Friday, June 8, 2012

A life of Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, Jennifer Kloester

As I've mentioned before, I've been a fan of Georgette Heyer's books for many years, though for much of that time her books were hard to find in the United States. Even before the internet and its world-wide book inventories, I managed to collect quite a few, which I read and re-read. But as much as I enjoyed the books, with their wit and humor, their snappy dialogue, their romance and mysteries and conflicts, not to mention their whirlwind denouements, I never thought that much about the author. I simply accepted her genius and looked for the next book.

It was only when I joined an on-line discussion group (now the Almacks listserv) that I began to learn about Georgette Heyer herself. One of the first things I discovered was how little information there was, in large part because Heyer (who died in 1974) had maintained an amazing level of privacy throughout her writing career, even as her works sold hundreds of thousands of copies. There was then only one book written about Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge's The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which was out of print and hard to find. I was lucky enough to acquire a copy through the listserv, and I enjoyed Hodge's combination of biography and bibliography. Hodge presented a basic biography of Heyer, putting each of her books in the context of what was going on her life at the time (and giving a brief synopsis of the book as well). Her book is worth owning for the period illustrations alone, with some gorgeous color plates.

Jennifer Kloester, a fellow member of Almacks and the author of Georgette Heyer's Regency World (which I reviewed back in September), takes a similar approach in her recent biography. One of the real strengths of her book is the wide access she had not just to Heyer's papers but also to those of family and friends, as well as Heyer's agents and publishers. From this she has built a much more comprehensive narrative of Heyer's life, starting with her birth in 1902 and her formative years growing up in the Edwardian Age and then during the Great War. Kloester weaves together Heyer's private life and her writing career, which took off with the publication of her first novel, The Black Moth, in 1921.

Though her profits from her books increased steadily over the years, Heyer was always concerned about money, in part because she and her husband Ronald Rougier had little idea how to budget or to spend within their means, but also because they were supporting Heyer's widowed mother and two brothers. Kloester explores their complicated finances, which put pressure on Heyer always to write the next book, and also to write what she knew would sell. I find it sad that Heyer so often disparaged the "light, bright and sparkling" novels that made her a best-seller and a beloved author, the ones that readers continue to fall in love all these years later. She wanted to write great historical novels that would establish her as a great writer and respected historical authority. At least the letters that Kloester quotes frequently show Heyer's delight in the plots, settings and characters she was creating as she wrote.

I have two quibbles with this book. The first is grammatical: there are a distressing number of dangling modifiers and run-on sentences. This seems particularly unfortunate in a book about a master stylist like Georgette Heyer. Second, while Kloester quotes copiously, on almost every page, from archival sources, she does not always cite those sources, nor does she always identify to whom Heyer was writing. And while there is a list of "Heyer-related archives," there is no bibliography of primary or secondary works consulted, though some are cited by full title and publisher in the five pages of end notes. I think the book would also have benefited from a few more dates, as it is not always clear when the things that Kloester is writing about took place.

Those quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I learned a lot from it. Kloester brings Heyer to life, and she skillfully weaves in discussion of the books without overwhelming the larger story, or giving away too much about the plots. I especially enjoyed the account of a luncheon party Heyer attended at Buckingham Palace (I think in 1966). When the Master of the Household called to invite her, he told her, "We're all madly keen on your books here!", and she later learned that the Queen had bought twelve copies of Frederica in Harrods book department.

Last night I took A Civil Contract off the shelf to check some detail, and I immediately found myself back in Adam and Jenny's world. While I appreciate knowing more about their creator, even the fact that she considered Americans uncultured and overly gregarious, I am not conscious of their author while I'm reading one of her books. That is her genius, and her legacy, to have created such a world of wonderful characters, with their complex lives, who live on long after the Regency and Georgette Heyer herself.


  1. I spent a couple of hours earlier today reviewing my notes on this and starting to work on my own review so the book is fresh in my mind and your post came at the perfect time for me! I completely echo your quibbles about some of Kloester's technical and structural choices and have more to add. I think she takes too much license, presenting a number of things as fact without ever stating a source. Heyer was a private person and so many of the details of her personal life are hidden from us and I wish Kloester had resisted the urge to comment where she lacked solid information. Honestly, early on I was so frustrated with the style of Kloester's writing that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to finish. But I adapted to it (or at least learned to put aside my frustrations) and was really delighted by the amount of new information the book included.

  2. I am already looking forward to your review! I agree about the license taken, and I wish I'd taken more careful notes. The one example that stuck in my mind was Kloester's assertion about Heyer's attitude toward sex, and then when I went back to the book I found that she had qualified it at least in the first instance, and quoted an unnamed friend, though she repeated the assertion later in the book without qualification.

  3. I only recently started reading Heyer because when I worked in a library in the 1970s she seemed only to be read by old ladies and that put me off. Granny was a big fan too and I could kick myself that I didn't take her Heyer books when Granny's house was being cleared. I enjoy her mystery books too. I knew absolutely nothing about her life so I'll look out for this book, even though it's not perfect.

  4. Those ladies were probably lucky enough to read the books as they came out - and your grandmother too. I love Heyer's mysteries, especially Death in the Stocks and Behold Here's Poison.

    With its faults, this is still well worth reading, and so is Hodge's book, if you haven't seen it. By the way, Heyer loved spending time in Scotland, with frequent stays in East Lothian.

  5. I still look forward to reading my first Heyer (and thanks to you I soon will!). I'm conflicted about reading books about the lives of my favorite authors. I want to know more about them, but I fear the knowledge will somehow ruin their books for me.
    It sounds like Heyer was a very interesting and complex person - no wonder her books are so fascinating!

  6. Her early books, the "moderns" that she later suppressed, show that complexity - one of them (Helen) is considered something of a fictional autobiography.

    I know what you mean about not wanting to know too much. I once went to an author event where the person talked about writing in purely mercenary terms. She pretty much said it was all about the money. And that really changed how I read her books (which I no longer read). But then I want to know as much as possible about Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. Maybe the older authors are safer?


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!