Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review: My Lord John by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer wrote over fifty novels in her lifetime, starting when she was fifteen years old and continuing nonstop until her death at age seventy one. Her Regency romance novels where wildly popular, but her first love was for "armour," the Middle Ages.

I have read several of her Regency novels and can easily see her appeal, they are witty, frothy and full of fun. So it was with interest that I picked up My Lord John, one of her non-romance, non-Regency historical novels. It was, in fact, unfinished at her death and the current book only makes up about a third of the tale that she planned to tell. It would have been a trilogy encompassing the entire life of John, Duke of Bedford, third son of King Henry IV and brother and trusted advisor of King Henry V.

John grew to manhood in a turbulent time. His father, Henry IV ousted Richard II from the throne and took the crown for himself. Through Richard died shortly after (of course), that didn't stop different factions from trying to topple Henry. At the tender age of fourteen, John's steady hand and sensible head were rewarded and his father made him Lord High Constable of England. He couldn't have chosen a better man, though he was really still a boy. For the rest of his life, John would do the serious and difficult work of running a fractious nation, first for his father and later for his brother.

For me, reading My Lord John was a bit of a struggle, though I could see glimpses of what a great book it could have become. It was never edited by the author and it does suffer from that lack. It reads almost like a non-fiction history, so I found myself growing sleepy time and again. There are so many characters and, as is common for this time period, multiple people have the same first names. Thomas, Henry, John, Mary, times it is very hard to tell who is who. Plus, the men are referred to by their given names at times and their titles at others (for example, Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel might be referred to as Richard, Fitzalan or Arundel), instead of picking one and using it throughout. Though there is a very good character list and also a nice family tree, constantly having to refer to it really breaks up the story.

The same can be said for the author's use of authentic middle English words/phrases. There is an extensive and helpful glossary at the back of the book and the use of these forgotten terms does add to the flavor of the story. But constantly having to refer to the glossary, sometimes multiple times while reading one page, slows down the reading process. I did learn quite a bit, which I enjoyed, but looking up words so often does become tedious.

So, unfortunately, I can't recommend this one to the average Georgette Heyer fan. Anyone who needs romance in their books will not be able to get through this one, as you will not find any here. I happen to be a die hard historical fiction lover and romance is not a must for me (I do find a little bit livens up a story, though!), but even I had a hard time with this one. It is truly unfinished - it ends in mid sentence. If you are interested in history and the middle ages and can accept the book as is, I think you will find both interest and enjoyment within its pages.

The preface, written by the author's husband after her death, made me sad for her and I wanted to add part of it for you here:

"Her research was enormous and meticulous. She was a perfectionist. She studied every aspect of the period-history, wars, social conditions, manners and customs, costume, armour, heraldry, falconry, and the chase. She drew genealogies of all the noble families of England (with their own armorial bearings painted on each) for she believed that the clues to events were to be found in their relationships. She had indexed files for every day of the year for the forty years she was covering with all noteworthy events duly entered on their dates. She learnt to read medieval English almost as easily as modern and amassed a large vocabulary. One summer we toured the Scottish-English borderlands, learning the country and visiting seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys (or their ruins). Her notes fill volumes.

For the work, as she planned it, she needed a period of about five years of single-minded concentration. But this was not granted to her. The penal burden of British taxation, coupled with the clamour of her readers for a new book, made her break off to write another Regency story. After such a break it was hard to recapture the spirit of her main work and it required a good deal of labour to refresh her knowledge. After this had happened a second time, she laid her manuscripts aside, foreseeing that at least two more such interruptions would inevitably recur before she could complete the work. So a great historical novel was never finished."

My Lord John is published by Sourcebooks. ISBN 978-1-4022-1353-3


Melissa said...

Thanks for sharing your review. I've been wanting to read this book, as I'm a huge Heyer fan. I've read a few of her historicals, some I've liked more than others. I was even more curious about this one after I read one of her biographies, which talked about how she was always pulled away from writing this to churn out another Regency. One of these days I'll grab a copy so I can see what she wanted so desperately to work on!

Chris said...

This was a hard one for me too. And like you I could see what a great book it could have been.

bermudaonion said...

She was quite the prolific author. I wonder why they published this since it was incomplete and the beginning of a planned trilogy. Thanks for the review - I know not to get this one.

Jemima said...

I enjoyed this review. It was great that you gave some background info and the picture of Heyer. I always like to read a little about the author.

Zibilee said...

It sounds like this is a real departure from most of her other books, and it's too bad it wasn't great. I did read one Heyer, and it was an historical as well. I didn't like it as much I thought I would, but I thought she was meticulous in her eye for detail. Thanks for your honest review on this one.

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New Hampshire, United States
Bibliophile, Anglophile, Traveller... I have been an avid reader all of my life, since I took the Dr. Seuss Dictionary away from my Mom when I was less than a year old because I wanted to read it myself. In college, where I earned my degree in English Literature, I was often asked "What are you going to do with it?" Now I finally have the answer to that question!!! Being employed as a Flight Attendant for twenty years has given me a lot of life experience and, better still, a lot of time to read. I love to travel for fun, too.