Warning: contains spoilers and feminism.
I have read, and enjoyed, Georgette Heyer since my early teens. I felt a certain amount of shame about it- after all, romance novels still haven’t achieved the level of respectability of SFF or crime fiction (the more “male” areas of popular fiction), and in my formative feminist years I felt shame at reading something so heteronormative and patriarchal. About 20 years ago I read an article on Virago founder Carmen Callil, where she expressed her fondness for Heyer’s Sylvester, one of my favourites, and I now have no shame in expressing my love.
However, present-day lovers of Heyer who are also raging feminist lefties and Social Justice Warriors like me have to do quite a lot of reading against the author’s intentions, including reading against what I would argue is internalised misogyny. Nowhere more does this exhibit itself than in her writing of dandies. As many others have pointed out, antipathy to effeminate men, including from other gay men, is linked to misogyny; anything associated with the feminine must be worthless.
Sir Nugent Fotherby in Sylvester is a case in point. Sylvester, the Duke of Salford, is the archetypal alpha male hero- older, dark haired, a sportsman- and his foil is the foppish, effeminate Sir Nugent. He marries Sylvester’s beautiful sister-in-law Ianthe, who Sylvester dislikes, but she appears to be one of his cherished possessions rather than a sexual partner. He is described as a “man-milliner” and a “wealthy fribble”, and Sylvester is determined that he will not have the up-bringing of the heir, his twin brother’s son, Edmund. The Heir of Chance must be a “proper” man.
Sir Nugent is, however, reasonable; he doesn’t want custody of Edmund because of the trouble the little boy causes, even though this means that Sylvester has won, and knows how to comfort Ianthe. Like Claud Darracott from The Unknown Ajax, the main criticism of him is that his only ambition is to be a leader of fashion, and is not interested in sport or politics, or other masculine pursuits.
Francis Cheviot from The Reluctant Widow, on the other hand, is villainous. Underestimated by his cousins John and Nicky because of his hypochondria, fear of dogs and dandyism, Lord Carlyon, hero and alpha male, recognises his dangerous possibilities. Francis is, I think, the dandy most obviously coded as a camp gay man. He is described as “almost womanist”, with a retroussé nose and slender white hands. He knows a great deal about interior design and women’s fashion, and has a deep, long standing friendship with Louis de Castres, an French émigré. However he has no qualms about murdering his friend to cover up his father’s involvement in spying for Bonaparte, or attacking Elinor, the heroine, when he thinks she has discovered the hiding place of a lost document.
Even more villainous is Basil “Beau” Lavenham. Although the usual slim foppishly dressed exquisite that we have come to expect, he is, like Claud Darracott, described dallying with women; Claud with a more than willing village girl, while Basil, as befits his villain status, forces Eustacie to listen to his proposal. He, also, compounds his villainy by attacking one of the heroines, Sarah Thane.
Freddy Standen, from Cotillion, is my favourite Heyer hero. Slender and graceful, beautifully dressed, an unthreatening escort of married women, advising them on fashion and decorating, he is determinedly “not in the petticoat line” with a close group of like-minded friends. However, his good ton, his concern about etiquette and his willingness to break their rules and take charge makes him a worthy hero and husband to heiress Kitty Charing.
Francis Cheviot and Basil Lavenham are clearly out and out villains, and while I find them more compelling than the conventional alpha male heroes, I don’t read them against Heyer’s intentions. However, Claud Darracott (and Laurence Calver in The Nonesuch, so keen to head to Ireland to set up a stud farm with his particular friend) are, I believe, more admirable characters than Heyer intends. Claud is prepared to make himself ridiculous and the subject of gossip, as well as perjure himself, to save his cousin Richmond who has become involved in smuggling. Laurence Calver saves the awful but beautiful Tiffany Wield from scandal, and from herself, and earns himself a broken nose for his troubles.
Their kind of heroism is quieter than the alpha males’. There is no bloodshed (except Laurence’s own); indeed, Claud faints (very feminine!) at the sight of blood, saving his cousin. Laurence is attacked by a seventeen year old girl. Yet their bravery, kindness and willingness to go through discomfort and ridicule for their families makes them heroic indeed.