Thursday 29 September 2011

GEORGETTE HEYER: Biography of a Bestseller

Emma Darwin writes: when I heard that Jennifer Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer's Regency World, was writing a biography of one of my absolutely favourite authors, I had to find out more. Georgette Heyer; Biography of a Bestseller is published on 6th October, and Jen kindly paused somewhere between Melbourne, Australia where she lives, and the UK, to discuss Heyer herself, her work then and now, and why she's so much more than tall, dark and handsome clichés.

ED:What first drew you to reading Heyer, and why?

JK: I came upon her novels while living in a remote part of Papua New Guinea. The town had a tiny YWCA library and she was obviously well read by the members. I remember being terribly impressed by that sense of actually being in the Regency period. She had such an amazing ability to bring the past to life, to make it real, so you could see it clearly in your mind's eye. But the thing that really set her apart for me was that she made me laugh out loud. Not many authors make me do that.

What made you want to write about her?

As I read more of her books I was continually struck by the way she seemed to seamlessly integrate the history with the fiction. I kept wondering how accurate it was and she sent me off to the history books to find out. Some years later, when I was living in the Middle East, I introduced her novels to a friend and we'd talk about them and wish that somebody would write a companion to her books that would, for example, tell us what a barouche looked like. I carried that wish with me all the way back to Australia and eventually set about writing the companion myself and that became my first book, Georgette Heyer's Regency World. 

Heyer still sells by the pallet-load, when her imitators have fallen by the wayside, and she has fans such as A S Byatt, Stephen Fry, Margaret Drabble, Colleen McCullough and George MacDonald Fraser. What do you think is her continuing appeal, nearly forty years after her death?

Georgette herself always said that one of the reasons her historical fiction endured was because it didn't date but I also believe that good writing, great stories, memorable characters, wit and humour will always sell. It's fascinating to realise that of her literary generation Georgette Heyer is one of the few to have survived as a popular author into the twenty-first century. I mean she's sold a million books in just the last seven years and what modern-day author wouldn't want sales like that? Many of her readers return to her novels for comfort, to escape from the pressures of modern life or to be brought to laughter by what she described as 'her gift for the farcical'.

You’ve found lots of new material for Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller which Jane Aiken Hodge’s earlier biography didn’t have access to. What did you find? Has it given you new insight into her and her work?

This has been the most exciting part of the research journey - the discovery of several untapped archives of Georgette's letters. The largest is held by the McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa, Special Collections and others were in private hands. Because Georgette's son, Sir Richard Rougier, was so supportive, with his approval (sometimes his recommendation) and his copyright permission I was able to acquire copies of each new archive of letters. I'll never forget receiving the box of photocopied letters from Tulsa and opening it and lifting out the first letter which Georgette had written to her agent in 1923. She was still only twenty but the personality, the sense of self and the youthful confidence leapt off the page. It was an incredible moment - especially when I realised what those letter contained. Here, for the first time, was the young writer, the developing writer, and in those 251 letters I found the woman who had kept herself from the world for most of her life. As I gradually discovered more archives I found that I had a picture of the bestselling author that was far more comprehensive than anything we'd ever had before.

Of course, there was heaps of other research to be done and from those letters I developed a huge list of research lines - noting every possible clue and trying to identify every person, place or important detail which she'd mentioned. After that, I set about following them up which meant going on an amazing research journey which took me as far afield as New York and Scotland, to the Newspaper Library at Colindale where I spent days trawling through thousands (literally) of magazines to find nine long-forgotten Heyer short stories, and to every house or apartment in which Georgette had ever lived. I am a great believer in what Antonia Fraser calls 'optical research' - the practice of going to places where someone lived or worked in order to better understand their experience and the likely influences on them. I think it was hugely important to do this in Georgette's case because her home was such a vital part of her writing life. One of the fascinating things about going into the places in which she'd lived was discovering how much they reflected her preference for privacy. So much of my research has given me new insight into Georgette's character and personality, her life and her writing which I hope is reflected in the biography.
And I know there are stories which couldn’t be told while certain people were still alive. Sounds intriguing... Can you say more?

Oh yes, that's been a very satisfying part of the writing. During my research I was fortunate to become friends with Jane Aiken Hodge, Georgette's first biographer and a remarkable woman. I used to go and visit her on my research trips to England and we'd talk about Georgette and the new biography. She gave me all of her research notes from the first biog. which was incredibly generous and she also read every draft of the new book. She was a stern critic and incredibly helpful especially as I knew how hard she'd worked to gather material for that first biography. She'd had a number of restrictions on her at the time because the Heyer family didn't want certain things discussed but by the time I came to write the biography in 2005 Sir Richard was a little more open to the possibility of a more comprehensive account of his mother's life. Although he also said he never wanted me to write anything scandalous he did eventually agree to let me tell the Barbara Cartland plagiarism story in the new book - although it's really Georgette who tells it because the things she says about Miss Cartland ... That's been one of the most intensely satisfying aspects of the book - being able to quote from Georgette's letters. Her turn of phrase, her wit, her acerbity - they're all there and expressed so much better than I ever could.

Hodge also talks about Heyer preferring men to women, and living largely among them. As a strong-minded, intelligent, professional woman in a world which either ignored or disapproved of women like that, she was by no means alone. And yet her best writing - even if not always the writing which was closest to her heart – is in a quintessentially “feminine” genre. Can you explain it?

I don't know that Hodge was entirely correct. It's true that Georgette always needed the presence of a strong, cultured man in her life but she always had close women friends. I think she understood the female psyche very well, especially in matters of the heart. She was often contrary in her opinions, however, declaring herself 'unromantic' when her son and others clearly saw a strong streak of romance in her; a feminist by temperament and in practice but consistently intolerant of feminist types and the concept of women in business; often self-deprecating about her own novels and yet loving the writing of them. I think it's in that last that the answer to your question is to be found. She loved writing her novels - especially the Regencies - but for a whole lot of reasons (all of them explained in the biography) she couldn't allow herself to acknowledge it - at least not overtly. There are a few occasions when she expresses pleasure or satisfaction in her writing but they are relatively rare. She was a complex woman and acknowledging her achievements was always going to be fraught with difficualty.

You can tell from her early covers that Heyer was originally sold as a “straight” historical novelist, and only later concentrated on writing what I’d call romantic comedy-drama. Was that shift driven by her, or by her publisher?

Oh, definitely by her. No publisher ever told Georgette Heyer what to write or how or when. They could suggest, they could ask, at times they even begged, but she ran her writing life according to her own schedule. One of the lovely things about the biography is that I've been able to let Georgette explain in her own words her frustrations with her publishers over the course of her career. The shift to romantic-comedy came from her and the story of how she got there is a fascinating one.

Do you think she was frustrated in some ways, as a writer, by that shift, or rather narrowing of focus?

No, because she recognised that this was where her greatest talent lay. What did frustrate her (immensely at times) was the lack of recognition from the academy and the literati - something she craved for much of her life and somehow managed to ignore or dismiss when it came.

She also wrote detective fiction, though as a side-show and a money-earner to the historical fiction. But do you feel that the crime writing nonetheless influenced it?

She was never entirely comfortable writing 'thrillers' as she called them - although she did like writing Death in the Stocks. But that's not to say she didn't enjoy a good mystery or a murder and I think this shows in some of her later novels such as The Quiet Gentleman, The Unknown Ajax and The Toll-Gate, all of which have some kind of crime or mystery in them.

Heyer has many devotees among those of us who write historical fiction – including me! – even though we may also love rough, tough contemporary writers, or be indifferent to the genre she founded, the “Regency Romance”. Why do you think that might be?

She's unique. She not only tells a great story, with great, characters, but she's funny and she writes wonderful prose. Beyond that it's her ability to 'bring the past to life' and to give her readers so many unforgettable moments. I think it's always telling when you meet another Heyer reader and you can simply say something like 'the ending of The Unknown Ajax' or 'the ducklings and Eugenia and Lord Bromford' and they will laugh with you just from thinking about those scenes.

Many people who haven’t read Heyer think of her fiction as all moons and Junes, heaving stereotypes, and tall, dark and handsome clichés. What would you say to persuade such a reader to try one? And which would you tell them to try?

I often ask people if they read Jane Austen, if they say yes, then I let them know that many people think Georgette Heyer 'the next best thing'. She's not Austen, of course, but she was hugely influenced by Austen who was her favourite author. If they haven't read Austen then I will tell people that Heyer is a wonderful writer who wrote classy historical romances with a great deal of wit, that she constantly inverts the sentimental romance and indulges in plenty of ironic comedy. As for suggestions, well, I don't think you can miss with The Grand Sophy or Venetia or Friday's Child or Black Sheep or Sylvester or A Civil Contract or Cotillion or Frederica or... oh dear! Perhaps the best thing to do is just suggest they try one of her Regencies and see what they think.

Jen, thank you very much, and very best wishes (though I'm sure it doesn't need them!) for the launch of Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. And if anyone would like a taster of what Jen was talking about in The Grand Sophy and Venetia, my take on them is here.


Sue Purkiss said...

I think I read one or two books by GH as a teenager, but I thought then that she was rather pink and fluffy, and I favoured Jean Plaidy instead. This biography sounds really interesting, and I'll go back to the books too and give them another go!

Emma Darwin said...

The closest comparison with Plaidy, I guess, would be novels like A Spanish Bride and An Infamous Army, although her romantic comedy is what she's usually known for.

But Heyer's prose is in a different league. I liked Plaidy as a teen, but her writing's very run-of-the-mill I think these days.

Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting you should say that about the prose, Emma. I was thinking about it as I took the dog for a walk, and I came to the conclusion that I was sniffy about Heyer because I rather bracketed her with the Romances which had their special section in the library, and often featured a devilishly handsome - but rather devilish - hero, who came good in the end after many vicissitudes and ended up with the gorgeous (and generally feisty) heroine. In other words, I judged her by her subject matter. I don't think as a teenager I had a clue about what made 'good' writing good, despite reading very widely and despite supposedly being 'good' at English. Anyway - very much looking forward to discovering someone who is for me a new author!

Jan Jones said...

I love Heyer's style. I always found JP very "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened". Heyer, by contrast, makes me laugh and still makes me want to turn the page.

Jennifer Kloester is giving a talk at the RNA Regency Day on 8th October

Should be interesting, I think.

Mary Hoffman said...

I was so interested by this post and look forward to reading the biography. As a matter of fact I do like the detective novels and think they are due for a revival too.

Emma Darwin said...

Sue, I know exactly what you mean. I think the problem is that she invented the Regency; she's channelling Austen crossed with Bronte, whereas everyone since is channelling her (Cartland didn't merely channel, she plagiarised, and it's all there in the biography) - their take on the period, the language, everything, is second hand, IYSWIM. It's like disliking Tolkein because elves are such a cliché, or Mahler because it sounds like film music... One sees the original through the dull glass of his/her imitators...

Jan, yes, Jen's very busy indeed, for obvious reasons! I've heard her speak a couple of times (we actually met at a Historical NOvel Soc conference years ago) and she's great.

Adina West said...

Wow, no idea that GH novels were selling so well still in the current day. I suppose I thought everyone who reads them now does so with second hand copies picked up over the years. I have an almost complete collection of old harcovers - definitely a big fan!

Emma, I liked your reference to Tolkien above, because I have to say I think of GH as being the Tolkein of Regency Romance. I absolutely agree with you that she pretty much invented the Regency romance.

Penny Dolan said...

This really made me want to go back to her novels. Thank you - and the biography sounds enticing too.

Lucy Coats said...

Have been meaning to read this post for ages - and finally I've managed it, on the very day the biography is published! Heyer has always been my comfort reading of choice, and I had the immense pleasure of introducting Lovely D to her this summer. I was nervous, but it was a huge success. I wrote a piece about how much I loved her work HERE