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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