The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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August 16, 2010

'Writing such nonsense': Reading about Georgette Heyer

As often happens with me, I’ve gotten as much enjoyment out of reading about Georgette Heyer — probably more — as I have in reading her for the first time. A well-written biography, or even a not-so-well written one about an interesting person, is one of my greatest reading pleasures. (I have two, no three, of the former in progress right now, so I’m very, very happy.)

When I first heard about this month’s celebration of Georgette Heyer, I didn’t know much at all about her, except that she seemed to have written a lot of books, some of them ‘Regency romances’ and some of them mysteries (and I had read one of those). So I was glad to find a book about her —The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken Hodge (1984) —that was a combination of biography and pictorial about her books and Regency culture

This was definitely not deep, scholarly biography, but it was fun to dip into this book over a couple of days, and learn a little about Georgette Heyer:

  • The name Heyer was originally pronounced to rhyme with ‘flyer’(that’s what I had guessed) but Georgette’s father, a teacher, changed the pronunciation to sound like ‘hare’ during World War I, ’when the Windsors and Mountbattens were doing the same thing.’
  • She published her first book in 1921, when she was nineteen, basing it on a story she told her younger brother Boris when he was convalescing from an illness.
  • After the death of her father, just before her marriage, she became responsible financially for her extended family and wrote largely because she needed the money. Eventually, her goal was to write a Regency romance or a historical novel and a ‘thriller’ every year. All in all, she published four early novels (which she later suppressed), 40 'historical romances,' 13 thrillers, and a book of short stories between 1921 and 1975.
  • As many people have pointed out, she did extensive research and collected notebooks full of Regency clothing, carriages, weapons, and slang.

'Her own special brand of Regency language was one of the aspects of her private world that Georgette Heyer particularly enjoyed and she would not tolerate criticism of it. It is, of course, as highly selective and as artificial as the world she describes. A comparison with Jane Austen is illuminating. There is hardly a phrase in her dialogue that is not instantly comprehensible to the modern reader. Georgette Heyer, on the other hand, liked to load every rift with ore. This linguistic orgy, in narrative as well as dialogue, was one of the ways by which she distanced her private world from the real one. …it was a continuing delight to her.’

  •  Her husband thought up the plots for some of her thrillers, with Heyer adding in the characterizations, settings and details.  
  • She ‘s described as being a very private person, who kept her writing life (as Georgette Heyer) and her personal life (as Mrs. Rougier, the wife of a prominent London lawyer) strictly separated. She generally refused to be photographed or interviewed or to participate in efforts to publicize her books. But she also comes across as highly intelligent, self-deprecating and funny (especially in her letters to her publishers, which were a large part of Hodge’s source material):

'It almost sounds as if the book might be worth reading! ... the way you've avoided the use of such words as corny and drivel is just too wonderful! Of course, you've implied them in the first paragraph -- and when I see the bare bones of the story set out, very fair-mindedly, I do feel that I am sunk beneath reproach. I am now about to perpetrate another piece of nonsense...As a a preliminary I've dug up a lot more Regency slang, some of it very good indeed, and the rest quite unprintable.'

All in all, I’m glad I’ve had a chance to find out a little about her and to read some of her fiction.  I started out with a short list of her novels which has gotten a little longer after reading Hodge's book. I’ve finished one (The Convenient Marriage), almost finished another (The Grand Sophy), and have a third one (Cotillion) on deck in audiobook form. I'm also hoping to read another of her mysteries. I borrowed Envious Casca (chosen, of course, based strictly on the title) but when I read the first few pages I realized it was set at Christmastime, so naturally I need to wait till December to read it. Heyer wrote about 12 more (and the library has most of them), so I'll be able to find another one for August reading.

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