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If you love reading novels, have an even moderately developed sense of camp, and are not too much of a literary snob, Georgette Heyer is just about the best fun it is possible to have between soft covers: romantic, funny, zippy and, because she wrote the same book over and over, entirely reliable (as the publisher Carmen Callil once put it: "She just used Jane Eyre and jiggled it around 57 times").
Georgette Heyer Biography
by Jennifer Kloester
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Before I started writing this piece, I took down from my shelves The Black Moth, her first novel, published when she was just 17; it tells the story of Jack Carstares, the disgraced son of an earl, who turns highwayman in order that he might live on the land from which he has been banished without detection. I turned to the first page. Bliss. "Clad in his customary black and silver, with raven hair unpowdered and elaborately dressed, diamonds on his fingers and in his cravat, Hugh Tracy Clare Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, sat at the escritoire in the library of his town house, writing." Now, be honest. Don't you long to know what happens next?
But alas, writers are not their books. Georgette Heyer was neither romantic nor funny nor zippy. She was a sour and rather cynical snob, rapacious when it came to money, mean-spirited when it came to other writers and to her readers, whose fan letters she liked mostly to drop straight into the nearest wastepaper basket, and with a strangely overdeveloped sense of her own importance. Granted, on occasion, Heyer would play at "little me". Such was her fear of "vulgarity", even she was induced to indulge in false modesty from time to time. Mostly, though, her preference was for a bracing game of "marvellous me".
When, for instance, her long-suffering literary agent had the temerity to call her novel Penhallow "a grotesque", she went berserk, writing to him: "Carola Oman [a friend] calls it my 'Lear', & says my characterisation is 'brilliant'. So damn you!" Her idea of wit seems mostly to have been sarcasm. Only on the matter of reliability is she impossible to fault. Heyer turned out two (mostly well-written) novels a year for almost four decades, a feat she performed with the help of gin, fags and Dexedrine. Under the influence of the latter, she could write for up to 24 hours at a time.
Heyer was born in 1902, the daughter of a school teacher with aspirations, and grew up mostly in Wimbledon. She thought of herself as a "sheltered daughter", a position she relished, and as a Victorian and a reactionary: by the time she was in her 20s, her dislikes included bohemians, Freudians and "studio parties". The Black Moth began as a story told to her younger brother, Boris, but its casual beginning didn't mean that her delight, on hearing that Constable wanted to publish it, was unbounded. She conducted her contract negotiations – she was, remember, only a teenager – with a beady and unblinking eye, thus setting the pattern for her entire career. Heyer liked nothing better than to moan about her finances, even when she was selling by the million. After all, insisting loudly that she only wrote for "sordid gain" gave her the perfect excuse for writing one Regency romance after another rather than the big, serious book of her dreams.
In 1925, she married a mining engineer, the superbly named Ronald Rougier, and together they did stints in Africa and Macedonia. When Heyer fell pregnant with her first and only child, however, they returned to Britain, where Rougier ran a sports shop in a Sussex village. But the business was not a success. Heyer now found herself the main breadwinner, and her pace increased yet further, with the result that she succumbed to an "internal poisoning" (otherwise known as a nervous breakdown).
Yet still the books came, and when Ronald eventually qualified as a barrister, the pair moved to a smart apartment in the Albany, Piccadilly, a home that appealed to the snooty Heyer for obvious reasons. After this, there is little to report. She wrote lots more books. She liked to watch her husband, with whom she did not share a bed, playing golf. She was once invited to lunch with the Queen – who is, along with Cilla Black and AS Byatt, a Heyer fan – though she did not much enjoy it. (My dear, the Duke of Edinburgh's manners!) She died of lung cancer in 1974, the author of 55 novels.
What, I wonder, is the point of this book? Who is it for? According to its jacket, Jennifer Kloester is "the foremost expert on Heyer" (as if the world's universities were crammed with her competitors, all of them writing PhDs on The Grand Sophy and Regency Buck). What this means in practice is that she tells you everything – I mean everything – about a woman whose life was simply not very interesting. This is a biography in which the pregnancy of a daughter-in-law is giant news. Yes, Kloester has had, courtesy of Heyer's late son, Sir Richard Rougier (the high court judge who once claimed never to have heard of bouncy castles), unbridled access to Heyer's papers, but since these include no exciting love letters, and nothing in the way of literary gossip, one wishes she had not felt obliged to quote from them so extensively. (One letter, in which Heyer complains to her agent about her publisher, Heinemann, is reprinted over three pages.)
As for the mystery of Heyer's writing – how it works; why so many intelligent people love it – Kloester simply does not go there, and her book is thus squeezed dry of all the joy it might have had. If you want fun – if you want elopements and quadrilles, velvet britches and sprig muslin gowns – you will have to go back to the novels, still in print, and still the greatest and most surprising of pleasures.