HEYER TODAY EPISODE 1: HOOKED ON HEYER WITH STEPHEN FRY

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SARA-MAE: Welcome to Fable Gazers’ Season Two of ‘Heyer Today’, the podcast about criminally underappreciated Regency romance queen, Georgette Heyer. I can’t remember when I first read one of her books, they’ve just always been a part of my literary DNA, novels I go back to again and again, as comforting as home-cooked mac and cheese. Over the past four years, I’ve researched her life and work, interviewing over forty people, including Stephen Fry, authors Joanne Harris, Harriet Evans, Mary Jo Putney, and many more, trying to get to the bottom of why her books have yet to be given the critical recognition I think she deserves. We’ll also be examining the difficulties of getting a book made into a film, unpicking why Heyer’s work has been ignored by the film industry when there are so many of her works that would make cracking Jane Austenesque romcoms. We’ll chat to Andy Patterson, producer of ‘The Railway Man’ and ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ about his attempt to get one of Heyer’s novels from the page to the screen. Plus, we’ll be having fortnightly book club episodes in which I’ll have a spoilerific discussion with a different Heyer virgin about one of her books. Join comedians Emma Moran, Glen Tickle, Dom Patmore, Rhiannon Shaw and Kate Hinksman, as well as assorted victims, ahem, friends by going to fablegazers.com and checking out the reading list.

I want to use fifteen books as stepping stones to explore her life and work, with the help of experts like biographer Jennifer Kloester and knowledgeable fans like Stephen Fry, Joanne Harris, Emma Darwin and more. I’ll warm my hands at the fire of our shared enthusiasm and hopefully bring you, the listener, along with us. It’s a thing we share, we rabid Heyer fans, this need to talk about her. If you’re one of those people who can hear Heyer’s voice: smart, dry, so witty she can make you laugh out loud, it lives with you forever.

[HEYER QUOTE: Heyer addicts just ARE (and some of them are quite sensible people!) and they don’t mind What It’s About.]

That’s Georgette. You’re going to hear from her now and then and, joining us, you’ll visit her Regency world, so intricately recreated through her forensic research, her delicious use of colloquialisms, chunks of which were nicked by authors who tried to replicate her success. She birthed a genre and yet has somehow been lost in the sea of wannabe copycats, none of whom has a molecule of Heyer’s talent or knowledge of human nature. Learning more about her has made me admire her even more. She had to support her family from her early 20s, and her work ethic was impressive as hell. She managed to produce almost two books a year over much of her career, the raggedy clacking of her typewriter shunting back and forth, regular as clockwork. Editors were not allowed to touch a single full stop or errant capital. I remember walking through Wimbledon, imagining her as a child, bright and sharp, performing dramatic readings with her beloved papa, George, at the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society. He was a writer too. In 1902 he wrote of baby Georgette:

[GEORGE HEYER:

I’ll sing a song of you, Georgette,

I’ll sing a song of you;

You’ve silky, brownish sorts of locks,

And cheeks of fairest hue;

You wear such pretty light blue frocks;

And joy to kick off both your socks —

I’ll sing a song of you.

And when you are asleep, Georgette, 

Oh when you are asleep,

Above the bordered coverlet

The little fingers peep;

I’d like to venture near, and set 

A kiss upon their tips, Georgette,

Because you are asleep.]

All these things I learned, and the picture in my mind’s eye became clearer.

Her first book was written to focus the fever-bright gleam of her brother’s eyes on her face. Each chapter full of derring-do, the beginnings of her wry humour and, of course, the romance for which she became famous. She was only nineteen. Nineteen! Like her idol, Jane Austen, who wrote her juvenilia for the entertainment of Cassandra and a bevy of boisterous brothers, her saucy irreverence of her ‘full and complete histories’ or Lady Susan’s seductive amorality still pulse with flashes of genius. I could go on about them both for ages, but Austen’s oeuvre, at least, is replete with commentary far more insightful than mine. But it’s Heyer whose work has largely been dismissed, with a few notable exceptions, by critics and moviemakers alike.

Now, vast swathes of people have never heard of Heyer – you may be one of them. Which is nuts because she was a best-selling author almost from the outset, that nineteen year old girl writing to the Society of Authors and her new agent, LP Moore, determined to take her career into her own hands, hiding her fear that it was all frivolous nonsense. I think she deserves better.

Then there’s the mystery of why her works have been ignored by filmmakers. We’ll talk to Peter Buckman, agent for her estate, and Andy Paterson, acclaimed producer of movies like ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and The Railway Man’ as he tries to get a movie made of her novel The Grand Sophy. We’re going to explore the difficulties of transmuting a period novel into celluloid.

I’m trying something new here, so I’m a little nervous. One week we’ll have interviews with Heyer fans like Stephen Fry, then the next we’ll alternate with our Heyer book club, in which I try to convert new readers to her work. You can read along with us by following the book list at fablegazers.com.

Now, actor and national treasure, Stephen Fry, chats to me about his love of Heyer.

SARA-MAE: Can you tell me how you came to be hooked on Heyer?

STEPHEN FRY: Well, I think…I was considering this, knowing I was going to talk to you, and I’m pretty sure the reason was that my mother had three Heyer books as I was growing up: The Foundling, Toll Booth and, I think, Friday’s Child. And I, I read Toll Booth first…

SARA-MAE: It’s actually The Toll Gate, but I’m not about to correct Stephen Fry [laughs].

STEPHEN FRY: …and loved it. I think I was ill actually and my mother had brought in a selection of books ‘cos I’d read all my own books – I was about twelve, thirteen or something – and I just really enjoyed it. Then a couple of years later, I noticed the other two on her shelves and so I read those, and then by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I was absolutely hooked. So whenever I was in a second-hand bookshop or anything like that, I would look for Georgette Heyer as well as looking for my other firm favourites, like PG Woodhouse and Evelyn Waugh and so on, and I suppose probably for the same reason, which we’ll come to, I dare say, which is language.

SARA-MAE: Yes, indeed. Her language is great. Why do you think she isn’t as popular now as she was in her day? Because she certainly sold enough copies, didn’t she?

STEPHEN FRY: She did. And it is a puzzle. I think perhaps the snobbery against that sort of… it’s the way the covers show her as if she’s some kind of awful romantic, soppy, ghastly, bosomy and bodice-ripping – you know all the horrible things that Heyerites get very cross about if the assumption is made. And there are people who cling on to her petticoat-tails, as it were, on to her muslin, who really are…had nothing like her qualities. People just assume there’s a genre now of Regency romance and that she’s one of them and that she’s like the others. And she isn’t, as we who venerate and know, and it’s annoying. And maybe the publishers haven’t had the courage of their convictions to sell them as more intelligent, sprightly, funny, rewarding books than they are assumed to be. They’re taken to be fancy cake Quality Street, and in fact, they are…there’s a lot more to them than that. Which is not to say that they aren’t fantastic fun and escapist and readable and those things too.

SARA-MAE: I mention here that Heyer considered her Regency work to be a combination of Austen and Johnson. So, she’s a lot more similar to literary icons like that than the bodice rippers many associate her with.

SARA-MAE: Well she said of herself that she sort of combines Austen and Samuel Johnson, so she’s a lot more literary than I think a lot of people give her credit for.

STEPHEN FRY: Indeed, she is. And there are frames of reference, you know. She makes reference to writers and figures at the time, like Horace Walpole is a great favourite of hers. She sometimes puts him in the scene in Brooks’s or something, there’ll be Horry in the corner making some acid remark. He was an incredibly important figure who linked his uncle Robert Walpole’s, you know, great beginning of the Whig ascendancy to the later Gothic movements and so on, with Strawberry Hill and everything that made Horace Walpole famous and his novels and so on. And that’s really the point is that she’d so subsumed herself in the age and became such a mistress of its language and its modalities and its architecture and its locations, its locales. The milieu was just hers and nobody came close, I dare…I think probably a lot of historians would be amazed at the detail. It’s now very fashionable, of course, to have these ghettos of history, if you like, which are entirely to do with costume or entirely to do with conveyances and carriages and so on, and so there are many more experts than there were when she was young and writing. So, the work she did in libraries is astonishing. To this day, I’m amazed at how much she must have done and where she must have gone. I don’t know which was…did she go to the London library? I don’t know.

SARA-MAE: She joined the London Library in December 1926, a private subscription library started by Thomas Carlyle in 1841. Its understated Victorian interior exactly suited Georgette, with its comfortable red leather wing chairs, and wooden desks polished by the tweed-clad elbows of many a quiet visitor.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, I think she lived down the road from it, didn’t she, in Albany?

STEPHEN FRY: I live just the other side of it. I can literally throw a cricket ball and break a window of the London Library, so I feel very much part of the St. James’s, Georgette Heyer world, very close to Almack’s.

SARA-MAE: Yes indeed. I tried to use subterfuge to get into the Albany one day, because they wouldn’t let the likes of me in.

STEPHEN FRY: Well, there you see now, there are all kinds, and she would have been fully aware of this because – let’s face it – she was a bit of a snob but, as Alan Bennett once said, there are different kinds of snobbery and the snobbery that looks up is rather harmless and sweet and eccentric, it’s only the snobbery that looks down that’s unpleasant. There are moments in Georgette Heyer where we’re a bit embarrassed by the slightly crude dismissal of city-types – or ‘cits’ as she likes to call them – people who actually earn a living and smell of the shop and have their money from trade. But you accept that her world is one in which there’s a considered…out there. But just to return to that point, you should be aware, of course that it’s not the Albany, it’s Albany.

SARA-MAE: I have an uneasy feeling this is not the first time I’m going to be schooled by Stephen Fry.

SARA-MAE: Ah yes, well there you go. Exactly why…

STEPHEN FRY: That’s one of those traps, in the same way as it’s not St. James, it’s St. James’s, and the club is not Brooks but Brooks’s. You know, there are all these little details and you get very…and she, of course, was very, very fierce on those. She never made a mistake, as far as I know.

SARA-MAE: That’s exactly one of the reasons why they would have booted me out.

STEPHEN FRY: But while we’re reading the books, we’re all members of the beau monde – that’s the, that’s the nice thing. We’ve all been granted vouchers by Lady Sefton or Sally Jersey to Almack’s [laughs].

SARA-MAE: We’ve got a pass, yes.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, exactly.

SARA-MAE: Heyer is famous for her use of accurate Regency cant. I wanted to know which expression was Stephen’s favourite.

SARA MAE: Have you ever been ‘dicked in the nob’? Bosky?

STEPHEN FRY: ‘Bosky’ and ‘foxed’ and ‘shot the cat’ and all those wonderful ones…‘a trifle disguised’…the ones for drunk, and for drink! I mean, gin alone has ‘daffy’. Although that’s interesting, ‘daffy’, because daffy was a drink that was given to children. It had senna pod in it and it’s mentioned in Oliver Twist, and the gin is added to it. So, I remember seeing that in Oliver Twist, and thinking did Georgette Heyer get it wrong? Because for Georgette Heyer ‘daffy’ is gin, and for Dickens and his contemporaries, or at least I say his contemporaries because Dickens was as much, almost as much, a historical novelist as Georgette Heyer, and most of his books are set in and around the time of Dickens’s own childhood, and earlier obviously in the case of Tale of Two Cities. So he was probably remembering daffy as this children’s drink for constipation, that had senna pod in it, to which gin was added to make children drink it – because children, of course, drank gin to make them behave in those days. It then became by – I’ve researched this, this is pathetic – and daffy did come to mean gin, because it so often had gin added to it. But there’s ‘blue ruin’ of course, it was called, and ‘flash of lightning’, I think she calls it, ‘stark-naked’, ‘old tom’, so many different words for that. And for beer, there’s ‘heavy wet’, which I’ve always loved, which is a bit like the Scottish use ‘a pint of heavy’, but with her it’s always the ‘heavy wet’. So those I loved. And of course, names for ‘girls of easy virtue, shall we say: ‘barques of frailty’, ‘incognitas’. And then there’s some very classical ones like ‘paffions’, which is after the city of Paffos on Cyprus, which was known for its cult of Aphrodite and therefore, I suppose, was considered to be sort of sexually light. And ‘light’ is another one – ‘light skirt’ and ‘light of love’.

SARA-MAE: Yes.

STEPHEN FRY: ‘Haymarket ware’, that’s another one, isn’t it? ‘A bit of muslin’, of course, is very common. Men have called it being ‘in the petticoat line’. And there used to be, in my youth, a radio programme called the ‘Petticoat Line’.

SARA-MAE: Oh, wow. Yeah.

STEPHEN FRY: So, it obviously was a phrase that had lasted a bit. But I’d heard a story, and I don’t know if you know about this, that she got so annoyed by people stealing her Regency cant…obviously it’s public domain, in the sense that she found it in books, that she would often put in one that she made up herself, so that if someone then used that she knew they were stealing from her. Have you heard that story?

SARA-MAE: In Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, she politely draws a veil over the identity of Heyer’s plagiarist. But in Jennifer Kloester’s excellent biography, and with the benefit of Georgette’s letters to her agent LP Moore, we find that there were two authors who were particularly guilty of nicking Heyer’s phrases. In 1951, a fan wrote to Georgette to tell her that Barbara Cartland had been plagiarising from her work. Cartland was a socialite with royal connections, and with her own column in the Daily Express. She’d published several non-fiction books and plays, as well as thirty moderately successful modern romances. Three of her works, set in the Georgian era, had raised a few eyebrows because of the similarities to Heyer’s novels, amongst them A Hazard of Hearts and Knave of Hearts. Georgette largely dismissed the allegations, though dryly acknowledged Cartland had stolen names, characters and plot points. At first, she intended to simply write a letter of protest to Cartland, but after she read Knave of Hearts and noticed just how closely the circumstances, characters and events adhered to those in These Old Shades, she wrote to her solicitor instead.

By the way, throughout the series, you’ll hear a difference between the older Heyer and the younger. We have two wonderful voice actors playing her. Here’s Sarah Golding:

[HEYER QUOTE: Barbara Cartland’s work has a certain salacity which I find revolting. No sense of period, not a vestige of wit, no ability to make a character live – besides a decided melodramatic bias. The whole thing makes me feel more than a little unwell. I think I could have born it better had Miss Cartland not being so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate. I think ill enough of The Shades, but good God, that nineteen-year-old work has more style, more of what it takes than this offal that she has written at the age of forty-six.]

SARA-MAE: She began a lengthy process of working her way through Knave and annotating in red ink as she went along, noting all names and period phrases. Using black ink, she marked lifted situations and paraphrases. On top of this, she sent a ten-page list of the main points of similarity between the novels, with examples of Cartland’s linguistic errors. These included Regency fashion, a particular sticking point with Heyer, who knew her breeches from her pantaloons. This is important because it’s the first time in over thirty years of writing that Heyer acknowledged her pride in her research. She was notoriously disdainful of the quality of her work but, faced with the blatant recycling of her painstaking research, she was moved to act, so disgusted was she by Cartland’s lack of historical integrity. Plagiarism is very hard to prove in court, and in the end Heyer simply demanded an apology and for the offending books to be taken out of circulation. There is no evidence she got her apology letter, but copies of the titles ceased abruptly, until 1971 when Knave of Hearts was re-issued under a new title, The Innocent Heiress, with a heading ‘In the tradition of Georgia Heyer’. So, I guess that makes it alright?

The second instance came in 1961, when another fan wrote to Georgette about Kathleen Lindsay’s Winsome Lass which an infuriated Georgette called ‘a blatant piece of piracy’. Fun fact: Lindsay was even more prolific than Georgette, writing nine hundred and four novels under different pseudonyms. Kloester notes in her biography that Lindsay actually held the record as the world’s most prolific novelist. As with the first episode of plagiarism, Georgette wrote to Lindsay’s publisher, Robert Lusty – appropriate name for a romance publisher! – of Hearst and Blackett. This time, instead of tacitly acknowledging the plagiarism, Lindsay’s publishers write back brusquely, telling Georgette that the author takes exception to the accusations, demanding details of the alleged borrowings. I can just see Georgette rolling up her sleeves and narrowing her eyes, cracking her knuckles. Once again, she sent a detailed summary including a two-page list. Some examples were: confusing the fourth and fifth Lady Jersey, and the wrong publishing date for Walter Scott’s Waverley. One instance, in particular, rankled: Lindsay’s use of the phrase ‘to make a cake of oneself’. Like many of Georgette’s idioms, she’d found it in a privately printed memoir, unavailable to the general public. The stress of all this actually made her ill, making her blood pressure skyrocket. Lindsay, however, was not having it, and she sent back what Kloester calls ‘a poor response’. Incensed, Georgette consulted with a solicitor. Her counsel recommended an injunction but, in the end, she never went to court.

I mention to Stephen that anyone foolish enough to plagiarise Heyer must have more hair than wit.

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, that’s a beauty, isn’t it?

SARA-MAE: I can think of several people in the political sphere right now that might, that might be attributed to.

STEPHEN FRY: Definitely, and plenty of them are doing it ‘a trifle too brown’. I mean it’s just wonderful. And I love ‘without roundaboutation’, to sort of latinize such an Anglo-Saxon thing as roundabout. And ‘bellows to mend’ and ‘bag of moonshine’.

SARA-MAE: It’s just one of those things that…it helps to locate you in the world. You’re instantly there and you know exactly what kind of character she’s talking about.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, absolutely. As you read the books you get to know the subtle gradations, so that if you’re talking about ‘a Pink of the Ton’ there are those that are just plain ‘macaronis’ and absolute ‘coxcombs’, real sort of dandies with striped trousers and too, too many quizzing glasses and fobs, and so on. And then there are those, the ones that she obviously finds the sexiest, who are the Corinthians, the members of the Four-in-Hand Club, with their many-layered riding capes and who can drive within an inch, and so on. And they’re much more lazy and casual in their fashion, but when they need to go to a ball, they can dress up beautifully, of course. So, you have all these, they are Bloods and Corinthians and are pretty close. They’re good for Mendozas and for the boxing in Haymarket and where they can practice fencing and so on.

SARA-MAE: I’d love to talk to you more about this, particularly as it relates to Beau Brummell, because Oscar Wilde who you played was very much influenced by him. And I just love that Brummell appears in many of her books. But I just want to talk, prior to that, about film. To me, it’s a total mystery that they haven’t plundered her books for, for brilliant films.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes! With the exception of Reluctant Widow, isn’t it? Yeah.

SARA-MAE: Indeed, yeah.

STEPHEN FRY: Which I haven’t seen, but I know is on YouTube. I suppose I should, I should catch it. It’s not a very well-known cast.

SARA-MAE: Well it’s not particularly good, to be honest. She really didn’t like it. She thought they really made it kind of smutty and sexed it up in her, in her mind.

SARA-MAE: It’s a commonly held misapprehension that Heyer hated the idea of her books being made into films. In reality, as early as 1926, aged twenty-four, she was pressing her agent to sell the rights to her book Simon the Coldheart. Her beloved father had died the year before, leaving the young writer to shoulder the burden of supporting her mother and two younger brothers after her father’s death. Here’s Helen Davidge as young Heyer:

[HEYER QUOTE: Why the blazes not one of those stinking film companies can see what a super film Regency Buck would make beats me. I despair of films. I expect fate is going to be ironic and I shall sell them when it doesn’t really matter much.]

SARA-MAE: In fact, it was to be a common refrain with her over the years, seeing films as an opportunity to make extra money, and enhance her popularity, particularly in America. In 1935, with her husband, Richard, working at sporting goods shop which didn’t bring in enough money to mitigate their expenses, Georgette was still the main breadwinner. Adaptations for the stage gave her hope, as her debts piled up.

[HEYER QUOTE: Once I’m straight I think all will be plain sailing, as I seem to be making a fair income, one way and another. That’s why I’m so mercenarily minded at the moment and lie awake praying for the American film to be a success, and for Fox Films to buy Talisman Ring.]

SARA-MAE: Prickly Georgette, however, could not help interfering with the playwriting process, as playwright AE Thomas was to find.

[HEYER QUOTE: Wit and custard pies don’t mix. If he tries to introduce ‘mad situations’ he will fall between two stools. This play is not going to be as good as I could make it. To correct by correspondence is very difficult, as I don’t wish to hurt Mr Thomas’s feelings. The ideal thing would have been for us to have worked together – he to plot the sequence, me to write the necessary dialogue. Reading this second version has made me more than ever determined to do Behold, Here’s Poison myself.] 

SARA-MAE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these early adaptions were successful, with Merely Murder opening for only three nights on Broadway in 1937. So, by 1946, Georgette was delighted when a film company showed interest in producing The Reluctant Widow. Unfortunately, the advance publicity she received, in 1949, ahead of the film’s release, disgusted her.

[HEYER QUOTE: I feel as though a slug has crawled over me. I think it is going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. Already I’m getting letters reproaching me. They have turned the widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent, and this week’s ‘Illustrated’ carries two pages headed ‘Jean Locks Her Bedroom Door’. Also, seduction scenes I and II…I should like a notice to appear in every paper disclaiming all responsibility. At all events, I think I can get my name removed from the thing, and I shall. It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith, and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels, I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting that it is putting me right off the stroke.]

SARA-MAE: We’ll continue to explore her film woes in later episodes when we speak to Heyer’s agent, Peter Buckman, and Andy Paterson, producer of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. They have been working to get a version of The Grand Sophy off the ground. But more on that later.

SARA-MAE: She wasn’t against her books being made into films. In fact, she was always looking for more money, so she kept, she kept longing for someone to make them.

STEPHEN FRY: I can’t understand why she wasn’t fantastically rich. I mean, look at the rewards that come to best-selling authors today. And she was a fantastically best-selling author. So why wasn’t she a fantastically rich one? I know her husband, Rougier, who got into some trouble, did he, I think? Did she have to bail him out?

SARA-MAE: Ronald Rougier? Well, I think he was an engineer and it didn’t seem to really pan out. They went to Africa, they came back. He opened a sports goods store that didn’t quite work out. Then he retrained as a lawyer, so I think it was just sort of finding his way with whatever he was doing, and she supported him the whole time. And many of her family members as well.

STEPHEN FRY: Right.

SARA-MAE: A brother who was a bit unstable, I think he had a few mental health issues and things like that.

SARA-MAE: I ask Stephen which of her books he thinks will make good films. I’ve told him that The Grand Sophy is being developed. Sophy is one of Heyer’s strongest heroines, who descends on her distant cousins in London having followed her diplomat father around Spain and France during the Napoleonic wars. I can think of a number of great parts for Stephen and can’t understand why he wouldn’t be first on anyone’s casting list. Side note: I’m trying to stop myself from ‘toad-eating’ him, as Georgette would say, but there are moments during this interview when I feel as though my head will explode that I’m actually having this conversation. Anyway, back to Stephen Fry, national treasure. Ooh! Get a grip, Sarah. He’s talking about which books he thinks would make good films. Are you listening, film producers?

STEPHEN FRY: Let me think…I suppose False Colours might be a natural because you’ve got twins.

SARA-MAE: Yes.

STEPHEN FRY: Most people’s favourite great ones are These Old Shades and then Devil’s Cub because that’s the sequel, as fine as the original in many ways.

SARA-MAE: Yes.

STEPHEN FRY: Delightful. I wonder if they would work as well? Friday’s Child I was very fond of.

SARA-MAE: Which role would you love to play, if you could, if you had a choice of anybody? Before I tell you what they think you should play!

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, my lord! Well now, that’s a very interesting question. See, I mean, I…obviously we all think of ourselves as these cold, brutal heroes, but I’m just not like that at all. Obviously…who’s the, who’s the great big fellow? Oh, the Ajax?

SARA-MAE: Yes, yes, Hugo.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, that would have been a nice character to play. I go, you’ll have to tell me…I’ll either sound ridiculously modest or absurdly vain. You know, when I was younger, Sylvester or something would have been quite fun because he’s this wicked character, but I’m nothing like sexy enough. They’re all Hugh Grant parts, let’s be honest, or someone similar.

SARA-MAE: I’ve asked the Heyer fan club on Facebook to weigh in on this question of who Steven should play. I wonder if he’ll be surprised when he hears their thoughts?

SARA-MAE: Well, they did, they did suggest a few of the heroes, including Hugo from The Unknown Ajax, Sir Hugh Thane from The Talisman Ring…

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, yeah.

SARA-MAE: …the Earl of Rule…

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, yes.

SARA-MAE: I had someone very forcefully suggesting that you should play the Earl of Rule. Sir Anthony Fanshawe from The Masqueraders?

STEPHEN FRY: That’s a good character. Yes, I like that.

SARA-MAE: But there were many other sort of more character roles they wanted to see you in.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, there are some good fat uncles, aren’t there, who live alone on Brook Street or Half Moon Street or one of those ones, the north side of Piccadilly from St. James’s and Charles Street, all those Mayfair addresses. They’re usually only up at noon, with their chocolate and their scapegrace nephew comes to see them. They find them tiresome, but they get on well. That sort of character is marvellous. And I thought, I always wanted to live the life of one of those. And indeed, I have lived in that part of London and I still find it marvellous going around St. James’s, and seeing the bow window at White’s Club, for example. She talks about that quite a…on several occasions, if you recall, that people sit in the bow window and they make bets on who’s coming past, whatever, and the whole world comes, comes by. If you look for long enough, you’ll see everybody.

SARA-MAE: For Heyer newbies, many of her most popular works take place in the Georgian era, and her novels set in this period have spawned countless copycats.  It quickly becomes clear that Stephen is way more knowledgeable than I am about this period.

STEPHEN FRY: Opposite, of course…White’s is the great Tory stronghold and opposite it is Brooks’s, which is the great Whig stronghold. And at the time she’s writing, the Tories have come back – the Prince of Wales was a Whig – and I’m always quite interested to try and discover what her loyalties might be. Because Tories aren’t Tories as we think of them today, and the Whigs, certainly not a liberal opposition in any particular sense, though they tend to have slightly more intellectuals in them, and characters like Charles James Fox and Horace Walpole, whom she’s very fond of. And obviously, Beau Brummell was a member of Brooks’s, and the Prince Regent was very much a Whig and he hated Pitt and he hated the Tories. And so when Prinny is occasionally in the stories, is there, or one of his uncles or brothers is there, she’s kind of playing occasionally with this pressure that’s on the Whigs who have been taken over by the stern, the stern Tories. Although the Tories she likes because of course, through them, you get to Wellington and she’s fond of the old Duke, and obviously Waterloo is an important landmark between the Regency and the reign of George IV so it’s, it is a fascinating time, it really is. And it’s interesting to see when she chooses to be right in the middle of it, as a Regency writer, and when she chooses to go a bit earlier. I mean, she actually writes some much earlier stories, doesn’t she?

SARA-MAE: Yeah.

STEPHEN FRY: My Lord John, her last one, was mediaeval, wasn’t it?

SARA-MAE: Yes. I think she sort of kept thinking those are the books she should be writing, these kind of epic ones about, you know, Henry the – I can’t remember, was it the eighth? – or which Henry it was, but…

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, right there with the early one. Yes. And, and The Masqueraders is Jacobite, I think, isn’t it? So that’s 1740s, I guess. And then there were some I find slightly duller, like Bath Tangle – doesn’t, not much seems to happen in that, maybe I’m being unfair. But Arabella is good. And The Foundling I like. Regency Buck, of course.

SARA-MAE: Yes.

STEPHEN FRY: I mean, it’s just amazing…you almost want to be ill in a light enough way to be able to just have a whole shelf of them.

SARA-MAE: And just dip in.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, absolutely.

SARA-MAE: Well, Swithin Liversedge, I don’t know if you remember him from The Foundling? He’s the one who kidnaps poor old Gilly, the Duke of Sale, and then winds up being his butler by the end, because he’s such a…he reminded me of Harold Skimpole from Bleak House.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes.

SARA-MAE: Oh, I’m just a child, you know? He was of that ilk.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes. Who is based on Leigh Hunt, isn’t he? Skimpole. He characterised him on his friend, Leigh Hunt, Dickens. And that absolute childishness is a very nice quality. And actually, Gilly is a very sweet character, isn’t he? I like the idea of the sort of pampered aristocrat.

SARA-MAE: Yes. But I thought it was just so genius how she got this, this guy who is essentially a kidnapper, and who planned on murdering him.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah.

SARA-MAE: She has a bit of a laissez faire attitude towards violence in some of her books.

STEPHEN FRY: She does, doesn’t she? It’s fascinating, that. She sails close to the wind in that regard, but somehow it always seems to work out. There are murder plots sometimes. Some of the stories are much more with criminals, you know, she likes the ‘High Toby’ as she always calls highwaymen – I don’t know where she gets that one from, it’s rather splendid – and rakes. There are rakes who have really cold eyes and cheat, and The Masqueraders is where…yes…Masqueraders is the cheating at cards as a backstory, isn’t it?

SARA-MAE: I think so. But, but Devil’s Cub – he basically shoots in cold blood a highwayman, leaves him in the road!

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, yeah. That’s right. He is, I mean, wonderfully vicious.

SARA-MAE: Yes. But you kind of love that, I don’t know why, but you just sort of allow her that…let her ‘run her length’, as she would say.

STEPHEN FRY: Exactly, exactly. She was probably not the easiest person in the world to get on with, Georgette Heyer. She was formidable and she not only didn’t suffer fools, she didn’t suffer anybody who got in her way, I think, did she? She would, I mean she had a row with her…she felt the publishers weren’t treating her properly or anything like that. She really took it seriously.

SARA-MAE: Even the Queen found her intimidating, apparently.

STEPHEN FRY: That’s, that’s saying something. Was that the Queen Mother?

SARA-MAE: Elizabeth, I think. She went to lunch. And she wasn’t impressed because Prince Philip turned his back on her. And she, she didn’t think much of that.

STEPHEN FRY: My!

SARA-MAE: But she liked the Queen and was surprised that she’d find her intimidating.

STEPHEN FRY: [laughs] And I did try a couple of the legal thrillers, detective stories. And there I found her snobbery, when it was in the 20th century, was somehow really unpalatable. SARA-MAE: Yes, yes.

STEPHEN FRY: It was pretty tricky to deal with. I mean, I’m by no means politically correct when it comes to reading; I accept John Buchan and Sapper and their slightly casual ways with ‘oily levantines’ and all the rest of it. But there are some limits. And I think with Georgette Heyer, there’s a sort of, almost a malevolence when it comes to the kinds of people who are not good enough for her. And it’s fine in the Regency world because, you know, they are the Ton, they are the upper…what’s the number? I can’t remember.

SARA-MAE: Upper One Hundred, or something. Upper One Thousand.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, it’s the numbers you can get into Almack’s, I guess, Lady Jersey gives a voucher to. And so, you kind of accept that’s the rules of her game, but when it comes to the much more fractured and anxious and complex twentieth century I don’t think it works nearly as well.

SARA-MAE: This is why we’re focussing solely on her Regency romances in this podcast.

SARA-MAE: No, you’re right. I think it kind of guilds it a lot more, and it softens some of the things that are, as you say, more unpalatable.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah.

SARA-MAE: But that’s possibly because she just lost herself in those worlds, whereas I think she found the murder mysteries quite a struggle to write, and apparently on one her husband had to help her. Someone tells of her coming along and sort of saying right at the end, ‘So, tell me who did what, when, and how?’ [laughs]

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, my goodness.

SARA-MAE: We chat about Beau Brummell, whom Stephen, as with many of the subjects we touch on, is very well informed about. You can hear his thoughts on that over the following weeks. Helen Davidge and I will spend an entire episode exploring this louche historical figure, who looms so large in many of Georgette’s works. We also touch on Brummell’s influence on Oscar Wilde, so look out for that. Stephen then gives a potted history of the Regency era in which Georgette was most comfortable writing.

STEPHEN FRY: And the Regency taste is not – people think of Regency stripe and the sort of boldness of it, but if you go to Regent’s Park, and you look at those extraordinary Nash houses, it’s astonishing how elegant and understated, really. It’s cream rather than white, and it’s just beautiful, and it’s harmonious. It’s a moment in history, which is fascinating and you can look at all kinds of things it might have come from – the settlement of the Jacobite War in 1745, ‘cos, ‘cos George III reigned from 1760 to 1820, something like that, was it? Sixty years, I think?

SARA-MAE: I don’t know. Man, I’m so dumb compared to Stephen Fry.

STEPHEN FRY: So, a part of that was the Regency when he was mad, of course, and in that time, we lost America. But the Industrial Revolution began to grow, and the odd mentions of something suggesting the Industrial Revolution in Georgette Heyer, and most importantly the threat of Napoleon. There are people who go to the wars, come back from the wars, and Wellington, the Duke, is mentioned. And obviously after 1815, when the battle was won, a period of peace and prosperity in Britain became the major player and the Prince Regent became King in 1820, I think.

SARA-MAE: The BBC website has a rather damning entry about George IV saying: ‘Never in modern times has a sovereign died so unlamented, nor has the person of the monarch retained so little respect after death, as King George IV in 1830. Robert Huish’s venomous biography of 1830-1 declared of the late King that, “with a personal income exceeding the national revenue of a third-rate power, there appeared to be no limit to his desires, nor any restraint to his profusion”, and concluded that George IV contributed more “to the demoralisation of society than any Prince recorded in the pages of history”.’ All of which may explain Georgette’s rather damning portrayal of him whenever he’s mentioned in her books, where he is often described as grossly overweight and a bad influence on all those in his set. Villains and reprobates are often connected with him, so it would seem that Georgette agrees with the Beeb’s summary dismissal of poor old Prinny.

STEPHEN FRY: And that’s the period in which you have barouches, and phaetons trot, and adventures and her romances take place. And usually it’s Brighton, Bath, London – and within London, Mayfair and St. James’s – and occasionally country houses and so on. It’s a small milieu, but like many truly great writers – Chekov, and Jane Austen obviously a great exemplar – they do work with, with a small milieu and within that they create the greatest art imaginable. Sometimes a miniaturist does more than an epic writer to capture the human heart. And, and even if it’s a populist writer of fantasy, escapist fiction like Georgette Heyer, it can nonetheless touch you in places surprisingly. And the way it does that, I suppose you’d say, and this is interesting when it comes to films and television adaptations, what everyone wants to think and hope might be made, is that you can divide a writer, I suppose, into three domains and they are the domain of character, the domain of narrative and the domain of language. And in the case of Georgette Heyer, the characters fit into types – I won’t say they’re stereotypes, they’re her stereotypes, they’re her types, they’re Heyerite villains, Heyerite heroines, Heyerite heroes, and so on. And that’s a stock of those, like a great repertory company. She has a repertory company of these great actors who suit these roles. And then there’s the narratives, and the stories are, again there’s a selection that she chooses – some of them are very Janeite – very, very Jane Austen-like – where there is the sensible heroine who’s smart, and has wise eyes or smiling eyes, or then there are the silly, ‘daffy’ characters who might be the heroine for that one, or indeed rather childlike ones, like, like Léonie and so on. And those stories are very satisfying. And then the third domain to me is the most important, which is what raises her above the others, is language. She doesn’t write bad sentences. She doesn’t overdo adverbs or do any of the other bad things that populist writers do and that are very tempting to do. She doesn’t overwrite, but, but she enjoys the rotundity and rhythmic pleasures that can, can be got from various characters and, and indeed from the prose style outside the characters – that of description and so on. So, the first description of Sale House, for example – it’s seen through a visitor’s book – is a delightful piece of writing. It’s marvellous, descriptive writing, and she knows how to do that. And it’s that that I think is the reason that writers as diverse as Kingsley Amis have mentioned Jane Austen. In fact, I think it’s in The Green Man, isn’t it, that his hero’s in the bath and says ‘Why don’t people call Georgette Heyer literature? She’s just as good as Jane Austen’ – or something, the character says! [laughs]

SARA-MAE: I know. I mean, I was really surprised there were some people that were very, very disinclined to even mention her in the same breath as Austen. Well, you were in Love and Friendship recently, which I thought you did a wonderful job in. And I think that’s one of the closest things we can…closest to Georgette Heyer, in a way, ‘cos it’s a bit more classical, isn’t it?

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, it is. Absolutely right.

SARA-MAE: If you’d like to know more about ‘Love & Friendship’, catch my guest spot on Flixwatcher – it’s a film review podcast covering what’s currently on Netflix. Our season one heroine, Ruby, and I discuss the film at length. It’s a total hoot. Based on Austen’s Lady Susan juvenilia, the main character is a dashing, if hilariously amoral anti-heroine played by Kate Beckinsale. Stephen’s part was far smaller than I would have liked, but he still manages to add brilliance, even amongst such a wonderful cast.

STEPHEN FRY: And there is an element of Jane Austen which is a bubbling excitement and a fun. It’s not that she, Jane Austen, suppresses that side of her, as a writer, it’s just that she is too much an artist to allow that to be her only modality, her only voice, and there is a, she is a moralist and there’s no getting away from it. It doesn’t mean that she’s stern or unbending or inhuman, quite the opposite – she’s moral because she knows that morality leads to virtue and happiness. And yeah, I mean, to compare Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen is unfair, because it’s also unfair to compare her with any writer, because Jane Austen was a unique and extraordinary genius and a clear-sighted, remarkable moralist, as they say, and, and Georgette Heyer’s not interested in being a moralist. Although she borrows and expects a certain kind of calculus – bad people are usually punished and good people come out okay, so a popular novelist.

SARA-MAE: Or they’re salvaged by the love of a good person.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes. Exactly, yeah.

SARA-MAE: But the difference is Austen’s work relies a lot on a very, very sophisticated irony.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes.

SARA-MAE: Whereas Georgette, her humour – the dialogue, the snappy banter, it’s a lot more sort of overtly humorous.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, exactly. I mean, Georgette Heyer is that box of chocolates that you treat yourself to and Jane Austen is three-course cuisine, and it’s staggering how this food can be prepared so perfectly and what a mixture of flavours it is. The crème brûlée has the bitterness as well as the sweetness and the unctuousness, and all those other clichés that food writers come up with!

SARA-MAE: Yes, indeed.

STEPHEN FRY: I’m sure that’s going nowhere, that particular metaphor, but you know what I mean. Georgette Heyer, let’s not forget, is therefore for our reading pleasure. It’s not, Jane Austen isn’t there for pleasure either because she’s supremely pleasurable to read, but you get more from Jane – much more – and sometimes you, you just want a sweetie, you know? You want a chocolate, you want the joy and pleasure of it, and you feel, ‘that was fun’. And that makes it ideal reading for the sick room.

SARA-MAE: Or the air raid shelter, she said.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, of course, in her era. And, and I do wish that publishers would not have those hideous covers so that one would be embarrassed about having them in public. I suppose now one can read them all on Kindle so that no-one would know what you’re reading, but one shouldn’t be ashamed of reading Georgette Heyer. And there are those like my friend Nigella Lawson who’s a big fan of Georgette Heyer as well, and we talk about it sometimes. You know, you bump into people, or you just happen to be at a party and the downstairs loo is busy, and you’re popping for a pee and you go upstairs and you see people’s upstairs bookshelves, and they’re more likely to have Georgette Heyer than their downstairs one, you know what I mean? And then you go down and you say “Oh, I see you’ve got at least twelve Georgette Heyer’s! Isn’t she wonderful?” They’ll go, “My God, you don’t read Georgette Heyer?” And I go “Yes, I do!”. “Do men? Is it because you’re gay?”. There’s a point. Do mean read Georgette Heyer? Of course, they do. And I don’t think only gay men read Georgette Heyer. That would be weird. But obviously, the genre, and if you’re a publisher, I suppose what you try and do is sell as many books as possible. And if you sell Georgette Heyer, you have to aim at a certain market because that will be 80% of your readership, and the 20% that you could get by altering the publishing style and the design of the book are too fleeting and unreliable for you to guarantee that it’s worth it. And so, it would be a risk to re-design the books just for the possibility of getting a new kind of reader. What you need is, and this is what we’re coming to I suppose what you need is a film or something that would just… or a television adaptation that would raise her out and tell people about her.

SARA-MAE: Yes, so I’m hoping for a resurgence in interest in her work, but I’m doing my small mite by trying to convert people who’ve never read her work, and also just try to generate a bit of interest and awareness. I find it totally bizarre, by the way, that I have to do that because I just always assumed that everybody adored her and was just part of the kind of literary DNA of everyone’s lives, but apparently not.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes. At least people have started to write about her in in a sort of semi-scholarly way. There are books about her Regency England, and there’s Elizabeth Spillman and writers like that who’ve done a great deal to take her seriously enough, without being absurdly pompous or over-academic about it. That’s good. And then there’s this, things like this – podcasts and websites and places you can go – and I think there are some of those for people who are visually impaired or who like to take an audio book with them, there are more audiobooks now of hers, some of them from that free site. What’s it called? Artbox, is it? I don’t know what they’re like. Is that it? Who does the readings on those, do you know?

SARA-MAE: I do know the Richard Armitage one.

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, well, he’s very good.

SARA-MAE: He’s lovely. But…and he would make a great hero as well, just putting it out there. But unfortunately, they were abridged.

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, abridged!

SARA-MAE: Yes.

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, that’s a shame. Oh, that is a shame.

SARA-MAE: And I don’t want my Georgette’s abridged.

STEPHEN FRY: No. There’s an unabridged Sylvester, isn’t there? On Audible, I think.

SARA-MAE: Yes. I think there are a few.

STEPHEN FRY: And occasionally they do them on radio.

SARA-MAE: I mean, come on, you should do them!

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, well…

SARA-MAE: You’d do a wonderful job. You must do everything!

STEPHEN FRY: I just finished doing a big Audible job – well, I’m about to finish next week. I can’t talk about it, but it’s a complete reading of the whole canon of a particular author. And I’ve got three more days on it next week. So, I will be free. But whether I could do Georgette Heyer, I don’t know. It’s an interesting thought.

SARA-MAE: In case you’re interested, Stephen is referring to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which are available now on audible.com.

STEPHEN FRY: I would be to sit on someone’s bed when they’re ill and read them These Old Shades and The Devil’s Cub and…

SARA-MAE: Wow, what a lucky person that would be.

STEPHEN FRY: Well, it’s a great…

SARA-MAE: To end off I’ve got some fan club questions for you. So which character do you find most interesting and why? So, this is not your favourite, but the one that sort of makes you think.

STEPHEN FRY: Well, that’s interesting. We mentioned Ferdy Fakenham because he’s that sort of silly ass kind, and then Lord Sheringham, who’s similar. I like the fact that it’s not always the sort of gruff, Darcy-like hero who is the one that appeals. And similarly, with the heroines, there are diffident ones sometimes who can turn out to be rather charming. Friday’s Child, Hero Wantage – is that her name, I think? Is it?

SARA-MAE: Yes. Drusilla.

STEPHEN FRY: Oh yes, yes, Drusilla’s a good one as well. And the very Byronic George Wrotham – I think it’s pronounced ‘Root-am’ because it’s spelled W-r-o-t-h-a-m. But there’s a Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire, which the Byng family lives in, which was a famous family that had the, the Admiral Byng, who was executed for failing in some battle, as Voltaire or somebody famously said it was ‘pour encourager les autres’ – that’s where that phrase comes from, the Byng family. Anyway, they lived in Wrotham. And there’s a George Wrotham, who’s a very Byronic character, he’s rather likeable. And then there’s the strait-laced type like…which is…Mary Challoner. Do you remember her?

SARA-MAE: Yes, indeed. Yeah, yeah.

STEPHEN FRY: She wins that ghastly, that sort of, not ghastly but he’s one of the sort of toughest heroes – Vidal, I think he’s called, isn’t it? So yeah, I like it when they are uniquely Georgette, that is to say they are not the standard Darcy, basically. It’s been well pointed out that all what’s rudely called female romance is based on Pride and Prejudice. It is the ultimate dark hero, the bright, curvaceous heroine. When they meet, they misunderstand each other and they hate each other and they declare that they, and vow that they will never like each other, that they’re each beastly and appalling people. And then there’s some sort of coming together and it’s all wonderful. And there are B plots, as it were, sisters or brothers to be married off. And it’s true, almost all romances are like that. But where Georgette Heyer is different, where the hero is not so Darcy-like, where he can be a gentle giant like the Ajax, or you can be apparently a silly ass who turns out to have a very tender heart and a very understanding way and is indeed, indeed not considered brilliant by his peers. And so then, you have a job as a writer, you as a writer see something in that character that no one around them can. But if you’re told the character is brilliantly rich, a fabulous Duke, amazingly clever, rides better than anyone else, is a ‘Pink of the Ton’, the most marriageable man in society – then it’s all just a question of how is the girl going to get him to love her? But when, when there’s more ambiguity in the character, that’s when it’s delicious.

SARA-MAE: The last question I asked Stephen was the obvious one: which is his all-time favourite Heyer novel? To find out what he says, you’ll have to wait until episode seven.

SARA-MAE: Thank you so, so much. I can’t believe you’ve given me so much of your time.

STEPHEN FRY: Well, anything for Georgette Heyer and for Georgette Heyer fans. And let’s, let’s hope the word gets spread.

SARA-MAE: Thank you so much.

STEPHEN FRY: Thank you very much, Sara-Mae. Absolutely. And lovely talking to you. All the best.

SARA-MAE: You too. Bye.

STEPHEN FRY: Bye bye.

SARA-MAE: I’m sure I don’t need to tell you my immediate thoughts after this interview were ‘Aaaargh! I just spoke to Stephen Fry!’. Then I poured myself three glasses of water and didn’t drink any of them. And then I made my husband check the recording in case it was just me whispering to myself like some kind of lunatic. Can you imagine if I’d not pressed record? Or if the whole thing was an elaborate hallucination I’d dreamt up?? But here it is, audio evidence.

There was a dream-like quality to the experience, not only because of the unlikelihood of a pleb like me getting to speak to one of my personal icons, but also because we were talking about Heyer, whom we both love.

On balance, I think I just about managed to keep it together in the interview, no thanks to any great self-control on my part, but rather Stephen’s adroitness in answering my nervously posed questions.

Bear in mind, I’d only been promised fifteen minutes and he spoke to me for an hour. I think I had about twenty minutes worth of questions prepared so thank goodness he’s as smart as he is.

I intend to sprinkle little out-takes from this interview throughout the rest of the series, so stay tuned to hear more Fry. Oh and, film producers, someone needs to cast this national treasure in a Heyer movie. Seriously, get on this!

The truth is, so many people have been wonderfully generous with their time. It’s something I encountered throughout this almost four-year journey – people who love Heyer love talking about her. In the next episodes, you’ll hear writers Joanne Harris, Harriet Evans, Jane Holland, best-selling romance novelist Mary Jo Putney, Emma Darwin, as well as Heyer’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester, and Head of the Australian Austen society, Susannah Fullerton, amongst many, many others.

Next week will be the first of our book club episodes, which we’ll have every second week. Why not join in by reading along? You’ll find the reading list at fablegazers.com. The first one we’ll be tackling is These Old Shades. The book is available from Audible, which is almost as good as a podcast.

Now I need to go and have a lie down…

[Credits]

Thanks for tuning in this week, we hope you enjoyed it.

This episode was recorded, produced and edited by me, Sara-Mae Tuson, with production, writing and research help from Beth Keehn, and Will Dell from Aurality for production support. For more visit: facebook.com/auralitysounds

The music used in this episode is from Emma Gatrill’s wondrous album, ‘Chapter I’, as well as Jerome Alexander’s luscious Message to Bears’ tunes. Original music was composed especially for the podcast by myself and Tom Chadd.

You can find Message to Bears here: messagetobears.com

Tom’s music here: tomchadd.bandcamp.com

And Emma’s website is: emmagatrill.com

Comment and take part in our discussions on social media. We’re @fablegazers on Instagram and @fable_gazers on Twitter.

Remember to rate, review and subscribe. I can’t tell you how much it helps small indie companies like us to thrive.

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