet Shoes (the film) too! I never knew about those books either!

  7. Christina says:

    I love Georgette Heyer, and I’m so excited that you have recently discovered her! I definitely recommend any of her romances…some work for me more than others, but they’re all delightful!

    I also agree with your comment about reading what you like. Yes, sometimes it’s good to read books that “aren’t your type of book,” just to expand your horizons and learn about different things. But at bottom, reading is supposed to be fun!

  8. Claire - The Captive Reader says:

    Oh, where to start with my love for all the things you discuss in the post. Georgette Heyer? You know my feelings about her and I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed your first encounter with her! As a teenager, I was an incredibly snobbish reader and stayed far, far away from all of her novels. But then one summer I visited my grandmother and the books were there and…the rest is history. I have always adored historical fiction and Heyer does it incredibly well, infusing her stories with as much detail of the era as comedy and romance.

    While I can’t admit to being hugely interested in the earliest part of the Georgian era, I do adore the last fifty or so years of it. The politics, the scandals, the fashions, even the architecture – what could be better? I could do with the emergence of the Romantic poets though; they just led to sappy Victorians and a disturbing obsession with nature.

    If you’re interested in the Georgians, and I know you’re interested in women’s roles, I think you might really enjoy Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England.

    Looking forward to hearing more about Evelina! I love the epistolary format but have to admit that I’ve never read this classic (though it remains high on my TBR list).

  9. Monica says:

    There is a lot of elitism in the booklover’s world. Truly awful. I’m a literary reader, Proust, etc – I love my brain made to work and to think about the world and humanity. I also adore Georgette Heyer. Reading to me is an opener to the world, but it’s also entertainment.
    I don’t care if someone is reading romance, crime, comics or Dostoevsky – they’re reading!

  10. Nicola says:

    Took me a while to work out where to post a comment!! I liked your bookish reflections. I’m a great believer in following your own reading path wherever it may take you, which is why I don’t do challenges, memes, online reading groups etc etc. Never read Heyer, but I’d like to try her.

  11. Chelsea says:

    I’m in line to agree with Nicola, that following your reading path is the best way to be comfortable with your life as a reader – at least, it is for me! I know that when I try to make myself read books because they’re “better” for me (or even, on the flip side, “relaxing” to my frequently-frazzled mind), the more I don’t finish those books because they’re not what I’m in the mood for!

    I have to make a very non-bookish confession to make – I’m not a huge fan of Jane Austen! While I’m all for satire, I either never got it or never found it all that humorous in the books of her that I read. But, having read your review, I’m tempted to think that maybe I just don’t know about the era enough! I’m off to look in to both Georgiana and Georgette Heyer, and thank you so much for the suggestions/great review!

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