Last year I was perturbed by Rachel Cooke’s review in the Guardian of Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. You can read my thoughts on the matter here: Fretting About Georgette Heyer. At the time I decided that I would put both Kloester’s biography and Jean Aiken Hodge’s The Private World of Georgette Heyer on my reading list and make up my own mind about it. So last week I finally managed to get hold of the Aiken Hodge book as well as picking up four Heyers in a charity shop.
First I re-read Sylvester, which I enjoyed as much as ever, and then…
The picture of Heyer that emerges from The Private World is of a sharply intelligent woman, fiercely shy and inclined to self-deprecation, indeed to putting down her own work. This may be the result of never getting the recognition she longer for – the curse of female writers to the present day that when you write romantic fiction you won’t be taken seriously, however sharp and witty your prose and however accurate your research. Heyer was inclined to describe the plots of her books as “the mixture as before” and to consider them to “stink” while working on them. She longed to write a great medieval novel, yet this always defeated her. According to Hodge, this is because she was never as instinctively at home in that world as in the Regency one. While I soon grew irritated by the repeated use of the phrase “the private world” it is an apt one both for Heyer’s personal life and her books. She utterly refused publicity of any kind, preferring to hide behind the screen of Mrs Rougier wherever possible. The Regency world she created in her books is also a private one, a world that never really existed and in which Heyer could lay down the rules of polite behaviour and morality. It seems that she was frequently baffled by the modern one, in terms of politics, taxation, paperwork, society and all.
I can quite see how these attributes could come over as:
Heyer [being] neither romantic nor funny nor zippy. She was a sour and rather cynical snob, rapacious when it came to money, mean-spirited when it came to other writers and to her readers, whose fan letters she liked mostly to drop straight into the nearest wastepaper basket, and with a strangely overdeveloped sense of her own importance. (Rachel Cooke, Guardian review, as above)
On the basis of the Hodge book though, I disagree. Certainly she had little patience with the gushing kind of fan mail, or with letter writers who missed the point of her books, but she treasured other letters, like one from a woman who had preserved her own sanity and that of the other inmates in a Romanian women’s political jail by telling and retelling the story of Friday’s Child over twelve years – books were forbidden, but they could talk about them. As for being rapacious about money – she certainly had expensive tastes and seems to have struggled with financial matters over the years, she wanted to be well paid for her work – what writer doesn’t? – and she and her husband seem both to have had a real bee in their collective bonnet about income tax. “Pouring money down the National Drain” as she liked to call it. I’m not quite sure that that qualifies as rapaciousness though.
Snobbery is more complicated altogether. The Rougiers were died-in the-wool Conservatives and there are some quite shockingly racist remarks in the letters Hodge quotes. I can also see similarities with Enid Blyton in Heyer’s writing when it comes to class. They both take the existence and necessity of the class system absolutely for granted and frown on pretension. Yet they both despise snobbery and arrogance in others, where this is defined as looking down on members of a lower class or treating them with disrespect, or indeed as sucking up to the aristocracy, “toad-eating” in Heyer’s phrase. There is an idea of noblesse oblige, the importance of good manners and so on that sits uneasily with modern sensibilities, as does the casual racism and the rigidity of the class structure. In life, too, Heyer and her mother made a point of going to the funeral of one of their family’s servants – every middle class family had servants in those days – when others felt that it would be beneath them.
Her dislike of publicity led to having little contact with other writers, and she also disliked modern literature with an emphasis on sex and violence, as she saw it. This meant that when A.S. Byatt praised her books, she didn’t know who she was, any more than she’d heard of Byatt’s sister Margaret Drabble. She never joined the Society of Authors, and consequently was unable to turn to them for help with the muddles in her business affairs – she seems to have been scarily unworldly about such matters, despite her sharp negotiating skills!
Jean Aiken Hodge faced with writing a biography of such an intensely private author has taken the sensible step of approaching the subject through the books. This means that we get a fascinating glimpse of Heyer’s working methods – she seems to have run on gin and Dexedrine – and her other resources. There were countless notebooks of Regency slang that she’d acquired from various sources, an enormous reference library and so on. Sometimes I could have done with slightly less exhaustive detail (although it sounds positively sparse compared with Kloestler) but on the whole the approach paid off. Hodge shows the way Heyer’s writing developed over the years as she found her feet as an author, eventually able to mock and occasionally overturn the conventions of the genre she herself had created.
Cooke says in her review that Heyer essentially rewrote Jane Eyre 57 times, but this isn’t quite true. Some of her books clearly owe more to Austen than the Brontës while others are influenced by Dickens and Thackeray. Heyer herself divided her heroes into Mark I and Mark II – the labels got inverted over the years, but one type is the Mr Rochester – dark, glowering, rude – and the other is the Nonesuch – tall, handsome, sportsmanlike and good with horses. Likewise there are two varieties of heroine: the dashing, spirited girl, brought up by her father and more at home with men (see the Grand Sophy), and the quieter, shyer kind, the one who hates people shouting and gets bullied by an overwhelming family.
Looking back on Sylvester in the light of all this new information was also interesting. It was a later book, so Heyer has had time to develop the human interest more than her earlier books. We see the family relationships with an ironic touch worthy of Austen – the shallow mother who likes to think of herself as devoted to her son, but actually can’t wait to hand him over to the Nanny, and forgets to bring any luggage for him at all when travelling, for example. But there is also a rare happy relationship between Sylvester and his mother. Phoebe is a type two heroine, but stands up to Sylvester and shows him how he has become so used to being “toad-eaten” that he has come to expect it, even while despising those who do it. He has become arrogant and must learn to think of others as having a reality of their own.
And all the joy of the language, the Regency slang is there. As Aiken Hodge points out, nobody ever really spoke exactly like that, but it is part of the wonderful world Heyer created. I will be forever grateful for it and glad to know that it is there as a refuge when my spirits need a boost. Yes, it’s flawed, yes it’s unreal, and yes, it’s wonderful!