Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances are always a fun way to fill in a couple of hours, but I am a fan also of her historical fiction of which this is one. Geology daughter is also a fan and a collector although I didn’t realise quite how many she had until she installed a new bookcase all along one wall in her new house and began unpacking boxes which hadn’t seen light of day for 2 or 3 previous moves. My late father may also have been a fan as he used to buy them for my mother, which is how I got started. In any case, the flyleaf of this now 85 year old edition contains both his name, and in his writing, my daughter’s. And between the leaves Dad has left a cutting from The Age of 5 Jan. 1985 of a review by Paul de Serville of The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge (Bodley Head; $24.95).
Georgette Heyer (1902-1974)wrote her first book in 1919, a Georgian-era romance The Black Moth, “to amuse a sick brother”. I’m not sure how much research she had done at age 17 or 18, but she subsequently “built up a library of 1000 reference works, and filled books with sketches, lists, vocabulary and expressions, and general historical notes.”
The Great Roxhythe might be her fifth. The publisher, Wm Heinemann, lists four others “by the same author” and gives a first printed date of 1929. Wikipedia and other internet sources have the publication date as 1923, and there are some suggestions that it was not republished ‘in her lifetime’ although the cover illustration below is ‘from the 1935 edition’. Arguments for another day!
The subject of the book is the negotiations between Charles II and his cousin Louis XIV of France for which the (fictitious) Marquis of Roxhythe is the main intermediary. The other principal characters are James, Charles’ brother and heir (later James II of England), and their nephew, William of Orange who marries James’ 15 yo daughter Mary during the course of the book. All very incestuous. Someone has helpfully sketched a Stuart family tree (below) at the back of the book. Charles wishes to receive a secret ‘pension’ from his much wealthier cousin in return for allowing the resumption of Catholicism in England and for persuading Parliament to support the French against the Dutch.
As my daughter says, a great deal of the book involves old men talking a lot. However, Heyer uses another fictitious character, Christopher Dart, a young, high principled man whom the unscrupulous Roxhythe persuades to be his secretary, to carry forward the action. And there are some women, although they are not so important as in Heyer’s later works: Roxhythe’s cousin and best friend Lady Fanny who sponsors Christopher, Charles’ sister Henrietta who is married to Louis’ brother and is Roxhythe’s main intermediary in Paris, and the silly, recently married Lady Crewe who falls in love with Roxhythe.
We argue sometimes about the sensibilities of the author’s times being superimposed onto the period being discussed in historical fiction, and it is difficult to assess how much this happens with Heyer. She is clearly Royalist, the de Serville piece describes her as “a shy, conventional, formidable woman; hard-working and lonely, retreating behind a carapace of conservatism.” The much more popular An Infamous Army (1937), despite the inevitable intrigues and romances, contains clear and accurate descriptions of Wellington’s army and the Battle of Waterloo, and this novel too seems to carry a great deal of factual material, although with some prejudice against the recently deposed Puritans, and more generally, against Parliament.
But Heyer is also clearly critical of King Charles. She uses Christopher’s choices – Christopher is eventually unable to work for Roxhythe, whom he loves as deeply as Roxhythe loves his king – to highlight Charles’ dishonesty and immorality, his ruthlessness in having men killed to prevent his ambitions being impeded; and contrasts Charles unfavourably with the austere William of Orange.
In the end I found The Great Roxhythe both entertaining and informative – I always wondered how the ‘Dutch’ William and Mary came to rule England and now I know. Unless you were particularly attentive in school, you will need your smartphone set to Google, but that is probably true for all historical fiction.
There is one very odd feature about the writing in this novel, and that is that to indicate the possessive Heyer uses his and their instead of ‘s and s’. So, for example, she writes “the King his crown” instead of “the King’s crown” and “Halifax and Essex their supporters” instead of “Halifax and Essex’s supporters” and this usage continues throughout despite the fact she sometimes, infrequently – and as far as I can see, unpredictably – reverts to the conventional usage as in “I beg His Majesty’s pardon”. I can find nothing about this usage on the net except for one user generated comment: “Hook (1999) maintains, however, that the apostrophe is a “mere printer’s gimmick, doubtless born of the mistaken notion that the genitive ending was a contraction of his””.
Given that the events Heyer is recreating occurred in the 1670’s, I thought to check Samuel Pepys, but he uses ‘s in the conventional way, so for 3rd Jan 1659-60 (another subject altogether, but the start of the year was in the process of being moved from March back to Jan 1.) he writes, “I went out in the morning, it being a great frost, and walked to Mrs Turner’s to stop her from coming to see me today because of Mrs Jem’s coming …”. So I have no explanation for Heyer’s usage except maybe that she mistakenly thought it was archaic.
Heyer’s books listed here