Saturday, October 15, 2011

So what do you think of Georgette Heyer?


It’s probably true that you learn something new every day; on Tuesday for example I learnt that Georgette Heyer wrote through the night fuelled by Gin and Dexedrine (Radio 4, Woman’s hour). I’m currently fuelled by cocoa and gingerbread and have wanted to be in my bed since ten to eight.

I found Georgette Heyer’s books through an English teacher when I was thirteen; she lent me ‘These Old Shades’ and I never looked back. (At the time I was a little bit obsessed with ‘The Scarlett Pimpernel’ and it’s a mercy that someone did steer me towards other books.) It never occurred to me back then that Heyer might be considered second rate, I loved her books – most of which I’ve read many times, they saw me through my teens and have been a comfort ever since. I’ve never accepted that Heyer should be a guilty pleasure; her writing is simply a pleasure but somehow she does seem to rile people. Carmen Callil apparently said “she just used ‘Jane Eyre’ and jiggled it around 57 times”, this is unfair partly because Heyer is clearly re-jiggling Austen and partly because poor girl meets rich (married) man wasn’t a new story when Charlotte Bronte hit on it, it’s also typical of the mean spirited comments Heyer attracts.

I don’t know what she was like as a woman, I’m curious to read Jennifer Kloester’s ‘Georgette Heyer – Biography of a Bestseller’ published a week ago, the reason for the Woman’s hour segment, and the subject of a very negative review in ‘The Guardian’. Listening to Kloester she’s clearly as protective of Heyer as I sometimes feel. I don’t often read biographies (or non-fiction) and can’t afford to be buying new books at the moment (which in practice so often means instead of spending £20 on one book somehow spending much more on half a dozen) but this one is tempting.

The Guardian piece is odd – Rachel Cooke apparently liked Heyer’s books but rips into the woman behind them describing her as sour, snooty, cynical, snobbish, rapacious when it came to money, and mean spirited towards other writers. Heyer’s son the late Sir Richard Rougier. also comes in for a swipe, reminding us that he’s the judge who claimed not to know what a bouncy castle was (which I’m okay with, middle aged men should probably avoid bouncy castles anyway. He’s also the judge who said that “fashion conscious women should be able to dress attractively and even provocatively without falling prey to sex attackers” which seems more to the point and entirely laudable.)

It seems that the teenage Heyer was wrong for disliking Freudians, bohemians, and studio parties. Wrong for conducting her own contractual negotiations for ‘The Black Moth’, wrong for being the main breadwinner in the household whilst her husband retrained as a barrister, wrong indeed for caring about the money she made from her work, but these are all things I find admirable. I hope that Koestler’s biography is a success and meets with rather more favourable reviews along the way – there is self interest in this; there are half a dozen out of print novels, Heyer suppressed them in her life time, most of them are contemporary rather than historical fiction and I would love to read them – enough interest and maybe someone will dig them out and dust them off for a re-issue?

12 comments:

  1. I have been a Heyer reader for 30 years now - April Lady was my introduction, and it's still a favorite. One of my sisters is also a long-time reader, the other one insists (like Carmen Callil) that Heyer just wrote the same book over & over. I feel that anyone who says that (including my sister) has never really read Heyer, particularly not the mysteries or suppressed moderns. I belong to a very active Heyer listserv (Jennifer Kloester is also a member), and I'm looking forward to this biography so much - it's frustrating that it's not available yet in the US. Have you read Jane Aiken Hodge's earlier book?

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  2. I read Heyer when I was a teenager and liked her a lot, but when I picked up a couple of her novels a few years ago I just couldn't get into them at all. Maybe I was in the wrong mood? I know I'm in a tiny minority. The biog sounds interesting -- one to get from the library I guess. And I too loved the Scarlet Pimpernell -- we don't hear much about him these days, do we. Maybe time for a resurrection?

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  3. I have very little interest in meeting/reading about authors and prefer to just enjoy the books!

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  4. Interesting! Maybe this'll lead to her books coming back into fashion - they seem really hard to find at book stores these days. I read some of her Regency romances but I'd like to get a hold of her crime fiction.

    I think I enjoy reading author biogs more if I'm not desperately attached to the author in question - when I am I get scared I'll find out something bad about them!

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  5. The Lady Ferris, most the authors I read are dead so meeting them is out of the question, I don't read much biography but this one tempts me partly because of the negative comments - I'm interested to see if I can find why Heyer provokes those kinds of reaction.

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  6. Harriet - She's my comfort read now for when I feel unsettled or a bit ill. I know the books so well that it's hard to look at them critically but I think the attraction has always been feeling that I'm being told a story (I like the books which have smugglers, cross dressing, and lots of action). Most of my books including Heyer's went into storage for a couple of years and I thought when I got them all back I'd probably clear them out, instead I read through most of them again (It was just after I found myself living alone for the first time). I've not felt the need to pick them up again for years, but I like having them on the shelf for next time - and there most likely will be a next time - I need her. I think it is a mood thing.

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  7. Lisa May, that sounds like a great list to be on. Have you read the moderns? I would love to know what they're like but have only ever seen them at prohibitive prices on amazon. I just think Heyer was a brilliant story teller, you don't have to like her but it seems unreasonable to deny that she was good at what she did and lazy to say that she did the same thing over and over. I did read the Hodge biog years ago but don't remember much about it.

    Robin, the crime stuff is all in print in the UK and on most bookshop shelves. They're great fun and worth reading though Penhallow is odd, don't give up on finding them.

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  8. I've only read one of the moderns, Pastel - which has Heyer's unique voice, gift for characterization, and wit, but it's a serious book. I've heard the moderns compared to Penhallow, tending toward the dark and depressing - or as some would say, realism. Pastel was an interesting read, but I don't think I'd want to read it again.

    I think most of Heyer's books except the moderns are in print in the US, most recently from Sourcebooks - and now as ebooks, which for some inexplicable reason aren't available outside the US.

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  9. The Guardian review was a mean spirited nasty little bit of writing and really made me cross. It gave the wrong portrait of GH totally. Yes, she was 'formidable, did not suffer fools gladly and knew how to negotiate with her publishers even when young. These were not criminal traits last time I looked.

    GH has always been sneered at by the litterati. She suffered from it all her life and seems they are still at it years after her death. I find this kind of negative reviewing extremely irritating. Daresay the reviewer thought she was being witty and cutting edge instead she was just snippy and snotty.

    I will be reviewing the biography myself this week - I enjoyed it very much and still feel it is a shame that her writing is not more appreciated. I recently hit a reading block, this sometimes happens when I have read too many new books, an I sat and read GH for a week and then I was OK. I know all the books so well but I never tire of them.

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  10. Lisa May - I guess there was a reason why she suppressed the books, and maybe that should be respected, but it would still be interesting to read them now just to get the whole picture of what she wrote.

    Elaine, I'm really looking forward to your review and am grateful that you pointed me to the guardian in the first place. I don't know much about GH beyond her novels, but like you found the Guardian piece annoying not least because it was quite contradictory in it's criticisms.

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  11. I too started reading Heyer decades ago - and still continue to do so. I discovered her mystery novels however, just a few years ago and have still not read them all. The Heyer historical fiction/romance novels are always something I go back to when I want some comfort reading.

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  12. sharing knowledge with others
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylRA41TZ9zU

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