Spectator by Seema Goswami: Facts about fiction
What can I say? I am a sucker for a good, old-fashioned Regency Romance, all tightly-laced corsets, heaving bosoms, swooning/sassy heroines, and a swashbuckling rakish hero who is eventually reformed by his love of a good woman. So far, so clichéd. But what brings these somewhat hackneyed plots alive is the skill of a great writer, who can create an entire universe in which you are only too willing to suspend your disbelief, let alone your cynicism.
You can imagine my excitement then, when I heard that a new series called Bridgerton was being released on Netflix. Set in Regency London and populated with a multicultural cast, this was based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn, recreating what will always be – to me, at least – the world of Georgette Heyer.
So, I cleared my evening and settled down for some binge-watching. But half-way through the first episode I began to experience the first stirrings of dissatisfaction. And that only grew as I ploughed through the rest of the episodes. This was nothing like the Regency romps I had loved for most of my life.
Never mind, I told myself. This incarnation of Bridgerton owed more to Shonda Rhimes than it did to Julia Quinn. Maybe I should go to the original and get my fix of Regency-era drama. So, I downloaded The Duke and I, the novel on which the show is based, and settled down to read it in one greedy gulp.
At least, that was the intention. But to be honest with you, I found it heavy going. The plot was predictable, the dialogue was clunky, and the characters lacked a certain three-dimensional depth. It had all the tropes of Heyer’s Regency Romances but none of the sparkle and wit that makes Georgette’s books both effervescent and evergreen in their appeal.
Just to confirm my initial impression, I went back to re-read my well-thumbed copies of Heyer’s best work. I started off with the Devil’s Cub, and within minutes I was entranced once again by the exploits of the Marquis of Vidal and his reluctant love interest, Mary Challoner, whose courtship has the most unpropitious of beginnings (she shoots him in the arm with his own pistol!).
Once I had started, there was no stopping me! I seamlessly went on to re-read The Grand Sophy and Venetia. I couldn’t find my copy of Regency Buck so I downloaded it on my Kindle and read it again, chuckling anew at the exploits of Judith Taverner and the Earl of Worth. And I am now immersed in An Infamous Army, a book that Heyer set around the battle of Waterloo, and which features Lord and Lady Worth, now a staid married couple, witnessing the star-crossed romance of their brother, Charles Audley with the audacious society beauty, Lady Barbara Childe.
As I slipped effortlessly back into the universe of Georgette Heyer, it occurred to me that when it comes to genres of fiction, the world is divided into Masters of Their Game and The Rest of the Field. And no matter how hard The Rest may try, they can never measure up against The Masters.
In spy fiction, for instance, there is the original Master, John le Carré, who made the Cold War his own, spinning fabulous tales revolving around the twin characters of George Smiley and the sinister Soviet spy, Karla. Since then, there have been many writers who have tried to recreate that universe, but no matter how good the books, they just don’t have the same appeal as Le Carré’s oeuvre.
When it comes to murder mysteries, there is no bettering P.D. James. There is no better exemplar of British humour than P.G. Wodehouse. Nobody examines and elucidates the inner life of women better than Elena Ferrante. And nobody can write a cheery bonkbuster better than Jilly Cooper.
Part of their mastery lies in the fact that they make it all look so easy. It’s only when you see lesser writers trying to recreate their magic that you realise just how difficult it actually is. And that makes you appreciate their genius even more.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, January 24, 2021
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