The “hero” of a romance, the male lead, holds up a mirror to a given age’s conception of the virtues a man should have. If the romance is to work at all, the hero must be someone we’re willing to see the heroine give her heart to. He may not be perfect; in fact, he frequently has flaws or emotional wounds that help provide obstacles in the story. But he has to be admirable enough to win our approval.
We’re not talking just about the kinds of physical attributes a woman might sigh over. The reader is supposed to respect the man as well.
This assumption is largely tacit. Probably no one in the story comes right out and says “this is what a man should be.” It’s a matter of what the story presents as desirable or worthy of respect. We can learn a lot more from how the story treats a character than just what the author tells us.
In other words, romantic stories can give us clues about the archetypes or role models for males (and of course females) in a given period.
These ideals aren’t necessarily the same in different eras. Cultural differences affect what qualities we see as admirable. There’s a fairly constant core—virtues that are respected in every generation—but there’s also a good deal of divergence.
There’s a fair amount of variety in the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s twenty to thirty Regency novels (the count depends on how loosely one defines the Regency period). We can see this from the fact that attempts to categorize the heroes have to deal with a lot of exceptions.
The standard division, originating with Heyer herself, proposes two principal archetypes. Jane Aiken-Hodge, in The Private World of Georgette Heyer (1984), is quoted in Laurel Ann Nattress, Heyer’s Heroes: Immutable Romance Archetypes, on Austenprose (2010), as saying that “Georgette Heyer put her heroes into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’ and the Mark II hero, who is ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip.’
Dorothy Dunnett added in a Washington Post article (1984): “If hero Mark I was firmly based on Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester, Mark II is the very embodiment of Sir Percy Blakeney, Baroness Orczy’s languid aristocrat of The Scarlet Pimpernel” (links and italics added). TV Tropes’ Creator page on Heyer notes this division of heroes (and a corresponding classification of heroines).
But these dual archetypes don’t exhaust the roster. Nattress notes that the Duke of Sale in The Foundling “perhaps requires one to add at least one more category to Heyer’s own classification scheme, since he, like the heroes of Charity Girl, Cotillion, and Friday’s Child, is neither “suave” nor “brusque.” That’s four stories that apparently escape the Mark I/II dichotomy. Nattress adds: “In addition, one might have to create a small category for Heyer’s military heroes who are neither ‘suave’ nor ‘brusque’ but instead have a penchant for behaving in unexpectedly unconventional ways, and which would contain the heroes of Beauvallet, The Spanish Bride, The Toll Gate and The Unknown Ajax.” We’re now up to eight exceptions.
On the other hand, the romantic heroes do have a pretty consistent set of common features. Let’s divide the personal qualities—not the characters—into two groups (no relation to the Mark I/II character types).
Group 1 features: General
- The hero has plenty of money. Sometimes this is important because the heroine is in financial need; sometimes it isn’t, because she’s not. But the male lead is almost always solvent, if not extraordinarily wealthy. A rare counter-example is Adam Deveril of A Civil Contract (1961), whose attempt to achieve financial stability for his family is a main plotline of the story.
- He typically looks good, both in the sense of physical handsomeness and in that of being well-dressed and “put together.” A rare counter-example here is Miles Calverleigh in Black Sheep (1966), who is described as a man “with harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin, and not the smallest air of fashion” (ch. 3, p. 34).
- He’s kind to his lady. They may start out at odds; he may be brusque or formidable to others; but to the heroine, at least, he is considerate and caring.
- In a pinch, he’s cool under pressure. There may or may not be any situation in the story that calls for physical courage; but if so, he’s got it.
- Loyalty and, more narrowly, fidelity to his lady is another hallmark. We’re talking here about fidelity after they fall in love. Heyer makes clear that the hero has previously sown his wild oats, which makes him experienced in carnal matters and confident in his wooing. But once he falls for the heroine, all that is behind him.
It should be noted that Heyer’s novels do not deal with actual sexual activity at all. Physical attraction, while it is obviously present, does not feature largely in the storylines—so it is not a requirement that the hero be outrageously sexy. In this respect Heyer differs considerably from many modern genre romances, even Regency romances. (On this aspect of Heyer’s character, see Jennifer Kloester’s biography Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (2011).)
The Group 1 traits are probably common, in some form, to the ideal mate for a woman in any era. Having plenty of money, in particular, may represent a kind of wish-fulfillment for the traditional female reader (Heyer’s 1920s-1960s audience): the hero is someone who can be relied upon to provide a safe support for the necessities and amenities of life.
How this is expressed may differ by society. In the Regency period, a fortune was generally inherited; in a modern story, the traditional millionaire romantic interest probably earned his stash. In a fantasy or science-fiction world, the currency of survival may be something other than money per se. But some reliable means of support is generally attractive.
The corresponding wish-fulfillment quality in a female for male readers/viewers, by the way, is beauty. One doesn’t cast unattractive Bond girls. It would be considered shallow for either sex to value only these qualities in a potential mate; but they do form part of the complete package for the ideal romantic interest.
In addition to the Group 1 virtues, a Heyer hero is expected to have some more period-specific qualities.
Group 2 features: Regency-specific
- The ideal Regency gentleman, as Heyer see it, knows how to fist-fight. Typically, he frequents Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Salon, where he attains some skill using his “fives” in an art the ladies generally deplore, but still rather admire. At least some brief mention of this ability turns up for almost all of Heyer’s heroes.
- Moreover, he can fight with firearms. The hero is generally a good shot, spending some of his off hours target-shooting or hunting. Even in a story where neither fist-fighting nor shooting plays a part, these talents seem to be indispensable: the proper hero is prepared to fight should the need arise.
- He can ride a horse. Whether he’s a “notable whip” or merely a very competent horseman, he’s particularly good at riding, even in an era where the horse was a standard mode of transportation.
- In Regency high society, a man’s integrity is expressed especially in honoring his bets in the ubiquitous gaming. A hero always makes good on his gaming obligations; someone who doesn’t is instantly recognizable as a villain. (Note that this is closely related to the general virtue of having plenty of money available.)
- Almost invariably, he has a sense of humor; frequently the heroine wishes she could share some absurd incident with the hero when he’s absent. This sense of humor may be a survival trait when you’re in a romantic comedy.
- In a society where almost all one’s time is spent in social interactions, social competence is a key feature. The proper hero can cope with any social difficulty or complication. Some of them do so calmly, with aplomb, while others may be brusque and seemingly unconventional (I mentioned Black Sheep above). In a primitive or frontier situation—say, if you’re in The Last of the Mohicans, or a Heinlein adventure—competence may mean basic survival skills. But in a highly formalized society like the Regency, social skill is what competence in general looks like.
Of course we’re talking about the aristocracy here—what the stories refer to, tellingly, as “the Quality.” Heyer’s stories only glancingly involve the kinds of street urchins or poor tradespeople who grace the pages of (for example) Dickens. While later Regencies may try to work in a more egalitarian perspective, the Heyer-type stories focus on the leisured class.
We can see what the essential characteristics are by looking at an exception to what one would think of as the typical alpha hero: Freddy Standen of Cotillion (N.Y.: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, A Jove Book, 1953, 1982).
In this light-hearted tale, heroine Kitty Charing is the ward of crochety old Uncle Matthew, who’s determined to marry her off, along with his considerable fortune, to one of his nephews. Kitty’s in love with the rakish Jack, who is too proud to show up when Uncle Matthew calls the nephews together. Instead, she convinces the amiable Freddy to pretend to be engaged to her, which allows her the London experience she’s always wanted, and (not incidentally) the chance to convince Jack to offer for her. In the course of the story, she discovers Jack’s unlikable features, and ends up falling for Freddy after all—and vice versa, of course.
You might expect Jack to be the hero. He’s handsome, devil-may-care, knows how to fight, and so forth. He’s the classic powerful, assertive alpha male type. But Jack is too selfish, and he doesn’t really care about Kitty; she’s merely convenient for him. It’s the non-alpha Freddy who wins out.
Freddy is good-looking, but in an almost dandyish mode; a “Pink of the Ton” (p. 41). He’s “kind-hearted and . . . uncritical” (p. 112), and expresses “ready sympathy” for Kitty (p. 210). He professes to be frightened of intimidating types like Uncle Matthew (p. 53); but he really isn’t, and provides unexpected support to Kitty in dealing with difficult relatives (pp. 191, 258-59). These are of course good things for the inexperienced heroine, though they’re milder virtues than the bold assertiveness one would expect of a stock hero.
At the same time, Freddy does possess the Group 2 qualifications outlined above. He has integrity: he’s an honest gamer (“Play or pay, m’girl, play or pay,” pp. 108-09). More importantly, he’s courteous and magnanimous in real life. Jack recognizes that Freddy is “wholly incapable of making so unhandsome a gesture” (p. 267), and Heyer even describes Freddy’s willingness to help someone in difficulties as “an innate chivalry” (p. 354).
Freddy shares with his lady an appreciation for the humorous (p. 306). He is a past master of social competence: mild-mannered though he is, he “knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur” when necessary (p. 305), and although he lays no claim to great intelligence, he has the practical knowledge of how to get his much smarter brother out of trouble (p. 318)—practical wisdom. To Kitty, this is genuine heroism:
“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!” (pp. 314-15)
At the start of the story Freddy’s own father Lord Legerwood regards him as mentally negligible. But Legerwood is repeatedly astonished in the course of the book when Freddy comes up with a clever solution to some problem at need—at which Freddy himself is equally astonished (pp. 105, 170, 305-06). In this respect Freddy bears some resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (we’ll have to discuss the remarkable Jeeves and the Wedding Bells another time).
Most strikingly, although we’re explicitly told that Freddy is no match for Jack at fisticuffs, Heyer does give him a chance to knock Jack down with a well-placed blow—in response to an insult to Kitty (p. 408). Everyone, including Freddy and Jack, recognize that this was an impulsive and lucky hit, but at that point of the story Jack’s not going to follow it up by getting into a “mill.” So Freddy, the least likely of combatants, is left holding the field—a neat trick by Heyer. Even in those Group 2 qualities that aren’t his strong suit, he qualifies.
Warrior Virtues in Disguise
Why do Regency heroes (at least in Heyer) have this particular set of Group 2 qualities?
I suggest that the ideal underlying Heyer’s heroes is that of a warrior caste gone to seed. The aristocracy depicted in these stories seems to have occupied itself almost exclusively with trivialities: gaming, fancy dress, gossip, absurd customs and manners enforced by exaggerated social sanctions. But that aristocracy originated in the feudal system established in England after the Norman Conquest.
The basic “social compact” of the feudal system was that a warrior caste was given overlordship of specified lands in exchange for military service—particularly in the cavalry, the realm of the traditional knight. From the standpoint of the king, a vassal drew on the resources of his lands to equip himself and his companions to provide soldiers for the king at need. From the standpoint of the common people, the local lord provided defense in wartime, kept the peace, and administered justice, in return for his authority over his fief. Not that the commoners had much to say about it, of course—but there were reciprocal obligations of the lord to his people: noblesse oblige.
Over the ensuing seven hundred years, the notion of holding lands in exchange for service gradually degenerated into a system of pure inheritance. Succeeding landholders might be anything but warriors, and their support to the Crown was more likely to be financial than military. Yet some of the original ideal remained, a sort of ghostly glamour in the name of remembered glory. The Dorothy Dunnett article quoted above continues:
And the moral etiquette of the books is very much in the comfortable tradition of her time. Behind the Corinthian stands Bulldog Drummond, defending his honor, his land and his lady; and behind them, the courts of chivalry from the days of “armor,” Georgette Heyer’s favorite period.
Our Heyer heroes may spend most of their time playing at vaguely military-like sports: riding, boxing, shooting. But if there ever is a call for soldiery—there they are. And the Regency aristocrats do go to war. Much of the Regency period overlaps that of the Napoleonic Wars, and campaigns on the Continent frequently play a role in the background of a Heyer romance. In this respect, a classic aphorism about war and sports is apropos:
“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Duke of Wellington did not say – although as the Victorian era’s principal supplier of epigrams, he certainly should have. [footnote omitted] For apart from war and preparation for war, it’s in competitive athletics that the Clausewitzian combination of a distilled past, a planned present, and an uncertain future most explicitly come together. (John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (NY: Penguin Press, 2018), ch. 1, p. 26.)
We may note briefly that Heyer’s heroines fit the pattern too. Looking at the covers of the books, one may be tempted to think the women in the stories are purely ornamental, representing the “prize” of the warrior: “None but the brave deserves the fair” (Dryden). But in fact the ladies in these romances are frequently estate managers, skilled at family governance and the organization of veritable armies of workers—just as one might expect from those expected to keep things going on the home front while the defenders are away at war. There’s more to these decorative ladies than meets the eye.
The particular sketch of the ideal male in Heyer’s Regencies, then, may be rooted in a much older ideal: to employ a favorite phrase in jest (oddly enough) of Wodehouse’s, the parfit gentil knight, sans peur et sans reproche. Like Tolkien’s hobbits, the Regency gentleman conceals unexpected resilience beneath an apparently trivial surface. He makes an interesting contrast to more contemporary models of manhood.