Way back in March 2020, when it was becoming clear that we were entering a strange, antisocial period of staying in during a growing global pandemic, I sat down to think of a pleasant diversion for a scary and dark time. The diversion that sprung quickly to mind was reading, and I recalled a comment about my Georgette Heyer Advent Calendar on Twitter – that seeing a nice edition of a Heyer novel each day in the run up to Christmas had helped them through a difficult December. And so, on 19 March, I posted a tentative tweet…
I had no idea what the reaction would be. I knew there was a Georgette Heyer corner of Twitter, and I knew there were discussions to be had about her novels. And I knew that The Unknown Ajax was a favourite with Heyer readers – largely due to its lovely hero, Hugo Darracott – but would a Twitter readalong work? I expected it would be me and a couple of other people and that it would quickly peter out, but decided to give it a go anyway.
So on Sunday 22 March, I read and annotated the first two chapters of Ajax, and prepared a series of tweets – questions, comments, observations – and at 7.00pm I was amazed to find about 20 people eager to discuss the Darracott inheritance. We spent a splendid, friendly hour unpicking family relationships and the bullying behaviour of Lord Darracott. Two days later, in the UK we were in full lockdown, and the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong community started to grow in earnest.
Twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays, we read three chapters, and came together (while staying apart) to discuss our admiration for the majestic Aunt Aurelia, whether Vincent and Claud were redeemable, whether it was fair to dupe an exciseman just trying to do his job, how it was easy to underestimate Mrs Darracott, and, once we reached chapter 12, to swoon at Anthea asking “Hugo, how dare you call me love?” As the reading progressed, we got to know each other better and the discussions reflected this – jokes were exchanged and personal information shared.
When we finished with Hugo we carried on reading. I wondered what participants would like to discuss next, ran a poll, and Cotillion was voted the favourite. I felt slightly disappointed: I had only read it once before and had dismissed it as fluffy – but reading it more slowly showed me how wrong I was. The fashionable Freddy Standen turned out to be a capable, practical young man – just what is needed during a pandemic. Lots of readers were big fans of his father, Lord Legerwood. And far from being fluffy, Heyer didn’t shy away from showing the seamier side of high society, so the Readalong discussed the fate of the dependent woman, the sex trade, and sexual double standards. To my surprise, I found that I loved Cotillion. Conversely, I really struggled with a slow read of Sylvester – a former favourite – finding the hero’s behaviour extremely problematic.
All the time we were reading, companionship was growing. We had enormous fun during our sessions during which hashtags about favourite characters – #TomOrdeIsSoSolid and #AllHailMrTrevor – were thrown in. Members were extremely generous in sharing historical background information, in a tribute to Heyer’s own meticulous research. I enjoyed a running joke about my love for Regency Buck in general and Lord Worth in particular. Conversations spilled over into the rest of the week as we thought of new themes or answered each other’s points. Books were recommended, news shared, heroes and heroines compared.
We roared with laughter at The Talisman Ring, debated Frederica’s management of her family, and thoroughly enjoyed loathing the monstrous dowager in The Quiet Gentleman. As a result of slower reading, we had the opportunity to reflect on Heyer’s writing style, her sentence construction, and her gift for dialogue. We also considered the social and economic background to the novels: Heyer makes clear in The Quiet Gentleman that the Frant fortune originates in the enslavement of people, and, while we were reading this book, the National Trust published its report, Addressing our Histories of Colonialism and Historic Slavery. The large houses and the society about which we enjoy reading had a horrific human cost.
Now it’s October and the news continues to be grim. The pandemic is still with us, we are still social distancing, and, at the moment, there seems no end in sight. But having seen the way in which the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong participants cheered each other on and provided companionship through the first lockdown, I am determined that we will carry on reading into the autumn and winter.
More activities are being added to keep us cheerful. In August, I had to reduce the reading sessions to once a week on Sunday because of busy work commitments, but participants said they missed the Wednesday connections, so I introduced #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong #MidweekMusings where we have a deeper discussion about one theme. We’ve talked about philanthropy, responses to unwanted attentions, matched or mismatched couples. On a lighter note, on Fridays, we now have #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong #FridayFantasyCasting (Christopher Plummer IS Lord Worth), and I am looking at organising some sessions where we can actually see each other with quizzes, readings and debates.
From that tentative “would anyone like to read The Unknown Ajax with me?” to today when we have a very active community. There were 188 participants at the last count – people who join in the discussions, those who quietly read along with us, people who stumble across our hashtag and find a welcoming community. Even as I type this post I can see that there is a Twitter discussion taking place about possible real locations in The Nonesuch, complete with illustrations.
When the Bad Times are over, I suspect at least some of us will gather near Miss Heyer’s beloved Albany and take tea at Fortnum and Mason. We’ll swap old editions, argue over the merits of Lord Worth, and celebrate the friends we made while reading during a pandemic. I just hope our Georgette would approve.