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.

She wrote quickly, and over the next few years put out books with several different publishers, beginning with The Great Roxhythe, about a marquis who spies for Charles II, which she later described as ‘the worst book I ever wrote – the sort of book that makes you wake up shuddering in the night’. There was an 18th-century romance for Mills & Boon, initially published under a pseudonym, and a less successful medieval one, Simon the Coldheart, as well as a contemporary novel, Instead of the Thorn, about a sheltered young woman so horrified by the prospect of sleeping with her new husband that she runs away from him and must spend the rest of the book trying to reconcile herself to her marital duty.

In 1925, Heyer married Ronald Rougier, a mining engineer whom she had known for several years. Born in Odessa where his father worked as a shipbroker, he apparently spoke Russian, liked caviar and didn’t at all share her views on Russian literature. Kloester tries to tackle the Rougiers’ sex life, but concedes that ‘whether Georgette herself ever experienced an overwhelming urge for sex is impossible to know’; this doesn’t stop her from suggesting that they usually slept in separate beds and that Heyer ‘baulked at the physical act of intercourse’. The year they married, Heyer’s father died of heart failure, leaving Heyer to support the rest of the family.

She had intended to publish a kind of loose sequel to The Black Moth; the story would be new but the characters very similar. ‘I’ve packed it full of incident and adventure,’ she told her agent, ‘and have made my heroine masquerade as a boy for the first few chapters. This, I find, always attracts people!’ These Old Shades was her first big success; it came out in October 1926, and was reprinted several times the following year. She had by then followed her new husband abroad. In Kyerwa, in Tanganyika, they lived in an elephant-grass hut that Heyer called ‘the Manor House’. There she wrote The Masqueraders on her lap – another 18th-century swashbuckler full of elaborate cross-dressing. By 1929 they were in Macedonia, where she finished another adventure, this time set in the 16th century, and began the last and gloomiest of her straight contemporary novels. In Barren Corn, a posh young man marries a shop girl whose careful manners and habit of lifting her little finger when she pours coffee constantly betray her: his relatives humiliate her, his friends invite him out on his own, and he gives every impression of being bored with her. Eventually she decides to crash her car into a wall, freeing him to marry the more suitable Stella. It isn’t any better than it sounds. In fact none of Heyer’s novels set in her own world is as good as the historical romances. They didn’t sell nearly so well either, and years later she asked her publishers to forget all about them: ‘They stink, and I want them to be buried in decent oblivion.’

In 1930 the couple returned to England, and settled in Sussex, where Rougier ran a sports shop with a bit of help from Heyer’s ‘mercurial’ brother Boris. All of them were more or less dependent on Heyer’s royalties, calculated and paid out twice a year. The following year, now pregnant, she wrote to her agent: ‘i must have money. Like that. All in capitals.’ Her first thriller, Footsteps in the Dark, was ‘published simultaneously with my son’ in February 1932, and later that year, writing all night when necessary, she managed another romance, Devil’s Cub. It was wittier than the earlier books, and its lovers were more equally matched. Rougier was her first reader and often helped with research, but the new line in detective fiction was still more of a joint effort: he constructed the plots and she fleshed them out. Heyer didn’t enjoy writing them: ‘All the clues & things bother me … & I feel the whole thing to be fatuous.’ Even so, in 1935 she signed contracts with Heinemann for her next three historical novels and with Hodder & Stoughton for four modern ones, which now meant detective stories. A few months later she wrote to a friend that she had ‘succumbed to a Nervous Breakdown and been languishing ever since’, but she still turned out one thriller and one historical novel every year for the next few years. Her stamina wasn’t what it had been – ‘I daren’t sit up all night writing any more, 5.30 a.m. is now my limit’ – but she had to up her work rate, especially as in 1936 Rougier decided to give up on the shop and begin the long, expensive training to become a barrister.

‘The first drafts were so often the final drafts,’ Kloester notes approvingly: ‘She was generally able to write quickly and easily, with minimal rewriting or reworking of the plot.’ It seems that she ‘never had an editor and by the mid-1930s neither her agent nor her publisher read her manuscripts all the way through, or even at all, prior to publication. The draft she sent to her publisher was the book they published.’ At times she would beg her agent or a friend at Heinemann to read a manuscript and reassure her, but they seldom did. She was much less laid back, and often became enraged by ‘meddlesome and illiterate’ typesetters: ‘They have changed all my z’s to s’s, & I have been obliged to change them back … In every instance I have mentioned an inn, they have put the name between inverts, Thus we have: – The chaise drew up at “The Green Man” – till I could scream.’ She now insisted that her manuscripts be printed ‘exactly as typed’.

Detail obsessed her, and over the years she amassed an enormous collection of books on every aspect of life in the periods she wrote about. In her eyes it was the depth of her knowledge that distinguished her work from the run of historical romances. For An Infamous Army (1937), she ‘gutted’ all the available sources and drew several intricate maps for ‘the crashing climax of Waterloo’: her account of the battle takes up a good chunk of the novel, and she was delighted when the book became recommended reading at Sandhurst. After finishing it she reread Vanity Fair, and according to Hodge was ‘shocked at Thackeray’s lack of research’ – he should have known, she thought, that the gunfire could not be heard from Brussels. (Byron had made the same mistake.) Detail isn’t always a good thing. In Austen, clothes, for example, are rarely described and when they are it tends to indicate a character’s Lydia Bennetness, but in Heyer everyone, even the sensible types, must have their trappings lovingly catalogued. That’s something historical romance may share with fantasy: its small details are important for the reality effect, whether or not they serve any purpose where story or character are concerned.

The artificiality of her Regency novels seems to have been part of their appeal for her; those were the books she enjoyed writing. Hodge suggests that she knew her own snobbery was a problem and cleverly solved it by ‘retreating into her private Regency world, which had snobbery built in’. It’s certainly true that she was more liable to cause offence when she was writing about the society she lived in. ‘It’s always been my dread that he might marry something out of a tobacconist’s shop so you can imagine what a relief it is to me to know he’s had the sense to choose a really nice girl,’ the hero’s mother remarks when she meets his fiancée for the first time in They Found Him Dead (1937). When a real-life tobacconist’s assistant wrote to Heyer demanding an apology, Heyer told her agent there was no point in ‘encouraging her’ with a reply: ‘I don’t write for that kind of person, after all, & if she chooses in future to ban me from her library list it’s all the same to me. What is more, there is nothing to be said. I should regard it as a major tragedy if my son were to marry a tobacconist’s assistant.’

Another heavily researched novel, Royal Escape, about Charles II’s flight from England, came out four days before Munich. Heyer felt sure her ‘poor, unfortunate book’ would be killed off by ‘this ghastly European situation’; in fact it did well, but the Rougiers, never much good with money, were sinking further into debt. Under strain, Heyer often said she wished that she were ‘a Victorian Little Woman, & not a wage-earner’, or that ‘my useless mother-in-law would die,’ or, once war broke out, that ‘some German would come & drop a bomb on me’. In 1940 she sold three of her most valuable copyrights – These Old Shades, Regency Buck and Devil’s Cub – outright to Heinemann for £750. Rougier’s eyesight made him unfit for active service, but Heyer’s brothers both fought, and Rougier’s was killed. By 1943 the family had moved into chambers in Albany in Piccadilly – their ‘set’, F.3, was said to be haunted by Macaulay, who had written his History of England there.

It was in the 1940s, just as it was becoming clear that the romances were her best and most popular books, that she began to disparage both the books and their readers in earnest. In 1944, she produced Friday’s Child, the book which her fans had been ‘pestering me to write’. ‘Judging from the letters I’ve received from obviously feeble-minded persons, who do so wish I would write another These Old Shades, it ought to sell like hotcakes. I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it’s unquestionably good escapist literature; & I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from ’flu.’ ‘It doesn’t take much to excite an American,’ she said of the reaction of the book’s US publisher. Friday’s Child was an immediate bestseller: apart from a couple more thrillers written mostly, and not entirely successfully, ‘for sordid gain’, she published only Regency romances for the rest of her life. It was also in 1944 that she lost a case brought by the tax commissioner over the sale of her copyrights, and had to pay more than £1000 in back taxes and costs. Feeling that the more she wrote the more she had to write to feed the Inland Revenue ‘sharks’, she never stopped complaining about taxation; she especially resented ‘the thought that all this ill-gotten wealth is going to be squandered on objects I totally disapprove of, such as helping a lot of lazy sods to go out on strike for more pay and less work. If I didn’t believe that the Human Race is on its way out I don’t think I could bear it.’

Money was her excuse for continually putting off a ‘Real Book’, one that didn’t feature any of the ‘Heyer-heroes’ she classified as Mark I (‘brusque, savage’) and Mark II (‘suave, well-dressed’): ‘Ronald wants me to jack up the Regency & do a worth-while book again.’ But she couldn’t afford too long a gap between advances – ‘If the price of gas doesn’t go up, I shall put my head in the oven’ – and so the Regencies kept on coming. Her son claims she wrote her romances because she liked them. She occasionally admitted to herself that she enjoyed writing them. She said of The Talisman Ring that after a few days of fearing ‘I had Written Myself Out & couldn’t think of any plot at all, a Wholly Glorious Novel burst upon me in the space of twenty minutes … Unless I’ve lost my gift for the Farcical, which I do not think, I’m going to perpetrate one of my more amusing & exciting works.’ During the war she found it difficult to ‘cope’ with one of her thrillers: ‘I find my brain either dwelling on the war, or weaving the details of a preposterous Regency romance,’ so she gave it up for a period piece she knew would be ‘a comforting book to write … & I do do that sort of thing well, don’t I?’ Within a fortnight, she had thirty thousand words of The Corinthian.

As Heyer’s fame grew, one of the things she hated most was less meticulous writers imitating her style. Alerted by a fan, she sent her solicitor a copy of one of Barbara Cartland’s novels, heavily annotated to show the thefts from her own. She pointed out that in several books, as well as lifting plots and characters, Cartland used phrases and details she could have got nowhere else, alongside elementary mistakes and anachronisms that showed ‘abysmal ignorance of her period’: ‘I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate.’ Nothing much came of it, or of the ‘11-page analysis’ she made of Kathleen Lindsay’s Winsome Lass, ‘cross-referenced against eight of her own novels’.

In her fifties and sixties Heyer seems to have been very much the grande dame, deploring ‘this filthy age’ and at lunch at Buckingham Palace striking the queen as ‘formidable’. Sinusitis didn’t ‘stop me being quite humorous in cotillion, so probably I am one of these people like Keats and Bizet, who flourish under adversity, after all. Or maybe it’s just due to Dexedrine, with which (and gin, of course) I keep myself going.’ ‘I’m not fond of Jews,’ she remarked of the Six-Day War, ‘but I’m delighted that they’ve licked the hell out of the Wogs.’ She had always hated personal publicity: ‘I will not submit to any sickening sentimental rubbish on the lines of “From her earliest years Miss Heyer has always, etc, etc.” … I’ll be damned if I’ll supply material for the sorts of nauseating soul-throbs dear to the American public.’ Most of her fans didn’t even know her married name until she died.

Each book as she saw it was ‘an All Time Low’ or ‘so exactly what the Fans like that I’ve been feeling queasy ever since’, and the only fan letter she was really proud of came from a woman who had spent 12 years as a political prisoner in Romania, and wrote to say that re-telling the story of Friday’s Child over and over to her fellow inmates was what had kept them all going. On the other hand she didn’t dislike it when Lord Keith told her that ‘the better part’ of members of the House of Lords were ‘my firm fans’. But her fans haven’t gone away: when launching her book, Kloester spoke at a ‘Regency Celebration’ organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association; the audience was dotted with people in full Napoleonic regalia and Empire-line dresses and bonnets. Fans notice detail; fans re-read. Heyer feared not being taken seriously, but her readers are serious, and about the same things she was.