I am a Georgette Heyer fan. There. In the full knowledge that many, probably most, of those who consider themselves serious readers will react to such a statement with a disdainful curl of the lip, I’ve said it. And over the nearly fifty years since I read my first Georgette Heyer, just enough other fans have stuck their heads above the parapet for me to know that I’m in good company.
We are a disparate bunch, a secret society so secret that we don’t even know who else belongs. We have her books so we don’t need each other. If we are rumbled – an inquisitive visitor comes across a row of her titles while perusing our bookshelves, say, or we leave a copy of our latest reread (her books must be reread more than those of any other author) open on the table – we brace ourselves for a sneer and rehearse a casual disclaimer. This is invariably met with a disbelieving ‘Hmm’ and a change of subject, but we have heard the clunk of our fall in their estimation. Strangely, this predictable scenario is almost easier to deal with than the obverse, for if the rumbler turns out to be another fan we will almost immediately fall out. The delighted ‘Oh you read Georgette Heyer too!’ is always followed by ‘Which is your favourite?’ And then the arguing starts. ‘How can you like The Toll Gate more than Devil’s Cub? There’s no comparison.’ ‘Friday’s Child better than The Grand Sophy? Never!’ Perhaps, all things considered, we do better to keep our devotion to ourselves.
Georgette Heyer was renowned for keeping herself to herself. Throughout more than fifty years as a best-selling author, she refused to be interviewed, never made a public appearance and only rarely replied to fan letters. Little is known about her early life beyond that she was born in Wimbledon in 1902, the eldest child and only daughter of Sylvia Watkins and George Heyer, and that she was educated in London and Paris.
It was possibly her father’s intriguing background that inspired Georgette with a love of the romantic. The son of a Russian émigré and fluent in several languages, George Heyer attended King’s College School, London, and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in anticipation of a life of gentlemanly leisure, reading poetry and translating obscure works of French literature. But the family fortune mysteriously evaporated, and by the time his daughter was born he was working as a French teacher at his former school. When Georgette created her first story at the age of 17, regaling her bedridden younger brother Boris with the adventures of The Black Moth, it was her father who encouraged her to write it down and who then sent it to a literary agent, and it was to his delight as much as hers that the book was published two years later in 1921.
In the following fifty-three years Georgette Heyer produced 56 books (a phenomenal output – however did she sustain it?) of which 12 were whodunnits, 4 were contemporary novels and 40 were the historical romances with which her name is forever associated. She wrote up to and throughout her marriage to mining-engineer turned-barrister Ronald Rougier, through two spells abroad when his work took him to East Africa and Yugoslavia, through the birth of her son in 1932, throughout the Second World War, and right up to her death in 1974. Her final book, My Lord John, was published posthumously in 1975.
The four contemporary novels were never a great success. She later suppressed them, possibly because she thought they revealed too much of herself to her readers. The detective novels, despite their considerable commercial success, have always been more popular with devotees of the genre than with ‘real’ Georgette Heyer fans. They, or rather ‘we’, are bewitched by her historical romances.
Although these are often lumped together as ‘Regency Romances’, many are set in earlier times – the Norman Conquest, the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V, Elizabeth I and Charles II, the Civil War and the Georgian period. Her Georgian books in particular (Black Moth, Powder and Patch, These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub) have echoes of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel books: swashbuckling adventure stories in which chivalrous young aristocrats foil dastardly plots by fiendish villains, masquerade as highwaymen, outwit smugglers, ride ventre à terre to the rescue of (or in pursuit of ) spirited young ladies, and triumph over every adversity to save their honour and claim their prize. Her first real Regency novel, Regency Buck, was written in 1935 and thereafter this became, par excellence, her period. Her style changed over time, the sprightly melodramas of her youth gradually evolving into elegant Austen-esque comedies of manners. But whatever moment in history she chose, her research was meticulous and the accuracy of her period detail – dress, manners, events, dialogue – has withstood the scrutiny of the most gimlet-eyed historians. It has been said that her account of the Battle of Waterloo in An Infamous Army is so accurate that the book became required reading for Sandhurst cadets.
But though she obviously took her research very seriously indeed, her great virtue was never to take her books too seriously. ‘I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense,’ she wrote, ‘but it’s unquestionably good escapist literature, and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from the flu.’
And there she has it. It may be nonsense, but it is witty, stylish, funny and completely absorbing nonsense. Her dialogue is exquisite, her characters leap straight from the page into our intimate acquaintance, and we can rest assured that their convoluted dilemmas, which – blessedly – have absolutely no relevance to our own, will be resolved to our complete satisfaction by the final page. It is the very best kind of escapist literature.
Contrary to popular belief, ‘we’ are not all female. My own introduction to Georgette Heyer came courtesy of my father, who was as delighted to find common ground with his truculent and uncommunicative 12-year old daughter as she was to find that not all the ‘grown-up’ books in the house were by Winston Churchill or Arthur Bryant. He shifted his fireside armchair to reveal, on the bottom shelf of the bookcase and partially hidden by the log basket, a row of unremarkable-looking, ochre-coloured hardbacks without dust covers. He ran his finger along the titles and eventually selected one. ‘Here, try this.’ I was doubtful. It looked, and sounded, boring. ‘These Old Shades? What does that mean?’ He couldn’t tell me then, and I still don’t know. But I started to read:
A gentleman was strolling down a side street in Paris, on his way back from the house of one Madame de Verchoureux. He walked mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold . . . As he walked, idly twirling his cane, a body hurtled itself upon him, shot like a cannon-ball from a dark alley that yawned to the right.
The gentleman is Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, known to friend and foe alike as ‘Satanas’; the body hurtling from the alley is a ‘titianhaired’ street urchin fleeing from his brother. The boy’s unusual looks remind the Duke of a sworn enemy at whose hands he once suffered unforgotten humiliation. Suspecting he might be the villain’s ‘base-born’ son, Avon buys Léon from his boorish brother for the price of a jewel and introduces him to polite society as his page, planning to use him to ruin his foe’s reputation. But Léon turns out to be Léonie, leading Avon to suspect his enemy of even worse villainy. Moving from Paris to London, to English stately home, to rural France and back to Paris, These Old Shades tells of the ragged boy’s reluctant transformation into enchanting girl; of kidnap, flight and rescue; of her adoption as Avon’s ward, her presentation at the glittering court of Versailles, the progress of the Duke’s carefully-crafted revenge, the dramatic downfall of the villain and, at last, the triumph of true love.
Three blissful months and six delicious Georgette Heyers later the thought suddenly struck me. My father read these books? The strict disciplinarian, the occasionally benevolent dictator, the terrifying dispenser of chastisement? How could he like them? I knew why I liked them. They made me laugh (they still do) and they made me cry (they don’t do that any more). The hero was usually ‘a tall, loose-limbed man, with harsh features in a deeply lined face and a deplorably sallow skin. There was a suggestion of devil-may-care about him, and those deeply carven lines in his lean countenance might, she supposed, betray dissipation.’
Better still, the heroine was never the ‘very lovely girl, with pale golden locks arranged in ringlets about an exquisitely shaped face, her complexion delicate and her expression one of sweet pensiveness’. That insipid creature’s fate was to marry the love-struck poet. The real heroine ‘stood five feet nine inches in her stockinged feet, a longlegged creature with a quantity of glossy brown ringlets. She would never be a beauty; she was by far too tall, nose and mouth were both too large, and a pair of expressive grey eyes could scarcely be held to atone entirely for these defects. Only you could not forget her, even though you could not recall the shape of her face or the colour of her eyes.’ Judging now by photographs, this could be a description of Georgette Heyer herself; then, to a gangling dark-haired reader with two shorter, blonder sisters, it was very heaven. The books could have been written for me. But my father? Who could he possibly identify with? The disreputable Jasper Damerel?
. . . alone, sprawling in the carved armchair at the head of the table, one arm resting on the table and the fingers of that hand crooked round the stem of a wineglass. He had loosened his neckcloth and his waistcoat hung open, and his black hair looked as if he had been in a high wind. He sat immobile, his shoulders against the high chair-back, his legs stretched out, and his brooding gaze fixed. The harsh lines of his face seemed to be accentuated and his sneer was strongly marked.
Hardly. How about His Grace of Avon?
He wore the dress he had once worn in Versailles, cloth of gold, shimmering in the candlelight. A great emerald in the lace at his throat gleamed balefully, another flashed on his finger. At his side was a light dress sword; in one hand he carried a scented handkerchief and a snuff-box studded with tiny emeralds. Those who were near the door drew back to let him pass, and for a moment he stood alone, a tall haughty figure, completely at his ease, even a little disdainful.
Impossible. Maybe the valiant Jack Carstares who, in a desperate sword-fight with the arch-villain,
seemed made of steel and set on wires, so agile and untireable was he. Time after time he leapt nimbly aside, evading some wicked thrust, and all the while he was driving his opponent back and back. The blood from the wound on his arm was dripping steadily on to the ground, yet it seemed to affect him not at all. But he knew that he was losing strength rapidly, and must make an end.
Then a startling thought. Surely, surely, my highly proper parent couldn’t dream of strewing the ground with rose petals for some beautiful Venetia to walk on? And yet, why not all of these? Although it was obvious to me that the turmoil of adolescence was something to escape from at every opportunity, I had never given a thought to his reality. Could it be that adulthood wasn’t all strewn with roses either? Bundled straight from school into the navy, his ‘carefree’ youth hijacked by the war, he had emerged nine years later, still ludicrously young, completely unqualified for civilian life and expected to provide for a growing family – three daughters in the nursery and my mother about to present him with a fourth ‘pledge of her affection’.
Although he never showed it, the pressures must have grown, as we did, throughout his demanding career. Of course he needed to dream, needed to escape. And years later, during one of our occasional cosy wallows in Georgette Heyer nostalgia, he admitted it.
As well as being grateful for hours and hours of happy reading, I am deeply indebted to Georgette Heyer for showing me that behind the intimidating patriarch there lurked a romantic, sweet-natured and (once we had her books in common) astonishingly approachable man. We did ask each other that question, my father and I. Which is your favourite? My answer then, as it would be now, was These Old Shades. His was, indeed, Venetia – and particularly the bit about the rose petals.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 16 © Julia Keay 2007