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