Almost three years ago (can it really be that long?) I wrote a post discussing the perhaps guilty pleasures of reading Georgette Heyer. At that time, I observed: “Heyer writes costume dramas, and we are somewhat uncomfortable with costume dramas. Can you write social critique if you are not writing of your own time? And if you are not writing metafiction, or challenging historiography, then what is the purpose of historical fiction other than to entertain or provide an escape from the mundane realities of life today?” In many ways Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer goes some way towards answering that question for me. The Regency world that Heyer made so much her own may well in many ways have reflected Heyer’s own nostalgia for a time when society was apparently more ordered.
Heyer was born an Edwardian and grew up as Kloester tells us “in a sheltered world in which people were assumed to know their place and many believed that the worth of a man could be told from the cut of his coat” (Chapter 1). By the time Heyer died in 1974, the world had changed greatly, and many of what are arguably her most accomplished novels were published in the fifties and sixties when it must have seemed to someone steeped in Edwardian values that the world was becoming almost unrecognizable. In her Afterword, Kloester asserts that Heyer’s “Regency world” while “faithful in its historical detail . . . was also a carefully constructed entity which reflected the Edwardian values, ideas, and social mores with which . . . [Heyer] had grown up.”
Heyer’s books, both the historical romances and much of the detective fiction are set within the milieu of the landed gentry and aristocracy. Even if somewhat or even extremely impoverished, Heyer’s main characters tend to be ladies and gentlemen by birth even if circumstance and sometimes their own behavior have reduced them to such pursuits as professional card playing, smuggling, or highway robbery. Characters from other walks of life have for the most part walk on roles as faithful maids, valets, grooms, loving governesses, and often extremely loyal and secretive innkeepers. Tradesmen even extremely wealthy ones are not really socially acceptable in Heyer’s fictional world. The nouveau riche tend to be rather unsympathetically portrayed.
No doubt some of this point of view is demanded in order to be true to the setting of the works, but Kloester’s biography reveals Heyer to be if not exactly classist then certainly somewhat snobbish and self-absorbed. Kloester suggests that it is possible that Heyer may well have been sexually frigid and, despite loving her son and husband, lacked the “emotional intelligence necessary” (Chapter 30) to understand her son, also telling us “there were times when Georgette could be remarkably lacking in empathy and emotional understanding” (Chapter 30).
Kloester’s biography is well researched and organized including lists of References to published sources on Heyer, lists of Heyer’s works and their publication dates in both the UK and the US, an outline of “Heyer-Related Archives,” and copious Permissions and Acknowledgements. Kloester writes sympathetically about her subject. but Georgette Heyer is by no means adulatory.
I found the Georgette Heyer presented in the biography engaging but not necessarily someone I might have felt comfortable meeting. Heyer was herself apparently rather uncomfortable in large social gatherings, and in a small group she seems to have expected one to be the right sort. Would I have been the right sort? I don’t know. What I did find illuminating in the book were the insights it gives into the social history and mores of Heyer’s England, and the insights into the workings of the publishing industry during her lifetime, especially given how good a money spinner Heyer was for her publishers. She would have hated the demands today’s publishers make on their authors to market their books and was very specific about being Mrs. Rougier in a private life she wished to keep private.
One aspect of Heyer’s character that does attract sympathy is her own attitude to her work and her desire to write what she considered a serious historical trilogy about the middle ages, the first volume of which My Lord John was published posthumously to rather negative reviews. Kloester reveals how Heyer herself felt her Regency novels and her detective fiction were necessary financially but took her away from what she considered the more serious project. Kloester also underscores Heyer’s meticulous and extensive research whether for her mediaeval novels or the Regency works. So detailed was Heyer that her “account of the Battle of Waterloo [in The Infamous Army] . . . would eventually become recommended reading at the Royal Military College Sandhurst” (Chapter 14).
Certainly, it was Heyer’s historical accuracy that made her acceptable to my grammar school history mistresses and to the school librarian who otherwise tended to look askance if one actually borrowed a Daphne du Maurier, du Maurier being seen as far too popular a novelist to merit serious critical attention. A debateable point indeed, but I digress.
Kloester’s Georgette Heyer introduces us to the person behind the novels, offers insights into the world in which Heyer lived, and suggests how her fiction may well reflect her nostalgia for Edwardian certainties and decorum. If we accept that the Edwardian era was an idyll of political and social stability, which I’m not sure we should, then I’m not totally sure that I would be comfortable likening it to the Regency period marked as it was by the Napoleonic wars, Luddite and other riots, the shadow of the French Revolution, fear of Jacobinism, and so forth. However, if we see the values of the haut ton during the Regency and those of the aristocracy in the so called golden years before WWI as actually being a defence against rising democratic feeling and a response to their unease about social change, there may well be some validity in this view, and we can see in Heyer’s fiction a response to the instability of her own times.
Kloester left me facing a Georgette Heyer who was apparently a woman with a wry intelligence, was private, conservative, and meticulous. I couldn’t help but feel in some ways that it was a pity that she had not been to university, something not seen as particularly necessary for women when she was young, but was a choice for some women of her background. If she had been able to attend university, would her talents and energies have been focused on something other than romantic historical fiction and whodunits. However, even as I ponder this question, I am faced with another. Am I not making somewhat biased value judgements in thinking that academic research is possibly actually of more value than bringing pleasure to millions while getting the facts right?
All in all, Georgette Heyer provides a well-researched, sensitive perspective on the life of one of the twentieth century’s most popular and prolific novelists. It’s a satisfying and thought-provoking work.