Posted by: annmariegamble | April 21, 2010

In Which Georgette Heyer and Remington Steele Are Juxtaposed

I stumbled across Remington Steele on Hulu and figured I’d take the opportunity to actually see the show.

It’s a detective show that was on the air from 1982 to 1987. For a variety of reasons, my access to TV as a kid was spotty, and in spite of the crush-worthy Pierce Brosnan, I’d only seen a couple of episodes.

As an adult, it turns out a big part of its appeal for me was seeing office supplies from the 1980s. The clocks! The computers! The big chunky phones with cords! A VW Rabbit as a glam car,’80s clothes, ’80s hair (and, oh, okay, ’80s Pierce Brosnan).

After a few days of rewinding to catch plot points I’d missed in my focus on set dressing, I decided the pull of the decade was sufficiently strong that I’d go see Hot Tub Time Machine. The film, which was made now, takes the characters back to the ’80s. There’s some clever casting—’80s teen crushes, the dad from Back to the Future—and a light hand with clothes and makeup (like actual shows from the ’80s). One of the first clues the time travelers have that something’s afoot is a cell phone that’s bigger than my current landline phone (and that’s the extent of office equipment lust in this picture).

Meanwhile during the ’80s fest, I’m reading my second Georgette Heyer novel. In the 1930s, Heyer about singlehandedly created the genre of Regency romance. This is the time period in which Jane Austen lived and about which she wrote (others have argued about whether Austen created the genre; she was writing popular novels about contemporary times; would you mark her or her followers as a subgenre?).

Heyer doesn’t just write novels that take place in the Regency period, but she writes in the style of Regency writers. Not just topics or set dressing, but language, sentence by sentence. There’s no modern apology for the mores of the time; no veneer over the fact that women who didn’t marry had better have inheritances, for example.

Heyer nails it so well I want to know more about her process. She did it by reading, not by being there. Was there painstaking research? Did she have a good ear? A good reader? She also wrote mysteries (that don’t take place during the Regency period), and I want to read some of those and see what sort of tone they strike.

The comparison between Hot Tub Time Machine and Heyer raises another question: why write about this particular time? HTTM may be placed in the ’80s only to move the main characters to their youth—they could just as well have made jokes about Nixon or Clinton instead of Reagan. Heyer may have been paying homage to Austen, not making a political statement or highlighting a feature of culture that had changed between then and now. Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities sixty years after the French Revolution and highlighted the brutality of the takeover rather than the overthrow of the monarchy or the formation of a new republic, what caught the attention of other writers.

Sometimes a work about a past period offers insight that someone immersed in the time period can’t see. Sometimes it’s just easier to read. The appeal is a little bit nostalgia, a little bit anthropology, a little bit armchair time travel. Have you got a favorite time period or a favorite interpreter?

    * * *

Another ’80s flashback, at least for me. One of those analogies from the SATs:

Jane Austen : Georgette Heyer :: Remington Steele : Hot Tub Time Machine

Your reward for entertaining the premise:

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