Georgette Heyer and the Mystery of the Dictionary

by Alice Von Kannon 

(Author of Heart's Blood)

Could this book from a Scottish bookseller be the key to unlocking the great romance writer's incomparable world of Regency slang?

I have a mystery...

I have a mystery, and I need help to solve it.

This tale began in 2017 when I was doing research for a novel I wrote set in the Regency, my first attempt at this.  I was always a hound for slang – Chris and I both adored all British slang from the time we met in high school, and over the years I did considerable research on the subject. Two other favorites were the Yiddish slang of New York in the early 20th century, and the rich vein of American slang that erupted to the surface in popular culture in the 1930's and 40’s. If you’ve never seen the 1941 film Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, give it a look.  An hysterically funny love letter from director Howard Hawks to this vibrant period of American cant.  

In the film, the professor played by Cooper has a revelation after a chat with a colorful garbage man.  Disgusted with his just-completed twenty-three-page encyclopedia article on slang that he deems “embalmed phrases,” he decides to leave his academic ivory tower to “tap the major sources of slang, the streets, the slums, the theatrical and allied professions.” I never heard a better definition. 

As my own research unfolded, Regency period slang, in all its colorful eccentricity, rapidly became an obsession for me.  I studied the sources, as best I could, the streets, the slums, (rookeries, they were called) as well as the theatrical and allied professions of that time.  I also studied the so-called “cries of London,” the distinctive sing-song patter mostly lost to us now, of street sellers hawking their wares.   


The 'vulgar tongues' of Francis Grose and Pierce Egan

One of the bedrocks of the study of Regency slang is the work of the antiquarian Francis Grose, a man who loved his history.  In 1785 he set down one of the first dictionaries of language considered vulgar at that time.  He called it, in fact, Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.  It was a runaway bestseller.  Now, with Grose in hand, someone who was a “flat,” an ordinary Joe, could learn the secrets of street language, the cryptic patter of carriage drivers and costermongers and street sweepers, and he could translate what he heard.  No more wondering to what degree he’d just been insulted by a jarvy he stiffed for a tip. 

Grose went through three editions, the last one published in 1796, after his death. He was ripped off before he was cold.  A 1795 book called Blackguardiana made a pretense of being an original work, when it really wasn’t.  But, since slang is forever changing, other more legitimate editions of Grose appeared over the years, editions with additions, each one tailored to a new audience.  The 1811 “university” edition, punningly called Lexicon Balatronicum, the fool’s dictionary, supposedly added collegiate slang.  There really aren’t as many changes in it, however, as there are in the next major reissue.  

This was my favorite, the Pierce Egan updated version of 1823.  Egan was essentially a sportswriter, though he was many other things, a man incredibly famous in his own time, tragically forgotten now.  His comic book Life in London, published in 1821, was fabulously popular, the adventures of Tom and Jerry in the Metropolis.  With its very peculiar style, the thing is just riddled with slang, in a nearly musical fashion.  It didn’t take long for Egan to turn his book into a play that was equally popular.  He, too, was ripped off constantly, with tons of books that were unapologetically “Tom and Jerry,” or something near to it, even in France and America.  Heyer’s books are drenched in the sporty lingo of Pierce Egan, which is singular, the Runyonesque chatter of boxing, horse-racing and gambling that was his specialty. 

The original Francis Grose version is everywhere, available in reprints as well as freely distributed on various blogsites.  The Egan version can be a bit harder to find.  I was sick of trying to read my crappy Ulan smeared Xerox print-on-demand  copy of it, with many pages undecipherable, so I decided to blow for an old edition that was properly published.  But the Egan version of Grose wasn’t a perennial, republished again and again throughout the 19th century, which makes it less expensive to lay hands on one that isn’t a first edition.  

I found only four of the Egan editions on ABEbooks, all from 1823.  


Captain Francis Grose, author, artist, antiquarian, and hero to vulgarians everywhere


The Find

One copy in Edinburgh intrigued me.  It had been cut out of its original covers and rebound in Morocco leather, with thirty-two pages of additional definitions tipped in, as well as newspaper clippings and period advertisements.  A possible date for the rebinding was on one of the clippings, 1925.  The binding was pasteboard, almost like a notebook, making it easy to write inside.

Researchers don’t usually buy books that have been mucked up.  I don’t want to try to read through someone else’s notes and highlighting.  But the description of the work from the bookstore said this thing was doubtless the property of a writer, which interested me. They thought it might have belonged to Eric Partridge, the great 20th century lexicographer and author of many books on slang.  They postulated that it could have been a research tool for a new, annotated edition of Grose – it’s the sort of thing Partridge wrote.  The first version of Grose I owned was a gift from a friend, back in the 1990s, and it contained additional notes from Eric Partridge.  Consequently, wondering if this thing belonged to him was a clever supposition, but the bookseller checked and found that Partridge’s handwriting wasn’t a match.  Also, the additional material at the back had nothing to do with slang, and was just too specific on things that would probably only interest someone writing an historical novel.


The seller posted a picture, and to my surprise I felt an instantaneous little lurch of recognition.  I’d just finished reading Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, and I thought I recognized some of the unique handwriting, including a larger first letter with added serifs, aping illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy.  I’d seen it in a very clear picture in Hodge's book, a heading on one of the drawings in Heyer’s meticulous research notes.  However, I didn’t take it very seriously in my own mind, assuming it was just a coincidence.  But out of the four versions available, this one was overall the nicest, and very prettily bound, a thing I can never resist, so I bought it.  

At this point, it's essential to insert a bit of history.  People nowadays are losing sight of how things were done before computers.  In the 19th and 20th centuries it was fairly common for people to craft personal notebooks that were really more what my mother called "pastebooks," bound volumes of individual taste, a blog site in days of yore.  I kept them on several subjects, such as the popular TV-show Dark Shadows, while across town my future husband Chris was doing his Space Flight pastebook of any and all things regarding the space program, newspaper and magazine articles and collectible stickers and patches - like many boys of that period, he wanted to be a test pilot and astronaut. 

My pastebooks were all in three-ring binders, because it was easy and cheap.  If I'd had the pocket money, I might have had my favorites rebound in fine leather, like a real book.  Every town of any size in those days had a bookbinder, and it wasn't yet a lost art.  All sorts of people kept pastebooks, art students, and historians, and fans of a particular actor or writer.  And collectors of arcana, like the slang of a particular period.  


The dictionary and Georgette's Heyer's world of slang

On the day the Egan book arrived from Britain, I’d nearly forgotten I ordered it.  I sat down to read it and it gripped me all over again, far more powerfully than it had when I saw the bookseller’s ad, all the Heyer connections.  At that point I’d read about a dozen of her Regencies, including The Spanish Bride (my first Heyer) and her Waterloo epic, An Infamous Army, and I was beginning to have a feel for her work, and for her superlative mastery of slang.  This pastebook was definitely the work of a Type A neurotic, and I greatly admired it.  In fact, one of the minor ironies of all this is that I can’t bear to use the thing as a reference work; just a cup of coffee sitting on my desk gives me a shiver.  It’s just too delicate, the pages too aged, to suffer regular use. The Egan version of the dictionary was the centerpiece of the volume, but the additions ran the gamut, written on pieces of blank white paper inserted into the text. The clippings and period advertisements cover things Heyer always liked to get right – the book a character buys, its price, ads for accounts of boxing mills like the one in Regency Buck, a lot of stuff about Pierce Egan, and a catalog for his publisher, Sherwood, Jones and Company, with books on everything from popular remedies to travel guides available to readers in the Regency period.  Heyer was an avid collector of books, like most writers, but also of clippings, found odds and ends usable to her. She did incredibly detailed notebooks that covered all the periods she worked in.  

I felt Georgette Heyer specifically in some of the words themselves, odd words I’ve only seen in her novels - for example, the word “tirewoman” is notated with its 17th century source, a word I had in my own notes, one I’d never encountered anywhere but Heyer.  The sources for the additions run the gamut, from earlier, 18th century cant dictionaries to forgotten Grub Street works like The Anti-Pamela, comic novels like The History of Pompey the Little, even 17th century songs. (The works referenced in the dictionary are listed at the close of this article.) 

Another Heyer favorite is the word “gudgeon” for a fool. This word has several meanings, but originally it was a fish, one that I suppose had a dumb expression on its face, and was particularly easy to catch.  Beside this word in Egan, where it’s defined as "one easily imposed upon," is a handwritten reference to Queen Anne’s New World of Words from 1611.  Don’t be misled by the title – it wasn't a slang dictionary.  It’s not only incredibly long, but the bloody thing is in Italian.  The title doesn’t reference Queen Anne of the Stuart line.  John Florio was a member of the Court of James I, and in the toadying fashion of the day, he named it for Anne of Denmark, James’ queen and his personal patron.  Subtitled A Dictionarie of the Italian and English Tongues, it was only the second language dictionary to be published in England.  The obscure word referenced was found on page 439, rimbeccársela, defined as “to swallow a gudgeon, or to believe that the moon is made of green cheese.”  In the research business, this is defined as “working for it.”  

The purpose of some of the entries seemed to be to back up a word definition in Egan/Grose by finding it used the same way in a much older work, thereby more effectively dating it, as well.  Other meanings and spellings were also touched on; for example, the word “dab” Heyer often used, with its many and various meanings.  In Venetia, a “dab” of a girl is one who’s not much on looks or charm.  But often it’s seen in the term for someone who’s an adept, either a dab or a “dab hand” at something.  The insert cites this meaning, an adept, with the word spelled “dabb,” in the 1742 novel The True Anti-Pamela, one of several take-offs on Richardson’s popular 1740 novel Pamela.  

Scattered throughout the dictionary there are pencil notes in the margins.  I don't think there's anything more revealing in the entire book.  I would never write inside a book with a pen.  If I had to do it, I'd use a pencil.  Anything else would be a defacement.  Whoever did this dictionary feels the same.  Think about it - the Egan original has already been cut out of its covers.  There's no issue here of preserving the value of a first edition, and so no reason not to use the pen that's used everywhere else.  But no paste and no pen ever touches the original.  This is someone who works with research books, which are quite often aged and rare.  I think it's unconscious to do this, someone who cringes at the thought of defacing a book.  And yet, just as revealing, the pencil notes are done with the same carefully-added serifs, to make it look more like the type it's beside.  Whoever this was, it's someone who's attempting to make it look as much like a published book as possible.  


The plot thickens

An interesting addition occurs next to the oddball word “gingambobs,” which Grose defines as “toys, bawbles; also a man’s testicles,” while the 1811 adds “also a man’s privities.” In the Egan edition the reference to testicles is removed, while “see Thingumbob” is added, cruising toward the 20th century word “thingamobob.” It is here Egan places the reference to testicles.  This is indicative of the slight, wrangling differences between the two updated Grose dictionaries.  

It’s here that the handwritten addition references an 1811 work by American-born British engraver and author James Peller Malcolm, irresistibly entitled Miscellaneous Anecdotes Illustrative of the Manners and History of Europe During the Reigns of Charles II, James II, William III and Queen Anne.  In it Malcolm references something called Mercurius Infernus. This was a newspaper from the mid-1600s, really what was called a “newsbook,” or a “quarto,” because they were often eight pages long.  They were generally satirical or political or both, and at least a dozen had titles similar to this one, “mercurius” something or other.  Here in the Mercurius Infernus, the notation pulled a quote with the word “tirewoman” noted above, a word not in Egan or Grose.  In fact, both words are mined out of the same paragraph, with gingambobs used as baubles to decorate a lady, put on her by her tirewoman. 

Just one more random example here, to show the level of labor found in the notes throughout.  Let’s go to the first page, the letter “A.” Under the Egan/Grose listing “Abram Men,” these being “pretended madmen,” as well as “Abram sham,” “To pretend sickness,” is inserted a reference to the term “Dummerers or Abraham men” out of the massive 1611 book by Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it Is, With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes and Several Cures of It. In Three Maine Partitions with their Several Sections, Members and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut Up. You can see why it’s fourteen hundred pages long.  It’s not a medical treatise, really, more of a philosophical work.  Burton uses the premise to drag in every topic from passion to constipation, in every historical period.  As with so many works out of the 17th century, the language is pretty dense.  Getting through the thing is a slog, and if you haven’t got a compelling reason, you probably won’t.  The Guardian newspaper reviewed it in 2001, when the New York Times did a reprint of the work, for the first time since 1932.  The reviewer was praising Burton’s work to the skies, but admitted that “The lazy browser won’t even pick this book up off the shelf, let alone open it.” Another vote here for Heyer as the author of this dictionary’s addendums, since she was anything but a lazy browser. 

The time shifts found in all these additions are interesting.  It was one more echo of Heyer, one that only got louder as I studied her work more closely.  Many researchers doing the Regency wouldn’t bother notating words from 1726; they’ve got their hands full with 1810.  Older or newer references only confuse the matter, since you’re trying to ensure you get it right for that moment in time.  However, in this dictionary, nearly all the added word references are from the earlier Georgian period.  Lord knows how long the clipping may have sat in a file, but once again, if we accept a date for the binding as around 1925, we have to look at Heyer around 1925.  

In those early years, Georgette Heyer was a woman who moved through ten centuries of European history and stopped wherever it struck her fancy.  Her first published book was The Black Moth in 1921, set in the mid-18thcentury.  On reading it, I found it mind-boggling that it was the work of a nineteen-year-old girl.  She’d already done, for 1923, The Great Roxhythe, set in the Restoration period, around the 1660s.  Her book for 1925 was set in the 1400s, Simon the Coldheart.  Set aside the fact that Heyer, in her twenties, was also doing contemporary novels, requiring little research.  But looking only at the ones set in an historical period, Simon the Coldheart was followed by These Old Shades in 1926, one of her most popular books, with its slang out of the Georgian period, set roughly in the mid-18th century, its being a reworking of characters from The Black Moth.  Next, in 1928, came The Masqueraders, set in the 1750s after the last Jacobite rebellion, followed by Beauvallet in 1929, in the Tudor period of the mid-1500s.  Next up came the big jump, 1931’s The Conqueror, set of course in the 11th century.  After that came the fun Devil’s Cub, set in the later Georgian period, the story of the son born out of These Old Shades, and finally 1934’s The Convenient Marriage, with a similar time frame to Devil’s Cub.  There’s an early anchor-reference to the battle of Bunker Hill. 

Breathtaking isn’t it? 

For this author, any and all British slang is on the table, a matter of interest.  Heyer was a brilliant young woman, already a compulsive writer, and she was cruising full-speed toward the books for which she would be remembered.  It’s also staggering to think that, after her marriage in 1925, long periods were spent literally in the wild; her husband was a mining engineer before becoming a barrister.  The Masqueraders was written in Tanganyika, without access to anything but the small personal library she had in tow and her memory, which must have been prodigious.  Her fans know that Heyer was a bug on the 18th century, expert on the whole Jacobite thing, all the shifting power plays of that period that she mined for drama.  But I think, in her youth, she was quite simply dazzled by the epic sweep of history.  All of it was her oyster, and she was going to land her personal time machine wherever she wanted. 


In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the age of the studio, actors were expected to move through many forms, as singers, dancers, spouters of Shakespeare, whatever Mr. Mayer wanted at that moment.  It was a system that created or killed, in terms of the incredibly gifted people who flourished in it. 

The same was true of writers in the first-half of the 20th century.  Heyer was a classic example. They had to produce long works, while also crafting clever short stories for the vibrant market for them at that time, and they had to move through genres.  Though writers always had a specialty, most were able to shape-shift.  It kept them employable.  I think it was a law in Britain in the 1930s that anyone who put pen to paper had to produce at least one mystery.  Heyer wrote contemporary mysteries and police procedurals, called “thrillers” by the Brits, with the help of her husband, who was part of the system by that time, as well as short stories, straight historical novels and historical romances.  In her first novels, the ones she herself later suppressed, she even wrote the romance without the history, what is nowadays annoyingly called "chick lit."

I’m trying, as I write this, to get through Heyer’s earlier, medieval novels.  I love the period – as a teenager, I adored Sharon Kay Penman and Rosemary Hawley Jarman.  So far, to tell you the truth, as good as they are, I just don’t think the dialog sparkles the way it does for her Regency and Georgian novels.  It often seems either stodgy or florid.  The nearer she got to the 18th century, the sharper her dialog became.  “Georgian” has become a convenient shorthand for Heyer’s fans and publishers.  But, though it’s often used by antique dealers and the like, it’s sort of a criminally loose adjective; it covers more than a century, from 1714 to 1830.  In other words, Georgian includes the Regency, as well, another word that can be a bit squishy.  Some historians tack on the brief rein of William IV, George’s brother, and take the Georgian period all the way up to the opening of Victoria’s rein in 1837.  It’s quite a stretch.  I always think of the old poem by Walter Savage Landor: 

I sing the Georges four, 

For Providence could stand no more. 

Some say that far the worst

Of all was George the First. 

But yet by some ‘tis reckoned, 

That worse still was George the Second. 

And what mortal ever heard, 

Any good of George the Third? 

When George the Fourth from earth descended, 

Thank God the line of Georges ended. 

Being a Tory at heart, Heyer probably liked that famous poem. 

So, considering how many of her books in this period of the 1920s were set in the 18th century, the additional references to slang of that period make sense, beyond simply an intellectual exercise to date a particular word.  However, you can’t look at the edges and ignore the centerpiece.  This dictionary is built around the Egan/Grose of 1823, which points to what was coming – Regency Buck, her first Regency, published in 1935.  These were the connections that hit me when I opened the book for the first time.  


The verbal cavalcade of 'Regency Buck'

There’s a definite feel to Regency Buck. I even mentioned it at the time I read it in my Amazon review.  Heyer seems determined to craft a portrait of that period defined by its totality.  I think it’s possible that, when she wrote it, it was one more stop in her time machine.  As much as she loved it, maybe she believed the Regency was a period she might not visit again.  This book was going to be more than set in the Regency; it would be a picture of it in its entire.  It’s wordier than her other Regencies.  The detailed descriptions of Brighton Pavilion and the New Road during Judith’s curricle race are symptomatic.  She manages to work in references to every Regency temple, from Almacks to White’s, every Regency sport, from cockfighting to boxing, and every major Regency rake, even if they’re only mentioned by name.  It’s also one of her only Regency novels in which an historical figure is a character, this being Beau Brummel, as if to say that he was such a symbol of the era that he had to be included.  And here, for the first time, was featured the speech of the Regency, an outgrowth of Georgian but different from it, and it already flowed beautifully. 


Heyer wasn’t limited to books she owned for research.  In this period of the 1920s she joined a remarkable institution, the London Library, a private, subscription library with impressive stacks and a generous attitude about lending, ten and fifteen at a time.  It was common then for authors to simply work in the library – for example, John Julius Norwich composed the entirety of his trilogy on Byzantium there, as though it were a private office.  Heyer doesn’t seem to have been one of these.  Remember that everything you wanted to keep for reference out of a library book had to be laboriously written down, a thing I well remember myself.  The various Xerox and mimeograph machines didn’t become common until the 1960’s, and could still be difficult to lay hands on in the 1970s.  Once out of desperation I even tried to photograph the pages of a research book for later reference, a thing that didn’t work very well.  For books that are the life-blood of a project, that are referenced constantly, a writer wants to own them, and a great personal reference library is the proud result of a lifetime of collecting.  When Heyer died, she left over a thousand reference books, these apart from her extensive collection of notebooks and other materials. 

There’s also no question that, if you’re going to do Regency language, a copy of Francis Grose would be an essential tool.  I’m no Georgette Heyer and I’ve got four copies of it, along with an entire shelf of other, related works.  Both biographies of Heyer mention her treasured two-volume leather edition of Life in London, the other Regency-speak essential.  In fact, they’re like bookends.  I find it interesting that, in my dictionary, there’s a pencil note beside the entry for “uncle,” to “See Pierce Egan’s Life in London,” with edition and page noted.  The two works are just inseparable.  Even within the pages of Life in London, Egan urges his faithful readers to lay hands on a slang dictionary.  They just won’t get the gags otherwise.  


Georgette loved the music of language

Jennifer Kloester is the ultimate source for all things Heyer, and her kind help to me is noted at the end of this article.  According to Ms. Kloester, there was no version at all of the Francis Grose Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue listed in the catalog of Heyer’s personal research library when she died.  And I quite simply find it hard to believe that she didn’t own one.

Heyer also had her own personally compiled notebooks of slang, something I’d give a lot to see.  Over the years she notated any interesting word or phrase she came across, apparently quite often failing to note where she’d gotten it.  This wasn’t for publication, nor was it a research paper.  Again, I’m no Georgette Heyer, but I’ve got a personal dictionary myself, on my computer.  At this point, it’s so long and so tangled I’ve promised myself to take a couple of days and reformat it, at least organizing by subject, with some sort of master key.  When I stumble across some incredibly colorful verbiage, from “Don’t come the cowboy with me, Sonny Jim!” to “yopping on” for talking too much, or “duds” for clothes in Dorset, a word that obviously migrated into the American West, I’m always going to write it down.  This doesn’t make the Grose dictionary any the less a necessity to me, and I don’t believe it would to any other serious author writing Regency dialog. 

It should be remembered that writers like Heyer, and there are few, didn’t get all their authentic period language by lifting out of a couple of dictionaries.  She made herself conversant with the vast scope of Regency speech to be found in total immersion, reading the novels and journals and newspapers of the period.  She was lucky in being British, for so much of the idiom and slang of her own period was a survivor of an earlier time.  This is easy to see in the speech of Bertie Wooster in any P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves & Wooster or Drones Club story.  He was a contemporary of Heyer’s, and much of the sparkling chatter of Heyer's characters like Freddy Standen and Ferdy Fakenham just reeks of Wodehouse, particularly in its rhythm.  But phrases like “he’s a complete hand,” a Heyer favorite, don’t appear in Grose or Egan; they were common idioms of Britain then and now, because in Britspeak, common idioms tend to have a very long shelf life. 

In the end, it seems clear that Georgette Heyer valued three things in her work; historical accuracy, a nice bit of humor, and felicity of language.  The slang was a big part of all of these, part of the fun of writing for her.  She adored the English language. 


Jennifer Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer's Regency World

I’m working on a blog post about Heyer’s mystery novels, where this deft language of hers goes conspicuously missing.  Of course they're well-written.  But for now, suffice it to say that I think she wrote them, in large part, for the sake of the critics, who often savaged her.  Her romances, these carefully-crafted Sheridanesque comedies of manners, were dismissed as featherweight female fodder.  Far worse, she was, on occasion, attacked for not getting the history right by critics who sensed how hard she was working, and who liked to pounce over as little as a single word, doubting its genuineness for the period.  Like all novelists, particularly comic ones, she was sometimes lambasted for supposedly crafting a world that wasn’t in the least real.  

But when anyone questioned her use of a particular bit of slang, she fired back, guns blazing.  This meant something to her, far beyond simple research.  

Our language is an enormous part of what we are as human beings, and the words we choose a statement about our place in it. This was particularly true in class-obsessed Britain.  As Henry Higgins once sang, “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.” Heyer's obsession with words was more than a personal foible; it lay at the heart of the world she lived in, as well as the fictional one she built. 

But in the final analysis, every author of historical fiction knows that the world he’s crafting is, in the end, a conceit.  It’s essentially a fantasyland, no less than Middle Earth or the planet Arrakis.  History is our anchor to that world, keeping us always connected to the core truths of human nobility and human folly.  Serious authors of historical fiction live out their lives surrounded by a mountain of minutia, always struggling to “get it right,” to craft a world that at the very least might have been, one that reflects the essentials of that time and place. 

For me, the great charm of Heyer’s Regency world is that, not only is it one that might have been, it’s one I long to visit, no less than some character in a Twilight Zone episode, desperately attempting to cling to a nostalgic past that never really existed – this was a favorite storyline for Rod Serling, one he trotted out again and again. Yes, the real Regency was a world of infant mortality and typhus and grinding poverty and social injustice — all the hallmarks of human misery.  Unfortunately, what’s left of American letters has become slavishly dystopian.  Only the misery of humanity is granted any legitimacy or literary weight.  Fiction itself is under assault from many in the elite, the novel labeled an art form that no longer has any legitimate function in the brave new world.  Schools have begun to toss fiction out of the mix of what our kids read in the classroom.  Poe and Hawthorne and Melville are now dead white guys.  But if novels exist to perform three functions, to inspire, to inform, but above all to entertain, Heyer had it down pat. 

One of the works cited in the dictionary's notes, Pompey the Little, is a charming novel, considered by historians to be the first “it-narrative,” utilizing a non-human point of view. In this case, it’s the observations on society of a small lap dog named Pompey.  In his preface, the author, the Reverend Francis Coventry, dedicates the work to Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones.  The good reverend decries those who hold novels in contempt, pseudo-intellectuals and the generally grim-minded who take great pains to let you know they never read them.  He offers to speak a few words on the behalf of novel-writing: 

"To convey instruction in a pleasant manner, and mix entertainment with it, is certainly a commendable undertaking, perhaps more like to be attended with success than graver precepts; and even where amusement is the chief thing consulted, there is some little merit in making people laugh, when it is done without giving offense to religion, or virtue, or good manners. If the laugh be not raised at the expense of innocence or decency, good humour bids us to indulge it, and we cannot well laugh too often. "

I doubt I could find an epitaph on Heyer’s work that would have pleased her more. 


Detection Unlimited, one of Heyer's contemporary mystery novels

The answer is elusive

Jennifer Kloester

Jennifer Kloester is the ultimate source for all things Heyer, author not only of one of the two bios of Heyer, but of that greatest of sourcebooks for writers and fans, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World.  It’s a stunning work. The first time I read it, there were so many Post-it flags in the thing it became a bit silly.  I finally pulled them all out and just reread it.  Again and again and again.  No, it’s not just for researchers.  If you have any interest at all in the Great Georgette or in Regency London, buy it, read it, treasure it.  I also recommend her website, All Things Georgette.  It is indeed.   

The remarkable thing about Ms. Kloester is her kindliness and her accessibility.  She hangs out on Goodreads, that noble online coffee-house of bibliophiles, answering any and all questions, but I didn’t know that at the time I first acquired the dictionary.  I had yet to really discover Goodreads.  When I decided to just break down and call her, feeling like the worst sort of nuisance, she spent nearly an hour on the phone with me from Australia, talking to Chris, as well.  She’s more than a great intellect.  She’s a great lady.  

Ms. Kloester felt it was a possibility that the book belonged to Heyer, but was swayed in the end toward the negative by the fact that none of the handwriting she personally had samples of was a dead-match for the handwriting in the dictionary, so, consequently, the choice of words and subjects wasn’t a closer for her.  She sent photos of the research notes she had that Heyer had written.  To my eye, there’s an undeniable similarity; both hands were very small and very tight, and more important, once again, all sketches have the formalized headings with added serifs that appear in the dictionary.  (I've posted these samples below.)  She did bring up a fascinating point, that some of what’s written in my dictionary could have been put down by her husband, Ronald Rougier, who often helped Heyer in her work, particularly once that work became vital to the household finances.  This hadn’t occurred to me, though I still think this was an early acquisition, when she was just getting started as a writer, in the 1920’s.  However, she did marry young, in that same year of 1925.  

Ms. Kloester also put me onto a fascinating bit of trivia, suggesting it might have been the property of one Jeffrey Farnol, another author of Regency and Georgian period romances who also wallowed in period language.  Farnol was very popular in his own time, but his books are hard to get hold of now, consigned to the world of second-hand bookstores.  I couldn’t even find a fan website with a brief outline of the story of each novel.  Barbara Cartland, the Calamity Jane of Regency romance, actually reissued a couple of Farnol’s books in paperback form in the 1970’s, with her own name billboarded across the top as “Barbara Cartland’s Library of Love,” in letters three times as big as the author’s.  But beware these editions, as they are no labour of love – she edited the original to ribbons, apparently convinced the modern reader wouldn’t have the patience to get through it. 


Jeffery Farnol

I researched the deliciously odd Mr. Farnol, so tragically forgotten now.  Actually, Farnol preceded Heyer by roughly two decades, and was doubtless an influence on her, one of many.  Near the end of our conversation, Ms. Kloester herself had second thoughts, I’m certain because Farnol was so much earlier.  But it’s still a possibility.  

Interestingly, Farnol also had a small, tight hand when he wrote, though, based on what little is available to be seen on the Internet, there are few similarities in style of individual letters.  Farnol lived in America for a time, in New Jersey, and he liked to hang out in New York, making the acquaintance of various types.  Like so many writers, he had a taste for the underbelly of society, getting to know characters he would later employ in his stories.  His novel The Definite Object features a millionaire safecracker in New York.  Shades of A.J. Raffles!  His first hit, published in 1910, was a major one, The Broad Highway, and interestingly, it was a huge hit in America. This guy was not a failure.  On the contrary, several of his forty books were bestsellers, and at least one was made into a popular film, The Amateur Gentleman, a story of the world of boxing in the Regency that was published in 1913.  Another interesting Heyer connection.  

Historians try to think like scientists, but the truth is we’re often derailed, carried off by the Romantic. Consequently, I’ve tried hard not to think this book belonged to Georgette Heyer – it just seems safer that way, and far more academically sound.  And yet, I’m still in the thick of it, trying to dig deeper.  Putting out this web page is part of it, in the hope someone might see something they recognize.  The truth is, something in my gut still says I’ve got about a fifty-fifty shot this did, indeed, belong to her. 

If anyone out there knows of another author, contemporaneous with Heyer, who also worked in Regency slang, particularly if there was a Pierce Egan or a boxing connection, I’d love to hear about it at 


The Handwriting

I’m no handwriting expert, but when I look up things on the Internet that we know Heyer wrote, or examine examples used in her biographies, I see similarities with the dictionary.  First, they were both changeable; her handwriting seemed to shift, perhaps not so much based on age as on what she was doing.  A personal letter, a long series of research notes, and a heading on a research drawing didn’t look the same.  The other main similarity I see is that they are both a small, tight hand that only gets big and formal when labeling something.  And, if both are Heyer, it seems clear that her handwriting only got more and more cramped as the years passed.  

In both my dictionary and Heyer’s handwriting there seemed to be a more or less constant shift between print and script and formal serif lettering, even at times within the same word. For example, many small “fs” in both of them begin as cursive script, and finish as print.  Small “d” and “b” shift.  At times they look more like standard handwriting, with tail intact, then it shifts, and it starts probably at the top, with a closed loop for the body, and no tail of any sort. I find this business of the small “g” in both Heyer and the dictionary fascinating, where it has been made to look like type.  It’s singular to do that.  But this business of labeling images, an attempt to have something handwritten resemble something published, is the main similarity I see, though there are others.  It seems like a mental shift, “Now I’m printing, now I’m writing, now I’m labeling,” that causes a shift in style of individual letters. 


Detail from Jennifer Kloester's private collection of Heyer's writer's notebooks


I do think almost everything in the dictionary was considered by its writer to be a more formal labeling type of handwriting, rather than notes. The goal is for the additions to more closely resemble printed text. And, if its writer was Heyer, that means that what’s written on her research drawings are the samples to be looked at for a possible match. 

The saga continues

So I'm asking for your help...

The one thing I don’t see, anywhere, is the curving, fluid arcs of a more florid sort of handwriting, like the prettiest cheerleader had in high school.  Always makes me think of that line out of Jean Kerr’s play, Mary, Mary – “I’ll bet when she writes she uses brown ink, and she draws little circles over the i.” Nope, none of that sort of whimsy is anywhere to be seen, in provable Heyer or my dictionary.  Again I’m no expert, but what I see with my own eyes is tight lettering and a probable death grip on that pen.  That is, until the headings, when the level of care and additional serifs are of interest.  Personally, I think the science of graphology, attempting to gauge personality based on handwriting, is a lot of bunkum.  However, it’s interesting to note that small, tight letters like this supposedly indicate an intellectual, while the florid sweep and arc is an extrovert.  Heyer was a brilliant woman and anything but an extrovert. 

Out of curiosity, I dug up some of my own handwriting from the long-ago past, and found it, surprisingly, more changed than I had expected.  Even the tilt has changed. It used to be pretty-much upright, now I slant to the left. I always preferred printing to script, and used to indulge the little affectation of making my small “e” with two strokes, one like a “c,” the other a slash across it.  That sort of thing died by my thirties.  By my forties, I’d forgotten entirely how to do script, and the loose feel to what I’d printed was gone.  Now, I seem to type everything, and I’m lucky if I can read my own grocery list.  

So this is where I find myself now. 

It's difficult to examine a lot of these samples in blurry photographs, but I have tried.  In all of it, over decades, the samples vary, reflecting purpose.  I haven't anything definitive that can say whether this copy of Grose/Egan really belonged to, and was amended by, Georgette Heyer herself.  There's no question that the two biggest arguments for this being the case are in the serif-lettering for headings, and in the content.  But there is also no question that what I do have is an annotated variation of Grose/Egan that has not been published and likely was never meant to be.  It's unquestionably a resource in its own right. That alone makes it intriguing.  I'm not the least interested in selling it.  Regardless of who did it, it has become one of my small treasures.  

But if it's Heyer's, why isn't it with her other books?  The answer, literally, is who knows?  Every time I've ever moved, books have gone missing.  But I've reached an age at which I've coped with a lot of death, and a lot of estates, both large and small.  Sometimes the reason for losses is obvious.  My brother ran a Green magazine, and lived far out in the country.  Even so, when he died, his house was broken into and trashed before I could get there.  But this isn't usually a question of thievery, or even of borrowing.  Far from it.  When people die, stuff goes missing.  It's just part of the messy business of death.  

So, this is my SOS, my call for help.  Does anyone out there see something familiar in the pictures?  Can anyone contribute more to solving this mystery?


                            •        •        •   


Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1611.

Queen Anne’s New World of Words, A Dictionarie of the Italian and English Tongues, 1611, by John Florio. Also, alongside the term “Button,” to which the note has added the vulgarism “making buttons,” a later revision of Florio is cited, from 1659, The Dictionary of Italian and English, by Torriano. 

A New Diurnal of Passages Printed and Published by Henry Elsing – this was an old newsbook, precursor to the newspaper, in the Grub Street days.  Often a “quarto,” meaning eight pages long.  This one is dated June, 1643.

The Pursuits of Literature, 13th edition, 1805, no author listed.  This was a long and very popular satirical poem mocking intellectuals of the day, composed at the end of the 19th century by Thomas James Matthias, who was also a scholar of Italian. 

The True Anti-Pamela, Memoirs of Mr. James Parry – not to be confused with the more famous Anti-Pamela by Grub Street scribbler Eliza Heywood – One of several satires of the nauseating 1740 novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson.

Mercurius Infernus, or News From the Other World, this being another Grub Street product, a bawdy periodical from the 1650s, one of several with similar titles. It is cited as the source within another source, James Peller Malcolm’s Miscellaneous Anecdotes Illustrative of the Manners and History of Europe During the Reigns of Charles II, James II, William III and Queen Anne.

Mercurius Pragmaticus, a tragi-comic play enacted at Paris, 1641.  The play is also listed as Mercurius Britannius. 

David Erskine Baker, Biographia Dramatica, or a Companion to the Playhouse, by David Erskine Baker, anecdotes of theatre history for the 18th century.

No author or editor is listed for a collection out of 1662 entitled, Rump: or an Exact Collection of the Choysest Poems and Songs relating to the late times – by the most eminent Wits, from anno 1639 to anno 1661. 

English Proverbs With Moral Reflections, by Oswald Dykes, 1709.

“The Post of the Sign,” a poem in Volume II of Musarum Deliciae, (subtitled The Muses Recreation, Wit Restor’d) 1640.  This collection bears the subtitle of Facetiae, this being a collection of limericks and jokes, poems and songs, heavy on the naughty. Lots of toilet humor. 

The History of Pompey the Little, 1751, by the Rev. Francis Coventry.

Life and Memoirs of Mr. Ephraim Tristram Bates, 1756 – this forgotten novel is sometimes referred to simply as “Corporal Bates,” and some interesting articles, particularly by Helen Sard Hughes, draw the line between this work and a far more famous one that followed, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which was clearly, at the very least, inspired by Corporal Bates.  Even names and various scenes are the same.  

“Two Parsons; or the Tale of a Shirt,” in Poetical Vagaries by George Coleman the Younger, 1812.

New Dictionary of the Canting Crew – this work, with only the anonymous “B.E.” as its compiler, was published in 1698, and remained the standard dictionary of thieves’ cant and vulgarisms until Grose was published in 1785. 

The Courtezan, by the author of the Meretriciad, Captain Edward Thompson, 1765.  Thompson was a naval officer who also wrote plays and satires, as well as a few works about the British navy.  This particular poem reads like something a bit older, and it’s fairly ribald. Most versions spell courtesan with an “s.” 

“The Life of Cesar Borgia,” Chpt 7, Book Five of The Holy State, by Thomas Fuller, 1642 – the book is sometimes called by its full title, The Holy State and the Profane State.  Fuller was a churchman as well as an historian, and this five-volume work is a series of essays containing archetypes illustrating good and evil.  

“The Kingdom in the Rein of Charles II,” Biographical History of England by J. Granger, 1824. 

“A Ballad of a Priest That Lost His Nose,” in A Collection of Seventy-Nine Black Letter Ballads and Broadsides Printed Between 1559 and 1597, Joseph Lilly, 1870.

The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith, collected by James Prior, 1837.

The Great Historical, Geographical, Genealogical and Poetical Dictionary, Jeremy Collier, 1701.

Sonnets of the 18th Century and Other Small Poems, 1809, a volume put together for publisher George Kearsley of Fleet Street.

The Universal Songster, or Museum of Mirth  - this is the single addition with no date, but it was an incredible collection of popular songs for every subject, published in two volumes, 1826.

“Strip-Me-Naked, or Royal Gin Forever,” a poem in The London Magazine, volume XX for 1751.

“Bardolph and Trulla,” poem appearing in The London Chronicle newspaper, Dec. 1–3 issue, 1757.  This was an evening quarto that lasted until 1765. 

©2020 Alice Von Kannon


Maybe she's having a good laugh at my expense.