Reading the Classics
I’m taking a break today from sharing new releases or historical research to talk about a couple of very old releases, one by the author of the first Regency romance, the other historically significant as the first modern romance.
Every holiday season I give myself the gift of extra reading time. This year, instead of pulling old favorites from my keeper shelf, I read two books that have been sitting on my bedside table for months:
The Grand Sophy, from 1950, by Georgette Heyer
The Flame and the Flower, from 1972, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
I was excited to finally read these two classics in historical romance fiction. The Grand Sophy is a Regency-set romance by British author Georgette Heyer, who is credited with writing the first Regency romance, Regency Buck, in 1935.
The Flame and the Flower was the first “bodice-ripper”, breaking new ground in the romance genre with scenes of graphic sex.
First, my disclaimer: I always think it’s dangerous for an author to start critiquing (people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones). On the other hand, both of these authors are deceased, and nothing I say can damage their reputations or the significance of their work.
These are two VERY different books. True, in each story, the hero is described as being quick-tempered, controlling, and good with his fists (but never using them on a lady, of course). Everything else–the heroines, the setting, the authors’ voices–are polar opposites.
The Grand Sophy is written in the kind of frothy, effervescent style of Heyer’s Regency Buck. The heroine is a tall, strong, take-charge young lady who sweeps into town and starts managing everyone’s love life. The pacing is fast, the dialogue sparkles, and I love Sophy’s strength in dominating her extended family.
But I didn’t love everything about this book. I’m not at all opposed to a heroine shooting another character if properly motivated as in Lord of Scoundrels. But Sophy’s shooting of Charlbury merely to save him from a possible duel is, in my opinion, ridiculously over the top, and the last scene descends into slapstick.
Sophy is also very light on romance. The development of the relationship with her cousin Charles is so subtle, you only know it’s coming if you’ve flipped to the back and read the last pages.
Heather and Bran
I confess that in 1972, I wasn’t reading romance, so The Flame and the Flower wasn’t on my radar then. How did I miss it? It must have been the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time.
Unlike Sophy, the heroine, Heather, is a small, timid, good-hearted orphan bullied by everyone but nevertheless strikingly beautiful and large-breasted. Running from one attempted rapist, she’s taken to the extremely handsome hero who honestly mistakes her for a prostitute and forces sex upon her. Actually, he rapes her.
Gosh, I hated that scene. It was a long climb up for that hero, and in my estimation, he never quite made it.
Heather finds the gumption to escape, but she returns to her abusive aunt, even though we learn later that her father had a titled, honorable friend she could have gone to. When she finds herself pregnant from the rape, she and the hero are forced into marriage.
This is a long book, and I suppose it needed to be for the hero and heroine to climb out of the first encounter into happily-ever-after. Although, I couldn’t help thinking that their relationship was what in this day and age we would consider abusive.
Still, this train-wreck of a story was fascinating in its depiction of historical details. Darn, but we historical authors are always trying to get the details right. In this case, Woodiwiss brought the sailing scenes to life wonderfully. Good job! On the other hand, I couldn’t figure out why Heather NEVER wore stays, nor could I understand where Heather fit into the rigid class structure that was England in 1800. That aspect of the story seemed very American.
Both stories had jarring (for this modern reader) stereotypes. In The Grand Sophy, the heroine visits a villainous Jewish moneylender in a scene that is fraught with anti-Semitic stereotyping.
In The Flame and The Flower, the hero and heroine wind up on his Southern plantation where the housekeeper is a “Negress” named Hatti who’s devoted to her employer and his brother. Or is Bran her master? Is Hatti a slave? We know that Bran is a kind employer/master who thinks free salaried workers at his new mill will be more reliable than slaves, but what about the servants at his plantation house? We don’t know if they’re slave or free, or if the author told us, I must have skimmed over that part. But I’ve never found stories set in the antebellum South very appealing.
What do you think?
Writing fiction is hard, and writing fiction that survives the test of time to become classic, even harder. Flawed though they may be, these books are beloved by many who are willing to overlook the things that bothered me. I salute both of these authors for the pleasure they’ve brought readers through the years.
Have you read either of these books? What are your thoughts?