The Romance Reader

An "Interview" with Georgette Heyer
by Jean Mason
Georgette Heyer (pronounced “Hare”, to my amazement, since I have been calling her “Higher” for forty years) died in 1974 at the age of 72. However different their books, she shares one characteristic with J.D. Salinger: she never gave an interview to the press. So she might be puzzled and not very pleased to find herself being “interviewed” by The Romance Reader nearly a quarter of a century after her death.

That this exercise is possible is owed to the generosity of the Rougier family (Heyer’s married name) in permitting author Jane Aiken Hodge access to Heyer’s private papers in order to write a biography of one of the century’s most popular British novelists. This biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer (London: The Bodley Head, 1984) is now, unhappily, out of print. All of the quotations found below come from this well written examination of the life and work of the founder of the Regency Romance. Page references for each quotation are found in parentheses after each selection.

Georgette Heyer was born to an upper middle class, professional family in 1902. Her family background was in fact far from that of the aristocrats she portrayed so frequently in her books. Her grandfather was actually a Russian immigrant. Heyer went to school, but like most girls of her day, not to university. She did read widely and growing up in a cultured home, was encouraged to develop her talent for writing. She began by writing a story for her brother who was sickly and needed to be entertained. Her father was so impressed with the effort that he showed it to a friend in the publishing business. In 1921, The Black Moth was published when Heyer was still in her teens.

By the time she died 53 years later, she had published 57 books and too many short stories to count. Fifty-one of those books were still in print and her works had been translated into at least ten languages.

Georgette Heyer wrote a number of different kinds of books. In the twenties and early thirties she wrote both historical fiction of the more of less swashbuckling kind, a more serious novel about William the Conqueror, and four contemporary novels. (These, by the way, have never been reprinted; Heyer refused to allow it.) Her historicals were set variously in the middle ages, during the Restoration, and during the 18th century. She also began writing mysteries in 1932 and would publish 11 thrillers all told. Often her husband, by now a barrister, worked with her on plotting these books.

In 1935, Heyer published a book that was to changer her career and the whole romance genre – Regency Buck. This novel was noteworthy, not only for its storyline which included both a romance and a mystery, but also for the author’s meticulous recreation of the social world of regency England. Thus was born the Regency Romance. With a few exceptions, all of the historical novels that Georgette Heyer published after 1935 were set in Regency England.

Heyer always felt somewhat ambivalent about her Regency Romances. She knew they were pure entertainment, she actually tended to put them down as not serious fiction. But she was extremely proud of her knowledge of the regency era and continually engaged in research to make sure all the details were right. Throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, she dreamed of writing a work of “serious” historical fiction and when she died, left an unfinished manuscript of a novel about John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France during the reign of Henry VI. But she never got the chance to finish and polish My Lord John because she was constantly behind with the tax collector and had to spend her time writing books that made money.

At least, that’s what she said. I’d like to think that she kept on writing her delightful Regency Romances because she knew deep down that they were darn good and suspected that maybe, just maybe, a quarter of a century after her death, she would still be attracting readers who needed and appreciated the kind of literate, witty, and delightful stories she told.

Now, on to our “interview”...

TRR: You don’t do any publicity for any of your books, much to the distress of your publishers, I am sure. What do you tell them when they ask you to promote your work?

As for being photographed At Work or In My Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family; and if, on the printed page, I am Miss Heyer, everywhere else I am Mrs Rougier, who makes no public appearances and dislikes few things as much as being confronted by Fans. There seems to be a pathetic belief today in the power of personal publicity over sales. I don’t share it. . . . Console yourself with the thought that my answers to the sort of questions Fans ask seem to daunt them a bit! Not unnaturally, they expect me to be a Romantic, and I’m nothing of the sort. (70-71)

TRR: What advice have you given to aspiring authors? [Asked to review a book submitted to her publisher, she wrote the following:]

I think she has got something. She can tell a story, she has a gift of phrase, and the fact that she can’t spell or punctuate doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that here is a huge, inchoate mass of a book, without rhyme or reason, over-weighted, and degenerating, in its last third, into melodrama.

[Heyer was not completely discouraging and offered this very sage advice.]

’Don’t be too ambitious!’ is impossible advice to give to a young author, but it is the right advice here. The girl has the makings of a romantic novelist, not of a great, gloomy, introspective saga-writer. I should advise her to put this book in a drawer; to think out a good, close-knit plot with plenty of wild deeds, and dark passions, and a nice, fat climax; to limit herself to 100,000 words; not to stray into the bogs of psychology - and to get on with it! She would write a seller if she would limit her horizons, and see the book as a whole before she sets pen to paper. (67)

TRR: One of your novels, The Reluctant Widow was made into a movie. I understand you were not happy with the results. Can you talk about the experience?

I was driven frantic by the advanced publicity. . . and was trying to think what I could do about it. I felt as though a slug had crawled over me. I thought it was going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. . . I got letters reproaching me. They . . . turned the Widow into a “bad girl” part for Jean Kent. . . . Also seduction scenes. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing was so upsetting that it put me right off my stroke. [Heyer refused to see the movie.] (81-82)

TRR: In 1950, the fact that another novelist was imitating you to an excessive amount was brought to your attention. You considered suing for plagiarism but decided against it. How did you feel about being copied?

[That writer owed me] What no self-respecting author should owe to another. . . . Cheek by jowl with some piece of what I should call special knowledge (all of which I can point out in my books) one finds an anachronism so blatant as to show that [she/they] know rather less about the period than the average schoolchild and certainly have never read enough contemporary literature to acquire the sudden bit of erudition that every now and then staggers the informed reader. . . . There is a certain salacity which I find revolting, no sense of period, not a vestige of wit, and no ability to make a character “live”. There is a melodramatic bias, but the copying of names, the similarity of situations, the descriptions of characters have been enough to make one impartial reader at least detect the imitations. (86)

TRR: You are reputed to write quickly and always under a deadline. Can you describe what it’s like?

[I had a bad attack of sinusitis while finishing one book, but] It doesn’t seem to stop me being quite humorous in Cotillion, so probably I am one of those people like Keats and Bizet, who flourish under adversity, after all. Of maybe it’s just due to Dexedrine, with which (and gin, of course) I keep myself going. (97)

TRR: You’ve never really liked critics, having felt that they did not treat you with respect. Do you have any words for this particular breed?

If, when you are first handed the latest work of one whom you suspect to be your literary superior, you feel that it would be effrontery for you to criticize it, do not decline to do so. Remember that no qualifications are necessary for a Literary Critic, and that this is the Day of the Little Man, when the more insignificant you are, and the more valueless your opinions, the greater will be your chance of obtaining a hearing. (107-108)

TRR: Your heroes have served as models for many subsequent authors. What do you think your readers want in a hero?

It is an accepted fact that women form the bulk of the novel-reading public, and what woman with romantic leanings wants to read novels which have as their heroes the sort of men she meets every day of her mundane life? Charlotte [Bronte] knew, perhaps instinctively, how to create a hero who would appeal to women throughout the ages, and to her must all succeeding romantic novelists acknowledge their indebtedness. For Mr. Rochester was the first, and the Nonpareil, of his type. He is the rugged and dominant male, who yet can be handled by quite an ordinary female: as it might be oneself! He is rude, overbearing, and often a bounder; but these blemishes, however repulsive they may be in real life, can be made in the hands of a skilled novelist extremely attractive to many women. (109)

TRR: You were once invited to a private lunch with the Queen. This was quite an honor. What was it like?

My dear, it was the oddest party! There were ten or twelve guests, and I was the only Female. . . . However it was all very easy, but also very funny. Carola Oman says I ought to have foreseen that the Queen would be terrified of me, because the Royals are always frightened of Inkies. The queen had a merry twinkle and quite a lively sense of the ridiculous. Heyer sat next to the Duke of Edinburgh and reported Well, I don’t like him. I am at one with George IV, who spoke of “these damned Saxe-Coburgs!” But give the devil his due, he is very convertible - even if he is far more aware of his “charm” than I am! No one mentioned her books, for which - since I hate talking about my books - I was thankful. But they certainly ought to have done so, don’t you think? [The Queen afterwards ordered a dozen copies of Frederica at Harrods.] (171)

TRR: Many current romance authors complain bitterly about the covers that grace their books. Did you have similar problems?

[Heyer found the cover of False Colours Cheap and nasty. Pan. . . used to produce this kind of thing under the mistaken impression that a “suggestive” picture helped sales - until I showed them that they very much mistook the matter! The People who like my books, and those who will like them, are not at all attracted by lush and abandoned females on the wrapper. Pan are now sending me sketches for proposed wrappers, [and] producing really classy jobs, which are most attractive, and they are certainly not losing by it. (172)

TRR: Your final book was a medieval, My Lord John. You were not particularly hopeful about its reception. Considering the popularity of medieval novels, why were you so pessimistic?

Admirers of two recent works of unhistorical [read romantic] fiction - one about Katherine Swynford, and the other about Catherine De Valois, Q. of England - will not at all relish my book. At the same time, I’ve little doubt that when American publishers say that they want books bout the Middle Ages they have in mind a welter of flesh, blood, sadism and general violence. Breast-sellers, in fact. Well, life wasn’t like that under the Lancastrian kings - torture, for instance, was not employed in England until a later date: did you know that? - and my book isn’t going to satisfy the seekers after Peculiar Sensations. So that I might find it difficult to place in the States.. . . (77-78)

TRR: You are often your own worst critic and don’t particularly like to hear your work praised or puffed up. How do you evaluate your writing?

My plots are abysmal, and I think of them with blood and tears; I did not say that I was especially fond of False Colours! What I may well have said was that I don’t think it stinks as much as The Nonesuch. It is not my favorite - The Unknown Ajax and Venetia are the best of my later works. My style is really a mixture of Johnson and Austen - what I rely on is a certain gift for the farcical. Talk about my humour if you must talk about me at all!. . . I don’t know about my historical feeling: I’d prefer a timely word about my exact detail. Talk about my books as being just the job for people who are fed-up with kitchen sinks and perverts, and want a gay romance, with authentic period detail. I know it’s useless to talk about technique in these degenerate days - but no less a technician than Noel Coward reads me because he says my technique is so good. I’m proud of that. (152-153)

April 9, 1998

@ Please tell us what you think! back Back Home