Wholly Allergic

Lidija Haas

  • Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller by Jennifer Kloester
    Heinemann, 448 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 434 02071 3

When I complained to my mother that I’d run out of Jane Austen novels, she handed me one by Georgette Heyer. ‘It isn’t quite the same,’ she said, and even then – I was 10 – I could see that it was and it wasn’t. The romantic interest and sharp dialogue were similar, though not so nuanced; the supporting cast of aunts and neighbours comic, but not so acutely depicted; the heroine just as spirited, if not nearly so reflective. Heyer’s first novel was published in 1921 and by the time she died in 1974 there were 55 of them, more than half of which were the 18th-century and Regency romances that had made her famous. By the late 1970s more than a million copies of her books were being sold every year in Britain alone; and apart from a few titles she chose to suppress they all remain in print.

The first Heyer biography, by Jane Aiken Hodge, came out ten years after Heyer died and was mostly an attempt to rescue its subject from her own success: ‘Highbrows who couple her books with the illiterate output of mass-market romancers merely betray that they have never read them.’ Her personal life is merely ‘sketched in … as background to her work’, ostensibly because it was ‘what that very private lady would have wished’, but perhaps also because it was relatively uneventful. Jennifer Kloester’s new book has no such scruples: granted ‘carte blanche’ by Heyer’s only son, she has been through a vast quantity of ‘new and untapped’ letters and notebooks, as well as Hodge’s ‘entire research archive’, and she is keen to recount as much of the life as possible from Heyer’s babyhood onwards, family holidays and pets very much included. It isn’t Kloester’s first book about Heyer. Her enthusiasm for the historical novels led her to write a PhD thesis on the subject at Melbourne University, followed in 2005 by Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, which praised Heyer’s ‘stylish constructions with exemplary syntax and faultless punctuation’.

Heyer was born in Wimbledon in 1902. Her paternal grandfather, George Heyer (originally pronounced ‘Geyer’ or ‘Khyeyir’), was a fur merchant who seems to have been Jewish, emigrated from Kharkov in 1859 and within a few years became a British citizen and then married an Englishwoman. In adulthood, Heyer liked to mock her origins, and professed herself ‘Wholly Allergic’ to Russian literature. (‘The sooner Anna Karenina flung herself under a train the better it would be.’) She was much attached to her Englishness and felt, as she wrote to a friend, ‘very much like an old man I once knew who ranked the animal creation thus: All Englishmen. Horses. Dogs. Foreigners.’ Heyer’s father, also called George, read classics at Cambridge; he was a French teacher – he published a translation of Villon – when he married Sylvia Watkins, a Royal Academy of Music graduate whose family were successful tugboat operators. Hodge suggested in her biography that Heyer ‘must have suffered from various handicaps in the competitive and stratified world of suburban Wimbledon’, but Kloester sees her as a typical Edwardian, growing up ‘in a sheltered world … alive with traditions that stretched back to the days of the English Regency’.

Kloester is full of admiration for her subject, telling us at the start that she shared the name Georgette, ‘pronounced à la française’, with the new kind of silk which would ‘appropriately’ become known for its ‘crispness, body and outstanding durability’; she was ‘an intelligent baby … Almost from birth, rhyme, rhythm and metre were an integral part of her life.’ George Heyer served as a requisitioning officer in France in the First World War, at which point his daughter, until then educated mainly from his extensive library, had to be sent to school. She had two younger brothers, and when one of them was recovering from an illness, she entertained him by making up the story of Jack Carstares, the glamorous son of an earl, who is exiled for supposedly cheating at cards but secretly returns to England disguised as a highwayman. She wrote it out as The Black Moth and sent it to Constable, who offered her a £100 advance. She asked the Society of Authors to look over the contract before signing, and the book came out in 1921, when she was 19.

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