I must have been 13 when I first discovered the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer. She plunged me headlong into a world of defiant young women in sprig muslin dresses who are plucked from country obscurity and allowed to lay siege to the haute social world of London or Bath.
A Heyer heroine may be orphaned, of restricted means, thrust into a fake betrothal or threatened by a cruel guardian, but she always becomes all the rage at Almack's in London or the Bath Assembly Rooms; favorably noticed by the fastidious Beau Brummell (who appears as early as Heyer's first romance, Regency Buck, published in 1935).
Invariably a Heyer heroine holds her chin a little higher than the other simpering misses, as the good-for-nothing rakes and dandies of Regency England lay siege to her heart. Meanwhile, standing in a reserved and haughty silence, there is some brooding gentleman, a "true Corinthian" and "Pink of the ton," who will prove himself of exceptional moral fiber and swift action when her virtue is finally threatened.
At 13, I was deeply interested in the dashing hero — his lips crushing hers, as he holds her in his firm embrace on the last page — and also the mending of dresses, trimming of old hats with ostrich feathers with signaled the start of adventure and eventual end of constrained circumstances.
But now I am what Georgette would consider a married matron, what excuse do I have for slyly grabbing up her books at the yard sale, the beach book — swap or the hotel library? Was she not merely a gateway drug to Jane Austen? Am I not beyond reading of a fine leg in a yellow pantaloons and a snowy white cravat, tied just so?
Today, Heyer is recognized for her substance and her immaculate historic research.
Her book, An Infamous Army, contains a description of the Battle of Waterloo so detailed that universities have included it in their history reading lists. When I read these books, I revel in this level of detail. When the heroine drives out in Beau Brummell's curricle, Heyer makes sure I know the difference between this lightweight, two-wheeled racing rig and the more staid barouche favored by dowagers.
But, isn't the point of a guilty pleasure that one should not attempt to defend it, or to rediscover its historic or intellectual depths?
One should merely enjoy hiding the book behind a beach towel. At 13 years old, I skipped all the boring Waterloo descriptions and lived for details of the heroine, Lady Barbara, tending wounded soldiers and waiting to learn the fate of a certain dark and brooding Colonel Charles. Today, Lady Bab still has all my attention. Pass the smelling salts, please.
Helen Simonson is a British-born former advertising executive who lives with her husband and two sons in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the author of the novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.
My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.