On Georgette Heyer

The marvelous Classics Circuit has taken Georgette Heyer as its author on tour this month, and I chose to read her biography, an impressive sleight of hand on the part of its author, Jane Aiken Hodge, as Heyer was one of the most private of bestselling authors. She steadfastly refused to enter into any sort of publicity venture, to the chagrin of her publishers, and when The Times finally persuaded her, aged 70, to have her photograph taken to accompany a respectful overview of her work, her first impulse was to tell them she was just off to the South Pole. But despite the blanks that often fall in significant places in her life (the unexplained near-breakdown she suffered towards the end of the Second World War, for instance), a vivid portrait emerges of a formidable and yet strangely fragile woman.

‘Romantic I am not,’ Georgette Heyer is once reported to have said, which might seem an odd declaration for a writer who spawned a highly particular genre of historical romantic comedy. And yet the circumstances of her life repeatedly obliged her to take a pragmatic and commanding role. Like many of her heroines, she grew up close to her father, a tomboy with a sharp, witty tongue. He encouraged her to read widely and was instrumental in getting her to publish her first novel, The Black Moth, at the precocious age of 19. A rip-roaring romance that she would later be slightly ashamed of, she had made it up to tell her younger brother, Boris, while he was ill in bed. A compulsive writer, Heyer leapt into print, producing a string of early novels in various genres, some of which (straight novels with autobiographical leanings) she later suppressed. But the need to make money went hand in hand with Heyer’s delight in writing. Her father’s early death left her family short of cash, and she saw her books as a way to stabilize the family finances. When she married Ronald Rougier and had a son of her own, she carried on as the head of this household as well, becoming the main breadwinner while her husband stuttered through an early and unsuccessful career as a mining engineer and then changed direction completely to train as a barrister.

All of which meant that Heyer was constantly and often quite intensely bothered about money. Although in the early days it might have been about basic survival, that struggle with money continued throughout her life for Heyer had expensive tastes which, as a bestselling author, she felt she had earned the right to indulge. She loved beautiful clothes and furniture, good food, nice surroundings, and whilst Aiken Hodge clearly admires and respects her subject and rarely has a bad word to say about her, there is a distinct preoccupation with class in Heyer’s life and novels that indicate her steely edge. Manners and morals, aristocratic birth and social standing, these are not superficial concerns in her stories, but basic building blocks of her Regency world. In Jane Austen’s work entitlement is a characteristic attributed to the vain, but in Heyer’s world it’s rarely mocked or undermined because it mattered. You get the impression that Heyer was not born into the best strata of society, but that her family felt they belonged to it, and that as Heyer grew older and gained a stronger self of self-worth, she effortlessly ranked herself quite high in the social scale and was proud of it.

This was partly why she had endless running battles with the taxman. The Rougiers could not and would not understand taxation, and Heyer resented every penny she had to donate to a welfare state that she did not agree with. The result was howls of horror whenever a tax bill came, and much grumbling that now she would need to write another book to cover the cost of earning money from the previous one. For all that she cared a great deal about her income, neither Heyer nor her husband seems to have had a good business brain, which meant her complicated affairs were often in a muddle. Fifty-one novels sold in Britain and America, scattered across a number of publishers and re-issues – it was an accountant’s nightmare, and not surprising that in the absence of one, Heyer’s financial affairs were mishandled and haphazard.

If there was one thing Georgette Heyer did not like, it was the feeling of being taken advantage of, and she reacted to it strongly. The word ‘formidable’ crops up more and more in descriptions of her as she gets older, and it’s clear that she turned into a right tartar. She resented her first agent, for instance, for having fallen too readily in with her belief that the paperback was a vulgar phenomenon. In later years, realizing the potential sales she might have missed, she felt he should have persuaded her otherwise, but getting Heyer to do anything she didn’t want to, particularly where her books were concerned, was quite the trick. Very few in the publishing world were brave enough to cross her wishes. The one great redeeming feature of her harsh tongue was that she was aware of it and turned it against herself. Writing to the Bodley Head on seeing the proofs for False Colours she wrote sternly ‘For Christ’s sweet sake – NO! My plots are abysmal, and I think of them with blood and tears; I did not say that I was especially fond of False Colours! What I may well have said was that I don’t think it stinks as much as The Nonesuch. […] I did warn you I was hell-to-deal-with, didn’t I?’

It’s intriguing to pause here and consider that the book Heyer is both defending and ripping to shreds is a charming, light, funny comedy, designed to lift the spirits of its readers. Heyer was the unchallenged mistress of a certain kind of story that whisked people away from their dull worries and transported them to a world of lively, romantic interaction. All the half-baked approximations of her style that have been published ever since only show how very well she did what she did. And it seems strangely out of keeping with her character, which was fierce and often a touch depressive. If she wrote these stories to gladden others, it seems they could not quite touch her own heart, and that may be because she never received the serious critical acclaim she wanted. Like many a popular writer, she felt the more literary aspects of her work were overlooked – the accuracy of her historical detail, the sprightliness of her style. She took to being harshly self-deprecating of her own work, longing for the right kind of approval whilst dismissing her writing out of hand and refusing to talk about it in public. I’m divided about this as Georgette Heyer is not literature. No one whose heroes come out of drawers entitled Mark I: ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’ and Mark II: ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich and a famous whip’ is mounting a challenge to Hemingway, entertaining as those descriptions are. But so what? What Heyer does is wonderful, and she will always stand as the original and best in her category of writing. It seems to me that, similarly to her sense of social standing, Heyer felt entitled to be a little more than she was, and could not accept less.

But one story about her writing cannot fail to touch the heart, and it seems it stuck with Heyer, too. Of all her fan mail, she only kept one letter, and that came from a woman who had been incarcerated in a Romanian prison for 12 long years. Shortly before her arrest she had read Friday’s Child, and, having a retentive memory, found herself able to tell it over and over again to the other prisoners. ‘Truly,’ the letter runs, ‘your characters managed to awaken smiles, even when hearts were heavy, stomachs empty and the future very dark indeed!’ What greater tribute could an author possibly ask for? And what greater justification for popular and escapist fiction as a much-loved necessity against the rigors of the world.

The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge

The rest of the tour dates for Georgette Heyer can be found here.

22 thoughts on “On Georgette Heyer

  1. I’ve never read Heyer’s books, as I’m not a fan of the romance genre, historical or otherwise, although I know Heyer is certainly several notches above the usual fare labeled “romantic fiction.” But as often happens, hearing about a writer’s life sparks an interest in their books that the work itself never quite managed to do.

    This biography sounds very well done. Thanks for the excellent review🙂

  2. What a fascinating woman! I find it really interesting how there are so many women writers who began writing in order to make money to keep the family afloat. It makes me wonder if such circumstances were an excuse women who wanted to write made so society wouldn’t look askance at their employment or if it was just one of the few legitimate options for work available to a certain class of women? Maybe both? Anyway, great post!

  3. What a fascinating and sad life. I did read that she was intensly private, and many of her fans only saw her photo when it was published with her obituary. I love the story about the letter from the Romanian prisoner. It must be wonderful to be able to touch people’s lives in that way. Romance writers are so often criticized for writing fluff, but what’s wrong with a little escapism? I heard from a writer friend that romance books are still selling like crazy despite the recession, and I believe it.

  4. I have wondered about this book- whether I’d want to know about Heyer the woman when I already like her as Heyer the author. I hear she also really looked down on the fans of her work, thinking they were pretty simple and easily amused. I don’t think I would have liked her- but I’m glad she kept writing🙂 I feel so many authors are like her, fearing that they aren’t taken seriously until they write a “real” book, which is why she turned to the historical novels, which were pretty unsuccessful compared to her romances. Sad😦

  5. When I read this biography I often thought of Heyer as very formidable–the perfect word for her! She was such a paradoxical woman–I’m not sure I would have liked her in real life (she was definitely a bit of a snob), or that (and this I am pretty certain of) that she wouldn’t have liked me. She didn’t seem particularly interested in/fond (?) of women and I was almost amazed she liked her daughter-in-law (who didn’t read romance novels of the type Heyer wrote, which was probably a good thing and in her favor), so she must have been someone who could hold her own as well. Still, I completely respect her for what she managed to do and do well, all the while being critical of her own efforts. Certainly the books are in a way very formulaic and not at all high brow, but they do serve a need. There’s something comforting about knowing you can pick up one of her books when your feeling down or can’t concentrate properly on something more challenging. I was curious about those books she had suppressed and just recently got one of them via my library’s ILL service, so will be very curious to read it. Unfortunately I thought I had the Classics Circuit subscribed to, but I didn’t, so I have missed all these great sign ups to join in, but oh well (thanks for the heads up). Lovely post, Litlove–it was nice revisiting the Aiken bio via your post!

  6. That’s such a poignant story. It reminds me of the point of the movie “Sullivan’s Travels.” I think a writer who offers pleasure and escape has every reason to be proud. It isn’t that easy–genuine escape isn’t that common.

  7. I read this biography for the first time about three years ago and, while I like her books and find them amusing and comforting, I love Heyer herself and, for better or for worse, see many shared traits (not necessarily the ones that make either of us popular). I think the thing that really did it was learning that she and I are the same height, which also explained why a number of her heroines are abnormally tall. Knowing so much more about her and her writing process gave me infinitely more enjoyment of her novels.

  8. Excellent review. I have long been interested in reading this biography on Heyer and you have given a great overview and impressions. Her life seemed tumultuous. The parallel with her plots is interesting to consider. Of the four novels I have read so far (Friday’s Child, The Grand Sophy, Sylvester and The Quiet Gentleman)the plots often take outrageous turns and the characters lives revolve around money (the lack of it or abundance)much like her own life. I look forward to reading this biography. Thanks again.

  9. Pingback: Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester – A Review « Austenprose

  10. Interesting stuff here! Especially interesting is the way she wished her writing was taken more seriously and considered more literary. If she wanted literary acclaim, surely there are more direct routes than writing romances? But still, it’s quite a skill to write to thrill readers in the way she can.

  11. Really? Georgette Heyer? I have to go back and take a look. It’s funny the books and authors one might breeze past…yet i believe I read something of hers ages ago…I’m going back to look. that’s just one of the things I love about book blogs, yours especially. It’s like an awakening…just when I thought I was awake!
    And now, to find a list of her books…and see if I can cull the one or two I read ages ago…thanks, LL!

  12. The more I learn about GH, the more I admire her for accomplishing what she did and maintaining her privacy and fighting for her work. I like her books–they’re usually fun to read, and I admire her attention to detail.

    This was a first rate post about a very influential writer–I think I would really enjoy this bio of her.

    Thanks.

  13. This post was so interesting! I’d never have guessed from the two of her books I’ve read so far that she would be so fierce and self-critical. I’m finding her books delightful, although I have always slightly looked down my nose at them in the past. That’ll teach me to be judgmental.😛

  14. What a fascinating review! I was not overly impressed with the one book of hers I chose to read for the Classics Circuit, and I can definitely see a sense that to be part of the upper echelon of society was very important to Heyer. I appreciate the time you took to share more of her life with your readers. It helps me understand her works a bit more.

  15. Becca – have a look at the other reviews around at the moment thanks to the Classics Circuit. Heyer wrote a lot of books and some are better than others. I have a fondness for The Grand Sophy and Faro’s Daughter, but these are in the fluffy vein, whereas some of her more historical novels, like Spanish Bride and The Talisman are also meant to be good.

  16. Okay, having a few problems with my internet connection tonight, but hopefully I can continue responding to comments…

    Stefanie – it’s true and a most intriguing issue. I think it certainly motivated women to exercise their creativity, as being a writer was something they COULD do as it meant working from home, when so many other professions were foreclosed. But then there must have been some pleasure in the act as well as the sense of providing for loved ones.

    Karen – I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with a little escapism. Everyone needs it now and then, and I’d much rather hit the Georgette Heyer shelf than the booze cabinet!🙂

    Aarti – it IS sad, because there’s no need to undervalue any kind of creative talent. Different readers like different things. But the literary world has always suffered from ghettos, and I remember reading Elizabeth Jane Howard writing in her memoir that she went from being a respected author to a writer of pot-boiling romances when her series about the Cazalet family sold a lot of copies. Not fair.

    Danielle – your post made me go out and get the book in the first place! There’s room in this world for all kinds of fiction, and readers often need and appreciate variety. You know I love reading all sorts of things, and I’m hugely thankful that there are writers like Heyer (and Clare Chambers, and Agatha Christie, and Victoria Clayton, all intelligent comfort reads) out there. I need to be soothed as well as enlightened. But wow – I didn’t realise quite how forceful Heyer was as a person! I’m very glad that struck you too. I nearly ended up writing the whole review about that, when I should also have mentioned her sense of humour, and what a good friend she was.

    Kathleen – I often feel the same. I am a real sucker for authors bios!

    Lilian – couldn’t agree with you more. Any author who can create their own plausible world should be very pleased with themselves!

    Claire – she does fly the flag for tall women the world over, doesn’t she? And there is much about her that’s so admirable. She really did support two families for years and years on the proceeds of her writing. If she got cranky, then it’s worth remembering how much responsibility she shouldered and how much she cared about her writing. All very fine traits indeed.

  17. Laurel Ann – you’re welcome! It’s a wonderful biography, one of those ones that reads like a novel in itself. And it would be really interesting to look closer at the parallels between her life and the novels. She told readers to search for her in her books, so I really think you’re onto something there.

    Dorothy – yes, it struck me as a little odd, but I’m guessing it arose out of the sense of being unjustly dismissed as a writer. Her research library was enormous (although her inability to reference anything would give your average academic a panic attack). But I got the feeling that it was in her nature to focus on what was wrong rather than what was right. If it had been otherwise, she might have realised quite how much she could be proud of.

    oh – do have a read of other reviews on this Classics Circuit, as the blogging reaction to her work has been mixed, and you’ll get a better idea of what she writes and which books are the better ones. I’d love to know what you think if you do read one. Pick her up when you need some harmless escapism…

    Jane – she was a very steadfast woman who accomplished a great deal – and that’s admirable. I loved this biography; it read so easily and was continually interesting. I’d love to know what you think of it if you read it!

    Jenny – lol! I couldn’t get over the difference myself. Her heroines are so fresh and charming and subversive only in the wittiest ways, and there’s Heyer, chainsmoking, ferocious and tearing strips off her editors as an armchair sport. Who’d a thought it??🙂

    Michelle – the writer hasn’t yet lived who pleased all of the readers all of the time! She isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that’s just fine. But I did enjoy the biography – it was so well written and just like a novel itself. I do love learning more about authors, too, as I agree it helps to get into their novels.

  18. She sounds like a really interesting women and a product of the very strict class structure of the times. Can you imagine a popular writers saying they didn’t believe in taxes now? Not sure anyone could get away with that.

  19. I admit I did not love the first Heyer novel I read recently, but this biography sounds incredibly fascinating. Hearing that she did not consider herself a romantic suggests to me that I tried to take her novel far to seriously, and maybe I should have approached her as MAKING FUN of the genre. Thanks for this interesting review!

  20. I am a great fan of Heyer in both historical and detective mode and very much enjoyed the biography – your excellent analysis picks up a great many of the points that occurred to me on reading it. I find it faintly surprising that so many people feel the need to apologise for enjoying her work or list it as a ‘guilty pleasure’ – it is intelligently written light fiction that both relaxes and cheers and I cannot see why there should be a problem with that.

    A large number of post-war writers mention the punitive taxes of the period – Allingham makes it a plot device in ‘The Beckoning Lady’ – and these days Heyer would probably be a tax exile. I agree that the extent of her self-mocking probably stemmed from the lack of regard as a ‘proper’ writer despite the research – she was planning a more serious medieval trilogy when she died – but I would argue that she probably didn’t have this in her. ‘An Infamous Army’, which has pages of references at the end and I believe was used at Sandhurst as an accessible introduction to the battle of Waterloo for many years, is not particularly good as a novel – the romance being bolted on rather than interwoven.

    I believe that she couldn’t come to terms with the fact that the writing at which she excelled was not given more weight by the literary Establishment – as Nichols also found it is popularity, rather than the reader, that constitutes the Death of the Author.

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