The door of the coach was pulled open, and the coachman jumped up on to the hastily let-down step. The lantern he held lit up the interior, and shone full into the face of the lounging man. It was a surprisingly young face, dark and extremely handsome, the curious vividness overlaid by an expression of restless boredom.

"Well?" said the gentleman coldly.

"Highwaymen, my lord . . . There was three of them. They've made off -- two of them, that is."

"Well?" said the gentleman again.

The coachman seemed rather discomposed. "You've killed the other, my lord."

"Certainly," said the gentleman. "But I presume you have not opened the door to inform me of that."

"Well, my lord -- shan' we -- do I -- his brains are lying in the road, my lord. Do we leave him like that?"

"My good fellow, are you suggesting that I should carry a footpad's corpse to my Lady Montacute's drum?" -- from Devil's Cub

NOTHING would have maddened the late Georgette Heyer more, one suspects, than to have the above quotation head any review of her work. Fans who could see no further than the spine-chilling magnificence of her heroes (e.g. "Mark I: the brusque, savage sort with a foul temper. Mark II: suave, well-dressed, rich and a famous whip") earned the most frightful contempt of their creator, whose definitions these are. Her novels of Regency England were to be admired for their detailed research, for their wit, for their clarity and their ingenious plotting, and above all for their perceived relationship to the works of Jane Austen. She was better pleased altogether to be praised for her other more serious writings. Her detective stories (with plots by her husband) she thought of as pot boilers.

It is a pity, because the creation of the Heyer Hero, even more than the delightful, belligerent ladies he has to confront, is the greatest legacy she has left her fellow-writers, and possibly even her fellow-historians. And although, back to the wall, she would claim to be creating him only for money, denying loudly that she was a romantic, one begs leave to differ. Formula writing is not like this. To spend that amount of exquisite care and attention on a dream hero, one has to be pretty keen on dream heroes oneself. Believe me.

My ancient copy of Devil's Cub, whose opening scene I have quoted, contains a cameo photograph of Georgette Heyer as she was in the 1930s. Framed in opulent fur, the face is long-boned and elegant, with handsome dark eyes, faintly amused, and a double curtain of misty black hair drawn back over stud earrings. She would be perfectly at home, one could see, in the upper-class Georgian England of her many best sellers. She wuld also, one felt, have seen no point in taking a corpse to anyone's drum.

Georgette Heyer, born in London in 1902, was the granddaughter of a Russian fur merchant called George Heyer (pronounced then in the German manner), who had come to England from Kharkhov in the days of the Russian pogroms. From this "bearded patriarch with the strong foreign accent, a love of strange words and an alarming penchant for practical jokes" sprang the novelist's father George, who was to be reared as an English gentleman, but whose classical studies at Cambridge led to a checkered career and many moves for his two sons George Boris and Frank Dmitri and their older sister Georgette.

Nevertheless the same Georgette, after a scrambled education, published at 19 her first novel, The Black Moth, begun as a teenage romance invented to cheer the ailing George Boris. By the time she died in 1974, she had written 57 novels, was the wife of one English barrister and the mother of another, and had maintained unbroken her iron rule: to make no appearances and to give no interviews. "You will find me in my work" was her dictum.

It may be true of Christopher Wren and St. Paul's Cathedral. It is a little more testing to detect a strong-willed lady of Russian origin in a series of brilliant Regency romances: a problem American- born Jane Aiken Hodge has set out to resolve in assembling this book.

She has not been without help from the Heyers. Here are pages of delicate drawings of gigs and bonnets and uniforms taken from Georgette Heyer's notebooks, and her surviving brother and son are both quoted. To compensate for a decided lack of personal letters, there is the formidable correspondence Heyer unleashed through the years upon her obedient publishers. But one looks in vain for a sense of the author or her fictitious heroes among the lavish range of cartoons and other period pictures, hand-matched to episodes in her novels. The photographs of Georgette Heyer in this entire volume total just nine, mostly early and all of them formal. Of romping family snapshots there are none.

Some of the reasons are obvious. At eight, Georgette Heyer's son was sent to an expensive preparatory school and later scheduled for Cambridge University. Her widowed mother had to be looked after, as did her brother Boris. Her husband Ronald Rougier moved as her father had done from job to job; first as a mining engineer (she wrote Regency romances while living with him in Africa and Macedonia); later as the owner of a failing sports shop. Meanwhile he longed to read for the Bar, and that he did so successfully in the end was all due to his wife's novels.

At the same time, this was not a martyrdom. She was a compulsive writer: clever, competitive, and with a passionate hunger for the established, witty, delightful world of the European romancers popular in her girlhood. If hero Mark I was firmly based on Charlotte Bronte's Mr. Rochester, Mark II is the very embodimenof Sir Percy Blakeney, Baroness Orczy's languid aristocrat of The Scarlet Pimpernel. And the moral etiquette of the books is very much in the comfortable tradition of her time. Behind the Corinthian stands Bulldog Drummond, defending his honor, his land and his lady; and behind them, the courts of chivalry from the days of "armor," Georgette Heyer's favorite period. Such an ethical framework is attractive to gentle readers who may, properly beguiled, hardly notice when the hero in his misguided youth shoots a drunk, or sullies the road with a footpad. It is also dead handy as a source for strong plots.

AN HISTORICAL novelist herself, Jane Aiken Hodge takes us through all her author's books, and proves an excellent pilot. We are reminded of stories, phrases and characters. Plots and settings are compared: endings are analysed; pace and style and humor discussed. And while talking of technique, she never forgets the needs of the besotted. Addicts as well as fellow- writers are catered to.

What was happening simultaneously in Georgette Heyer's life is not, I think, irrelevant on either score. Fans who fall in love with eligible heroes often recover to become writers themselves, or quite respectable students of the period. Besides, I rather like knowing about her explosive prejudices. Georgette Heyer disliked the Irish, the "Wogs," and paying taxes for the masses to fritter away. She was also upset by the piano playing of Prime Minister Edward Heath, who occupied rooms below hers in the Albany, the most prestigious apartments in London. "As for the Gentleman Downstairs, you can Have Him -- synthetic smile and all," runs one letter.

Heavy irony -- and capital letters -- characterize all her correspondence. Acccording to her son, she spoke as she wrote. According to Jane Aiken Hodge -- and I agree with her -- stilted dialogue was one of Georgette Heyer's few problems. The middle Regency novels -- A Civil Contract, The Unknown Ajax -- and the rest -- are pure delight, but there were forerunners, such as Regency Buck and those written in her later years (Black Sheep, Charity Girl) which creaked under the weight of period data. What began perhaps as a matter of expediency seemed to end up as an intellectual exercise, depending on bulging files of cant synonyms.

It was the same with non-Regency settings. She would doggedly replace every word, if she could, with its period equivalent, heedless of jarring the careful and subtle empathy she had built up between hero and reader. And though talk flows gaily enough in the excellent crime stories, Death in the Stocks owes its badinage, to my mind, to Dornford Yates and the great Aldwych farces rather than to its author's grasp of society chatter.

Why? It seems likeliest that the formality of her life simply cut her off from conversational small change. A reserved couple, "aloof with strangers," returning annually to the same exclusive golfing hotel in Scotland, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Rougier latterly followed a regal life-style which would have electrified most barristers of equivalent standing today, who tend to be gossipy family men who dig their own potatoes.

It's tempting to speculate. Had Georgette Heyer been less defensive, had she (at the risk, admittedly, of reducing the flood of her writing) opened her heart to accommodate more of the friends the 20th century could have brought her, she might well have broadened her historical writing and achieved the serious recognition she yearned for. As it is, her great opus on John Duke of Bedford was, as Jane Aiken Hodge says, better left unfinished, and she may herself have suspected it. Published as My Lord John, it was lovingly edited after her death by Ronald Rougier, husband and loyal companion of nearly 50 years. He did not choose long to survive her.

Georgette Heyer was, then, a lady much loved by those who knew her well, but conditioned more than most by her background and the codes of her time. Her private Regency world may have been designed as a bolt-hole (for us, as well as its creator). But its rules are not, I think, as arbitrary as this book sometimes claims. They reflect, indeed, with great faithfulness the manners, the prejudices and the literature of the Edwardian age in which Georgette Heyer was reared, and to which she clung for her own reasons. The oddity is that her books have projected these values into today. Writers still to be born will spend their lives attempting to produce Georgette Heyers, and readers will remain conditioned to accept them. It is a problem which every writer of romantic fiction cannot afford to ignore. It has also, of course, made it impossible for any such writer, young or old, to lay a finger on Georgian England.

For who can match Georgette Heyer at the Regency game? Worthy though her other novels may be, one must agree that her genius lay there in the end: with "combining high comedy with strong feeling," as Jane Aiken Hodge says of Sprig Muslin, "and leaving one with the kind of satisfaction one gets only from the very best."

I am not at all sure that I should have enjoyed meeting Georgette Heyer. But time and time again, on reading this book, I found myself breaking off to lift another dog-eared Heyer from the shelf and lose myself in the increased pleasure of a re-reading. That is the mark of a successful biography.