Sunday, December 04, 2016

Fortnightly Book, December 4

Literature, like much of art, is curious in that it admits of a category of successful failure. For the artist, it is in some sense even harder to handle than failure. At least failure shuts the door sharply; successful failure is an ongoing frustration as you seem to have the means but can never quite get the ends. You make an ingenious and delicious cake, and add a light touch of icing to make that excellence even more perfect -- and everyone just licks off the icing. And the worst of it, the very worst of it, is that it can happen even when you did everything right, and the failure can be due to things over which you have no control at all.

Georgette Heyer set out to write literarily polished and meticulously researched historical novels on serious moral themes, with a touch of romantic comedy. She was successful by most standards of authorial success. Her books were widely read, sold well, and were praised. And they were widely read, sold well, and were praised for reasons that had little to do with any of the things she hoped to achieve. Her works sold not as historical novels but as romances; romance is lucrative, but in everybody's mind it means sentimental froth for throw-away reading; reviewers treated intensively researched works as light holiday fiction; her very enthusiastic readers kept demanding more of what she herself regarded as among the least important parts of what she was writing. She was the Queen of Regency Romance and yet 'Regency Romance' at the same time became a patronizing label. She was working toward a major magnum opus that she could never finish because lighter works (and need for the money they brought in) kept demanding her time. Heyer could no more stop writing than she could stop breathing, so she continued to write, and continued to do well by all of the standards she regarded as least important, but she withdrew into herself and soon became notoriously averse to any and every kind of publicity. It's not that she was necessarily always miserable over it, or even very worried; her devotion to the craft was quite intense, and the success wasn't without its consolations. But there hangs over all of her career a sense of the important things still not yet done. And it still had that air at her death, at age 71, in 1974.

Nonetheless, posterity has treated her well, even if it has not raised her to the level appropriate to her undeniable talents. She has consistently been on the shelves, and, most importantly, her works have the one and only mark that matters for great literature: they keep being read by people who love to read. And she brings us the next fortnightly book, A Civil Contract, published in 1961. Viscount Lynton, a veteran of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), returns home after his father's death to find the family finances in complete disarray. Nothing can save it but to marry into wealth, despite being in love with another woman, and it looks like it will be a miserable marriage -- but marriage itself can be an education in what really matters.

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