Aged eleven, I was given tickets for the adult library. I’d read all the children’s books, and the librarians were sick of me begging for new ones. But I had no idea what to read, and nobody to tell me. I decided to find authors who’d written lots, so I had plenty to look forward to. It was 1977, there were only three TV channels, and things were difficult at home – I wanted, needed, to escape into books.
I found Georgette Heyer. I was a slightly odd working-class kid from Salford, and I devoured these superbly written stories of glamour, adventure and romance; they were so different from my own life, they might as well have been science fiction.
One of the things people forget about Heyer is that she’s funny. Not just in the Jane Austen, share-a-wry-smile-at-humanity way, but properly hysterically funny. She writes comedy set pieces like nobody else, and she also excels at thrilling, silly, high-stakes action. Highwaypersons! Cross-dressing! Sword-fights! Some fans underrate her adventure stories and value the later, quieter, more Austenesque ones. But I still love the action books: These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, The Talisman Ring, Faro’s Daughter, and my absolute favourite, The Corinthian. How I love The Corinthian, and Sir Richard Wyndham, the perfect hero. It’s not just his muscular thighs, broad shoulders and smiling grey eyes, this is a man who is utterly to be trusted even when he’s drunk, a man who – unusually among romance heroes even now – just wants to love and be loved. Sigh.
But there’s no point pretending there aren’t problematic elements in Heyer. Sir Richard may fully understand consent, but not all her heroes do. It’s widely known that The Grand Sophy has horribly antisemitic elements, and there’s casual, nasty racism in some of the other books too. I have a group of friends I met online through our shared love of Heyer, and we debated this endlessly in lockdown. We know Georgette didn’t write for us. She didn’t write for me, she’d have had me mopping her floors at best, and she certainly didn’t write for women of colour or women who don’t identify as heterosexual. But we feel – and of course you don’t have to agree – that we can call out the things we dislike and cherish the things we love, because her novels, as with all authors’ books, belong to the readers now, and it’s up to us how we read them.
And how we write our own novels. Heyer invented Regency romance, and all subsequent writers of it owe her a huge debt. I hope to emulate her swoon-worthy romance, her sparkling humour, and her sheer escapist fun. I love the tension between beautifully controlled language and overpowering passion, between how a very structured society forces people to behave and what they really want. I’d love it if readers started my novel thinking, “This is exactly like Heyer!” and then as they read on realised the ways in which it isn’t. There’s spicy content in my books, and lots of other things she’d have hated. But she shaped my personality, the career I chose – everything, really. Thank you, Georgette.
The Second Lady Silverwood by Emma Orchard is published in paperback on 20 April by Allison & Busby.
Emma Orchard was born in Salford. She studied English Literature at the Universities of Edinburgh and York, before working behind the scenes in publishing and television for many years. Her first job was at Mills & Boon, where she met her husband in a classic enemies-to-lovers romance. She now lives in North London.