Transcribed by Jill Livingstone
Listen to this episode here.
Also available on any good podplayer, iTunes, Spotify or Amazon Music.
SARA-MAE: Previously on Heyer Today…
[AUDIO DRAMA SEGMENT]
GEORGETTE HEYER: I want to cut it off, our association.
L.P. MOORE: Cut off? But my dear, it’s been… it’s been thirty-six years! I promised your father that I would look after you.
DOM PATMORE: Do not waltz.
SARA-MAE: Don’t you dare waltz!
DOM PATMORE: Don’t you dare waltz. You haven’t been presented. Don’t go waltzing.
SARA-MAE: I mean, you might as well just rip your skirt up and show everyone your ankles, you know what I’m saying?
DOM PATMORE: Yeah, exactly. You might as well, you know… calf… just show them calf, I mean.
SARA-MAE: Don’t even say that word! The c-word. [laughs]
DOM PATMORE: [laughs]
TALITHA GAMAROFF: I would much rather read one of these as a light-hearted [form of] escapism than some modern rubbish.
SARA-MAE: I’m extra excited for today’s guest, Jennifer Kloester, as she’s one of the most knowledgeable Heyerites on the planet. From the beginning, she’s been incredibly helpful and kind. I feel like her work has been intrinsic to this podcast. Not only does she write exhaustively about the Regency world, but her biography on Heyer is one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever read, packed full of insight and fascinating facts. Plus, it made me cry at the end. Yep, even though I knew what was coming. I mean – spoiler alert – she dies. Yet her description of Georgette’s passing was so touching that I got a major case of the feels. We’ve chatted a few times over the past few years and struggled a bit with getting the sound right across oceans and continents, as she’s in Australia, and I’m in London. But nevertheless, I hope you’ll enjoy hearing from Jennifer and that it inspires you to buy her book.
SARA-MAE: Hello, Jen. It’s lovely to talk to you.
JENNIFER: Well, it’s my pleasure to be here and thanks for having me.
SARA-MAE: Great. When I was researching you, I obviously read your book – that was wonderful! – but I also read your doctoral thesis.
JENNIFER: Wow. That’s pretty impressive, I have to say. You’re one of the handful, Sara-Mae.
SARA-MAE: No but I really enjoyed it, actually. I was quite surprised to get really excited about someone’s doctoral thesis. [laughs]
JENNIFER: Yeah. One doesn’t expect someone to get excited about reading a doctoral thesis.
SARA-MAE: It was really, really well written, I think, probably far better written than a lot of doctoral theses… thesi? [laughs]
JENNIFER: Yes, theses. Indeed, no. Theses. [laughs]
SARA-MAE: You know, there’s loads of references. I felt that in your book, you did have quite a few references, but obviously not quite as many.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I would have loved to have had references to everything in Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and then in the biography, particularly the biography, but of course, commercial publishers… you know, Random House don’t want that. They really want a very free and flowing read for their general public. And so, I did the best I could. What I did do was put the archives of letters in chronological order so it would give a sense of where a lot of the quotes from the letters were coming from, because the archives don’t tend to overlap all that much. But yeah, it would have been thousands and thousands of references, and the book would have been twice the size.
SARA-MAE: Well, I would not have objected to it being twice the size. I love footnotes.
JENNIFER: Well, I do too. And I must say, I did actually, at the time, think when I finished writing the biography, that I did think perhaps I should have written a version with all of the references and then perhaps I could have done something with that later, but it’s a huge amount of work and it was sort of after the horse had bolted, so to speak. So, this year I’m planning to do a lot more blogs on Heyer on my website. I’m going to bring in some of the pieces that got cut from both the biography and from Regency World – two whole chapters went out of Regency World. There’s quite a lot of material there that might be interesting to Heyer fans that I can pull out and put up – because we have the interweb. Hooray! [laughs]
SARA-MAE: You being able to use the internet to do more research allowed you to find a huge collection of letters.
JENNIFER: Yeah, that was pretty amazing. That was very early on, I mean, in the early days of the internet. I actually began researching in the late 90s, but I began my thesis in 2001, and it was only in 2000 that the University of Tulsa, for example, actually catalogued their Heyer letters and put them online. So had I been looking online, say in the mid-90s, I wouldn’t have found them. So, it was rather serendipitous, actually.
SARA-MAE: Well, let’s go back to the beginning. What first brought you to Georgette Heyer?
JENNIFER: Well, we actually lived as ex-pats in some places around the world, and we spent five years living in Papua New Guinea, literally in the jungle, in a small mining town, and had a young family, and it’s fairly isolated, and so a lot of reading. They had a wonderful little, tiny weeny library – a YWCA library – and it was full of Georgette Heyer’s books, and it was really where I read my first Heyer, which I think was These Old Shades. And that really began me hunting out her novels.
SARA-MAE: So, you were in Papua New Guinea.
SARA-MAE: And you were delving into these books that you were finding in the library? What were your first impressions?
JENNIFER: Well, I mean, she made me laugh out loud. That was always the thing that just caught me from the very beginning. You know, it’s a rare author that can do that to me, and I found it just wonderful. And she was so vivid, that sense of actually being there. It’s not just a great story but characters that you come to know, and wonderful language, and she’s just so witty. And it’s all so vivid and visceral, and I think that that’s just one of her hallmarks. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, I was just enjoying reading any of the books that I could get my hands on. Whenever we went out on R&R, I’d go to second-hand book shops or anywhere that I could find her and buy her books. So that’s what began it.
SARA-MAE: It must have seemed like a world away from the jungle.
JENNIFER: Oh, absolutely. And it was funny because years later, when I began researching her life, and then I discovered that she also had married an engineer and she’d gone off to live in East Africa, in a very remote part – not jungle, but still really, really remote – and so I could really relate to that, living in that sort of isolated environment. And so, it was quite interesting along the way, on my journey of discovery I actually discovered that she and I had quite a lot of things in common which… I suppose that probably would happen with any life, but I just found that very interesting. So, there were things that I could probably understand about her life and her reaction to things that perhaps people who hadn’t had those experiences wouldn’t have understood. So, I certainly understood that isolation.
SARA-MAE: When did you start becoming inclined to apply an academic slant to your passion for her?
JENNIFER: Some years later, we went off and lived in in the Middle East, in Bahrain, and they had a fabulous library in the company town and it had a huge collection of Georgette Heyer novels, which was pretty amazing, really. So, I read her again and she became my real comfort reading, my escape reading, my just joyful reading. And I was doing my Bachelor of Arts as an off-campus student. I’d been doing it when we were living in New Guinea, and then when we were living elsewhere, and then again in the Middle East, just working away, one subject a semester. And so, I was in touch with a good friend who also lived in the same town, and she was doing her PhD at Yale, in Literature. And so, we were talking and I introduced her to Heyer. She’d never read Heyer. Anyway, she fell madly in love with Heyer’s novels and couldn’t get enough of them. We both really mourned the fact that there was no way of really easily knowing what some of the things in the Heyer novels meant or what they looked like. Things like some of the clothing: what were half boots of orange jean, or what did a spencer look like? And what was a barouche? And a lot of the etiquette. You know, you understood them from reading Heyer, but you didn’t have a complete understanding because you couldn’t always know exactly what things looked like. A high perch phaeton, for example. So, we thought it’d be marvellous if there was some kind of a Georgette Heyer regency handbook. And so, when I came back to Australia from the Middle East, I finished my Bachelor of Arts and I said to my husband, ‘Before I get a real job, I’d like to spend a few months working on this private research project.’ And look, this is really kind of OCD, Sara, but I actually combed through every Heyer novel in chronological order, and I sort of pulled out everything that I thought might be mysterious or obscure to a modern reader. And I made these alphabetical lists and note cards and… Angouleme bonnets and all sorts of things – you know, people, places, traditions, money, fashion, anything that I thought might be mysterious. And anyway, I just did this for a while. And this was all by hand, so on note cards and in alphabetical books. And then one day I was having lunch with my former professor from my degree at the university, and I told him about my little project. Anyway, it was quite funny because he sat back in his chair, and I sort of held my breath and thought, oh, he’s going to say ‘Oh, what a waste of time’. And instead, he sat back and said, ‘That’d make a fantastic PhD’. And I just had this epiphany. I’d never thought of a PhD or doing anything like that. And I had this vision, suddenly, of me in a puffy hat. And spending time researching the Regency and Heyer and her novels, it seemed like a distant dream. But anyway, I set about it. I did honours, I got a first, I got a scholarship to the University of Melbourne and did a PhD.
SARA-MAE: Everything else you’ve done has sort of flowed from that, hasn’t it?
JENNIFER: Yeah, well, in a way the PhD was really a means to write Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. And having the imprimatur of the university meant that when I contacted people like Georgette’s son, Sir Richard Rougier, or Jane Aiken Hodge, there was a reason: it was as a research student at the University of Melbourne. It lent me a credibility that I may not have had otherwise. And then when I finished it, I pretty much got straight on with writing Regency World, which was that illustrated companion to her novels and to the era. I loved writing that book. That was just a fabulous experience. The biography grew out of that. In the course of doing all those years of research for my PhD, I discovered all the new archives of letters. There were untapped archives, letters that weren’t in the public purview. So, I was the person to go out and find them and make use of them.
SARA-MAE: Because Jane Aiken Hodge hadn’t had access to them.
JENNIFER: No, no, she wouldn’t have known they existed, most of them. Her biography was a really terrific account of Heyer’s life. Jane had a lot of really good insight. She was a very fine writer and had a brilliant mind, Jane Aiken Hodge, but she only had access to material that was directly about Heyer from 1944, when Heyer was already forty-two and very successful. So, all those early years – the formative years – were really missing. I think the first forty-odd years of Heyer’s life is just the first couple of chapters of Jane’s book, whereas my biography, the first two thirds are the first forty years of Georgette Heyer’s life.
SARA-MAE: That’s what’s so wonderful.
SARA-MAE: I asked Jennifer if she thinks the perception of Heyer’s work by critics and commentators has evolved. Most people, as far as I can tell, still lump her in with people like Barbara Cartland, whereas I think she’s much closer to her idol, Jane Austen, or PG Wodehouse.
JENNIFER: The thing I’ve really noticed in the last ten years or so is this decided shift in attitude to Georgette Heyer. And I think that’s to do with the enduring nature of her novels. The fact that she’s still a bestseller nearly a hundred years after she published her first book. And the further away we get from her death and the more she continues to sell, I think, the closer she comes to becoming a true classic author. I think it very likely that in the future Georgette Heyer will be studied, perhaps like Dickens is studied now. Her novels – fifty-one of the fifty-six novels are still in print, and the five that are not in print are because she has self-suppressed them – she’s still selling. What is it, this year will be forty-five years since she died? She’s read by five generations of readers now and being discovered all the time by the rising generation, which is great. Her books endure because she was a great writer, her prose is superb, she was a master of plot and character, ironic comedy, and of course, her dialogue. Stephen Fry really nailed it at the blue plaque opening. When she was nominated for an English Heritage blue plaque, which is a very prestigious thing – they only award twelve a year. That took ten years of investigation by the committee for them to then finally approve her as a recipient. And so, she received that honour, obviously posthumously. But in 2015, Stephen Fry, he unveiled it, and he was very clear about the reasons for why she received that honour, and it was all to do with her mastery of language, her contribution to culture and to literature. And I think that’s a massive change in the modern period. In her own lifetime she was highly regarded by her readers, both men and women. She was read by a lot of people in the law, and there were a group of Oxford dons who apparently used to meet to discuss her novels. She was very highly regarded by her publishers of course, and given as much kudos as people like Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth von Arnim…
SARA-MAE: Fun fact about Elizabeth von Arnim: the Australian-British writer had a torrid relationship with Georgette’s friend and publisher, Frere. The novelist, whose impressively chequered personal life is the stuff of legend, was thirty years Frere’s senior at the time. I find this literary connection delicious for some reason.
JENNIFER: …JB Priestley, writers who were very highly regarded in the day. And then, I think, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, when she became less well known, a lot of people just disregarded or dismissed her books as some kind of sort of trashy, pulp fiction or trashy romance. And only ever by people who had never read her books. Those who’ve read her books understand completely her extraordinary expertise.
SARA-MAE: Well, I think it’s the question of what makes a classic novel. It’s something I’ve talked about with other people as well, because I find it very interesting, particularly with regards to Heyer. Is it just distance or has it got to do with mass appeal, which she certainly had – being a bestselling author never being out of print – but so did Dickens and Austen as well. Do you think she’s on a par with those two?
JENNIFER: She’s very different from them. I mean, Austen is writing contemporary fiction about the period in which Heyer set her historical fiction. And Austen was Heyer’s favourite author and Heyer herself would never ever have compared herself or put herself in the same sphere as Austen.
SARA-MAE: As Jennifer says, Heyer was self-deprecating to a fault when it came to the quality of her writing. She thought it very unlikely that her books would go on to be remembered at all. Here she is in 1949, giving her ironic summation of her personal principles for successful novel writing.
[SARAH GOLDING AS OLDER GEORGETTE, READS]
1. Induce your publisher to hand over at once a sum of money grossly in excess of what the book is likely to be worth to him. This gives one a certain amount of incentive to write the thing, and may be achieved by various methods, the most highly recommended being what may be termed as ‘The Little Woman Act’.
2. Think out a snappy title. This deceives the publisher into thinking (a) that he is getting the book of the year and (b) that you have the whole plot already mapped out. The only drawback lies in the fact that having announced a title you will be slightly handicapped when it comes to hanging some kind of story onto it.
3. Brood for several weeks achieving if not a plot, depression, despair and hysteria in yourself and a strong desire to leave home. This condition will induce you to believe yourself to be the victim of artistic temperament and may even mislead you into thinking that you really are a creative artist.
4. While under this delusion, jab a sheet of paper into your typewriter and hurl it on to Chapter One. This may give you an idea, not perhaps for the whole book but for Chapter Two.
5. Introduce several characters who might conceivably be useful later on. You never know, they may take matters into their own hands.
6. Assuming that he has been properly trained, read over what you’ve done to your husband. His extravagant enthusiasm may lead you to think you’ve perpetrated something good and this will inspire you to churn out a bit more.
7. Think out a grand final scene with the maximum number of incongruous characters massed together in some improbable place. Allow your sense of farce full play. This will, with any luck at all, make the reader forget what the rest of the book was like.
8. Try and work out how and why these characters got together, remembering that it is better to ‘gloss over’ by technique (which if you haven’t learnt in thirty years you ought to have learnt) than to put your head in the gas oven.
9. Book a room in a good mental home.
Finally, a few things to be avoided while engaged on this work.
- The thoughts that you are enduring this agony only to enrich the Inland Revenue.
- All thought of the book that has obsessed your mind and so for the past six months.
- Any rational thought whatsoever. To indulge in this can only mean that you will stop dead realising that you are writing unmitigated rubbish and would have done better as a charwoman.
JENNIFER: I mean, Austen is one of the truly great authors, that extraordinary observer of human nature, and her books are deservedly classics. But Heyer had her own gifts and she’s doing something very different from Austen, but there’s certainly a huge Austenesque influence and a Dickensian influence too. Dickens was another of her favourite authors and Heyer’s father had brought her up reading Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, the Renaissance poets, and the Greeks. So, she was extremely well read and had a really comprehensive understanding of plot based on the writings of those iconic authors. So, she really had imbibed a lot of the skill that those authors had developed. She would never put herself on par with them, but she’s certainly doing something new and unique in her own writing, and her Regency novels have certainly stood the test of time. She’s certainly deemed a classic author by the British Library Service, and she’s always in the Top 10 of their most borrowed classic authors, which I think she would find extraordinary and secretly be very pleased about.
SARA-MAE: In your book, there’s lots of quotes with her going, ‘I should be shot for writing this kind of nonsense’.
JENNIFER: [laughs] Well, that’s a multi-stranded thing. One is that she would have felt it to be very vulgar to have, as she would have said, puffed off her consequence. So, to have actually acknowledged publicly that she was good at what she did, she would have thought that was conceited, and conceit would have been being vulgar, and to be vulgar in Heyer’s world was to commit the unforgivable sin. Another reason is, you’ve got to take into account the context. Now, here she is, she’s a woman writing. And so, coming through that long tradition of women writing fiction and often being denigrated for their fiction by the Academy, not so much the mass market or the mass audience – because they have always loved the sorts of books the Mrs. Gaskells, the Brontës, enormous audiences. And so, often just by virtue of being female, you might be denigrated. She was also a peer of writers like Somerset Maugham and Jane Howard and J.B. Priestley and Francis Brett Young and Forster, so I think also not having had a formal education, really…she didn’t go to university, she only had a very limited formal schooling, which didn’t mean she wasn’t educated – she was highly educated – but I think to grow up in a world where women were beginning to go to university, where women were often treated as sort of second class citizens, and in many cases still are, I think that she probably had a kind of cultural cringe. And it didn’t help either that both her husband, who was in fact her first reader and a great supporter, and her publisher, A.S. Frere of Heinemann, both of those men many times said ‘When are you going to jack up this Regency and write a real book?’ So, there was always that sort of external message being imposed upon her about what made literature literature, what made a book valuable, what gave it credibility, and she wasn’t made to feel that her writing was worthwhile in those ways. They weren’t the sort of books that the Academy would set for, you know, students at university. But by golly, they were loved and hugely popular and read by an extraordinary cross-section of society.
SARA-MAE: And still are, aren’t they?
JENNIFER: Yeah, absolutely. And they stood the test of time which, of course, she doesn’t get to know that. And she did once say, ‘I expect my books will die with me, but one or two might continue selling for a while.’ Well, she’s sold over a million books in the last two years.
JENNIFER: So, she’s doing just fine.
SARA-MAE: I wonder what it is that’s given her this truly lasting quality. I think you mentioned to me in another conversation that you get people who are very perceptive by human nature, but they don’t tell a great story, and vice versa. And you mentioned Sir Walter Scott as an interesting case in point.
JENNIFER: Oh, very interesting. I mean, the great bestseller of his day, in the early 19th century right through to probably the early 20th century. He sold, I think it was a quarter of a million copies of Waverley and it would have been in the home of most Regent families, that book. He was an enormous bestseller. And yet today, very few people read Walter Scott. He’s read in some universities. But if you gave a Walter Scott novel to a teenager today, very few of them would ever read him. He’s considered difficult. He takes ages to get to the story, and the language is considered hard. Heyer is different. She has an elegant prose, her prose is stylish, her syntax and grammar flawless – she’s a master of English. But her books are often joyful, they’re highly entertaining. Her characters live and breathe. She endures too because the Regency is a period that has become enormously romantic for millions and millions of readers all over the world. I mean, Heyer created that genre, really. Austen began it and Heyer really consolidated into an accessible way of writing about that period. And any modern author of Regency novels, most of them would acknowledge their debt to Heyer and at the same time acknowledge that no one writes like Heyer. No one recreates the Regency…
SARA-MAE: Acknowledge? I mean, some of them shamelessly copy!
SARA-MAE: We discussed Barbara Cotton’s instances of plagiarism in her first historical fiction trilogy, for which she borrowed heavily from Heyer. We discussed this already in Episode 10, so do listen to that for more details.
SARA-MAE: I suppose the reason is because it wasn’t as though Heyer was making up all these lovely colloquialisms and turns of phrases, she was doing very, very deep research and buying letters at auction, wasn’t she?
JENNIFER: Yeah, that’s true. That particularly refers to the phrase ‘to make a cake of oneself’ which is to make a fool of oneself. And she had found that phrase in a private memoir, written by a soldier who’d been in the Napoleonic Wars, and it had been lent to Georgette Heyer by a descendant of that soldier. And she knew that Barbara Cartland had never seen that memoir. It was the only place that Heyer ever found it.
JENNIFER: You know, she was incredibly accurate, historically,
SARA-MAE: A real stickler, wasn’t she? And she had copious notes.
JENNIFER: Oh, yes, yes.
SARA-MAE: So, before doing your research on Heyer, what preconceptions did you have about her? And did you find that they were correct? Or were they completely tossed out the window?
JENNIFER: I loved her books, but I knew nothing about the author. And then I read Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which is a really good book and beautifully written. And then I wrote to Jane and actually she invited me to lunch when I was on a research trip, where I met Sir Richard, Georgette’s son, and then went and had lunch with Jane Aiken Hodge.
SARA-MAE: Like Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge was a prolific author of historical novels and contemporary detective novels. She’d also been a civil servant and later worked for ‘Time’ magazine. Her admiration for Heyer’s work is clearly communicated in The Private World of Georgette Heyer and is well worth a read for Heyer completists. I’m fascinated to hear how the two biographers got on.
JENNIFER: She was marvellous, just marvellous. Extraordinarily sharp mind, really clever woman. And we had this fabulous lunch. We just talked and talked. And she had very kindly asked her housekeeper to get down from the attic, her notes from the biography that she had written. And there were twelve manila folders just jammed with all sorts of notes and photographs, original Georgette Heyer letters, notes from interviews that Jane had had with people who had known Heyer who were no longer alive. And so, she said to me, ‘I thought you might be interested in looking at these.’ Of course, I was pretty much salivating, really, but we’d spent this time talking – so interesting, Jane – and we ran out of time, and I needed to leave, and I hadn’t really looked at them. So, I was standing there quickly, you know, opening the first folder and seeing these riches, and Jane said ‘Just, you know, take anything you want.’ And I’m thinking, I’m like, ‘Well, no,’ because as an academic researcher, to me it would be a crime to break up an archive because the archive itself is a historic artefact, which has context of its own. And so, I just thought, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly.’
SARA-MAE: That must have been so unbelievably tough for Jennifer to have essentially a treasure trove in her hands and have to put it down. I love this honourable act and what it says about her integrity as an academic.
JENNIFER: And then she said, ‘Oh look, why don’t you just take it? Take the lot!’ And I sort of gasped and went, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t!’ and she disappeared out of the room and came back a few minutes later with this bag. It was a Swan Hellenic cabin bag – she’d obviously been on a cruise at some point. She proceeded to shove these manila folders into the bag, zipped it up and shoved it into my arms ushered me to the door and saw me out. Well, I was speechless really. I mean, I thanked her, but I didn’t know what to say. She lived in Lewis, and it was just a short walk to the station, and I caught the train back to London. And I just hugged that bag to my chest all the way back to London. I just couldn’t believe it. And I tell you, if you had offered me the crown jewels, I would not have swapped them for that bag. I would have hung on to that bag as if my life depended on it. I still have that bag, you know. I sat on my bed and just opened it and just spent hours just going through it and just couldn’t believe my luck. Because there were these, you know, interview notes from A.S. Frere of Heinemann, Max Reinhardt, who’d been Heyer’s publisher at the Bodley Head, Pat Wallace, who’d been her great friend, Dorothy Sutherland who’d been the editor of ‘Woman’s Journal’, all sorts of people who were dead and who I would therefore never be able to interview. And so, it was another layer of material. And then when I got these archives of letters, to be able to draw on the Jane Aiken Hodge archive, as I called it, and marry it to things in the letters was just fantastic. So, I felt very lucky.
SARA-MAE: What a lovely experience, in the sense that you were kind of enlarging and continuing on the good work that she had done. And the fact that she’d sensed that in you to such an extent that she was, like, ‘Take this incredible trove of mine and, sort of… I mean you could have been a… you could have done anything with it!
JENNIFER: Oh, absolutely. Well, I had that experience a lot. It was quite extraordinary. And whenever I went back to England – because I did, I think it was nine research trips to England in about eleven years, pursuing anything I could find about Georgette Heyer – whenever we would go back (and my husband sometimes came too), we would go down and visit Jane and take her out to lunch. And she was just the most marvellous conversationalist. She was just this extraordinary woman, I mean, she was a really successful author in her own right too. And so, in I think it was 2007, we take her out for lunch. And I’d always had this little bit of guilt about taking the archive. And I’d said to her, ‘Jane, are you sure you don’t want it back?’ and she said, ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘I was so relieved to pass the mantle to you, and I’m so pleased that you’re looking after it and making good use of it.’ And she died two years later, which was just tragic.
SARA-MAE: Sadly, Hodge took her own life by means of an overdose in June 2009. In her ‘Times’ obituary, it stated that she left ‘a letter expressing her deep distress that she had felt unable to discuss her plans with her daughters, without risking making them accessories.’ After undergoing a six-month legal ordeal, Professor Joanna Hodge and her sister, Jessica Hodge, were cleared of assisting their mother in her death. Joanna said Jane had been planning it for over fifteen years and called for assisted suicide laws to be changed. It’s unclear why Jane wanted so badly to take her own life. In a ‘Mail on Sunday’ article before her death, she spoke of ‘how much happier’ she would be if she knew she had a ‘reliable exit strategy planned for the dubious future’. Still, the fact that she planned this exit for so many years implies a long struggle with who knows what mental or physical challenges. Perhaps it was indeed a relief to hand over her Heyer archive to someone whom she knew would respect and care for the contents as well as Jennifer’s done.
JENNIFER: I felt very honoured. I’ve always felt just so grateful to have this experience. And to have had the opportunity to do this research and to meet some extraordinary people. I mean, my life has been changed by Heyer in so many ways. And I’m so privileged and so blessed and lucky to have had this opportunity. And people have been extraordinarily kind and generous.
SARA-MAE: Did Jane actually get to read your finished book?
JENNIFER: Jane read Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and loved that. And then she read a draft of the biography. And what was fantastic was that not only did Jane Aiken Hodge read it, but also Jean Frere – so, A.S. Frere of Heinemann’s daughter-in-law, who had in fact worked in publishing, worked for the Bodley Head, and knew many of the people that Georgette Heyer had known: she’d married Frere’s son – and she also read the manuscript. And I had this extraordinary experience one evening. I used to ring both Jean Frere and Jane Aiken Hodge from time to time and talk to them, and they were both incredibly helpful and very kind. One night I’d rung them, and Jane had read the manuscript. And she said, ‘Now, Jennifer dear, you do need to be careful. Don’t be too hard on Georgette. You need to be kind to her.’ And then that same evening, I spoke to Jean Frere, who’d also read the manuscript. And she said, ‘Now, Jennifer, you do need to be very careful. You mustn’t write a hagiography. You need to show the dark side of Heyer.’ And so, I thought, okay, I must have done both. Maybe I’ve got the balance right. I mean, it’s a challenge, you know – I’d never written a biography before. I probably will never write one again, to be honest, but this was something I was very passionate about and really wanted to do. And I wanted to do Heyer justice. But I really didn’t want to write a hagiography. I didn’t want to just write that she was this amazing, fabulous woman because nobody is.
SARA-MAE: Without allowing that kind of judgmental voice to creep in, which I don’t like when people do in biographies sometimes, their own opinion of the author colours it. Which you never do at any moment.
JENNIFER: Oh, good.
SARA-MAE: But you still manage to give a very full and rounded [view of her]… And that makes me sort of like her more.
JENNIFER: Yes. Well, she could be difficult – no question. She had emotional issues: losing her father as she did when she was twenty-two. She never recovered from that tragedy. And I think she shut itself down in many ways, emotionally, in her personal life, and kept a very small circle and was very private. And she had very strong opinions about things. But she was also very shy. Her son, Richard, always used to say she talked nineteen-to-the-dozen to hide that shyness. But, you know, she had her outlet in her books – that was, I think, her great emotional outlet. And so, she was a complex person – look, as we all are. And the thing too, I think, that people have to remember is that any biography is just a rough approximation of a life. If any individual thinks about their own life, and someone writing that life, how could anyone ever truly capture a life, you know, all of its subtleties and complexities and its nuances, the micro life as well as the macro life, you know? Think about all of the millions of decisions we make in a lifetime. And all I’ve really had is Heyer’s letters as primary source material.
SARA-MAE: These days, biographers have a wealth of different things and videos, and also, we literally only have these letters. Which makes you finding the Tulsa archive really remarkable because that began from when she was twenty, wasn’t it? 1923, they began?
JENNIFER: Well, that’s right. And before that, I had the small Society of Authors archive, which is held at the British Library, and that began when she was eighteen and had just received the contract for her first novel, The Black Moth. And that’s a fascinating, small archive, because in it, she shows off her acuity and her business acumen and her ability to question a contract. So instead of just going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got this contract and of course I’m going to sign it,’ she actually wrote to the Society of Authors and asked them to examine the contract. And she raised several issues about it, questions she wanted answered, which at eighteen, I think pretty remarkable. She probably had help from her father, but she wrote several letters herself. And, you know, at one point in a reply to the Society of Authors, she says, ‘I was thinking of asking for a higher royalty, but as this is my first book, I’m not going to do that. I’ll wait until I’m better established,’ which you sort of think, wow! You know, she had a lot of courage. And that’s the thing that’s so paradoxical because there, as you said before, she’s so self-deprecating in her later life, but as a young woman, she had enormous confidence in her writing and in her ability, and she knew that what she was writing was good. I think that’s what I was trying to say before. Heyer always knew that what she wrote was good. She had a great belief in her writing, and she would defend it, but it wasn’t something she was going to publicly say out loud. She was going to say things like, ‘I should be shot for writing such nonsense, but I do think it’s good literature if you’re in an air raid shelter or recovering from the flu.’
SARA-MAE: [laughs] I love that quote.
JENNIFER: That’s the quote that’s always cited. But her son, Richard, told me that she would say those things, but it wasn’t what she really thought. And that she would talk about having to write another Regency to pay the tax, but it wasn’t true. She loved writing those books and she was a compulsive writer. Jane Aiken Hodge says this: ‘You can’t make up stories like that, you can’t write books like that, unless you love the writing process.’ And she certainly did.
SARA-MAE: L.P. Moore obviously spotted that in her first book, The Black Moth. [He was] her first agent, who shepherded her through that early stage of her career, but obviously Jane never had access to those letters.
JENNIFER: No, no, she didn’t. No, not at all. Nor to the Frere archive. A.S. Byatt, when she wrote that excellent article in 1975 about Heyer, she had access to some of the letters from the Frere archive. But that’s held by the family, and I only got permission to read that archive and to transcribe it because Sir Richard actually wrote a very nice letter about me to the Freres and gave me his stamp of approval. I had written to them asking if this archive existed because some of the things that Heyer had said in her business letters to Heinemann suggested to me that there must have been a private correspondence between her and A.S. Frere, who was CEO of Heinemann from the late 30s right through to 1960s. So, I managed to locate the Frere address, from Georgette’s daughter-in-law Lady Rougier, and wrote to them.
SARA-MAE: I really enjoy hearing about Jennifer’s sleuthing. She spent an incredible amount of time creating this biography, rich with the details of an intensely private person’s life. And it was these painstaking steps, coupled with her ability to genuinely endear herself to people like Jane Aiken Hodge and Georgette’s son, Sir Richard Rougier, that make the book such an absorbing and informative read. Plus, I always like a good detective story.
JENNIFER: And they were very uncertain until they wrote to Richard. And he wrote back and said, yes, that I was good news and worth helping. And so, amazingly, they then invited me into their home, and I stayed with them for four days – a complete stranger at the beginning, of course, and I hope a friend by the end – and I transcribed that entire archive. It was ninety-three letters, 70,000 words in four days.
SARA-MAE: Wow! There were no digital cameras or anything like that in those…
JENNIFER: Well, no, there weren’t, but they wouldn’t allow me to anyway. No, I was allowed to transcribe it. That was all. And then after that, they closed the archive.
SARA-MAE: That is so extraordinary, because essentially that means that future biographers and historians are not going to have access to those links, unless you very kindly do the same thing that Jane did and pass on everything that you’ve transcribed. [laughs]
JENNIFER: [laughs] That’s right. So, I don’t know what they’ll do with it in the end. You know, maybe their descendants will have a different attitude, and that would be good. They’re wonderful letters. They’re my favourite, the letters she writes to A.S. Frere, because they became great friends. He was her publisher. So, her first publisher was Constable, and we don’t know anything about that because they only published The Black Moth and their archive was bombed during the war, during the Blitz, so a lot of publishers lost their archives. And so, we lost a lot of really valuable documents. So, Constable, and then she was published by Hutchinson. And again, we don’t have any archival material about that. And then she was published by Longman’s, and they don’t have anything. But I do have all of her contracts, which is really good. They’re in the Random House archive. And then we have Heinemann, and Heinemann have an archive of her letters, but they’re mostly business letters. And they started in 1944 and go through to 1963. And then after that, we have what I call the Bodley Head archive, which Max Reinhardt’s widow, Joan Reinhardt, very kindly allowed me to borrow on one of my trips to London and – for twenty-four hours – and I took it away and had it photocopied, and then returned it to her. So that was exciting. But the Frere archive is a personal archive. It’s letters written by Georgette to A.S. Frere, who was the CEO of Heinemann. He and his wife, Pat Wallace, who was Edgar Wallace’s daughter, became great friends with Georgette and Ronald. And they both lived in Albany, they both had apartments or sets in Albany.
SARA-MAE: That’s one of the lovely things about the biography is getting these insights into her letters to them and their letters back. I mean, it’s really unfortunate that in the end, they sort of seem to fall out.
JENNIFER: Well, it was. It was an incredibly important friendship to Georgette through those years from 1937 onwards. But in 1963, Frere got, as they said at the time ‘kicked upstairs’ and eventually he was forced out of Heinemann. And when that happened, three authors, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Georgette Heyer, were very angry about it. They were great friends of Frere’s. And so, they left Heinemann and went to the Bodley Head as a kind of act of protest. And so, from then on Georgette didn’t see Frere as much. In 1966, also, she and Ronald moved out of Albany, because the concrete steps leading up to their apartment became too much for her, and they moved to German Street. And so, the contact was naturally less, both because they weren’t at the same publishing house any longer, but also they weren’t in the same building any longer. And so, I think there was a sort of natural separation as sometimes happens. But the other thing is that there was some kind of a rift. And I have letters from Frere, from Ronald, Georgette’s husband, and from Richard, her son, after Georgette died, in which each of them expresses… they say it’s a mystery as to why there was this rift. It has been suggested by a few people, including her son, that Frere never particularly liked Ronald, and that that was one of the reasons that they went their separate ways at the end, because Georgette was intensely loyal, and she would have always been loyal to Ronald first. But whether that’s actually true is not absolutely certain. You know, obviously, when you’re writing the biography, and you’re relying on testimony, there’s all sorts of factors that could make testimony unreliable. But in the end, that’s all you’ve got, often, and so you’ve got to use it the best you can and deduce as much as you can, with evidence to support the deduction.
SARA-MAE: Yeah, that’s another thing about the skill of writing a biography is knowing when to come down with a little bit of certainty, because otherwise you’re sort of leaving people hanging. I think you did a very good job of that.
JENNIFER: Oh, thank you.
SARA-MAE: Because she was very private.
JENNIFER: Mmm, intensely.
SARA-MAE: To glean what kind of relationships were important to her and…with the L.P. Moore thing I find interesting, because you would imagine being her first agent that he would have almost become like a father figure to her. And he was her agent for quite a long time.
JENNIFER: A very long time.
SARA-MAE: So that when she sort of parted ways from him, and I think you didn’t have any of his letters, unfortunately, back to her, so we couldn’t get his side of the story.
SARA-MAE: The incident I’m referring to is the one we dramatised last week, in Episode 10, in which Georgette summarily fired Leonard, after thirty years as his client.
JENNIFER: Just regarding L.P. Moore, I do think that if you follow the trajectory of Georgette’s relationship with Leonard Moore – he became her agent in 1921 when she was nineteen and he remained her agent until 1953, I think, so more than forty years. And early on, she treated him like a kindly old uncle. And through the middle period, she would sort of often write teasing letters and, and then she would take him to task because it seems that a lot of the people who should have read her work before publication didn’t ever read it. Her agent, her editors, no-one read it. She was not edited at all. They would just receive the manuscript, send her the proof pages, she would amend them, send them back, and they published the book. And it would then sell 100,000 copies or more, depending. So, you know, that would never happen today. After the war, he, to her mind, made the fatal error of moving out of Central London to St. John’s Wood. And she really resented that, I think. She felt that he was no longer available or accessible to her. And I think she found that very difficult. But Frere had also come on the scene by then. Frere was younger, he was charming and stylish and a real cosmopolitan man, a sort of a renaissance man, very intelligent, and she really was drawn to Frere very strongly. And I think Leonard Moore really was past his use-by date to some extent, which seems a bit hard. But I will say in her defence, her contracts changed after the war, and no one ever picked it up. So, her royalties went from 25% down to 20%.
SARA-MAE: And that would have made a massive impact, because she was always – throughout her life, as indicated in the biography – very concerned with money because she was supporting family members, she was supporting her husband when he was retraining to be a barrister. She seems to have been very concerned with the tax man taking her money and all this kind of stuff. So that would have been almost an unforgivable oversight in her mind. JENNIFER: I think. But also, there were options in her contracts that she didn’t know about, and so she wasn’t very happy about that, either. But, you know, he was a good man and very well-meaning and I don’t think he ever really understood her. I don’t think he ever understood her particular brand of humour in her letters or her sort of teasing way. And sometimes she would write him letters where she would, I guess, what we’d say today, she’d vent about this or that thing, and I think give him the impression that he was meant to sort of do something. I don’t think that’s what she wanted at all. I think she just wanted the outlet. Perhaps he never understood that. But whatever happened was that by the end of the relationship, she was saying, well, he was a bit of a silly old man. But that hadn’t been her attitude all the way through. And I think as humans, we all often rewrite history. We change something in the now very much from what it actually had been in the past. So that takes a level of self-awareness that perhaps she just didn’t have, I don’t know. But for all that, I’ve always found this extraordinary that she had this amazing insight into human nature and was able to write so well, and that’s one of the reasons her books endure, I’m sure, and yet in her own personal life she was often quite blind to human nature and to her own foibles and failings, and to reasons for why people might do the things they did. So, I’ve always found that a really interesting paradox about her.
There’s almost no two-way correspondence between Georgette Heyer and anybody that she wrote to. I have one letter from an American gentleman who wrote her a fan letter and she wrote back, so I have his letter to her, and I have her letter to him. But it’s very rare because most of the correspondence that she received, she destroyed – in fact, pretty much all of it apart from a couple of fan letters. She destroyed all her manuscripts too except for My Lord John and An Infamous Army. Richard said, ‘That’s because they mostly lived in flats, and so they didn’t have the room to keep everything.’ But I think it was just a habit with her too, to destroy things.
SARA-MAE: It’s so annoying! I wish that she hadn’t.
JENNIFER: Oh, I know. I know. Well, I was really hopeful, when I was researching, that her great friend, Carola Oman, who was a very popular author and very esteemed biographer herself. Georgette had written to her for years – right, I would have thought, from the early 1920s, and certainly probably from East Africa. And so, I had this great hope that there would still be an archive of Georgette’s letters to her. And so, I contacted Julia Trevelyan Oman, who was Carola Oman’s niece – and luckily, a couple of years before she died. And she was very kind. We spoke on the telephone and she said, ‘Oh no, our Carola never threw anything away.’ So, I had this just great hope. So, she went off and investigated, asked various cousins and relatives, but nobody had any idea of where such an archive might be, or had never seen any letters. So, I can only think that they were destroyed, because she did outlive Georgette by a year or two. And so, I wonder if perhaps she destroyed the letters after Georgette died. But perhaps one day they’ll turn up?
SARA-MAE: I know, that would be great, wouldn’t it? I mean, it’s the same with Jane Austen’s family. They sort of heavily redacted or…
SARA-MAE: I asked Jennifer how protective of her legacy Heyer’s family were, particularly Richard.
JENNIFER: Well, he was very protective. It took him a long time to trust me, and I kept turning up and they’d have me to stay, and we got on very well. We became very good friends. And we had a lot in common in terms of books we’d read growing up, and we had a lot of common interests. Richard was a great raconteur, a great conversationalist, so it was always a pleasure to meet with him, and on every ensuing visit, he would come out with something new. I remember one visit where he brought out Georgette’s baby books that her mother had kept about her. And he very casually said, ‘Oh, I thought perhaps you might like to see this.’ And it’s like gold because there are things about Georgette from when she was born. She was obviously an early talker. She was an early reader. She was obviously very bright as a toddler. She was making up stories as a child. So, all these little nuggets of information that I would never otherwise have had. Then, one year he brought out all the photo albums, so they were the family photo albums, and then there’s the African album, which proved once and for all that she really did live in a grass hut when she was living in Tanganyika, as it was at the time. And that was funny because my PhD supervisor, he was a South African who’d been a Rhodes Scholar, and one day when I was talking to him about Heyer and my research and I said,’ Oh, of course, you know, she lived in a grass hut.’ And he sat back in his chair and said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. No English expatriate living in South Africa in the 1920s would have ever lived in a grass hut. That would just be a family legend, she would have lived in a bungalow,’ and he was quite certain about it. So I dutifully altered that in my thesis. But it was actually true! But I didn’t know it until I saw the photographs in this gorgeous little photo album, which shows her crossing Lake Victoria and then going in this terrible sort of truck through the grasslands and getting all the way to this very, very distant… one hundred and fifty miles from the nearest settlement, and then living in a compound made of elephant grass, and she’s living in a grass hut! As she called it, ‘The Manor House’, which I think just delightful.
Richard would bring out more and more information and he began to tell me stories, and then I would write to him. I wrote him letters and I would ask questions and he’d say, ‘Oh, you set me another exam paper.’ And then he’d write me any answers that he had. But there were things he didn’t know. I mean, you must remember that he grew up in many ways separate from his parents because he went to prep school, he went to boarding school, Cambridge, and so much of his life was lived away from the family home. And they were very stiff-upper-lip sort of English people who weren’t tactile, didn’t believe in talking about feelings, and the sorts of things we do today – Georgette would have had a fit, she would just think it was so vulgar.
SARA-MAE: So, did meeting him give you some sort of insight into her personality?
JENNIFER: She adored him, but very proper, very formal, even when Richard had children. They would be brought downstairs by Nanny to say goodnight to Granny and Grandfather. It was all very much that sort of upper-class way of being with children. And she loved him, but they only had the one child and they taught him to play bridge, and they taught him to fly fish, and they taught him to play golf from a very young age. So, I don’t know that he had what we would consider a sort of fun childhood where Mum and Dad get down in the dirt and play with you. I can’t imagine that ever happening, really, but perhaps it did. I mean, part of the things we don’t really know. But photos of Richard as a little boy, even when they’re on holiday, he’s in a full school suit with a tie at the age of six or seven.
JENNIFER: I mean, that was typical of the time. Many things have changed, so that’s why I tried to have to be so careful not to impose a modern sensibility onto that life. And that’s why I really wanted to let her speak for herself as much as possible. But again, I think it’s really important to remember that what we have of her is from her letters and her books. And that’s a very limited representation of someone’s life and feelings and way o.f thinking and way of being. Of course, some things come through. And I think you get, as I said, a rough approximation, but a letter, too, is written in a moment or a series of moments on a particular day in which you might have a particular reason for writing as you do that’s unknowable to the reader. I think it’s always going to be paradoxical and complex, but interesting, nevertheless,
SARA-MAE: The fact that you managed to speak to people so you could widen the aperture through which we get a sense of who she is, is amazing, but a lot of them have passed away now, unfortunately, like Richard.
JENNIFER: I know. That was terrible. Yeah.
SARA-MAE: Richard died on October 25th 2007. At the time of his death, he was described in his ‘Telegraph’ obituary as an outspoken and colourful high court judge, generating headlines for his high-profile cases, despite ‘his frequently professed abhorrence of personal publicity, a trait he shared with his emotionally inhibited but materially extravagant mother’. A bit of a glib way to write off our complex Georgette, isn’t it? In an eerily prescient remark, he told one interviewer, ‘I have strong views. I despise dirt and squalor and the rat race. The attitudes of the war years and those that followed were far healthier and considerably safer. I dislike the current lack of respect for people, the awful ‘I, I, I’, the total lack of restraint.’ Like his mother, he had a talent with words, apparently dispensing justice and bon mots weighted with literary and classical allusions – his memory for such being exceptionally good. Jennifer told me, in a previous conversation, that he might have written books if he’d wanted to but, apart from one tome on British birds and a poem on Caratacus, he never followed in his mother’s footsteps.
JENNIFER: I found him incredibly kind and incredibly generous. I think perhaps the best compliment I ever had for Georgette Heyer’s Regency World was after Richard had read the manuscript. He said, ‘I think my mama would have approved.’ And I always thought that was just wonderful.
SARA-MAE: What did he say about the biography?
JENNIFERL He was happy. He always said to me, as long as you don’t write anything scandalous. There’s been a bit of a thing in recent years for some biographers to write that this person or that person was gay or lesbian, or they like to find some kind of a hook – which isn’t to say that it’s not true, perhaps it is true. But I think sometimes, it’s a little bit of a long bow in some cases. And I think perhaps he didn’t want me to take that kind of an approach to his mother, to look out for some scandal in order to sell more copies. Well, I was never going to do that. I mean, if there’d been something scandalous, I would have done my best to put it out there and to be honest, write honestly about it, give it its proper historical context, but she lived a pretty private, reclusive life.
SARA-MAE: Some people have speculated about her sexuality because of the fact that, as you’ve documented in the biography, there did not seem to be a very sexual side to [Georgette and Ronald’s] relationship, and she used to joke about his ‘blonde’.
JENNIFER: His floozie, yeah, that’s right. Look, she came from a very not tactile generation. Public displays of affection were certainly never going to happen. But I don’t know that she was particularly interested in sex, that’s certainly been said to me in the course of my research, from people who had things said to them by Georgette Heyer. I certainly would never suggest that she was a lesbian. I don’t know that that’s out there as a suggestion, and there’s no evidence whatsoever for that.
SARA-MAE: But she could have been asexual.
JENNIFER: Yep, absolutely. It’s quite possible she just wasn’t particularly interested in sex. I mean, when you think about it, a lot of women didn’t know very much about sex and there certainly wasn’t an expectation that we were meant to enjoy sex in that period, necessarily, depending on what class you were from. And so, it may have been not particularly enjoyable. So, who knows? I mean, the fact is, Sara, we will never know. And it’s all very well, to speculate and come up with all sorts of scandalous ideas, but I’m a historian as well as a writer and I’m not going to make stuff up to please the public taste for scandal.
SARA-MAE: Or re-jig it so it looks a certain way, yeah.
JENNIFER: Yeah. Oh, certainly not. You know, I was able to say that in the biography, and I only said it in a very sort of low-key way, and that’s because I had had it said to me by people who then asked not to be named. So, I couldn’t reference it. I couldn’t say, ‘So-and-so said this,’ but I was allowed to actually say that she wasn’t terribly interested in sex. So, it’s difficult as a biographer because if you’re going to retain your integrity, then you get constrained. I think any biographer worth their salt recognises that at the outset that there are going to be things that are going to be possibly off the record. I mean, when Jane Aiken Hodge wrote her biography, she didn’t name Barbara Cartland because she’d been asked not to. It was off the record. And if something’s off the record, well, you don’t have any choice. I believe in honour and integrity very strongly. You know, I’d rather sell fewer books and maintain my integrity.
SARA-MAE: The end! I tweeted you [about this]… I know how it ends, and obviously, it’s her life, I knew it was going to happen: she’s going to die at the end. And the sadness of that, because you created such a living picture of her…
JENNIFER: Oh, thank you.
SARA-MAE: And then the fact that her husband was ill himself and committed suicide. I just, it just broke my heart.
JENNIFER: Terrible, isn’t it? Yeah.
SARA-MAE: It must have been so hard for her son.
JENNIFER: It was, yeah. Dreadful. Well, the thing, too, is that Ronald, being Ronald, he set about it in a very methodical way. He made sure that Richard and his wife were away at their country property that weekend and organised it down to the last detail, very much like in the way that he used to work out how the murder had been committed in Georgette’s detective novels. It was terribly sad. But he didn’t want to go on living, he had cancer of the jaw and he didn’t want to go on living like that. And so, he took matters into his own hands and did the best he could, I believe. I think, there’s no doubt that he did what he thought was the very best he could to protect his son from hurt and from pain, but the fact is you can’t when you kill yourself.
But he did do a great thing in getting A.S. Byatt… he gave her access to the family album, and he spoke to her and he got people to talk to her so that she wrote this terrific article in 1975, the most comprehensive account of Georgette Heyer that had ever been written up to that point. A.S. Byatt did a terrific job with that and wrote very insightfully and intelligently about Heyer. So, Ronald ensured that that was done, and I think that was his last great tribute to his wife.
SARA-MAE: Is there anything new that surfaced that you can tell us, that you wouldn’t have known since you wrote the biography?
JENNIFER: Well, obviously, we have the blue plaque – that was a very big deal. And the re-issued anthology, which has the three additional short stories. There are moves afoot to try and get up a film of one of Heyer’s novels, and there’ve been suggestions about a web series, which I think would be terrific, of one of the novels.
SARA-MAE: Do you know which?
JENNIFER: I think the web series is The Talisman Ring? And certainly, The Grand Sophy’s meant to be in production at some point. But we thought about trying to do a Kickstarter project to fund, perhaps a web series or see about getting a film into production? Because I do think that once one of her novels is produced as a successful film, they’ll just fall like dominoes after that, because there’s so much marvellous material there. It seems to be a no-brainer. I mean, look at the success of ‘Downton Abbey’. Austen’s been filmed to death, but still popular. We’ve just got to get the right script and the right production values.
SARA-MAE: What about Netflix?
JENNIFER: Yeah, Netflix would be fantastic. There are several books that would make brilliant TV series. Certainly, The Talisman Ring was produced very successfully as a play in Chicago. They did a wonderful job with that, and it was hugely popular.
SARA-MAE: I got to chat all about this production to Chicago-based director, Dorothy Milne, and writer Christina Calvert. These two ladies adapted The Talisman Ring for Landline Theatre. Our conversation gives an insight into the difficulties and creativity involved in producing a book for the stage. Look out for that in Episode 19.
SARA-MAE: Did you go to see that? I wanted to but couldn’t make it.
JENNIFERL: I did see Cotillion, which I thought was marvellous. But I think The Talisman Ring is really accessible and it’s so… it’s such a clever plot and so funny. So, it’s got a lot of great Heyerisms in it, I think. And two pairs of wonderful characters in Ludovic and Eustacie, and Sarah Thane and Sir Tristram. So look, I think there are some things afoot, bubbling away there that hopefully will come to fruition. And of course, there’s your fabulous podcast!
SARA-MAE: Of course. Do you know why her books haven’t been made into a film? There’s this kind of widespread notion that she was ‘agin’ it?
JENNIFER: No, she wasn’t. And I’ve written about that on my website under a blog called ‘Mythconceptions’. No, Heyer always wanted her books made into films, right from the very beginning. Simon the Coldheart was the first book she thought would make a terrific film. She wanted book after book after book. And many of them have been optioned, but for this reason, for that reason, they’ve just never got to greenlight. It’s a great shame because they would make wonderful films, TV series, web series, Netflix series. I think it’ll happen. The stars need to align a little bit. It’s like anything that’s successful: you need an element of the right people being in the right place at the right time. A bit of luck. Certainly, we’ve got the right vehicle. She’s got probably a dozen of her books, at least, that would be…
JENNIFER: So, it isn’t that people haven’t tried. And it certainly isn’t that she didn’t want it to happen. She most definitely did. And her son did too. So, the estate certainly wants a production company, and they certainly want the right script.
SARA-MAE: Fabulous, fabulous. Thank you so much, Jen. I really appreciate you…
JENNIFER: No problem at all. Great to talk.
SARA-MAE: Wonderful to speak to you.
JENNIFER: No worries.
JENNIFER: You too. Bye.
SARA-MAE: I’ve adored talking to Jennifer about Heyer’s life and work. Her integrity and obvious ability to win people over is inspiring. And one can’t help thinking that the two qualities are interlinked. I’m getting a wee bit emotional again thinking about the three people connected to Heyer, dead now and two by suicide. Suicide is such a harsh word. It sounds violent and terribly lonely. I can only imagine the resolve or suffering it takes for someone to be driven to doing it, and the terrible toll this violence takes on those left behind. Ronald’s death would have scored a deep mark on his son, Richard, the scar of which he clearly revealed to Jennifer, his mother’s biographer and ultimately good friend. I can’t help but wonder how many secrets Jennifer was privy to: darkness revealed or simple prurience kept under wraps. What a responsibility to hold the details and confidences of someone’s life. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever write another biography,’ she said, and I wonder if it’s because this burden is too heavy to bear.
Jennifer is a marvellous writer of fiction too. And her latest book, Jane Austen’s Ghost, is available to buy now on Amazon. Do support her by reading it. It’s an imaginative romantic romp, bringing Jane Austen into the modern world and exploring themes of love, literature, and life everlasting. If you’re a Regency romance fan, her book, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, is a must-buy packed full of information about the colourful details of the period. If you don’t know your barouches from your curricles, then take a peek inside. Her biography, of course, is a wonderful read, painting a picture of a flawed yet brilliant person, one who lived her best life through her books. And it’s there that I hope to find her over and over, forever.
Next week, I’ll be reading Cotillion with Jojo Thomas and Aiden Truss. Why not get it as an audiobook from Audible now? You’d have to be an oyster-faced clench to miss out.
This has been Heyer Today. 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 nappy changing and production assistance.
Sarah Golding is our fantastic voice talent this week, a true legend. I’ll be putting info about her into the show notes. Thanks also to Geraldine Elliot, Talitha Gamaroff and everyone who supported me in creating this work. Thanks to Suzy Buttress in particular, and the podcast community at large for invaluable support and advice.
The music used in this episode is from Emma Gatrill’s amazing 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.
Jennifer’s website is jenniferkloester.com, where you can find all her news as well as information about her novels, non-fiction work and appearances.
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. It really helps indie companies like us to thrive.
Heyer Today is a Fablegazers production.