Beloved by readers of period romance, the subject of Jennifer Kloester’s meticulously researched biographycreated the Regency romance genre — novels set in early 19th-century England and redolent of Jane Austen — and was also a pioneer of the historical romance. Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) produced her novels, including some detective thrillers, and short stories at an enviable clip, but she claimed she wrote very few letters. Yet Heyer’s many missives to friends, business acquaintances and readers say otherwise, bringing to life the voice of a witty, natural storyteller who wrote, with seeming ease, at every possible moment. Her only child, Sir Richard Rougier, provided access to his mother’s notebooks, papers and letters, and Kloester spent 10 years crafting a thoughtful portrait of an author whose long-running popular success failed to draw critical acclaim.
The only daughter of a musically inclined mother and a father who encouraged her to read widely, Heyer saw her first novel, “The Black Moth,” published when she was 19. She wrote steadily, often two books a year, more than 50 in total, all still in print nearly 40 years after her death. They sold widely throughout the Great Depression and World War II — without promotion by the author. After her earliest books, Heyer developed a dislike for sharing personal information with the press. She kept her identity as Mrs. Ronald Rougier, wife and mother, separate from her author persona. Imagine a publicity-starved contemporary writer, begged by a publisher to sit for an interview and photo, acidly responding, as Heyer did: “I detest being photographed, and have surely reached the time of life when I can please myself. . . . My private life concerns no one but myself and my family. . . . The facts of my life you can have, but not How I write My Books. . . . Meanwhile, I’m trying to write a book, and . . . it is quite fatal to badger me at such moments: it puts me in the wrong mood.”
Heyer was aware that her books were commercial fiction, not literature, yet as Kloester mentions more than once, Heyer “wanted literary kudos. . . . Her ambition had veered toward the serious novel — though she would never allow herself the freedom from either the financial or family cares to pursue it properly.”
Heyer’s financial woes are a recurrent theme. Her writing income was substantial, always more than that of mining engineer Ronald, who also dabbled in other careers. But her business sense was poor, even naive. Upon firing her agent, she let her publisher fill that role and instantly saw her royalty percentage cut. She and Ronald habitually outspent her earnings and were constantly in trouble with the tax man.
She also confronted plagiarism of her work. When a fan told her that Barbara Cartland was “making good use of” her books, Heyer at first was dismissive of her rival. Later she wrote her solicitor: “Miss Cartland — possibly emboldened by my having taken no notice of her previous lifts — has now gone very much further. The conception of ‘The Knave of Hearts,’ the principal characters and many of the incidents, derive directly from an early book of my own.”
Kloester, more professorial than conversational in tone, crams her book with nuggets: Ronald’s white bull terrier was named Jonathan Velhurst Viking; Georgette mysteriously used the pseudonym “Stella Martin” for her third novel; when a wartime shortage of typists prompted the impatient Heyer to type a manuscript herself, she enjoyed the task and ever after did her own, on typewriters customized for her; she quickly wrote and sold some short stories to pay for her brother’s wedding; an Australian girl named Rosemary, concerned that war rationing affected Georgette, sent her a food parcel. There are also family photos, including Heyer’s favorite of herself, an undated headshot with a dimpled smile, eyes full of pleasure, befitting an author who still entertains so many.
Heyer’s devotees will be charmed by this engaging tour of the author’s world. Kloester wisely allows all facets of Heyer’s personality to emerge, depicting a feisty, humorous, accomplished woman who is more interesting than her own fictional characters.
By Jennifer Kloester
Sourcebooks. 442 pp. Paperback, $16.99