It is a truth universally acknowledged — at least among romance readers — that whenever someone brings up the Regency romance, the sentence that follows must inevitably mention Jane Austen. To the average book reader, Austen is among the most well-known writers of this frothy genre, so named because it explores the passions and privileges of British aristocrats during the short but heady period between 1811 and 1820, when the country was run by the indolent prince regent, the soon-to-be George IV.
But if there’s a single mistaken apprehension about Jane Austen, it’s this: Her books aren’t romance novels at all — at least not what modern readers think of as historical romance.
It’s not that there was no romance in Austen’s books — you know she thought Darcy was a dish — but it was always a subordinate theme to Austen’s many other social concerns. She was a wryly observant comedian first, and a romantic second, and this is part of what has made her novels so popular with Hollywood. She has been one of the most frequently adapted novelists of the modern era, with only six completed books to her name.
Austen’s relative lack of sentiment also helped her gain popularity and respect as a writer in a male-dominated century of literature. While other women writers of her time like Fanny Burney were reviled as trashy, Austen’s lack of interest in high drama and romance made her work acceptable to male readers as well as to women. One 19th-century critic wrote approvingly that “she sets her face zealously against romantic attachments.”
That patriarchal lack of respect for the art of writing about love may also explain why few outside of romance fans have ever heard of Austen’s primary successor: Georgette Heyer. Despite singlehandedly creating the modern romance, Heyer is still a niche author. And though she has nearly 10 times as many books available for cinematic adaptation as Austen, Hollywood has yet to discover her.
In terms of form and impact, we might think of Georgette Heyer (pronounced “Zheorgette Hay-er”) as the Agatha Christie of romance novels. Like Christie, Heyer was British and hailed from an upper-middle-class family. Like Christie, her sprawling career spanned the 20th century, from the 1920s to the ’70s; Heyer’s first novel, The Black Moth, was published in 1921, just a year after Christie’s famous first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Like Christie, Heyer was extremely prolific; by the time she died in 1974, she had published 56 novels, most of them historical romances. Heyer also similarly transformed the genre she wrote in: She essentially invented, all by herself, what we now think of as the “Regency romance” subgenre of romance novels, which also happens to be the backbone upon which all other romances are built.
Yet while Christie is usually heralded as one of the 20th century’s cleverest writers, Heyer, despite being a wildly popular romance author, has somehow managed to fly just under the mainstream radar without the same level of popular and critical recognition. That speaks, perhaps, to how often she’s been lumped together with more tawdry writers simply because of her chosen genre. Heyer satisfied the many eager writers and readers who wanted a bit more emphasis on the heated passions that Austen tastefully avoided, and that left her open to critical dismissal.
The general perception of her books as a kind of pap gets affirmed, however lovingly, in the recent Folio edition of Heyer’s novel Venetia, which features a rather delightful introduction from actor and humorist Stephen Fry. Fry points to “the absolutely appalling” (in fact, perfectly banal) cover art that has “defaced” Heyer’s books, and Folio swoops to the rescue. You might never know this new edition of Venetia holds romance within, save its suspiciously curly serif font. Here there are no well-dressed people standing around artfully, as one must, in sprig muslin and petticoats. Folio’s marketing position is that Heyer, long languishing in the romance section, must be elevated out of it.
Venetia, however, is one of Heyer’s more famously flirty novels; the instant chemistry between the titular heroine and her wastrel suitor Damarel creates a fiery, on-again/off-again courtship, as the two of them maneuver their respective social positions in order to find a way to be together.
At this point, you might ask: Couldn’t that also be a general description of Pride and Prejudice? Wasn’t Jane Austen writing all the tropes that we still find in the historical romance genre today?
It’s true that Heyer largely drew on many of Austen’s primary concerns: marriages as crucial social maneuvers, scandalous elopements, ballroom tensions, and all that. But Austen’s gift is for universality rather than specificity; Austen looked into the characters of people around her, in her own time, and satirized them so well that they can be transported into any time period and still feel familiar. This is why the modern film industry has been able to transmogrify her characters into hapless singletons, Mormons, star-crossed globetrotters in a Bollywood musical, and much more.
Heyer, however, was all about specificity. She wrote novels that relied on deep, meticulous archival research, painstaking recreation, and methodical poring through contemporary records of the era. She was such an ingenious historical researcher, in fact, that she counted members of the military among her fans. Her writing about the battle of Waterloo, a subject she repeatedly returned to, was so detailed and compelling that she was reportedly invited to lecture on the topic at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where her book An Infamous Army spent many years on the student reading list.
When she wasn’t writing about military battles, Heyer fixated on replicating the aesthetic, the fashion, and the casual slang and turns of phrase peculiar to the early 19th century. It was an odd moment in time, when the idle British aristocracy, distanced from war and not yet made obsolete by industry, had the run of the place. “Prinny,” as the prince regent was nicknamed, had a reputation for caring more about high society than running the country, and the Regency period likewise borrowed his reputation: It was the peak era for frivolous aristocrats, motivated primarily by vanity and boredom.
Into this malaise Heyer injected a sense of bold fun and fanciful adventure: Her characters do the whole “exchanging icy barbs in the ballroom” thing, sure; but they also get into fisticuffs, disguise themselves and run away from home, battle highway robbers, go on hot air balloon rides, rescue dogs, break up smuggling rings, race curricles, gamble, box, dance, swordfight, ride horses, and, of course, fall in love. They do it all dressed to the nines, naturally, with Heyer carefully delineating the nuanced class hierarchies of the haut ton, the upper reaches of British society (but in French so it sounds even haughtier). Heyer carefully builds a world where understanding what made someone, for example, either a macaroni or a very Pink was necessary social intelligence that could make or break a debutante’s London season.
If you’re a romance fan, this probably all sounds familiar to you — but that’s not because Heyer was writing overdone tropes. When romance critics describe Heyer as the inventor of the genre, it’s not an exaggeration: It’s Heyer’s vision of the high-flung, whirling Regency world that we know now, and her books used such unique descriptions, expressions, and flavorful language that other authors almost immediately began copying them. Heyer took to making up her own period witticisms and inserting small anachronistic details in order to ensnare other authors who were directly plagiarizing her.
Yet it didn’t stop; her influence seeped directly into the well water from which every romance author drank. As author Sarah MacLean wrote in 2019, Heyer laid “the bones of the romance genre.” She continued:
The modern Regency romance is Heyer’s construction, filled with posh French phrasing and clever historical inaccuracies designed to romanticize the time period (lovingly referred to as Heyerisms). ... [She is] the prolific author of the genre’s primordial tropes: enemies to lovers, childhood friends to lovers, the marriage of convenience, the heroine dressed in men’s clothing, the fake engagement, the rake reformed, and so many more.
If you’re not a romance fan, you might be wondering why you’ve never heard of Georgette Heyer before; at the very least, you might be wondering why, if her books are so popular, Hollywood has never given any of them a lavish, big-budget adaptation — the kind of production they readily provide for the 10th cinematic retelling of Pride and Prejudice.
Regencies are having a bit of a moment onscreen, but the resultant series haven’t been particularly transfixing. Even while Netflix’s Bridgerton delighted huge audiences last year, numerous critics, myself included, bemoaned that Shonda Rhimes had to fall for such a shallow Regency series. Sanditon, PBS’s attempt at adapting an early, unfinished Austen novel, eked out a two-season renewal thanks to its devoted fan base, despite garnering a critical shrug. And then there’s the popularity, despite the dullness, of HBO’s Gilded Age, set in late-19th-century New York but clearly aiming for fans of historical high society shenanigans.
So the near-total absence of Heyer in the popular cinematic landscape — a forgettable 1949 take on her book The Reluctant Widow is the only adaptation that exists in English — is baffling. To explain it, her fans created the false rumor that she had forbidden sales of the film rights to her books. Au contraire, Heyer longed to see her books onscreen, and pushed her agent to make it happen. It never did. It’s a puzzling omission, given that any Heyer film would greet a large, built-in fan base spanning generations. And certainly there would be plenty of Heyer to choose from.
Onscreen, an opportunity would present itself, too, to address the ubiquitous whiteness and heterosexuality of Heyer’s world. Her books reflect none of the concerns of modern romance for diversity, inclusivity, social progress, and attention to marginalized communities. Her popular novel The Grand Sophy contains a notoriously anti-Semitic subthread, and a pronounced homophobic refrain runs throughout all her depictions of dandies and other effeminate men. Her universe is ripe for the kind of reclamation that a diverse cast a la Bridgerton could readily provide.
But Heyer’s archaic worldview alone fails to explain why her books are consistently overlooked when it comes to adapting historical dramas. For one thing, as historian Alexandra Sterling observes, Heyer is far from the only beloved romance novelist to suffer from a focus on wealthy white people — since, after all, she influenced everyone else: “Modern historical romances continue to be overwhelmingly white, straight, Protestant spaces, and that is at least partly explained by the way authors commonly build their Regency worlds on the scaffolding erected by Georgette Heyer.”
So if the traditional artistic contempt for romance as a genre has buckled under the sheer weight of audience demand, then surely Heyer, of all authors, ought to be first in line for adaptation. Stephen Fry considers this in his introduction to Venetia, only he suggests that the delights of her prose — her infectious dialogue, her constantly surprising turns of phrase, her sparkling humor, and her subtle but satisfying romantic relationships — make her too difficult to adapt. “My own view,” he writes, “is that her apparent unsuitability for dramatisation might be for the very reason that ... [her] gifts and glories reveal themselves most perfectly in the act of reading.”
Yet Heyer’s prose would arguably find its way onscreen anyway. Witness Damarel and Venetia, in one of their sexy wordplay volleys: “‘Spiteful little cat!’ he said appreciatively.” That’s a juicy stage direction for an actor. Better yet, it’s different. Even the most diehard fans of Austen have to admit that there are only so many times you can watch Colin Firth dive into a pond or Matthew Macfayden do that hand thing before you want something new. The Folio Society, at least, seems to be banking on Heyer becoming a trend; a Folio spokesperson told Vox they’re planning to release more Heyer editions in the future — a step, perhaps, toward the long-overdue mainstream recognition she deserves.
Make it happen, Hollywood. Jane could use a vacation.
Correction, 10:30 am: A previous version of this article misstated the number of years between publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Black Moth.