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.