Portrait of a witty — and private — author


The prolific Georgette Heyer wrote popular novels set in turn-of-the-century England.

Beloved by readers of period romance, the subject of Jennifer Kloester’s meticulously researched biography created 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 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 almost 40 years after her death. They sold widely throughout the Great Depression and World War II without promotion. 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. Begged by a publisher to sit for an interview and photo, Heyer responded acidly: “I detest being photographed, and have surely reached the time of life when I can please myself.”

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.”

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.”

More professorial than conversational in tone, Kloester 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. There are also family photos, including Heyer’s favorite of herself, an undated headshot with a dimpled smile and 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.

Kathy Blumenstock reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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