Georgette Heyer - private life un-earthed
PUBLISHED: 17:22 01 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:08 20 February 2013
Georgette Heyer pioneered Regency romance, but the novelist was circumspect about her own life, declaring it concerned no one but herself and family. Biographer Jennifer Kloester paints a portrait of a driven, contradictory woman, as Ann Hill reveals
Tucked away on the final page of photographs, after family members, homes and book covers, are the most extraordinary pictures in this new biography of Georgette Heyer.
They show a shelf of loose-leaf binders, the novelists Regency notebooks, and examples of their contents: meticulously written lists of soaps and scents, neatly copied sketches of postmarks to be found on different kinds of mail and detailed drawings of the caps and bonnets of 1815.
These suggest the considerable time she spent on research. Yet over a 50-year career, she wrote 55 novels and more than 25 short stories. She also penned copious, garrulous letters, even to friends who lived virtually next door, and still found time to be a wife and mother, take long holidays and throw the occasional party. The exclamation I dont know how she does it inspired by todays working mothers (now immortalised in book and film), would have applied equally well to Heyer.
Kloesters account goes some way to explaining how. An innate talent and drive, leading Heyer to produce her first successful novel aged 17, were obviously key. A supportive husband, who always said the right thing, was invaluable, while a lifetime of financial worries and a dread of the tax man conspired to keep her hard at work. Interestingly, gin, cigarettes and chemical stimulants played their part, too.
In the ten years Kloester spent in research, she had access to all the previous biographers material, plus, with the familys blessing, a great deal more, and she relies heavily on quotations from Heyers letters. These enliven the book and convey a strong sense of her personality.
Heyer emerges as a complex, contradictory woman. Despite spending most of her life as the chief breadwinner for her extended family, she was fiercely against the idea of women in business, and abhorred feminism even though she created strong, independently-minded heroines. A long career as an established novelist did not prevent her from despising writers and she more than once declared that all inkies should be shot.
For Sussex readers, there are also no fewer than 12 chapters encompassing Heyers attempts to settle in the county between 1930-42, and she rented homes in Broadbridge Heath, Colgate, Slinfold, Horsham, Brighton and Hove. It was a time of mixed blessings. Heyer produced her only son and wrote prolifically, but suffered much illness and financial difficulty. Her mining engineer husband struggled to run a sports shop in Horsham before training at the Bar, a costly business in itself.
Unlike her subject, whose copious rummages so lightly and subtly informed her witty novels, Kloester appears to have had more difficulty marshalling her material and the result is, at times, a pedestrian read, with the occasional error, repetition or glossing over of information.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating account of the life of a hugely successful, yet very private woman. A must for Heyer fans, but of interest to anyone who enjoys lives.