Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller Jennifer Kloester

Heinemann, pp.464, 20

Those of us who have spent an embarrassing number of hours immersed in the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer have learned to live dangerously. We have been overturned in high perch phaetons, held up innumerable times by highwaymen, been kidnapped and spirited across the Channel, lost several fortunes at Faro or Bassett and have even witnessed and survived every moment of the Battle of Waterloo.

The same cannot be said of the author, whose life was somewhat less eventful. Heyer was a creature of habit and for many years followed a regular annual routine: two novels published, one detective story and one Regency romance, a summer holiday in the same hotel in Scotland, with golf for her husband and son, a dispute with her publisher or agent and a real or imagined crisis in her finances. Add to that the fact that she never gave interviews and was reluctant even to be photographed for publicity purposes and it will be seen that life cannot have been easy for her biographer.

Jennifer Kloester has had to battle gallantly to bring the enigmatic writer to life. She is an expert on her subject and had access to all the Heyer papers, and gives an interesting account of Georgette’s family background and childhood in Wimbledon, and her exceptionally close relationship with her delightful and talented father whose encouragement was vital in helping her to complete her first published novel at the age of 17, and whose death only five years later was a bitter blow. Perhaps it was because of this steady, invigorating and satisfying bond that Georgette, who had a limited talent for friendship outside the family, was able to enjoy such a long and happy marriage.

Her education was completely informal until she went to school at the age of 13. She must have made an odd impression on her schoolmates. The family had just returned, on the outbreak of the first world war, from six months’ residence in Paris, and Georgette was fluent in French and extremely well read in both French and English literature for a girl of her age. She combined shyness with a fierce intelligence and a sharp tongue. Perhaps it is not surprising that she preferred the company of the teachers to that of the other girls.

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It was not until she was 17 and had left school that she made the first real and lasting friendships of her life, with two like-minded girls about five years her senior. Joanna Cannan and Carola Oman were both daughters of distinguished Oxford dons and were determined to become writers. In the event, Georgette beat them both into print. Her first novel, The Black Moth, was completed that year and, with all its youthful faults, gave promise of better things to come and showed natural narrative power. Joanna Cannan went on to write novels and some excellent children’s books; Carola Oman became both a novelist and historian.

All through her life, even when she had become an international bestseller, Georgette was self-deprecating about her own work. For many years she and her husband, Ronald Rougier, occupied the set of rooms in Albany where Macaulay had written The History of England. My mother, who was writing a book on Albany and who was a keen Heyer admirer, was thrilled to have this excuse to meet her: ‘Oh, Miss Heyer, I must tell you how much pleasure your books have given me over the years.’ To which the author replied, apparently embarrassed, ‘Oh mine aren’t proper books. My friend Carola Oman writes real history.’

This was a constant theme throughout her life, but at heart she knew her own value. She was enraged by uninformed criticism and would defend her own creations like a tigress her young, never more ferociously than when exposing a particularly blatant case of plagiarism by Barbara Cartland, who shamelessly lifted the plots and even the names of the characters from several Heyer books.

Jennifer Kloester rightly points out that the two things which set Georgette Heyer apart from other writers of historical romances are her erudition and her sense of humour. She became a real expert on every detail of the Regency period, from clothing to thieves’ cant, and many people think that her detailed account of Waterloo in An Infamous Army, later made recommended reading at Sandhurst, is among the best ever written. Her sense of humour pervades all her books, including the detective stories. Her comic characters are grotesques, but believable grotesques, perhaps the result of a childhood immersed in Dickens and Jane Austen. They hold up to ridicule the qualities she despised: pomposity, stupidity, snobbery and self-satisfaction.

Heyer, like several of her heroines, was tall (5ft 10ins) and good looking, with fine eyes, (grey, like those of many of her heroes). Most of those who met her for the first time agreed with the Queen, who is said to have described her as ‘a formidable woman’, but with her family and few close friends she was funny and excellent company. It must have been a great satisfaction to her that her only son, apart from enjoying an extremely distinguished legal career, bore such a pronounced physical resemblance to a Regency Buck.

Heyer was a true professional. She wrote doggedly for over 50 years, in sickness and in health, never letting her publisher or public down and keeping up a remarkably consistent standard. In her last years, she was constantly ill and life was difficult. It must have been a welcome escape for her to enter yet again the world she had made so peculiarly her own for an agreeable evening at Almack’s or a turn in the Park, or even a visit to her mantua-maker, for she always loved clothes. Or perhaps she would simply relax and follow the example of the hero of The Black Moth. ‘My Lord yawned most prodigiously, and let fall The Spectator.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, Book review, Non-fiction, Novelists, Writer