Book review: Georgette Heyer - Biography of a Bestseller

“I THINK myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from flu.”

Such was Georgette Heyer’s self-deprecatory summing-up of her talents, just after she had completed Friday’s Child, her first “instant bestseller”. It was another of her “Regency” novels, the genre begun many years earlier in 1935 with Regency Buck, and it sold nearly a quarter of a million copies in the three years after its release.

Was she really as bad as she thought she was? Kloester’s respectful biography shows a writer much concerned with income – once her publishing career begins, at the astonishingly early age of 17, royalties and pay cheques feature on almost every page – and, like many commercially successful artists, even more concerned with literary prestige. The great literary figures have no money; the rich writers have no prizes. Or that’s how it seems to go, and each wants what the other has. Heyer wanted fame, Kloester makes clear, in the early part of her career – Regency Buck was written, it would seem, just before Heyer had a nervous breakdown and had signed a deal with not just one but two publishers. She was just 33 years old. She wanted “greater recognition” and “to know that what she wrote was good.” Yet, for all the money and fan letters and book sales in their hundreds and thousands that followed, that single need would plague her all her life.

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Georgette Heyer was born on 9 August 1902 to a middle-class couple, George and Sylvia Heyer. Their innocuous Wimbledon existence belied a more romantic history, however – George Heyer’s father was a Russian Jewish émigré, who had fled a pogrom in Odessa. He raised his son to be an English gentleman and sent him to Cambridge, where he developed a lifelong love of literature and history. His daughter shared those passions, and his early death at the age of 57 devastated her.

It may have been her father’s death that propelled her into marriage with the safe and reliable Ronald Rougier. In her third novel, The Masqueraders, written when she was 26 and had been married for three years, her heroine, Frances reflects on the merits of two men: “He was not Romance, but he was her husband, and she did care for him. If she was not passionate that was the fault of her temperament. She thought of the man who might have meant Romance, and awaked passion obtruded for an instant. She banished it swiftly.”

If there ever was a “man who might have meant Romance”, her biographer hasn’t found him, which is a pity, as Heyer’s fans might like to think their favourite author had a life as romantic as some of her heroines. Alas, no. Apart from some early exoticism, when she and Ronald spent a few years in Africa, her personal life is solid and uneventful. Her very first book, The Black Moth, had shown her she could earn money by writing – as Ronald struggled to find a suitable career for himself, she became the main breadwinner. A book a year was essential to keep the family afloat, and Heyer’s constant anguish about bills and debts, familiar to most writers, was what motivated her to pick her pen up to begin another novel, as soon as one was finished.

As a result there is less romance, more financial dealing in Kloester’s biography of this pragmatic, often formidable, brutally funny, constantly inventive writer. Some more exploration of the causes of Heyer’s breakdown in 1935 would have been welcome , but Kloester is too wary of treading on toes or upsetting readers to do this. Nor will she explain why one editor turned down her detective novel, A Blunt Instrument “on moral grounds”, because “an explanation here would spoil the plot”. Hang the plot, what were the moral grounds, we want to know? Similarly, the rift that occurs between her longstanding editor at Heinemann, Alexander Frere-Reeves, and his wife, with whom Heyer was on particularly friendly terms, is never explained either. Kloester can only respond helplessly, “Whatever the reasons behind the breach, Georgette did not know how to resolve it.” It is a biographer’s job to speculate a little, to dig around a little more.

Part of the problem may be Kloester’s heavy reliance on the Heyer family giving her access to material. It’s as though she doesn’t want to offend them, or the memory of a writer she clearly adores. And so we are left with tax receipts and some very entertaining letters between Heyer and her different publishers, and her long-suffering agent, which isn’t quite enough.

Heyer’s workaholic approach did damage her relationship with her son – Richard spent his youth in boarding-schools, and learned, Kloester says, to keep any emotional outpourings to himself. She was a formidable opponent, as Barbara Cartland found out when a stiff letter came her way, accusing her of plagiarising Heyer’s novels, and she could be hard. Ultimately, though, the impression given here is of a hard-working woman making money out of doing the thing she loved. Wanting more than this – literary recognition from the greats – is perhaps not too bad a need to have, especially if it’s the only one left.

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller

by Jennifer Kloester

Heinemann, 448pp, £20