Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Georgette Heyer : biography of a bestseller - Jennifer Kloester
The reviews I read seemed disappointed that it wasn't a more personal biography. Kloester had certainly discovered some new material, mostly letters from Heyer's youth, & she had the immense advantage of access to Jane Aiken Hodge's archive as well as her support. However, the new letters don't add much to the picture of the private Georgette. Aiken Hodge's biography was called The Private World of Georgette Heyer & it's an apt title. Heyer was famously private about her personal life. She shunned publicity & only seems to have given one interview to a journalist & that was for a women's magazine here in Australia, Woman's Day. She always refused to be photographed for publicity & could be scathing when asked to consider it,
I detest being photographed, and have surely reached the time of life when I can please myself. As for being photographed At Work or In My Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family; and if, on the printed page, I am Miss Heyer, everywhere else I am Mrs Rougier, who makes no public appearances, and dislikes few things as much as being confronted by Fans...
Kloester's biography is subtitled biography of a bestseller & that's what it is. The story of a bestselling author that focuses on her professional life because there just isn't much information about her inner world. I think some readers blamed the book for not being what they thought it should be. I found it fascinating because it showed Heyer as a professional writer. She didn't mix in literary society & the only writers she was close to were Carola Oman & Joanna Cannan (who wrote Princes in the Land, reprinted by Persephone). The three met when they were living in Wimbledon in 1919 & although Georgette was a few years younger, they became friends through their mutual interest in writing & supported each other in the beginnings of their careers.
The most important person in Heyer's life was undoubtedly her father, George Heyer. They were very close & he encouraged her in her education & her writing. He was a gifted storyteller & he encouraged his daughter when she showed similar talent. His sudden death in 1925 when Georgette was 23 devastated her. She would write about such grief in Helen, one of the contemporary novels that she later suppressed, 'a grief so huge, so devastating, and so terribly dumb'. Her first novel, The Black Moth, had been published four years earlier & she was already on the way to being a successful author. Georgette married Ronald Rougier in the year of her father's death & the marriage was happy although it seems to have been companionable rather than passionate. They had one son, Richard, who followed his father into the legal profession.
As well as being a personal grief, George Heyer's death left Georgette as the main financial support for her mother & her younger brothers, George & Boris. Money, or the lack of it, is one of the main themes of Georgette's life & of this book. Georgette's relations with her publishers, with magazine editors & with her financial advisers are complicated & often hampered by her dislike of making a fuss. This often led to avoidable problems over taxes. The fact that economy seems to have been a foreign word to her didn't help matters. She wasn't extravagant, she just had certain expectations about her standard of living. Her husband didn't contribute much to the family finances for some years & Georgette financed his training at the Bar after he had spent several years in uncongenial work. She was writing novel after novel but, financially, never seemed to get ahead.
One of the most interesting sections of the book & one that shows Heyer's devastatingly sharp tongue (& pen) describes her reaction to her books being plagiarized by, among others, Barbara Cartland. A fan alerted her to similarities between her own novel, These Old Shades, & one of Cartland's early books. Heyer wrote to her agent,
I think I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate. I think ill enough of the Shades, but, good God!, that nineteen-year old work has more style, more of what it takes, than this offal which she has written at the age of 46!
I found the discussions of contracts, tax problems & serialisation rights absorbing but I realise not everyone would agree. I also enjoyed reading about Heyer's extensive research for her books, especially her book on the Waterloo campaign, An Infamous Army, which was highly regarded by military historians as well as lovers of historical fiction.
Georgette Heyer is rightly regarded as the originator of the Regency romance & the more than 20 books she published in this genre are her masterpieces. She also wrote novels set in other historical periods from Charles II's escape after the battle of Worcester in Royal Escape to the life of William I in The Conqueror. She also wrote murder mysteries which I read many years ago & would now like to revisit, especially as she didn't think very highly of them herself & regarded them as potboilers. After reading about her career & the often difficult circumstances under which she wrote her books, which often seem so light & delicate, I look forward to reading more of the Heyers on my tbr shelves.