The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge ~ 1984. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-370-30508-6. 216 pages.
My rating: 9/10
This slim biography-of-sorts was written by the one of the subject’s fellow writers who was a decided fan, and that pro-Heyer bias stands out on every page.
That’s not at all a bad thing in this case, because Georgette Heyer appears by all accounts to be one of those rare creatures, a person of genuinely high artistic integrity, who kept her personal self to herself, letting her work do most of the talking.
From the Foreword:
Georgette Heyer was an intensely private person. A best-seller all her life without the aid of publicity, she made no appearances, never gave an interview, and only answered fan letters herself if they made an interesting historical point.
(Georgette Heyer was) shy on the surface, but a formidable, positive person underneath, with strong views and a great sense of style.
It hardly sounds the description of a purveyor of romantic froth. But in fact, for those with eyes to see, the strong character is there in her books, even in the lightest and most frivolous of them, and an awareness of the kind of person she was adds a new dimension to one’s enjoyment of them, or, perhaps, explains why one does enjoy them. She may have been a compulsive writer, but she was also an immensely skilled and meticulous craftswoman. She did her best to conceal her high standards and stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned. But she had a smaller audience, among dons and journalists, among her husband’s legal associates, among intelligent women everywhere, and even among feminists, who enjoyed the romantic syllabub all the more because they were aware of the hard core of realism underneath.
Doesn’t that make you feel all smug and superior? “Intelligent audience”, oh, yes, indeed! That would be us. Right, fellow Heyerites?
Jane Aiken Hodge has competently cobbled this appreciation/analysis together out of the slender material available to her, which was mostly concerned with the literary elements of Heyer’s life. She did receive the cooperation of family members, friends, and publishing connections, as well as some access to private letters and journals, but the biography is really mostly about the books. Not even all of the books, but primarily the best-known ones, the Regency-era dramatic romances, which stand head and shoulders above everything else Georgette Heyer produced, shading the historical dramas of various other eras, and the rather uneven mystery novels, which were published consistently in much smaller print runs, because they sold at a much more modest rate.
Hodge includes an intriguing discussion of Georgette Heyer’s first “serious” novels, four contemporary works highly influenced by Heyer’s own life in her early years. Once she found her groove with the more inventive historical genre she became famous for, those early books were ruthlessly suppressed by their writer. She avoided any mention of them, and refused again and again all requests to reprint them, with the result that they are now decidedly elusive, and expensive when found.
Contemporary reviews suggest that these four books – Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930) – were fairly standard works of their type and time. Critics were, in general, mildly appreciative of the young writer’s fast-developing skill and style, gently nodding their slightly disinterested approval and casually placing the novels with the many others of their type being pumped out in the between-the-wars years by other young writers of talent. Everyone at that time seemed to have a bildungsroman or two needing to be shared with the world, and there was a generous public appetite for such accounts.
Jane Aiken Hodge:
(W)ritten in her late teens and early twenties…about the the experiences of young women growing up in the complex social scene of the years after the First World War. Inevitably they and the detective stories she wrote mainly in her thirties throw a certain amount of light on the early years of her own life about which she never would talk.
What was Georgette Heyer hiding?
The answer seems to be “nothing in particular”. There appear to have been no youthful scandals, no skeletons in the closet. From start to finish, Georgette Heyer lived a life of quiet and content propriety. She was the beloved daughter of a well-off and tightly knit family. Her personal romantic life contains nothing of particular note; she married her first love, mining engineer Ronald Rougier, and remained devoted to him – as he was to her – for the rest of her life.
Financial necessity provided much of the impetus behind the books Georgette Heyer produced with such reliable predictability from the 1930s onward – she was famous for never missing a publisher’s deadline – and she took her work seriously, never apologized for withdrawing herself from social and family life while the writing process was underway.
She was also unapologetically controlling of the way her work was presented by her publishers, writing her own publicity blurbs whenever possible, and maintaining a strict control over her cover art, which explains the elegant accuracy of the early edition dust jacket illustrations, most created by Arthur Barbosa, under her meticulous instruction and proofing.
Georgette Heyer initially resisted her publishers’ requests to allow paperback editions of her work, finally caving in when it became apparent that she was missing out on some serious revenue from those secondary releases. She was deeply appalled by some of the resultant overly gaudy and inappropriate cover art and fulsomely inaccurate back cover blurbs; her indignation is recorded in some gloriously sarcastic letters to friends and (probably slightly cringing) editors.
I find that my own appreciation of the Georgette Heyer novels I’ve read has been enhanced by this interesting collection of anecdotes and semi-scholarly examinations.
The biographer blithely assumes that her readers are all as well versed in Heyer’s entire range of work as she is, and spoilers inevitably crop up, though I don’t think that will put anyone already familiar with Georgette Heyer off, as there aren’t all that many surprises in her storylines, including (regrettably) most of those rather B-list mysteries.
By the end of the book my look-for list of still-to-be-found Heyer titles had grown to an alarming size. The four “suppressed” novels are starred as must-finds, as are the books Georgette Heyer identified as her own consistent favourites: An Infamous Army, The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and A Civil Contract standing out as ones she seemed to be happiest with and proudest of.
I’m in no rush to acquire most of these, because, thanks to her steady popularity for decades, most of the Regency titles are in abundant supply, but it gives me quiet pleasure to consider the enjoyable reading still ahead of me as I hunt down the books and add them to the intelligent comfort reads section of my collection, shelved beside Margery Sharp, Mary Stewart, D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge, and their gloriously readable ilk.