HEYER TODAY EPISODE 7: PRIMO GEORGETTE WITH HARRIET EVANS

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SARA-MAE: Previously in Heyer Today…

YOUNG GEORGETTE: My latest work of genius? Naturally, it’s a very fine work and immensely entertaining, absorbing, scintillating and erudite. Well, what I mean is, it will be when I get around to writing it.

GERALDINE: So, he’s finally free. And then he’s kind of surprised because Deb wants to bandage him up and she does that. And then they kind of sneak him back in the front door. And then there’s another scene with Wantage, where he basically punches Wantage’s lights out and Wantage is all respectful of that. It’s fun, it’s a bit challenging in terms of just the themes… so overall, I would say I’m a convert for sure.

SARA-MAE: Welcome to Heyer Today, the podcast in which we analyse the life and work of underrated author Georgette Heyer. Now, if you haven’t listened before, this is a series in which we tell Heyer’s story by contextualising a selection of her Regency romance books, so do start at episode 1 so you don’t miss anything out. Also, episode 1 happens to feature Stephen Fry, who might make an appearance in this episode as well.

This week, we’re interviewing Sunday Times best-selling author Harriet Evans, and she’ll be sharing her top 10 favourite Heyers.

With 12 books under her belt, Evans’ work has been described as ‘utterly gorgeous’ and ‘compelling’.

At home in the publishing world, she followed in her father’s footsteps working as an editor for authors like Penny Vincenzi, Emily Barr, and Louise Bagshawe.

Her newest novel, ‘The Garden of Lost and Found’, is ‘filled with flowers and paintings, secrets and heartbreak’ according to one reviewer.

I can’t wait to pick her brains about her favourite Heyers, and boy, do we get through a lot of them. Do be aware that there will be a few spoilers in the course of our discussion – I’ve put the list of books we cover in the show notes.

SARA-MAE: Tell us who you are?

HARRIET: Hello, I am Harriet Evans, I am an author and I used to work in publishing before I became a full-time writer, I edited what is rather rubbishly known as women’s fiction, as if men can’t read it. I’m sure they would anyway. I just did that for years, and had many happy years in publishing, and then I left to write full-time about nine years ago. I have been a top ten best-seller, and I live in London, I have two children, I’m very tired [giggle] and I’m a massive GH fan, and that’s the most important thing of all.

SARA-MAE: Ah, that’s good. Yes, and how did you first become a Heyerite?

HARRIET: I’m always interested in the way that people come to Heyer, because it’s either that they read them because they pick them up on a shelf at home, or a friend presses them on them, but she is such a sort of ‘recommendation’ person I think, you don’t sort of come across her any other way. I was a massive reader as a child, I just read everything I could get my hands on. My mum just had a shelf full of old Agatha Christies and books like that; and there were always loads of Georgette Heyers on them, and she said “I think you’d like these”. So, I started them, and of course the great thing about them is they are so well written, you will come back to them year after year so that I think that the first time I started reading her I would have been in my early teens. Then you read them again and you find them super romantic, there are so many layers to them, and they just keep on giving. I’m smiling as I’m talking to you because it’s just so joyful to talk about her because of all authors she’s the one who I and my friends re-read the most. There is no pleasure greater I would say than to knowing that you’re going to re-read her.

SARA-MAE: Oh, yeah.

HARRIET: Whereas, there are other books when you think, “I really enjoyed that book, I’m going to re-read it,” but you sort of almost feel guilty about it. Whereas, with Heyer, the whole point of her is the re-read. It’s a comfort every single time you are just struck anew at the brilliance of her structure, and her ability in her dialogue and the way she tells the same story essentially over and over again but in incredibly fresh ways.

SARA-MAE: That’s partly because of her timeless heroes, which we’ll talk about in a moment, but also, I think it’s her humour. There’s something about how she constructs these characters. I mean, some people would say that she’s formulaic, but I actually think she always finds some new angle and I mean you’ll know about this being a romance novelist because it’s hard, isn’t it, to find a fresh take…

HARRIET: Absolutely, and I wouldn’t call myself a romance novelist. I used to write much more chick-litty books when I was younger but they are more sort of family sagas now and while a lot of romance was not up my street when I was an editor, I used to be really struck by how often romance was much better than you’d expect it to be and how little attention was paid to it. And I’m telling you as someone who has just finished my tenth novel, there is something so incredible about the way the woman just wrote, not what she knew about, she wasn’t writing about her own life, and she did it over and over again and made it fresh every time.

I would submit that it’s as hard, if not harder to take a very narrow world like she did and the fact that she made them massively enjoyable and different and opened up this hugely fresh new world for the reader each time is extraordinary to me because if I want to make my own novel interesting to me to write, I have to make it quite different to the one before. It‘s the attention to detail about the characters, they’re all often quite similar. There are lots of similarities between the querulous lady dowager who’s got to get rid of a daughter, who is the aunt of the saturnine hero, there’s about three or four of those female characters.

SARA-MAE: Mmm.

HARRIET: They all seem to be different in different ways. I just admire her skills so much. That’s one of her greatest strengths, to be honest, keep[ing] it fresh. And she had huge, huge, huge resources. She had something like a thousand reference books. She had umpteen different divergent sources like books on snuffboxes. Yet incredibly intricate detail about Beau Brummell, you know. She knew everything and this I’m sure we can get onto, but one of my big bugbears with the way a lot of women’s fiction is denigrated… she is the female Patrick O’Brien. And I’ve tried to read Patrick O’Brien umpteen times. I find him really dull; I just can’t get on with them. it’s an exclusively male world – they just don’t appeal to me. And I could admire what he did and I can see what he does. Patrick O’Brien is acclaimed as one of the great 20th century novelists, you know, he gets huge sort of acclaim where there are dinners held for him at Greenwich Naval College and government ministers attend. GH does not get that and to me she’s as accomplished a novelist, but because she’s writing books for women she is just not acclaimed in the same way and that really drives me up the wall. It’s easy to say, “Oh they’re just romances you know.” That is the stuff of life and you read what is at stake for some of these women if they didn’t make a good marriage and how totally terrifying it must be to have, like Mrs Bennet – everyone was so rude about that woman. She had to get rid of five daughters, they had no money! I always think of the realities of everyday life for the middle class upwards for women, they often were kind of scary. Of course, there’s nothing like being poor, they are drawing of that world which needs huge respect.

SARA-MAE: I’ve discovered that people aren’t as crazy about Heyer as I am. [laughs]

HARRIET: Yes. Yes.

SARA-MAE: And a lot of people have never heard of her, or if they have, they have no idea of the complexity, the humour, the depth of her understanding of the time. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that as well?

HARRIET: I did this list called Primo Georgette, because I wrote a book about a girl who was obsessed with books who goes into publishing called ‘Happily Ever After’. and I put in the back of this book, “I’ve got this list” and all these people got in contact with me and were like “Can I have this list?” and it’s still one of the things I get asked for most, like it’s my Heyers that I would order because you know, Sara-Mae, there are ten, fifteen that are just perfect. There’s a next layer for me which are still better than most books, and then there’s your ‘Powder and Patch’, a bit weird, some quite odd ones. A bit strange. It’s really interesting how if you just say to these people, “Now, here’s a list of the good ones, go and read them.” I’ve converted so many people, and not through me, just by saying, “Look, trust me on this” and they have always been snooty to start with and then they are like “I am with you, people on the barricade!”

But to your point about Barbara Cartland and her being lumped in with other romance novelists, this is again another bugbear of mine because why can’t women novelists be all things to all people? Just as there are some terrible thrillers written by men and some amazing thrillers written by men and women and they’re not all lumped together. You don’t say “Oh wow this incredibly textured, multi-layered incredible crime novel by whoever that might be short-listed for the Booker Prize sometimes because they get loads and loads more attention is the same as some really shunky knocked-out by – I don’t want to say his name but by one of the world’s biggest novelists – which get discussed on their merits because a) women’s fiction gets all lumped together and b) if you attach the word romance to a thing people get really narky about it. You know, in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly the biggest bookshop in the country you walk in and there’s a fiction section in front of you, OK, then if you look for any women’s fiction novelists they probably might not be there because even though David Nicholls is in that section, even though his books are very romantic, all the women are off to the side under romance. So, if you look for, Sally Beaumont one of the best novelists in the past 30 years, she’s in Romance because she’s a woman. The idea that you have got to lump everyone together just absolutely drives me crazy because that is why people just “Oh, but she’s just romance. Well, they are romantic yeah, but as I said before, that’s just the stuff of life. If you didn’t have romance then there would be no procreation of the human race.

SARA-MAE: [laughs] There would be no procreation of male writers!

HARRIET: [laughs] Exactly! If people can’t get on with her that’s one thing but because I genuinely think that she’s such a great novelist it always seems such a shame, you know.

SARA-MAE: I have to admit that I always judge people harshly – it’s very hard for me in the conversion thing because some of the people just haven’t got it and I have to admit that it makes me feel like I’ve failed [hollow laugh] and also, can I ever speak to them again?

HARRIET: [laughs] I don’t worry about it as much as I used to because I now think that there’s been a lot of attention about her and I do think when people find her, if they love her, they will read them all. And if they don’t get on with her then that’s absolutely fine. I think it’s a shame that she is not as widely acclaimed as, to go back to him again, Patrick O’Brien or other 20th century novelists but I also think that’s also a function of being so prolific. People talk about this with Joyce Carol Oates. She writes a novel every year or every other year and she’s a wonderful novelist and people often say, “Well, if she wrote less like every three years like our Catherine Tyler, would there be more of a hoopla about it?”

Being prolific is seen as a bad thing, you know, like just bursting out words whereas that’s not the case with her, she’s so forensically detailed and organised.

SARA-MAE: Well, how about you would you describe yourself as prolific?

HARRIET: But I can touch type. I was a secretary – my boss said, “You have to learn to touch type before I’ll give you this job.” That’s literally the only transferrable skill that I have. When I have no career, when people stop buying my books, I will be able to get a job touch typing. I’m good when I’m slightly panicked and the wind is at my back and I’m like “C’mon, c’mon,” like a horse galloping through the finish. I achieve clarity of thought then.

SARA-MAE: The first book you probably spent longer on. With your first one did it take longer than all the others or…

HARRIET: Well, it’s a funny story really that I was working in publishing. I was an editor, I was being sent lots of novels and I kept thinking, “This is rubbish, I could do better than this.” And I kept thinking that more and more and more while it was sort of getting in the way of my ability to do my job well and one book came in and it was so bad and I turned it down and it sold for vast amounts of money and it was written by a kind of society girl and it was one of the worst books that I’ve ever read and I’m not saying what it was. And my friends said to me, “Well, why don’t you go and do that yourself” and I thought “I have to”… like, I can’t not because you’re going to turn into a cross person. Because my Dad was a writer and my Mum is in publishing. It’s not like I have a big triumphant crawl to the end of the trenches story. I’ve always grown up with books and books in my house and people who work with books and that’s just second nature to me. So, I thought “Well, I’ll give it a go,” but that made it more terrifying in a way because I had quite a lot to lose because everyone I know works in publishing and I started getting up at 6 o’clock and I had a very old laptop and I wrote for about 6 months, not telling anyone, Sara-Mae. One morning I turned on the computer and the whole thing had gone.

SARA-MAE: Oh my gosh…

HARRIET: Thirty thousand words.

SARA-MAE: I still feel like you must have a tombstone in your heart with that book [chuckles]

HARRIET: Oh my goodness, that’s such a good way of putting it. Yes, it was. I also… You know when you are doing something for yourself, and you just need a sign and then you just massively get kicked back and mud splashed in your face and you just think, “Of course I’m worthless. Of course, how could you be so stupid to think that you were good at anything?” And it was strangely the best thing that’s ever happened to me because it made me much stronger. I sat there, I was, well, obviously devastated. I took it into the IT department and I told a porky and said it was another author’s book. They tried to get it back, they couldn’t and then I thought “Hang on, I do really want to write, I’m not going to let this get me down. It was really good, that book, and I was really enjoying it; and I went and bought a computer on ‘buy now, pay a year later’. This is 15 years ago, yeah that’s a lot of money now, that was a lot of money then. I was an editor at Penguin, living in London and I had a year to try and make some money out of it. And that’s what gave me, again, the exam-like fear. I just thought “Right, I’ve got to get on with this” and when I’d rewritten it, it was miles better than the first draft was, because I cut out all the rubbish. So, I am really gung-ho now, I really am super (sort of) chilled about cutting out loads of things, because I know that’s often the way to get a clear start and rewrite something from the beginning, you’ll leave out lots of waffle that needed to go in the first place.

SARA-MAE: That’s an amazing story because that’s – I’m sure that’s happened in some measure to lots of people, and makes me think of people like Austen. I just wonder how hard it must have been?

HARRIET: Yep.

SARA-MAE: [Laughs] If you’d written it out with a quill, well you would have had it, you know!

HARRIET: I’ve never tried to write using a pen and paper, and I know that there are some people like Jill Mansell who do. Jill writes all her books by hand on a lined notepaper. I’m sure if you’re writing with a pen, there’s just a bigger connection between the brain and the line that the words go on. [smile in voice]

SARA-MAE: Harriet reflects further on Austen’s situation.

HARRIET: Yeah, she’s there in that back parlour in the house in Chawton and the door two doors away creaked. I don’t know if you know this or not, but it creaked and it was set to creak especially so that she had enough time between the sound of that door creaking and a visitor being announced into their back parlour to put the book she was working on away and hide it in this very small desk that she had, and I often think she’d be writing away and she’d hear the door ‘errk’ and she’d just “Oh, OK” and you’d often think of the number of really boring conversations that interrupted this woman writing ‘Emma’, one of the best books in the English language, like some boring squire or some annoying brother of hers. She would dutifully fold this book away, put it in the thing and maybe sitting there politely, ready to welcome this visitor with no sign that she was writing this book. I love that idea. I’d just say “Go away, I’m writing!”

[both laugh]

SARA-MAE: She didn’t have the luxury of telling her brothers to… bugger off with all their children. [laughs] And let her write. “Excuse me, I’m writing one of the greatest novels ever, um, can we talk about the ball another time?”

HARRIET: Yes, yeah exactly and they were her lifeline, they were the ones who paid for her and her mother and her sister to live so she had to be nice to them. Though to be fair to them, they did seem to really love her, and they were a really close family and her nephews and nieces all adored her and speak so fondly of her. I’m sure that it was no chore for her at all. But of course, you had to sit there and listen politely when a boring farmer turns up to pay his respects or vicar. I often think when you’re reading say, ‘Emma’ what bit – how many drafts, how much re-writing did she do and how often had she just finished a sentence? You know, we’re reading it and we don’t see the natural breaks that were part of her life and that’s what I find fascinating. She must have stopped and started so many times and, you know…

SARA-MAE: So, you’re getting into the Austen frame of mind now because you’ve got a little girl?

HARRIET: [interrupts] No, I have a baby who is at nursery. Well, she’s a year, and I have a daughter who is at school. I think it’s my generation as well, that I know that I’m entitled to a job, and my job is writing and just because it’s a more family-friendly job doesn’t mean that it’s less important than my partner’s job which is in an office being a programmer, you know, my job is more important [guffaws]. She says blithely!

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

HARRIET: I think it is and just because I’m the primary care-giver and although my boyfriend is a super-helpful, hands-on incredible man, it’s my job. So I either write at home infrequently or I go to the library, I go to the London Library in St James’ Square, ironically where Faro’s Daughter is set, and it’s a private members’ library. Thomas Carlyle founded it, I go there, I put ear plugs in, I squirrel myself away in one of the stacks right at the back of the building, it’s a bit like Hogwarts’ Library, you know, and woe betide anyone who comes near me because I have to be able to concentrate.

SARA-MAE: If we’re thinking about Heyer and Austen, you see because I’m trying to draw the parallel between them and I’ve had lots of support from the Austen Societies around the world especially the Australian Austen Society. They had a convention on Georgette Heyer recently. People are finally acknowledging her. She’s in a class of her own and obviously not at the same level as Austen, obviously she is numero uno basically.

HARRIET: Yes.

SARA-MAE: In my mind, certainly one of the greatest authors who ever lived. But she only wrote six novels and for those of us who are desperate for more, Heyer steps into the breach magnificently. Would you compare them?

HARRIET: I would not use that language. I do slightly disagree only because it comes back to me to that idea of don’t lump women writers together even when there are similarities because to me, they are quite different. Jane Austen was writing about the world she knew, and she was writing about her own class and caste of people. And she was, I think, exploring some ideas that were close to her heart. And the way that Heyer was writing was – it’s almost like a display of brilliance. It’s so perfect, like butterfly wings. It just – it all knits together really well and they feel quite different to me. But again, I do think people go, “Oh well, the setting’s the same and the language is the same and the people, you know, and the concerns are the same.” But I’ve never thought this out loud before but actually they are a bit different to me and I don’t think that I’m explaining it very well but do you know what I mean?

SARA-MAE: There is a certain heft and gravitas. It’s defining what is a classic author, and when does one get into that sort of bracket of people. And plus, she was very subtle and nuanced and she dealt in irony a lot more than Heyer.

HARRIET: No, but it’s so subtle, it’s so – both of them, it’s so subtle. I opened the page today to remind myself… There’s a whole – Convenient Marriage, Friday’s Child, Corinthian, Cotillion – there’s about five which are slightly interchangeable even though they’re very different plots. And I open one of them and there’s this description of why this incomparable beauty who’s the childhood friend of the hero has been taken away from London because she has chickenpox and she has to recover out in the wilds of the countryside.

In case you were wondering, Harriet’s talking about ‘Friday’s Child’.

[EXCERPT FROM EPISODE 1: HOOKED ON HEYER WITH STEPHEN FRY]

SARA-MAE: What’s your favourite?

STEPHEN FRY: I think, I would say ‘Friday’s Child’ and again, it’s probably because it’s one of the early ones I read and it just meant it had a great effect on me. It surprised me, so I’ll go with that one.

HARRIET: And it is so amazingly, sharply, humorously, deliciously written! That thing of how … she knows she’s good. You can feel her neck prickling as she’s typing away on this typewriter. There’s this sort of delicious wickedness with her. I find this fascinating about her, that she was quite contemptuous of her readers, especially the ones who wanted to be very gaga about the romance element of it. She was always super rude to them and about them. You know, “God, these stupid readers, you write in about me, you bother me, why can’t they…” You know, and she did have that quite sharp biting edge to her, which Austen also had, that sort of, you know, realistic contempt for some people. [laughs]

SARA-MAE: You would picture an author whose main thing is writing romances to be soft and gushy and kind of sweet but actually they were acerbic as anything and this kind of skewering eye in their real lives to people’s foibles and everything and that translated somehow. Especially for Heyer. Because we don’t really know – because Austen, a lot of her letters were censored. I mean I like to think that there would have been some juicy descriptions if we’d got them but…

HARRIET: She’s very catty in some letters, Austen.

SARA-MAE: Oh yeah.

HARRIET: Much more so in the letters than in the books. There’s a real sharpness to her tongue that isn’t in the books.

SARA-MAE: There’s a feeling in the books – and this is one of the things why I love going back to them – of this elevated person, this narrator, this all-seeing eye who is just so smart and wry, aacchh, I just love being held in the arms of that kind of person. [laughs]

HARRIET: Yeah, and you are,though, that’s such a great way of putting it, that you just know it will be a good experience to re-read this book. And you know, comfort reads aren’t just ‘bleurgh’, you know, if they’re just totally soppy with no spine, they don’t give you what you want, those sort of ultimate hot water bottle novels, I think it’s that the world you’re in, is so delicious, and it’s not my world, and it’s a world I like returning to and that’s what they all have in common. And that, for me, is what I’m always trying to get to in my books. I want to create a world that I’ve fallen in love with that I’m exploring and that I’m really enjoying. So, my last book was about a crumbling secret stately home in a forgotten creek in Cornwall. I mean, that’s why I was mentioning butterflies earlier. I’m still completely obsessed with butterflies because the book was called ‘The Butterfly Summer’ and they’re obsessed with butterflies and I learned all there is to know about butterflies. I still do know loads and I’m a member of Butterfly Conservation and I got really into it! I can identify something like 40 out of 49 native UK butterfly species.

Wow, we’ve gone way off topic; but, I think it’s one of those things she gives you as a writer, Heyer, is she knew her research and it just became part of her, because she liked it and if you wear your research lightly, then you can get it across really well. If you go on too much about butterflies, and how the silver bordered pearl fritillary only likes to eat violet plants, then you will lose your audience. And quite often you read books where you think, “Oh God, so this person has done quite a bit of research and they’re just trying to let us know”…  Phillipa Gregory’s there, you never see the research, you just totally believe that you are in the world of Henry VIII’s court and that’s for me why Heyer is the best. You’re just in the world; you totally believe it.

SARA-MAE: Completely, and so many people have copied it unsuccessfully and not done the research but grabbed a few tropes here and there. Looking at your ‘Rules For Dating A Romantic Hero’, in particular, I find this very interesting. I know that it was a smaller novel and it’s a sequel to ‘Hopeless Romantic’. The idea was a really fantastic idea, particularly chiming with Heyer, and the way that she talked about her heroes as being like Mark 1 and Mark 2. And Mark 1 was the sort of really dangerous and dissolute, with scandalous reputation sort of a person. Heyer herself was influenced by Bronte’s Rochester. And then the Mark 2 ones were the ones that were often wealthy, well dressed, they had a similar sort of arrogance but they were more genial, more even tempered. How do you craft your romantic heroes? It must be difficult when you’ve got these kinds of graven images of Rochester and all the best Heyer heroes…

HARRIET: ‘Rules for Dating a Romantic Hero’ is a quick read book but in the meantime, in the however many years between the first book ‘A Hopeless Romantic’ which I tried to make almost a satire on all those romance novels that I’ve loved through my life and this girl being totally in that world and coming bump up against it that she really does meet and fall in love with a guy who lives in this huge stately home.  And I was wandering around a house and garden one day with my mum and dad and it’s slightly based on a terrible holiday when I was 22 when all my friends were off doing fun things and I bumped into this Marquis in his own stately home. Nothing happened like, we did just say hello but that was the idea of the book. I thought, what would happen if I actually did end up getting together with him? And so to revisit that and actually realise when you’re older what you really want is not a wild dark-eyed hero. You just want someone kind who’s a good person and who’s going to be a partner not a sulky boy and this is my – like when I was younger my favourite, favourite Heyer of all was ‘Devil’s Cub’. I was just mad about Vidal and Mary Challoner is still my favourite heroine, but now I’m older my favourite book I would say, but by far my favourite hero, is Venetia.

SARA-MAE: Yes

HARRIET: And Lord Damerel. Because he has been through pain; he has had a sad time, he is wise, he knows what he is about, but he also needs some sorting out and she’s level-headed and will help him. I’m more attracted now to the older, they’ve been bruised, they are fairly grumpy but they’re not spoilt boys because jeez-louise, who needs that?

MUSIC

HARRIET: So if I look at (she says getting her list out) if I look at Regency Buck, classic – Lord Worth is like – I mean he does try to kiss her and she doesn’t want him to, sexual assault I think we’d frown about that bit now. And he sort of nearly lets her be murdered to try and prove a point, he’s a bit duff about that but Frederica – what’s he called? – Alverstoke. I love the guy in Bath Tangle, he’s fantastic (Bath Tangle is one of my favourites), and Max Ravenscar from Faro’s Daughter; yeah, I love him to bits.

SARA-MAE: What a fantastic name that is.

SARA-MAE: I tell Harriet about my love of Venetia.

SARA-MAE: For some reason – and I don’t know, since doing all the research – I’ve had this little theory that I saw echoes – and this is just me putting my own perspective on it between Heyer and her real-life husband.

HARRIET: Wow, how interesting.

SARA-MAE: They were such good friends throughout their lives and they didn’t have a massive sexual connection.

HARRIET: Yes, yeah.

SARA-MAE: They were the dearest of friends. I have a big soft spot for Freddie Standen, though, from ‘Cotillion’.

HARRIET: Yes, yeah.

SARA-MAE: You know, in every other book of hers he would be like the best friend of the hero who’s kind of just very silly. But I loved – and it’s like what you were talking about, he wins through in the end because he’s so practical and helpful and he actually helps his heroine in useful ways and he has such funny – so many funny lines in the book about how when she really thinks about it, being carried off by the hero on his horse would actually be quite inconvenient and annoying [laughs]

HARRIET: I’d forgotten that she does sometimes, she inverts her own heroes doesn’t she, she sort of…

SARA-MAE: Yeah.

HARRIET: She takes the stereotype of them. And what’s that really depressing one, about the Cit with the daughter? ‘A Civil Contract’.

SARA-MAE: Yes, that’s it. That’s always been my least favourite, but I’m coming round to it a bit more now because there’s some really interesting things that she does in her book. It was kind of like the bald reality of it that always put me off.

HARRIET: Yes.

SARA-MAE: I want a bit of sparkle!

HARRIET: Nope, completely. I thought, “Oh God, this is too depressing.” Elizabeth Buchan, the author, it used to be her favourite one, and the one – can I ask you about, because I just absolutely can take it or leave it – is the ‘Grand Sophy’. I just don’t like that guy, Charles, he’s a complete arrogant…

SARA-MAE: I know what you mean, he’s pompous, isn’t he?

HARRIET: And her husband! And she’s great and he spends the whole time doing her down and being like super-boring about… You know, he’d be the kind of person that if you went round to his house today, he’d stand by the door and say “Sorry but please can you make sure you take your shoes off? “

SARA-MAE: [laughs] And also you get the feeling that she’s decided right from page one…

HARRIET: Yeah.

SARA-MAE: She’s going to have him. But then again, by the end you sort of start to see him through a different light?

HARRIET: True.

SARA-MAE: But he does come over as very, very pompous.

HARRIET: It doesn’t make my heart sing at the end to think, “Oh wow”. I always think with a lot of the others like Damerel or Ravenscar or Vidal even, that they have a sense of humour and that you’d have some laughs whereas Darcy – controversial Darcy, gorgeous as he is, I often think her life would not have been much fun married to him, he’s so dour.

SARA-MAE: He’s a bit po-faced.

HARRIET: Yeah! Emma Tennant wrote a brilliant sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Pemberley. And it is a lot about how being married to him would be a bit of a bind if I remember rightly, whereas the thing that characterises a lot of the other ones that I really love is that they are quite sardonic and funny and sarcastic and the older, slightly more eccentric ones – those ones in Bath with interchangeable plots of like ‘Lady of Quality’ and ‘Black Sheep’ are virtually the same book I think and… So, they’re very scruffy, they’re not interested in pleasing anyone. It is ‘Black Sheep’! Miles Calverley, and what’s the one in…?

SARA-MAE: Oliver Carleton.

HARRIET: Yes.

SARA-MAE: What I think would be quite interesting to sort of parallel with your book ‘Rules for Dating a Romantic Hero’ – I thought it would be fun if we could just ad-lib a few.

SARA-MAE: ‘Rules for Dating a Romantic Hero’ is the sequel to Harriet’s wonderful book, ‘A Hopeless Romantic’, in which heroine Laura Foster meets Nick Marquis, on the grounds of his estate. In ‘Rules’, she’s coming to terms with what it means to actually live with Prince Charming – it’s not quite as picture perfect as it might appear. All the chapters have ‘rules’ which relate to Laura’s predicament. I thought it might be fun to see what rules we could cook up regarding regency romance novels.

SARA-MAE: Number One: Have your carriage break down near his house.

HARRIET: Good idea. Basically, it’s easier when it’s before mobile phones. If you talk to any author, writing today, they will say, everything is easier before mobile phones. Being abandoned in a small town, ‘ker-ching’, this happens all the time. Being slightly short sighted. Isn’t Hester in ‘Sprig Muslin’ quite short sighted? She quite often can’t see things; she’d just have contact lenses now.

SARA-MAE: Be ready for adventure at a moment’s notice.

SARA-MAE: I was thinking of Mary Challoner in Devil’s Cub here. Listen to episode 4 to hear me trying to convert bass player and teacher Khalid Ham to Heyer’s work. Mary disguises herself and meets the Marquis in her sister’s stead, to save her from ravishment at the hands of the handsome, though rather volatile Marquis. Damn, it’s a fun book.

HARRIET: The bravery of that!

SARA-MAE: Yes.

HARRIET: The plot of Devil’s Cub is really extraordinary.

SARA-MAE: It’s disturbing.

HARRIET: Yeah [laughs], it is disturbing! She is very strait-laced, although she’s kind of not, she’s got a spark about her. But her mother is effectively trying to prostitute the younger daughter out and Mary, at a moment’s notice, to save her own sister’s honour because she thinks she’s worth it, chucks herself in the carriage where she probably will be raped. Anything could happen to her, it’s the Wild West!

SARA-MAE: He actually tells her he’s going to take her to France –

HARRIET: Yes.

SARA-MAE: And make her his prostitute basically.

HARRIET: And what stops him, Sara-Mae? When he finds out who her grandfather is – because it turns out she’s related to a respectable old man so he won’t sexually assault her. Wooh! Well, isn’t that lucky! There’s still this kind of romance to it but also, and I think this chimes absolutely with who she Heyer was – I could be completely wrong about this but this is my reading of it – but she was ‘no nonsense’ about it. She was telling it like it was.

SARA-MAE: Hmm.

HARRIET: You know that the situation, if you were a penniless young woman, was that your mother had to try and auction you off to the highest bidder. And there’s a really dark sub-plot in ‘Faro’s Daughter’ where there’s that terrified little girl, Laleham, who is being forced to marry this disgusting old man.

SARA-MAE: If you’ve been listening to the podcast, you’ll have heard last week’s episode on Faro’s Daughter in which my lovely friend and crack copy developer Geraldine and I discussed the book. Do go and check out our discussion to learn more about it. Harriet reveals that Deb, the heroine, might be her favourite female Heyer character. Ooh!

HARRIET: I think I might like her a bit more than Venetia because I adore Venetia but Venetia’s a bit green. I think a lot of the stronger heroines – because there are two or three different types of heroines as well. The stronger ones, their job is to educate the male hero to make them see they’ve been a dong, basically. And then there’s a set, they’re my favourite kind of Heyer heroine. The heroine that I get on less well with is the Arabella type who are big-eyed and guileless.

SARA-MAE: Ingenues.

HARRIET: Yeah. They’re a bit more – I can take them or leave them a little bit.

SARA-MAE: We’ll be reading ‘Arabella’ next week with two willing dupes, Cal, vicar and Robert, VP of Finance at a tech company. I can’t wait to hear what they think about this brilliant book. Don’t forget to read it before you listen. You can download the audio book from Naxos to enjoy while you’re on the tube or doing the dishes… or you can even borrow it from your local library.

HARRIET: I think that’s why I like the slightly stroppier ones like ‘Bath Tangle’, Serena; she definitely needs taking down a peg or two. Oh God, this is just my idea of heaven, Sara-Mae; can we just do this all day?

SARA-MAE: [laughs] Me too

HARRIET: Yeah. Bath Tangle is the one where you do think she really wishes she’d been a man. She doesn’t inherit the house, she’s very angry at her father, who she loved very much, for dying, basically, and her father has abandoned her with this well-meaning mother-in-law who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. And actually, all the characters in that one change. And they all start off – you think that they are one way and they’re not. When she bumps into her old fiancé Hector, you totally think “Oh yes this is it, this is it!” Then you start thinking, “No, it can’t be, she shouldn’t be with him, he’s no good for her, she should be with Ivo Rotherham who understands her, and he sees the hurt in her eyes!”

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

HARRIET: “Oh she’s made it happen!” That’s the great thing about her. Until the last page, you’re not entirely sure it’s going to happen. And how she manages to do that, that’s a key writing thing, that you’ve got to make the reader believe that it’s not going to happen and you can’t do it by expressly telling them it’s not going to happen and lying to them, because that’s cheating.

SARA-MAE: Exactly. She’s so clever at kind of manipulating the outcome and you know, but it’s this trick that you do with the reader. I think that this is something that you do well very beautifully.

HARRIET: Thank you. When I was an editor at Penguin, a book was published at the same time, at the height of the ‘chick lit’ craze, and it was by a quite well-established author who thought that they were too good for such romancy things.  And it’s about this mother living in a house a single mother living in a house with a flatmate and at the beginning of the book she says in brackets, “Oh by the way if you think that this is one of these books where the love of my life was under my nose all along and I ended up with him the end, well it’s not, so get over it”. So, you go through the entire book thinking, “Well, she’s expressly told me that’s not going to happen then she damn well gets together with him at the end. And I remember getting to the end and thinking –

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

HARRIET: But I am so angry with you because you should have, as a writer, made us care about them as a couple. You can’t just expressly say it like that, it’s just cheating and it also, by the way, made me think of, “Ooh, they’re not going to get together because you totally told me that it’s not going to happen. You have to do it in subtle ways.”

SARA-MAE: Hmm.

HARRIET: It has to be done through the actions, by the way the characters behave. That’s the one thing that I try really hard to never do. I get very cross with other books when people just sort of can’t be bothered with working out of it. So I’m just going to tell you, and she never does that, you really are like “This will never happen, oh my goodness, how did she know that I really wanted poor Ancilla the amazing governess to get together with the Nonesuch because they’re perfect with each other, Ooh it’s happened!!” I don’t know why I have to speak in this weird spinstery voice, sometimes that happens.

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

HARRIET: Yeah, it’s just so well done.

SARA-MAE: And I don’t know how she does it again and again. As you say, there’s some where she’s more successful than others. Frederica, I love that one as well, where she’s kind of this totally capable, eminently practical person and she just doesn’t think about romance at all. And almost kind of piques his interest because of her lack of…

HARRIET: She’s not throwing her –

SARA-MAE: Lures

HARRIET: Thank you.

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

HARRIET: And also, that’s the ultimate one, I think, where someone needs looking after and the other person sees that and falls in love with them because they need looking after, and that’s incredibly attractive to women, I think.

SARA-MAE: Oh yeah.

HARRIET: That idea that here he is, and he will just take care of things for you. That’s not giving up your own identity, but this ‘lean all your cares on and to lean against’, which is really the most attractive thing when you are weary and tired and life is tough sometimes. That’s also a really interesting one because you really get a sense of London at the time, there’s all the business of the cows in Green Park and the hot air balloon and stuff and that’s the one I’ve selected to re-read.

SARA-MAE: I remind Harriet of the rules we’d been making, so we had ‘have your carriage breakdown in front of the hero’s house’, ‘be ready for adventure at a moment’s notice’ and…?

HARRIET: I think you have to be able to identify Lady Jersey; because I had no idea who she was in history apart from the fact that she’s always, always in Heyers. Lady Jersey and Lady Sefton because they give out the vouchers for Almacks. So you have to be able to curtsey to them and identify them, that’s super important.

SARA-MAE: I’d say, don’t be a dowd.

HARRIET: Don’t be a dowd. You need to be like observers. They’re all sort of noticers of things, I think. You need to be witty and wise, because some of them are governesses and some of them are a bit down on their luck, and what gets them out is just being able to have a conversation with someone and not being so terrified.  There are not so many Georgette Heyer heroines where they literally can’t tie two words together because they’re so terrified.

SARA-MAE: I mention ‘The Quiet Gentleman’, as it’s one of the other books we’ll be covering in the series (episode 10). One of the great joys of that book is how much the heroine, Drusilla, deeply regrets how sensible she is. In fact, when the hero first sees her, he thinks her plain! What she sees as a surfeit of boring sense, you the reader soon see as courage and intelligence. And that makes her far more useful to the hero, who is often in mortal danger, than a swooning miss would be.

SARA-MAE: When she marries the darker side of the things with the light romance it sometimes doesn’t work quite as well. She’s at her most brilliant when she’s just doing romantic comedy.

HARRIET: I mean, even when there are darker bits in some of them like in ‘Regency Buck’ or in ‘Devils Cub’, there’s still a lightness about it.  I mean some like ‘Cousin Kate’ – do you remember in ‘Cousin Kate’ when there’s some guy who is basically just super disturbed. And I think that it’s interesting because today, we’d try to put a label on him, and say, “Well, he was autistic, or he was psychotic, or he was schizophrenic or…”

SARA-MAE: Bipolar…

HARRIET: There’s something very dark about him and it’s interesting that a) in the time that she is writing but b) in the time about which she was writing (which are two different things as well), you fling that in and make it part of the plot. But I don’t think it fully works. And, of course, if you have been writing for many years, the books are going to have become better honed but you’d hope that there’s a progression and that you are getting more polished about it. But it’s not it’s just an upward trajectory. And if you wrote as many books as she did, they’re not always going to be great.

SARA-MAE: I ask Harriet to reveal her famous list of top tier Heyers.

HARRIET: The ‘Primo Georgette’, it’s called, and this first lot is Primo Georgette.

For me, Venetia; These Old Shades; Devil’s Cub; An Infamous Army; Sprig Muslin; Faro’s Daughter; The Nonesuch; Lady of Quality; Regency Buck; The Reluctant Widow (controversial but I do quite like it); The Grand Sophy; Frederica; Bath Tangle; Black Sheep; Sylvester.

Every one of these is G Heyer writing at her best.

These are the second tier: The Foundling; Friday’s Child (but you see, actually I’m kind of loving the Friday’s Child and maybe it should be bumped up to the top); The Talisman Ring; Charity Girl; The Convenient Marriage; A Civil Contract; False Colours; April Lady (the world’s most depressing book); The Toll Gate; Cotillion (but yeah, you’re right about that); The Quiet Gentleman (but maybe I need to reread that); The Corinthinan; The Spanish Bride; and the Black Moth.

SARA-MAE: I’m glad we’ve got a mix of Heyer’s best mixed in with the second and third tier Heyer’s – we wanted to cover certain periods in her life, and so we picked books which slotted into those times. I’d love to know what you think of Harriet’s list – do you agree? Personally, I might put ‘Cotillion’ into the top tier, myself. Now for Harriet’s third tier…

HARRIET: Now the third one is kind of the weird ones. Beauvallet, Powder and Patch, Masqueraders, Cousin Kate, Royal Escape.

SARA-MAE: Yes, I agree. I would stand by the fact that even the worst Georgette Heyer is better than 90% of some of the other stuff that’s out there as sort of best-selling things.

SARA-MAE: Another thing that’s unique to Heyer, for me, is the way I change my mind about her novels. In re-reading some of the books I’d consigned to the third tier myself, I’ve seen them in a new light, realising just how fantastically good she is at writing a cracking yarn. I know so few writers whose books I read multiple times and yet they can still seem so fresh to me. I ask Harriet about the book she put as her least favourite.

HARRIET: ‘Royal Escape’. Just because it’s not super-easy to get through.

SARA-MAE: You know what, I have to admit I didn’t finish that. Because you always kind of think, you know, it reminds me of how good ‘Faro’s Daughter’ is. Let me just read that again [laughs]

HARRIET: Yes, no, completely and my last book, ‘The Butterfly Summer’, there’s a whole section about King Charles II and he’s visited this house and the serious house in Cornwall. And so I did a lot of research into Charles II and where he went when he was on the run and the Civil War was raging across the country and I thought that this would be perfect because I thought that this was what ‘Royal Escape’ would be all about. I think that she’s slightly better in the realms of High Society. The times when she’s particularly wearing is when she decides that someone speaks in a specific way and she goes on for ages. But in general, her characters are so enjoyably spot on and in that world – she’s so confident in the Regency world, she seems to have more sort of facility to let things sing. I think that the Royal Escape one – that possibly it’s that the idea of writing about a historical figure possibly weighed her down a bit more. Because that’s what’s great about ‘Infamous Army’.

SARA-MAE: Yeah

HARRIET: It’s about Waterloo and it’s about the eve of Waterloo. There’s historical figures dotted the whole way through it but it’s essentially about these characters we know and we love. God, that’s a good book. And the thing that I always smile about, you know, that people say that it was given out in Sandhurst, as if, ”Oh well, some men in the Army have said this book’s good so it must be!”

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

HARRIET: I’m telling you it’s a good book, I don’t need some guy from Sandhurst to tell me that it’s an extremely well written work of literature.

SARA-MAE: And it is the encapsulation of exactly what she was so good at which was brilliant research and seeing through the research to the characters behind them. And I think that the reason why perhaps the Regency romances are the best is that’s the world in which she is most deeply embedded. So it was second nature for her to create such characters within that world.

I have a question for you. So which of her books do you think would make the best film?

HARRIET: Well, this is why I always think, “Why haven’t ITV done it?” People always ask and people over the years tried to see if there was any traction but I never understand why it hasn’t come to anything.

SARA-MAE: Well, they’re making ‘The Grand Sophy’. I’ll just say that it’s certainly in production but the scary thing is, I mean I interviewed Andy Patterson the producer last year and at that stage it was definitely going ahead, and then I interviewed Peter Buckman at Ampersand Agency who are the ones who sort of control the rights. And he seemed to be slightly doubtful. But I think it’s because he’s just had so many things fall through over the years.

HARRIET: I think it’s because people still categorise them as romance. Because it comes back full circle at the end of the conversation which we started talking about, which is kind of, “If it’s a romance, then it’s not going to do so well” and it does make me sort of want to hold my head in my hands because whenever you do something that’s going to appeal slightly more to women, people are always astonished that it’s going to do so well. Look at ‘Mama Mia’, well, people are like, “Well, can’t really explain the success of Mama Mia,” because you have three middle-aged women having loads of fun on a Greek island singing ABBA songs, that is why. There was a film for the first time in years catering to the above age of fifty and you’re surprised that all of them went to see that one film over and over again, bought the soundtrack, bought the DVD! If you just do that a few times, you will make loads of money, people, instead of churning out these endless, incredibly tedious, Marvel comic book hero things which is a diminishing return, they are less good, or these very boring TV dramas. If you just for once gave it a try and said, something like ‘Regency Buck’, would be my lead-in one because you have – and I think you might need to tweak it a bit – and you may not open with Lord Worth snogging what turns out to be his own ward, when she doesn’t want him to – but the setting of Brighton, and the idea that Brighton was the most bang-on so-trendy place, the fact that the Prince Regent tried to kiss her and assault her. That whole setting, that whole world, the detail of it, the fact that there’s that dramatic dark plot going on at the side as well; I can’t see how it would fail. 

SARA-MAE: I understand why they chose ‘The Grand Sophy’ because there’s a lot of incidents and she’s a very, very plucky heroine.

HARRIET: Yeah.

SARA-MAE: I think that something like ‘Frederica’, because there’s the whole hot air balloon, like you said, there’s a lot of going around London, showcasing London but you know, then again that might be a bit expensive.

Thank you so much, you have spent ages talking to me.

HARRIET: Well please do feel free to look at any of my books. You should be able to get them in any bookshop order them on Amazon or the library – support your local libraries; and yeah, my last one was ‘The Butterfly Summer’, and the one before that was ‘A Place For Us’ and my next book is called ‘Wildflower House’ and that’s the one that I’m just finishing off at the moment or I’m not, I’m chatting to you and I’d rather chat to you all day about Georgette Heyer! But [giggles] I should go and do some work.

SARA-MAE: Yes, thank you so, so much. I’ve absolutely loved it.

HARRIET: I feel it’s a bit sad that some people only find ways of success through “Has a film been made of it?” and you and I, because we are total devotees, know that it’s just wrong for the TV-watching public to be denied the chance to watch Georgette Heyer of an evening. But I would also flip it round the other way and say, much like why isn’t she more widely read, she is so much more widely read than she used to be. The last ten, fifteen years has been so extraordinary for her with the reissuing, and the covers and what they’ve done with them. There are lots of other novelists, mid-20th century female commercial novelists, who don’t get the same coverage she does and there are so many people fighting on her behalf. But I sort of think with her, we should be trying to push her on new people, and we should be saying, “Why haven’t they been made into different films and everything?” But we all should be rejoicing in how wonderful she is and you can get new people switched on to her more easily and that she has had an increasing recognition in the last ten or fifteen years. Because I feel really joyful about that. It makes me super-happy that we live in a world where her sales are better than they have ever been for years. It’s a bit Pollyanna-ish but I do think that is really important that she’s so well loved and that more and more people are finding her and everything. Yay.

SARA-MAE: Brilliant. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

[OUTTRO]

SARA-MAE: It was such a delight to talk to Harriet, and boy did we cover a lot of ground. As I mentioned earlier, her latest book is ‘The Garden of Lost and Found’. Liddy Horner discovers her husband, the world-famous artist Sir Edward Horner, burning his best-known painting, The Garden of Lost and Found, days before his sudden death. Is that a gripping description or what? It’s had fabulous reviews, so do go and pick up a copy.

Next week, in our book club episode, I’ll be reading ‘Arabella’ with my friends Rob and vicar Caroline Risdon (or the Rev Riz as I like to call her). They have very different views on the book, so do grab a copy or download the audio book from Naxos – it’s a lovely one to listen to in the bath or on the bus.

You’d have to be loose in the haft to miss out. Until next time, this has been Heyer Today.

Credits

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. Mike Scott for production assistance and making a mean spag bol. Stephen Fry for general awesomeness.

Thanks also to Geraldine Elliot, Talitha Gamaroff and everyone who supported me in creating this work.

Suzy Buttress in particular, but the podcast community at large for so much inspiration and encouragement.

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.

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.

Heyer Today is a Fable Gazers production.

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