Sunday, November 6, 2011

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Best Seller – Jennifer Kloester

This book was a very kind gift from Elaine Random Jottings who quite correctly thought I would be interested in a life of one of my favourite authors. I’m not generally much of a biography/non-fiction reader but after a few Heyer based conversations I was really keen to read this in the hope that I would get to know the woman behind the books. Kloester is protective of her subject which suited me; Georgette Heyer was notoriously private and though I don’t doubt that she would have found the idea of being written about nauseating (a phrase she seems to have used a lot) I think this book respects her boundaries. There are no salacious details, but then there aren’t any in her romances either – it’s not what you go to Heyer for, and there probably isn’t very much for people who aren’t fans – but there are no shortage of fans out there so I don’t fear for Kloester’s sales.

I knew from Wikipedia that money troubles were a theme of Heyer’s career but I hadn’t really taken on board that from the age of nineteen she was taking responsibility for her family’s finances. Her first advance went to her father and after his sudden death a few years later she became responsible for keeping her mother and two younger brothers, a responsibility that never seems to have come to an end. Later on she was the sole breadwinner in her own household whilst her husband re trained for the bar and this was before she was really earning big money. Life for Georgette seems to have been a very unromantic series of demands from the Inland Revenue and constant work to keep everything going – which is something most of us can relate to.

It also seems like she was somewhat let down by people who should have been taking care of her – publishers and accountants mostly, publishers who didn’t bother to read her work but just took the books and made money from them, and an accountant who royally messed up her finances.

I think too I now understand why so many critics have been hostile to Georgette. The first clue was her lack of a university education – Dorothy L. Sayers made much of hers and it didn’t do her any harm. Mostly though I think it was her sound sense of the commercial that denied her the recognition she latterly craved. It doesn’t seem to matter that a book is well written, funny, intelligent, or that thousands want to read it – it’s seemingly a lapse of taste to provide the public with what they want. Heyer’s reality was that she had to sell books; that she had a gift for writing best sellers isn’t something she should be despised for.

  I think that had she concentrated on more contemporary fiction, and been less prolific, Heyer would have been seen as a much more serious proposition – but where would have been the fun in that? Her books are the perfect vehicles for escape, her craftsmanship superlative, and I don’t think anyone has ever done what she did better.


  1. I admire Heyer for remembering who she was writing for, and for sticking with what she was good at. Thank you again for the book Elaine - it's been much appreciated.

  2. I'm so looking forward to this. I hadn't thought about her lack of education - that's a really interesting point. I do agree with you, that nobody " has ever done what she did better."

  3. I can't wait to read this! Christmas seems a long time away - I may have to treat myself before that.

  4. Lisa May, I can't help but think that as an intelligent self educated woman she probably annoyed less successful university educated types. Maybe. Speculation really.

  5. Captive Reader - nothing beats Heyer's books but it has been interesting reading about her.