It's almost forty years since Georgette Heyer died and yet with the exception of the five titles she herself had suppressed, all of her novels are still in print and still selling in large quantities and year on year she's still attracting new readers. By anyone's standards, she is a publishing phenomenon. In her fifty year writing career she never had a single failure. Although she wrote across several genres including crime fiction, it's with the Regency romance that her name is inextricably linked and indeed she's acknowledged as being the creator of that genre and though many have tried to emulate her style and her wit, their efforts have always been pale imitations of the originals and the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer have never yet been bettered. As the title of this book by Jennifer Kloester proclaims, Georgette Heyer is a bestseller.
Jennifer Kloester, the author of this latest biography, is an Australian by birth who, having discovered the books of Georgette Heyer during a trip to Africa, is nowadays regarded as the foremost authority on the author's life and works and for this biography she was given unlimited access to all the private Heyer documents and family photographs by Richard Rougier, her son, along with access to many private letters sent to individuals. It's also a measure of the respect that this biographer is accorded when Georgette Heyer's previous biographer, Jane Aiken Hodge, also lent Ms Kloester all her own research material.
What Jennifer Kloester has produced is a fascinating glimpse into the private life of a very talented and dedicated writer. Each chapter, headed up by a (frequently pithy) quote from Georgette, details her youth and upbringing and the influences which led her into her chosen career as well as her family life, her relationship with her publishers and ultimately her death from lung cancer at the age of seventy-one. During her lifetime, Georgette Heyer, though a bestselling author, jealously guarded her private life, always firmly stating 'You'll find me in my books', so it's to Ms Kloester's credit that she's produced a biography filled with new information, which gives great insight into the life and work of this most reclusive of writers.
Georgette Heyer is my favourite author and she has been so since the day I first picked up one of her novels in the library when I was about eleven or twelve. It was through reading her novels, especially those with a Georgian or Regency setting that I developed my fascination with that particular period of history.
During her lifetime, some of her detractors have tried to imply that her books were little more than trashy romances, probably without having read a single word, but nowadays she's acknowledged as a gifted writer of meticulously researched novels and to this day is the undisputed queen of Regency romances though, in all honesty, her books are far more than that. Not many romance writers have garnered admirers such as A.S. Byatt, Rosemary Sutcliff and Germaine Greer, to mention just three.
Georgette was born in 1902 and according to the baby book kept by her mother, Sylvia, her name was 'a la Francais' by which I assume it should be pronounced with a 'zsh' instead of a 'j'. Growing up during the last vestiges of the period about which she eventually wrote, Georgette lived in middle-class comfort in rural suburbia and she was raised to know her place in society so would have been used to having some servants in the household. Although I was aware that horses were still the main means of transport during the Edwardian period, I was amazed to read that the young Georgette would have seen stage coaches pulling into the local inn yard. I'd absolutely no idea that these vehicles were still in operation in the twentieth century!
Jennifer Kloester includes lots of little snippets of information like that in her books which add an extra dimension to the background from which Georgette came. For instance, her maternal grandfather was the head of a tug boat company and it was one of his tugboats that is portrayed pulling the Temeraire in the famous Turner painting. All this background information certainly brings home the fact that though she lived her entire life within the twentieth century, there were still lots of traditions and standards harking back to the previous century and when she included coach travel in her novels, she wasn't just writing from her imagination but from personal experience.
Georgette fell into novel writing more or less by accident when she created a story to keep her young brother, Frank entertained whilst he was in bed sick. That story was 'The Black Moth', her first published novel and is a tale of action, adventure and above all, romance. From that day in 1923, Georgette never looked back and her books became ever more detailed as a result of her historical research into the minutiae of Georgian life, all of which gave her stories a far greater authenticity than many other works of historical fiction.
She prided herself on getting her facts right and in this respect was also her own hardest critic. She was devastated to discover after publication that she'd made a glaring error in one of her books, Frederica, (one of her best books, too) by placing an iron foundry in Soho, London when in fact, the foundry had been in Soho, Birmingham! It was too late to change this and it seems to have made her like this book much less than many of her others. To the lay reader, of course, it made not a whit of difference who could see beyond this minor failing to the wonderful story beyond.
Although Georgette was well aware that her bestsellers were outside what is commonly regarded as great literature, she also knew they were way above everything else being published in her chosen genre and it appears that some of her fellow historical romance writers weren't above pinching her ideas and plotlines. There are quite a few revelations in this book of this nature, including the fact that Barbara Cartland wasn't above snitching not only plotlines but character names and, indeed, whole books from Georgette. When this was made known to her, Georgette read the newly published Miss Cartland's books and amidst all the very obviously copied text, spotted one particular piece of information that she knew was not in any published work and to which she alone had been granted access. Eventually deciding that enough was enough she contacted her solicitor with the intention of taking Barbara Cartland to court for plagiarism. It seems from the letters Georgette wrote at the time that what she found most offensive was the fact that Barbara Cartland wrote so badly. In one of her letters she writes 'I think I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate.' This is an opinion with which I wholeheartedly concur! Although the matter never did come to court, following a stern letter from Georgette's solicitor, our Babs continued to write her trashy novels but no longer filched details or plots from Georgette's vastly superior works.
Jennifer Kloester has done an admirable job in drawing together all the strands of Georgette Heyer's life from the disparate sources and has created an interesting and accessible biography detailing the life of one of Britain's best loved and most popular novelists. The portrait she draws is of an intensely private woman who nevertheless had very definite ideas about how she wished her books to be presented to the reading public and who refused to be brow-beaten by her editors and publishers.
This book would probably not be of much interest to anyone other than admirers of Georgette Heyer's work because in many respects her life was very ordinary, but it does give great insight into what made her tick and the incredible amount of research and effort she put into her novels. This dedication to getting her facts right is probably what has ensured that her books are still so widely read and enjoyed. Not many people regularly feature in the top ten of the Public Library Association's list of most borrowed books forty years after their death.