Somehow I missed out on Georgette Heyer as a teenager, mainly because I thought she only wrote about the Regency period which I saw as a silly, hypocritical era when to be a successful woman meant you had to be a tart. This went against my feminist ideas of being a woman and still does. Now, of course, I know a bit more about the era but it hasn’t made me want to read novels about it. The other day, however, I found an old battered copy of a Georgette Heyer on a second hand bookstall. It was called My Lord John and if I had read the title first instead of being drawn to the picturesque 50’s style medieval cavalcade on the cover my hand would probably not have strayed to pick it up. A quick look inside showed that it dealt with the period of English history shortly after the one in which Hildegard of Meaux existed. At £1 it seemed worth taking home.
The prologue was a proud paean from GH’s husband written after she died where he described her meticulous research methods – a card index for every day of the forty years she was writing about, a pacing out of over seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys relevant to the story. It was about one of the sons of regicide Henry IV. No fantasy history, this. It’s a gripping factual story based on sound documentary evidence concerning Henry IV, or Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, who turned out to be a rather useless king and army commander despite all his braggadoccio jousting when he set himself up as a rival to his cousin, King Richard. Henry did less well for the people of England than the cousin he displaced but because of the effective nobbling of the chroniclers who owed their livings to Lancastrian patronage he has not received the opprobrium he deserves.
He was the first English monarch to introduce public burnings for heresy and GH effectively shows how his son, later Henry V, felt about that. To his great good fortune, Henry’s sons were as able, energetic and astute as any father could wish. Most people know something about his eldest, Henry V, from Shakespeare’s play but without his younger son John, later Duke of Bedford and Regent in France when England’s control of their French territory was at its zenith, the English victory at Agincourt would have been just one more battle to be remembered by the boys and not the beginning of the sense of national identity it became.
I won’t say this is an easy read. GH uses a language which is now considered archaic. I imagine she would have rewritteen and expanded it but for the misfortune of her death before the book was finished, but it is an exhilarating read and an exhaustive account of the events during the reign of the usurper. GH seems to have been in a hurry to get everything down and includes material from almost all the available sources. A four page glossary is included but many unfamiliar words are not in it and some dialogue is quite obscure. I’m often chided for using words appropriate to the period, kirtle someone found difficult, which surprised me, although destrier can be forgiven for those for whom the genre is a new departure, but what they would make of GH’s use of the mot juste would be interesting to hear – what about fliting, gigelot, glosery? Lovely, lost words it would be interesting to bring back into use. (Contending, adulterer and flattery, if you don’t know, as I didn’t.)
I love and applaud her use of this special vocabulary. It leads me to wonder whether readers then were better educated than now or at least, more willing to make an effort and open a dictionary? Is everything becoming too bland, too easy, too milk and water, produced to the same robotic pattern? Altogether I’m glad I was attracted by the cover and picked it out of the pile of books on the trestle that morning. It’s an excellent account of Lord John’s life and the times he lived in. It is definitely not fantasy fiction. GH works hard to tell it as it really was or, at least, as we think it might have been, given the factual evidence to hand.