Swordfights and petticoats from Georgette Heyer, the grande dame / mother superior of all things swashbuckling, in this week’s podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book, with The Masqueraders, from 1928.
Georgette Heyer wrote a very large number of novels. To those who haven’t read them, and simply judge them by their covers, from all their reprint phases, it might seem as if they are undifferentiated romantic slush in fancy dress. Not so! Her novels can be grouped into four kinds. There are her contemporary, realist novels published under a pseudonym: I’m not concerned with those. There are her detective novels published under her own name: again, not needed here. There are a couple of Norman and Tudor historical novels, again not relevant here. And then there are the historical novels set in the mid 1700s to early 1800s, which can be separated into subsets of those set pre- and post-French Revolution. In the former the heroes wear wigs, make-up, jewels and high heels, and in the latter, they didn’t.
The Masqueraders is one of the former, in which gentlemen of the upper classes spend as much time fussing over their appearance as women do, and spend their leisure time frivolling, playing cards, gossiping and laying bets. Where, you might ask, is the drama and excitement in that? For Heyer’s novels are undoubtedly exciting, and full of drama. These fine gentlemen also spent a great deal of time falling in love, getting into entanglements and fighting duels. The women in the novels are no less active, because the heroines of a Heyer novel are more often the leading protagonists than the men. Heyer heroines are always spirited, brave, adventurous, daring and unconventional, just the kind of girl to attract a modern readership. Heyer also makes sure that the men in high heels and wigs are also masculine enough to attract her original readers of the 1920s and 1930s. In The Masqueraders she takes this to an extreme.
In the first few pages of the novel we are introduced to a brother and sister on their way to London to meet their father. Unusually, the sister is the one in a smart coat, sword and breeches, riding the horse beside the coach in the rain, and the brother is the one in a pale blue silk gown and blonde ringlets, sitting inside the coach and waving his fan about. But this is no ordinary historical tale of cross-dressing: these siblings have very good reasons for being disguised. Robin (in the blue dress) is a former Jacobite supporter on the run, and his sister Prudence (riding in knee-breeches) has habitually dressed as a boy from childhood to preserve her virtue, living as she did in the trail of her rackety father when he was running a gaming hell, or a duelling studio, or who knows what else. To be the daughter of an adventurer also means that she has learned some interesting social skills. She is tall, and can pass as a young man easily, taking snuff with perfect style, and playing cards so cleverly as to beat the card-sharping gentleman who had hoped to fleece so young a gentleman. We also see that she can fight off three thugs with her sword, and tip wine down her coat sleeve rather than get drunk, or be detected. Prudence is cautious, and has a very cool head.
Robin, on the other hand, is a daredevil actor. He makes an undetectable girl, because he is slight and beautiful, and very, very good at managing his petticoats, flirting with his fan, arranging himself on sofas at parties for chats, and tripping across a room in the most feminine way possible. But in case we might worry that he is almost too feminine for a young man in a 1920s romantic novel (please don’t throw gender theory at me, I’m doing my best here), Heyer heroes are always heterosexual, no matter how much rouge is deployed in their performative gendered self-presentation (see?). Robin is very willing to get into breeches and top boots to act a very masculine role by rescuing the girl he is in love from a blackmailing kidnapper, and also to duel with him to the death. Prudence does not seek a duel, but when one is forced on her, she calmly accepts it, and is prepared to act the gentleman to her probable death, but another gentleman hijacks her duel by forcing one of his own on the nasty assailant instead. Reading a whole novel of this kind of thing is absolutely delightful, because Heyer was a genius at it. Once Alice and Egerton Castle and Baroness Orczy had proved that there was a market for this kind of novel, Heyer reinvented the subgenre of the historical romance for modern times. Her plots are seamless and have perfect construction. She creates unique, memorable and fascinating characters. Her historical research is legendary. She has a gift for dialogue that cries out to be performed on stage. And she is very reliable, almost predictable, in creating scenes of chaos and mayhem that are resolved by the masterful and decisive action of the hero. For Georgette Heyer is above all an upholder of the romantic tradition that decrees that men sweep women off their feet, and women must be ultimately submissive. She doesn’t make all her heroines like this, of course, but they all come to this end, no matter how sparky and active they are.
In The Masqueraders, there are two heroines; Prudence, and Letitia, whom Robin and Prudence rescue, and with whom Robin falls in love. While Prudence is brave, cautious, and daring, Letitia is a bit of a caricature, uber-feminine, with lots of sighs, whispers and dainty behaviour. She has a very vague understanding of the world, which is rather maddening, but for some reason Robin the romantic actor finds this attractive. Prudence, on the other hand, is spotted immediately for what she is by Sir Anthony, a quintessential Heyer hero, the large slow-voiced man who is also very astute, a brilliant swordsman, and quick to react effectively and masterfully to emergencies. Naturally, since Prudence is dressed as a man, and Robin as a girl, a lot of the pleasure in this novel comes from the dialogue in scenes where Sir Anthony is dancing with Robin-as-girl, or playing cards at White’s with Prudence-as-man. We aren’t quite sure that he knows what they are, or whether they suspect that he knows, but there are subtle clues in the writing to indicate that perhaps he does, making these cross-dressing episodes an exciting reading of gendered behaviour for those in the know. Heyer was, of course, fiercely conservative, in the political and social sense, and enjoyed writing fops and effeminate male characters when her hero or heroine needed a safe and amusing confidant, or, once, a nasty villain. But she would never have thought it possible to have a powerfully masculine gay or bisexual hero. I don’t think she wrote The Masqueraders like that at all, but, nowadays, you can work out some spectacular double readings of its cross-dressing scenes, even if, at the end, we are ushered firmly into traditional hetero-normative engagements.
The plot of The Masqueraders also relies on some Heyer stalwarts: the formidable and ingenious older man (in this novel Robin and Prudence’s father); the delightful, reliable and comfortable French matron married into the English aristocracy; the group of affable young men without a thought in their heads further off than the next race, card game or duel; and the walk-on parts by senior historical figures who give authority to the leading characters’ existence. The local highwaymen are very active (Letitia does seem to have a higher average than most for getting held up and robbed). The servants are mostly unnamed, apart from Robin and Prudence’s man John, who followed their father into exile as factotum. But all other servants are perceived from the aristocratic perspective, that is, they exist only to serve, they have no names, and they only achieve individuality when they do not fit that pattern. This is typical for Heyer: servants are not whom she wrote about, because their lives had no scope for dashing escapades or swashbuckling dramas. The Masqueraders is a classic Heyer for swords, wigs, brilliant plotting and charming characters.