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?