Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester

Guest article by Kate Macdonald

I am a Georgette Heyer fan. I’ve been one since Aunt Jeanette lent me These Old Shades when I was bored on a visit to my granny’s. I was round at Aunt Jeanette’s every day that holiday borrowing another Heyer each time, and now I’ve got my own copies of nearly all of Heyer’s novels. Regency Buck is falling to pieces, held together by an elastic band. I enjoyed Jane Aiken Hodge’s 1984 biography of Heyer very much, and have been waiting for this new biography by Jennifer Kloester for some time. And now, I know a bit more about Heyer than I did before, and I know a lot more about her writing and publishing practice, but I can’t say that I like her any better as a person.

Georgette Heyer was a driven, manic writer. She regularly published two novels a year at her most productive period, and fretted herself into frustration if she couldn’t manage one a year. Consequently she found dexedrine jolly useful for regular all-night writing sessions, followed by all day entertaining and childcare: how many other High Tory best-selling novelists maintained their production rates with habitual drug use? She was high-handed, demanding, emphatic, intolerant, dictatorial, and careless when it came to contracts. She supported her entire extended family, it seems, on her own earnings, which included her two brothers and her husband, for the first half of her writing life (that explains the ferocious rate of production), but she didn’t understand, or take the time to thoroughly work through the financial demands from the Inland Revenue that made her furious for most of her career. She was a woman who expected services from her agent, publisher, typist, and close friends in her professional life, which included being able to understand her little ways, to communicate almost by telepathy, and not to bother her over things she did not consider worth her time. Consequently her finances were in a horrible mess and she paid out ludicrous amounts in tax and surtax and heaven knows what other kinds of tax because she and her husband took far too long to do something about dodgy accountants, uninterested publishers and slack agents.

This is pretty much the dominant note from Kloester’s biography. We do hear about the novels, the witty, sparkling, insightful, magnificent novels that defined historical fiction by the term ‘Regency romance’ for the twentieth century, but we hear far more about the conditions in which the novels were written, and how much they earned in advances, royalties and serialisations. Pages and pages of numbers are presented proudly, because Kloester has done a tremendous job of assembling new data and archive material to retell the story of Heyer’s life. Her work has filled in a lot of the detail to which Aiken Hodge did not have access. The title of the book is about being a best-seller, and by golly that’s what we get: numbers, numbers, and more numbers.

So much more could have been done with this book. Kloester may be a ‘professional writer’ (as it says on her author blurb), but she lacks distance from her material. She’s done a great job in processing all this material, but she does almost nothing to interpret it. Occasionally a comment is added to say again what Heyer had just said in an extended quotation from a letter. Sometimes historical background is added, but this is mostly clumsy, leading to non sequiturs, and frequently banal. We do not get a sense of how Heyer was regarded by her peers, for instance. The fans are quoted, but what did Angela Thirkell, Agatha Christie or even the arch-plagiarist Barbara Cartland think of Heyer’s books? We read about new archive material from the Australian market (which is very welcome), but we aren’t given any idea of what the much larger American market thought about Heyer. As for the books, I’m not asking for in-depth analysis, but more about their content, characters and themes themselves would have been a great help to newcomers, especially in terms of how Heyer developed her art, and strengthened her themes.

Nowhere are the Heyer terms Mark 1 and Mark 2 hero explained, for instance. Aiken Hodge explains them perfectly, and perhaps that is the problem: Kloester relies on her readers already knowing the Aiken Hodge biography in quite a few ways. Better editing would have helped avoid this. Kloester is indeed a professional writer, and a Heyer expert, but she is not a Heyer scholar. Her writing about early and mid twentieth-century English culture also needs help with the idioms, the slang and the cultural references: there are too many small, silly slips to ignore, and too many things are carefully explained that need no explanation. Heyer herself would have hated these avoidable errors, because they grate, and eat away at Kloester’s authority in this biography. However, I admire Kloester for restraining herself on the subject of Heyer’s prejudices and intolerance, and on her extravagance: such self-control, and careful tightrope-walking on a high wire of social attitudes then and now, really does show Kloester’s professional quality as a biographer.

When not teaching Flemish students literary history Kate Macdonald podcasts about the books she really, really likes on www.reallylikethisbook.com.

William Heinemann (6 Oct 2011), 464 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0434020713

10 comments on “Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester

  1. Sally Dugan
    February 28, 2012

    This puts a finger on a really knotty problem which I have faced when studying Baroness Orczy (to whom Heyer obviously owed a great deal). What happens when you discover that an author whose work has swept you into their world really has feet of clay? Orczy may have been a bit more canny than Heyer about money (she lived in tax exile in Monaco, after all), but I’ve found it really hard to forgive her WW1 recruitment activities, not to mention her casual anti-Semitism. Is it really possible not only to divorce a writer’s character from their work, but to separate out your own professional and emotional responses?

  2. Kate
    February 28, 2012

    Oh yes it is, absolutely, but their writing has to be good enough to allow you to forget their [insert personal characteristic of loathing here]. I find Dornford Yates appalling as a person, but I still love (most of) his novels. The trouble with this biography was that it focused so much on GH’s personality that the books were lost. I’d be amazed if anyone read the biography and then felt drawn to try a GH novel for the first time because of it. It’s a biography for completist fans.

  3. sshaver
    February 28, 2012

    Love those manic writers.

    We all are, under the skin.

  4. Anne Brooke
    February 28, 2012

    Oh no, Sally! I’ve always been a great fan of Orczy – I knew there was a reason I tried to avoid knowing too much about a writer (well, apart from Byron and Wilde where you simply can never know enough …)!

    Interesting also to have this take on Heyer – I’ve never actually read one of her books, as during my formative years, I was more of a Jean Plaidy addict (oh no, don’t tell me – they’re actually the same person and I am indeed as ignorant as my mother always thought) – but I’m tempted to pick one up now, just to see. Thanks, Kate

    Anne
    xxx

  5. Kate Lace
    February 28, 2012

    Interesting that like so many creatives the nuts and bolts of earning a living i.e the tax/accountancy aspect, just passed her by.

  6. Anne
    February 29, 2012

    I liked the Aiken Hodge biography too. I got a present of “Georgette Heyer’s Regency World” by Jennifer Kloester and it was pretty poor until about three quarters of the way through when I stopped trying to read it as a kind of narrative and started reading it like a dictionary. By the end, I finally knew what “boxing the watch” really meant. But Kloester seems to have no gift for narrative, good and all as she is at assembling facts (though some of them rather basic). Don’t fancy the new book at all, I have to say.

    Tell me, do you like the Heyer detective novels as much as the others?

  7. Kate
    February 29, 2012

    No, Heyer’s detective novels are unsatisfying in comparison with even the formulaic Agatha Christie. Heyer (or Heyer and her husband) created good detection plots, but she simply couldn’t write a living narrative. Her talent is for sparkling period dialogue and exposition using archaic vocabulary: that isn’t needed in 20thC dectective novels. She also pinches things from other people: in Duplicate Death she uses a description of a spoiled girl’s bedroom that is lifted almost word for word from a 1939 novel by Angela Thirkell. After all the fuss Heyer made about Barbara Cartland plagiarising HER, I was appalled at that bit of laziness.

  8. Hilary
    February 29, 2012

    Thanks for this review, Kate. I have a copy of this book on my TBR heap, bought after hearing the author at a Book Festival last year. I think I’m pretty well used to the Author as Gorgeous Monster idea – fed no doubt by Angel as well as tales of Baroness Orczy, Angela Thirkell and, yes, Elizabeth von Arnim. Now you come to mention it, there was rather a lot of accountancy in the author’s talk, but I was impressed enough by her devotion to the subject and her new research to buy it. Maybe I’ll defer reading it though!

    I have to say that I have too on my shelves, unread, a couple of GH’s detective novels, and every time I pick one up I put it down again – never really thought about why, but I think to rationalise, it’s my subconscious wanting me to hang onto the memory of the huge pleasure the Regency novels gave me (and other periods – The Convenient Marriage is a real favourite). And, ooh Kate! What a scoop! The plagiarist biter bit! I had no idea.

  9. Jackie
    February 29, 2012

    This isn’t at all the image I had of Ms. Heyer, but then I knew nothing about her. Those numbers sound overwhelming & also a bit pointless. I’d rather know more about how someone wrote & created characters than sales figures, etc.

  10. Pingback: The Talisman Ring | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2012 by in Non-fiction: biography and tagged , , , .

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