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SARA-MAE: Previously on Heyer Today…

STEPHEN FRY: People just assume there’s a genre now of Regency romance and that she’s one of them and that she’s like the others. And she isn’t, as we who venerate her know, and it’s annoying. And maybe the publishers haven’t had the courage of their convictions to sell them as more intelligent, sprightly, funny, rewarding books than they are assumed to be… She was probably not the easiest person in the world to get on with, Georgette Heyer. She was formidable and she not only didn’t suffer fools, she didn’t suffer anybody who got in her way, I think.

SARA-MAE: Welcome back to Heyer Today, the podcast where we’re as mad as Dick’s hatband. Yes, we’re exploring the life and work of Regency romance queen, Georgette Heyer. If you’re saying to yourself, ‘Who the hell is she?’, then stay tuned, my friend! But also, go back and listen to episode 1 in which we chat to Stephen Fry – yes, that Stephen Fry – not only did we talk about why he loves Heyer, we touched on a hundred other fascinating topics like the Napoleonic wars, Greek mythology, which Heyer characters he’d play in a film…and so much more.

I’ve been looking at pictures of Georgette from around the time she wrote Black Moth, her very first book. There’s one where she and her two brothers are posing with a small dog. As in all the pictures I see of her as a young girl, she’s got this enchantingly cheeky half-smile. Boris and Frank look a lot younger, one in a very proper little suit (Boris, who struggled with depression and mood swings all his life), and the littlest is Frank, in a white sailor’s costume, his legs too short for his feet to touch the floor entirely. Georgette is only nineteen, but to my modern eyes she could be anything from twenty-five to thirty, in a long dress, her hair either short or pinned back, a string of dark beads around her neck.

I look at the young Boris in his stiff black suit and imagine him ill, bored. The family have come to Hastings to help his convalescence. Poor Boris is fractious and whiny. Sylvia, Georgette’s mother, is at her wit’s end. Georgette comes in to read to him, but the boy throws his books on the floor.


BORIS: They’re all boring and stupid. Besides, I’ve read them all and my eyes hurt, and I feel hot.

GEORGETTE: There’s a story I know you haven’t read.

BORIS: I have and they’re really silly. I’m not a baby. I want a proper story.

GEORGETTE: I know for a fact you don’t know this one.


GEORGETTE: Because I’ve just made it up.

SARA-MAE: She called the story Black Moth. Once published it would sell thousands of copies. The book we’re discussing today, These Old Shades, came later, in 1926, and although it has no direct relationship to Black Moth, Georgette did take the villain and several minor characters and recast them with new names and backgrounds – which is why the title, These Old Shades, is an ironic acknowledgement to eagle-eyed fans – apart from also being based on a poem by Austin Dobson.

Jennifer Kloester says in her book that ‘Georgette’s childhood was replete with stories in which the consistent moral and message was that class will cling to class and breeding will always tell. These were themes that she would use repeatedly throughout her writing life. The ideas and attitudes in the novels she read reflected those of a highly structured, class-orientated society, proud of its empire and sure of its place at the centre of the civilised world.’

The book was also influenced by Shakespeare’s gender-swapping plays like ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘As You Like It’. She, like thousands of other young women of her age, was also a big fan of Ethel M. Dell’s rather overwrought romances and took inspiration from Charles Rex.

If you haven’t read These Old Shades, I recommend you go and borrow it from a local library or download it to your Kindle. The reading list is available on fablegazers.com. Be warned: there will be spoilers, so you’ll enjoy this book club episode more if you’ve read the book. Otherwise skip ahead to next week’s episode in which we talk to novelist Emma Darwin on why Heyer is a consummate craftswoman.

This week, I’ll be discussing the book with Sonali Bhattacharya, an old friend of mine and a brilliant playwright. I also asked my cousin, Genna, what she thought of it. We’re going to find out if I managed to convert either of them. But first, here’s Beth to talk about what was happening in Georgette’s life around this time:

BETH KEANE: The time leading up to the publication of Georgette Heyer’s sixth best-selling novel is a defining time in Georgette’s personal and professional life. This long-awaited sequel to The Black Moth should have been a time of flourishing and celebration. Instead, it is a time of tragedy, uncertainty and great grief. But first, let’s go back a few years to put this time in Georgette’s life in place.

Georgette’s father, George Heyer, was a great supporter and mentor in her life. They seemed to be creative conspirators and collaborators, sharing a special bond, forged from a love of literature. Georgette was much closer to her father than she was to her mother, Sylvia. While Sylvia was also creative – she was a cellist and graduate of the Royal Academy of Music – unfortunately Georgette showed no musical aptitude at all. Perhaps unusual for the times, George showed affection and humour towards his children. His delightful poem about toddler, Boris, was published by ‘Punch’.


You are surely a wizard, Secundus, my lad,

And have bound with a spell your susceptible Dad.

He allowed Georgette to pick the books she wanted from his extensive library. Nothing was off limits.  Although, of course, he occasionally ‘advised against’ certain material, and steered her toward the classics and poetry. He also encouraged her interest in writing, sparked by his own work – he had pieces published in ‘Granta’, ‘Punch’ and other reviews and gazettes, and regular recitals at the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society. When she was a teenager, Georgette joined her father to perform short Shakespearean scenes.

George had studied at Cambridge and was encouraged by his Russian father and grandfather to become an English gentleman. He excelled in his classics degree and was popular with the literary set. His ambition was to be an archaeologist, but his family’s financial situation forced him to leave university to become a teacher. As Secretary to the Dean of the Medical School, he organized fundraising events, including gala charity theatre matinees in London. Through this role, he made enough contacts in Theatreland to become Organizing Secretary of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee – supporting their plans to build a theatre dedicated to the works of the nation’s favourite playwright. Their plans were scuppered by the First World War, which of course also had an impact on the Heyer family.

As well as educating his daughter at home, George passed on to Georgette his love of historical fiction, desire for worldly ways, and – unfortunately – a propensity for being beleaguered by waxing and waning financial fortunes. In 1914, he took the family to Paris (where he had accepted a job as manager of Cox’s Bank). Georgette was able to experience all the cultural treats that Paris had to offer. While her mother, Sylvia, delighted in concerts and ballets, Georgette honed her sharp skills of observation at the art galleries and museums, parks, gardens and private salons that her father’s fluent French and personal charm gave them entrée to.

But war was declared just days before Georgette’s twelfth birthday. She was able to celebrate in Paris, but the family was soon back in Wimbledon, where Georgette exchanged the comfort of home schooling for attendance at the Oakhill Academy.  And her father took up a post at the War Office to do his bit.

Financial difficulties seem to be an ever-present backdrop in Georgette’s life. Her father had been affected by his own family’s changing fortunes. Now, he was facing that reality again, losing money in a post-war stock market dive in 1920. According to family friends, to help out Georgette gave her father the advance of £100 she had received for her first book, The Black Moth.

After the war, George struggled to find a suitable post. He retained his rank of Captain, but his piece for ‘Punch’ magazine, ‘Getting Fixed’, hints at the difficulties war heroes had finding work after demobilisation. By 1925, George has returned to King’s College Hospital and bought a Victorian terrace house at no. 5 Ridgway Place in Wimbledon. It will be Georgette’s home for the next two years until her marriage to Ronald.

So, 1925 is a good time for Georgette: she has had five novels published in four years, with positive reviews in all the papers. Her stature as a rising literary star is cemented when she has her official portrait taken by the world’s most famous photographer at the time, Emil Otto Hoppé. Her literary agent, LP Moore gets her a deal with Heinemann in the UK for Simon the Coldheart, with an option on her next book, These Old Shades. To cap it all off, her handsome fiancée, Ronald, has returned to the UK after working in Africa for eighteen months. You could say that Georgette is on top of the world, elated at her success, happy about planning her wedding – everything is perfect. That is, until Tuesday, 16th of June 1925. Just the day before, Georgette had signed her new contract for with Heinemann. Despite her loathing of all exercise and ball games, Ronald regularly came over to the Heyer family home in Wimbledon to play tennis. It was like a perfect, summery scene from an Ealing film…


[Two men are playing tennis, one middle-aged, the other in his early twenties. Georgette is sitting beside her mother on a lawn chair, each is sipping a gin and tonic. Her mother tugs her hat down rather fretfully.]

SYLVIA: Those two get along well, don’t they? Your father likes him, I can tell. Speaks Russian, like your grandad.

GEORGETTE: Mmm hmm. [She nods, engrossed in the game.]

[Sylvia huffs, impatient that there’s no response. The two men approach. Ronald grabs Georgette’s drink and takes a cheeky slurp.]

GEORGETTE: Oi! Hands off my G&T!

RONALD: Thirsty work, this! George really made me work for…George? George!

[George stumbles forward, clutching his chest.]


SYLVIA: George! George! Are you alright? Help him! Help him, someone, please! Ronald, do something!

RONALD: George! George!

SARA-MAE: There’s no warning for this disaster. Georgette watches as her best friend and confidant’s eyes glaze over, then close, as he loses consciousness and collapses. 

BETH KEANE: Georgette never fully recovered from the sudden loss of her beloved father. Two years later, in her contemporary book, Helen, she writes of‘a grief so huge, so devastating, and so terribly dumb.’ Roughly two months after her father’s death, on 18th August, Georgette marries Ronald at St. Mary’s Church in Wimbledon. How did she cope, walking down the aisle without her beloved mentor and supporter? Her brother Boris, now only eighteen, has become the ‘man of the house’, and younger sibling, Frank, is not even thirteen. From this time on, Georgette would feel the pressure to earn money. She supported her mother, who’d moved from a large, comfortable home into an apartment and would spend the rest of her life in hotels and rented rooms.

Georgette and Ronald moved away from Wimbledon too, into a flat in south Kensington. This is the first time Georgette has lived away from the comforts of the family home, and it’s a steep learning curve for her. For the first time, she’s dealing with living in a cramped flat, managing household accounts and being ‘domestic’ – all of which she finds difficult, at first. The sale to Fox film company of the option on film rights for Simon the Coldheart relieves the financial tension. She and Ronald are paying rent for themselves as well as for Sylvia. Georgette will also support her brothers, particularly Boris, for much of his life.

Georgette was twenty-one when she started writing These Old Shades, and twenty-four when it was published in 1926, just a year after her father’s sudden death. It’s a terrible blow for her to realise but this will be the first book her father won’t read. These Old Shades remains one of her most popular books and has never been out of print.

SARA-MAE: And now for our interviews. I can’t wait to hear what Sonali and Genna think of These Old Shades, a favourite with many Heyer fans.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: My name is Sonali. I’m a playwright, mother and political activist. I’m afraid when you said, ‘Hey, Sonali, I’m doing a series of podcasts about Georgette Heyer,’ I said ‘Who?’ And then I had to go and google her.

GENNA TUSON: Hi, I’m Genna Louise Tuson and…

SARA-MAE: You’re my cousin. [laughs] I’ve bamboozled you into reading this book.

GENNA TUSON: I’m fifteen years old. So, I’ve always been an extremely avid reader. Fantasy has always been my genre – I read to get away from reality. So, I have not read many autobiographies and things like that. But I’m very much there for like the thrill, for the romance… I’m there for all of it.

SARA-MAE: Have you read any Jane Austen, who she’s often compared to?

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I mean, I’ve seen some adaptations. And I know now I sound like a Philistine. I’m not particularly into period drama. I can’t say I’ve read very much Jane Austen, no. I know the stories, but I know…it’s not usually what I’m drawn to.

GENNA: The Jane Austen books and also the movies made from her books were very much a part of my childhood. They can sometimes be, quite honestly, sticky, but it can be a little difficult if you’re looking for something light. But I really got a sense of satisfaction from reading them. And it was really interesting to see how it translates from all those years ago to now and how I can still empathise with the story and the characters.

SARA-MAE: So, did you feel that this book kind of reminded you of a Jane Austen or were you “no, this is quite different”? And if so, then in what ways?

GENNA: It was similar in some ways. Jane Austen, with her female characters, I think they were written a bit differently. It had a similar sort of style vibe to it.

SARA-MAE: What were you expecting?

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Well, I knew that she was quite a focused historical writer, I knew that her historical detail would be quite a big element. So, I was prepared for that. I had an idea, I guess, that it would be sort of a romance novel. I was wrong. It is so much more insane than that. In lots of ways, it’s quite good I didn’t have many preconceptions, I think, possibly. I came to it with, with open arms.  

SARA-MAE: Well, this was one of her first big successes. She started writing it when she was only twenty-one. But she was already sort of a quite a reasonably well-known writer, but she hadn’t hit the big time, and this was the start. It’s not a Regency ‘cos it’s set sort of slightly before the Regency period, when she really hit her stride with these really light, funny, historically accurate books that everyone adores. Well, when I say everyone – people like me, who were gagging for more Jane Austen, had read all of Jane Austen six books a thousand times. I was actually introduced to it by my Mum. And I think a lot of people have that kind of connection with Georgette Heyer where some family member or a mother gives it to you.

SARA-MAE: Not sure we’ve gotten off to the greatest start with Sonali. Already I’m sensing this book wasn’t quite her cup of tea. Still, I know she’s open-minded and has a fabulous sense of humour. So, I’m hoping I can still change her mind.

SARA-MAE: If you could give me a sort of breakdown of the plot.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: The plot! So, the protagonist is His Grace of Avon. Now, what’s his proper name? Is he called…

SARA-MAE: Duke. The Duke of Avon. It’s…

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I found that difficult. I kept on having to work out who…who she was talking about. I understand that you have to do that. And he’s quite an intriguing character because you genuinely, for much of the book, have no idea what his motives are. He has this dark reputation, he’s got this nifty nickname, Satanas.

SARA-MAE: So, it’s like a Antonio Banderas character.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Or a 70s rock band that is maybe more evil, that’s more evil than she was intending. A lot of characters in this believe him to be genuinely evil. So, we meet him, and he does seem quite evil at the beginning because he’s haunting the streets of downtown Paris. He’s very well-to-do. There’s a lot about how beautifully he’s always dressed: jewels, velvet, ruffles. For me, you can definitely see it would be a lavish or period drama – there’s so much sumptuous attire. And he comes across a young boy being mistreated by his older brother, and he makes what seems like a very strange and impulsive decision to offer the older boy money to take the younger child on as his footman.

SARA-MAE: Valet.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Valet, thank you. And the younger child really wants to go because he’s been treated very badly. There’s no resistance there, so the Duke goes home with this kid! Which is a, for me, a very dark opening to a book. You have this sort of overly ambiguous character – just picks up a child off the street and takes him home. And then you don’t feel any more reassurance when he gets home, because when he goes home he’s got a friend there who’s, like, ‘What the hell are you doing? What are your intentions with this child?’ And it’s like, wow, this is one of his mates.

SARA-MAE: The Duke’s friend is called Hugh Davenant.

SARA-MAE: He doesn’t make you feel better about this child because he’s kind of, “You know what you’re like. Why are you taking in a child?”

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Exactly. Exactly. “You’re the last person who should have a child in their care.” And obviously, I’m reading it from my modern perspective, and I’m thinking “Oh my God! Yeah, this is potentially going to get very dark.”

SARA-MAE: But we’re saying ‘child’. I think, I think it might be a little bit misleading because Léon is nineteen, it turns out, but looks a lot younger.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Well that’s the thing, though! I don’t think at this stage, I don’t think we’re supposed to think he’s nineteen, but later on we find out that he looks younger than he is – for good reason.


SONALI BHATTACHARYA: But yes, he takes this child into his care. We slowly learn that there might be an ulterior motive to this, based on a long-standing grudge he has with another man.

SARA-MAE: De Saint-Vire.  

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, a Count then, I guess. And what seems like quite a petty grudge as well, I have to say – this does not endear me to the Duke either. It’s like wow, you’ve had this really longstanding grudge with this man for ten years and you start to get the impression that there’s something to do with his motivation for taking this child in, that it’s connected to this grudge. Because the child, it is mentioned quite a few times, has very characteristic, very striking red hair and dark eyes.

SARA-MAE: Black eyebrows with red hair.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: But, for the sake of the book, it seems quite useful that that’s a family trait, quite noticeable. And this is something that, it runs in his rival’s family. So, once again, you’re feeling, if anything, it’s looking worse and worse for this kid. It’s starting to seem like the child has been brought into this incredibly rich and powerful man’s home to be used as a pawn in a longstanding feud between him and his rival. And you really don’t think anything good is gonna come of this. This continues for some time. Like, I genuinely did not know what his motivations were. He was going investigating…

SARA-MAE: He was taking Léon with him, wasn’t he, to all sorts of dodgy places. But sort of displaying him on purpose, as his valet at these fancy parties.


SARA-MAE: Where all the hoity-toity nobs were hanging out and playing cards. He even took him to a sort of fancy brothel. So, Léon is kind of looking around with big eyes, but completely unfazed as well, because he’s kind of been hardened by his life on the streets.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: He’s also very cool. Like, he, he parades the child around in order to start the gossipmongers to talk about him so that it will get back to his family, essentially – his real family. And there’s a horrible scene where he parades Léon in front of the woman he believes to be his biological mother. So, really sadistic.

SARA-MAE: Just to clarify, he’s trying to generate the gossip that this is one of the Count’s by-blows, one of his bastards that he has managed to unearth just purely to kind of dig at him.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: But there’s a point…I can’t remember which comes first, I can’t really find out… I think he finds out first that Léon is actually a girl.

SARA-MAE: [gasp]

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: That’s the big…Léonie, apparently. That’s why she looks so young. She’s not a young boy, she’s a nineteen-year-old woman. So, don’t worry – this isn’t weird at all.

SARA-MAE: Genna is fifteen, only four years younger than Léonie. I’m really interested to get her perspective on this book. I ask her whether the twist that Léon is, in fact, a girl caught her by surprise.

SARA-MAE: What did you think of the book, basically? Did you enjoy it?

GENNA TUSON: So, I did. I did enjoy it. There were some points where I felt that because of the periodical difference, it was quite hard to relate because I’ve never had to have a fan made out of chicken bones. That was weird.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, I know.

GENNA TUSON: So, I did find that a little difficult. And in that sense, it was a bit like reading a more historical…was more education in that sense, which isn’t my usual type because I’m a bit of a skiver, but I really enjoyed the relationships that were formed. I really enjoyed the thrill.

SARA-MAE: What did you think about the whole cross-dressing element?

GENNA USON: I caught on when they started dropping the subtler hints, but in the beginning, when I started reading, I was very much “Okay, nice, next”. But when they started dropping the hints, I was like, oh, “Okay” – it very much sparked my interest. But with the cross-dressing element – I’m not sure this is what you’re asking – but I found it very interesting…her behaviour and how she didn’t want to change her behaviour and the way she was looked at by society, and the way that she was allowed to present herself. And that was one of the reasons she didn’t want to become a girl again. She didn’t want to give up the freedom she had of being a boy, and that she was expected to change her behaviour, the words she used, the way she spoke, as soon as she took off the pants, basically. I was quite interested in that, actually.

SARA-MAE: Yeah. No, I thought that was a really cool bit of it, because it’s also sort of making a commentary on the difference between men’s and women’s lives.

GENNA TUSON: Yeah, especially in that time.

SARA-MAE: You know, she has so much fun as Léon. She gets to go to the gambling den with him, when she’s pretending to be his page and…

GENNA TUSON: She’s just allowed to do stuff.

SARA-MAE: I sympathise with her when she’s having to put on her skirts.

GENNA TUSON: And really upset with all of that.

SARA-MAE: Once he officially knows, then it’s kind of “Oh, I’ve got to take you to England and put you into the care of my sisters because you’re a girl”. But you know, for someone who’s supposed to be so acute in terms of guessing things, you kind of think he’s known all along. But at this point, he’s still, I guess, maintaining this charade that he doesn’t know. And he presents his valet, Léon, to the Countess de Sainte-Vire. And what was her reaction?

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: She is…I think this must be when he first starts to realise there’s something more to it because she responds with a lot of high emotion. She responds with great distress.


SONALI BHATTACHARYA: He continues his investigations and he finds out that actually, the truth is much murkier than he thought. So, this is where the class elements start to feel very old-fashioned. So, the Saint-Vires have a son who, it is expressed in great detail that he’s this clunking oaf of a son. He’s described as being crass, fat-fingered, literally…I think it’s quite literally described as “he looks like a farmer’s son”.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, yeah.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: And he even wants to farm!

SARA-MAE: Because of course, if you’re born on a farm, you want to farm!

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: But it’s in his blood, you see?

SARA-MAE: Yeah, yeah.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, there’s a really, there’s a very old-fashioned class element to it that I found really uncomfortable. Whereas Léonie is beautiful and refined, and even her time on the streets has not coarsened her because her true heritage is noble.


SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, it becomes very pointed and you start reading and you’re like, “Oh right, I see what’s happening”.

SARA-MAE: I’m a misbegotten pleb.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I should be covered in cow manure! Were you born on a farm?

SARA-MAE: No, but I’m a pleb, so I suppose I should be…

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: If you were born on a farm, there’s no reason why you would want to farm. I don’t know where you’re getting that from.

SARA-MAE: [laughs]

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I think, I mean, it’s still sort of quite ingrained really. We still haven’t got that much further away from this, unfortunately. We still have an idea of a class that is pretty effed up, isn’t it? It’s very striking in this book. That is a real…that could actually be used as a plot device.


SARA-MAE: It goes without saying that I adore Heyer, but she was, as Stephen Fry said in episode 1, a bit of a snob and this sometimes bleeds into her work. Having said that, these attitudes were in keeping with the time in which the book is set, as well as Heyer’s own era. I hope this won’t ruin Sonali’s enjoyment of the book, as I think there is so much to love in it, if you can overlook some of these problematic strands.

Apart from the sharp humour and the intrigue of the plot, there are plenty of glorious scenes set in the Georgian era. Paris high society at this time is depicted as a glittering, glamorous place. Georgette takes great pleasure in describing the sumptuous clothing which, I admit, I love. Avon himself, in contrast to Heyer’s later heroes, is magnificent, dazzling Léon when he takes him to a ball at Versailles at which the king is to be present. There’s a sensuousness to him, yet a masculinity in spite of the frills and furbelows which you can well imagine to have enhanced his god-like status in his young charge’s eyes.

Here’s an extract from the Audible audio book, narrated by Cornelius Garrett:


Avon came slowly down the stairs, and seeing him, Léon drew in a quick breath of wonderment. The Duke was always magnificent, but tonight he had surpassed himself. His coat was made of cloth-of-gold, and on it the blue ribbon of the Garter lay, and three orders blazed in the light of the candles. Diamonds nestled in the lace of his cravat and formed a solid bar above the riband that tied back his powdered hair. His shoes had jewelled heels and buckles, and below his knee he wore the Garter. Over his arm he carried a long black cloak, lined with gold, which he handed to Léon; and in his hand was his snuffbox, and scented handkerchief.

SARA-MAE:She loved Shakespeare. Her favourite Shakespearean plays were ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Merchant of Venice’, and in both of those there’s women masquerading as men. So, it’s also kind of interesting from a feminist point of view, because I think we have to say here, for people who are thinking, ‘oh god, it’s about a child molester!’, she is not in any way ever portrayed as a victim.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: She is a very feisty character. She’s very spirited. There’s lots of period detail about how she has picked up this coarse language from her time living…

SARA-MAE: As a boy.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Amongst the rough streets, and also as a boy, but as a working-class boy. It feels very old fashioned, but it feels like if you were to update this for a modern audience, it would be, like, I don’t know, having, like, a Royal, like, burping at the table or whatever and saying…swearing. The Duke of Avon loves this about her, like, he finds her very refreshing.

SARA-MAE: There’s this thing about this brutality in him that a lot of times is almost played as a card of like, “Oh, this makes him really sexy”, but he wins his fortune by picking someone who is very green and a rich young man who didn’t really know what he’s doing, and he won all his fortune from him. And the guy ended up killing himself.


SARA-MAE: And you sort of think to yourself, wow, yeah, okay.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I don’t think I grew to like him. I think I was supposed to grow to like him, because the story is essentially about this man finding his soul and he finds his soul through falling in love with Léonie. As you say, once he…once it becomes apparent that she is a girl, he does what is correct and proper at the time. He sends her off to live with his sister who will act as – so she’ll be his sister’s ward, which is proper. And his sister is horribly drawn. [laughs]

SARA-MAE: Lady Fanny is annoying, but Heyer’s created her to be the opposite of Léonie – she’s the product of a wealthy, upper class family, spoilt and empty-headed. Whereas, Léonie has dynamism, freshness, and a devastating insight into the dark side of life. Not only does this help Heyer make a subtle critique of the upper class which has bored Avon into bad behaviour, it’s a clever juxtaposition to have two such different women placed alongside each other. Here’s Genna on why Léonie is such a great character.

SARA MAE: Did you feel like she was a good heroine in the sense of, did you feel like she had dynamism and agency?

GENNA TUSON: Yeah, definitely, definitely. And what I also found pretty cool about her was even with all that pressure from the time period that she was in, on women and the way they behaved, she was still sort of acceptable, like she still acted politely and stuff. But she still kept that streak of defiance in her, even though that was the opposite to what she was meant to be now, now that she was this lady. And near the end also, he was like, “Duchesses don’t do something and something and something” and she was, like, “Well, I do!” and I found that very cool. And then also, like, the whole time she was basically just like, “I’ll go and do this for myself”. Like, she’d very much seen the ugliness in life and she knew that sometimes you have to get your hands dirty – so, willingness to engage violently with a lot of the people and the situations in the book was a big surprise to me that she was so energetic when it came to that – not, like, squeamish at all.

SARA-MAE: If you mess with someone that she loves….


SARA-MAE: …she’ll really, go for them.

GENNA TUSON: She’s not stupid, yeah.

SARA-MAE: There’s a lot of stuff about how bored these nobles are. Another reason why Léonie is – this whole thing of being refreshed by her, yet she says what she thinks, she challenges him. I agree with you in the sense that he is very hard to like, and there’s a lot of reasons why, but you can sort of see him opening up.

SARA-MAE: So, I think it’s time to clarify what’s been happening plot-wise. The Duke of Avon and his friend, Hugh Davenant, have realised that Léon is actually a girl, Léonie. Léonie is wildly devoted to Avon, seeing him as her saviour from a life of abuse, despite the fact that even his friends consider him to be a dissolute rogue. The Duke starts investigating Léonie’s background – which takes him to Champagne, where Léonie grew up. There, he meets the village priest who educated her. He confirms what Avon had suspected: Léonie is the legitimate child of the Comte and his wife, and was switched at birth with the Bonnard’s new-born son, who has been raised as the Comte’s heir ever since, as the Comte feared his wife would not bear any other children and he was eager to stop his younger brother, Armand, from becoming his heir. 

In spite of himself, Avon has come to care for Léonie, so while he continues his scheme of revenge on the Comte, he takes Léonie to England with him where he announces his intention to make her his ward. There, he teaches her to be a lady, while letting her be known as Léonie de Bonnard. 

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I guess it’s like that storytelling function of having the character we really love – Léon, Léonie loves him. So that’s sort of the function, isn’t it? That we see him through her eyes – she absolutely adores him because she sees him as her saviour. And also, she identifies a goodness in him that literally no one has ever seen. And it’s something almost about that act of adoration, starts to make him behave better. He starts to be a good person. So, there’s something fundamental there about the impact of her upon his life and his actions and his morality. So, he sends her away to be with his sister, and his sister teaches her how to be a woman because she’s never had to wear dresses and all these tight corsets. And there is quite a lot of stuff about how constraining that is, how much more comfortable she was actually being a boy, which does feel quite, sort of proto feminist. The clothes become like an extension of the social reality – so she had more freedom, not just as a boy, but I guess as a working-class boy as well, because it doesn’t go into, I guess, the poverty and the hardship she would have faced. But there’s a level of honesty and freedom that she would have had, that as a middle…as an upper-class woman has all been taken away from her. But he sends her off to live with his sister, with good intentions, because he wants to do the right thing, and you become aware that his plan is sort of to debut her, to reintroduce her back into the high society that actually is her right, as his ward. So, it’s all very proper, and so you start to feel that she’s had an impact upon him. That’s certainly not what you were guessing he was going to do at the beginning of the book.

SARA-MAE: Then he sends her off to the countryside, doesn’t he, with his, his cousin to look after her, as chaperone. Harriet Field, her name is.

SARA-MAE: Once Avon has Léonie trained as a girl, he sends her to his country house with a chaperone in the form of an indigent cousin. That’s where she meets his neighbours, characters from Heyer’s previous book The Black Moth, Lord and Lady Merivale. It turns out that Avon, as the villain in Black Moth, tried to kidnap and force Lady Merivale into marrying him, so understandably neighbourly relations have been a bit strained since then. Léonie innocently unaware, strikes up a friendship with them while the Duke is away putting his mysterious plans into place. But not before he teaches her sword fighting, which she insists on learning. It’s a real joy when Léonie bargains with him for masculine skills in exchange for acting and dressing like a lady. Then Avon’s brother Rupert turns up…

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: If this was a film, Rupert would have a much bigger part than he has in the book. You can imagine it would be quite an important sub-plot because he’s closer to Léonie’s age, it feels like there might be some chemistry between them. He certainly is quite taken with her. Crucially, they have a more equal relationship than she has with the Duke. They have a friendship. She can be quite feisty with the Duke, but with Rupert, it feels genuinely equal. She has arguments with him, she threatens him with a sword, at one point, when he says something negative about her beloved Duke. And he’s also really crucial because… I mean, this is quite unusual – so, this would not happen in a film because he’s almost like a potential love rival – when the worst thing happens to her, which is when the Count de Saint-Vire finally takes action and has almost been goaded to the point where he arrives to kidnap her, she happens to be in her boy’s clothes because she was about to go out and wind up Rupert, and that’s when Saint-Vire comes to kidnap her. So, when Saint-Vire kidnaps her…

SARA-MAE: Obviously she’s not been presented to society, so I think he thinks he can get away with kidnapping her. I’m not sure what he would have ultimately done with her if he’d succeeded. Because of Rupert being quite heroic, I thought. In fact, I don’t understand why Rupert gets to do the most heroic bit.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, if this was a film that would in no way happen. Rupert would not be given the most…because Rupert steals a horse, he steals a gun, he rides all the way after them to the port. He sells everything he has in order to be able to get on [a ship]. So, he follows them all the way to Calais, I believe. That would not work in a film. In the film, he would be with Léonie at the end.

SARA-MAE: One of the joys of the book is seeing Avon learning to love Léonie. What’s interesting is that, as we’ve discussed, Heyer places an alternative potential suitor in the form of Avon’s younger brother, Lord Rupert, in Léonie’s way. On paper – lol, it’s a novel, so everything is on paper – on paper Rupert is better suited to Léonie: he’s young, adventurous, good humoured and much more virtuous and kind than Avon. He even gets to gallop across the country to try and rescue Léonie from the evil Comte’s clutches, riding ventre à terre to her side…only to find the intrepid girl has rescued herself. Avon then sweeps in and together the three thwart the Comte as he tries to make off with his daughter again.

It’s really fascinating to me how Heyer manages to make you start to love Avon, as Sonali said earlier, because Léonie does. Rupert is one of Heyer’s adorable idiots, and one imagines that if he and Léonie had got together, she’d eat him alive. To see a glimpse into their future, listen to episode 4 in which we discuss Devil’s Cub, featuring older versions of these characters.

SARA-MAE: This kind of character becomes a bit of… the character that reoccurs in her other books in various incarnations, most notably Freddy Standen in Cotillion. And I think in a film as well, if it was my choice, his friend, Hugh Davenant – I would have just cut him out and replaced him with Rupert, you know, maybe modulated his character a bit more so he has a bit more gravitas. So, I feel like there’s a lot of characters and also it’s either this character, who’s such an integral part, comes in only three quarters of the way through, and then he has a really major role, saving Léonie. What I liked about it was she’s not without her own agency.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Absolutely. She tricks the Count de Saint-Vire, she punches him in the face, pours hot coffee on him.

SARA-MAE: The Comte has kidnapped her from Avon’s country home in England and taken Léonie back to France. Needless to say, Léonie does not take captivity well, constantly calling him a ‘pig person’.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: When the carriage overturns, she doesn’t think twice – she just bolts and legs it. And then it’s because Rupert has been riding after them, she’s able to mount his horse and able to escape. But certainly, the escape is not entirely due to Rupert – it just helps her escape. And then, it’s also her idea to, where to hide and…

SARA-MAE: He gets shot in the arm and he starts bleeding heavily, so she is the one who has to then take control and get them to this inn that they find. And also, you do get the feeling, if she hadn’t managed to bolt and she does it but she’s very clever – she pretends to be asleep, and so when the carriage overturns, he just leaves her alone. If she hadn’t managed to extricate herself from the Count’s clutches, I don’t think Rupert necessarily would have been able to save her because he had his men with him, he had guns. So, it’s really important that she manages to get herself away, and then Rupert can help her. But yes, yeah. And they end up in an inn together, as Rupert recovers. And that’s when the Duke turns up.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, that’s really weird…for a modern audience, that would just not work. Because he turns up and they’re very glad to see him, obviously. But he basically turns up in order to complete his plan. If this were a film, he would absolutely have to take Rupert’s place in saving Léonie, and that would have to mean a lot. Because he’s a bit older as well, so I think there would have to be great weight attached to the fact that he steals a horse and goes and saves her. And that would have to be something he does just because it’s the right thing to do. Not because he’s trying to win anything from her. But at this point it’s still really important that he’s either not aware, or certainly not admitting that he loves her – that would absolutely have to be the case in a film, because it would be really disappointing for a modern audience otherwise, I think, that he turns up after the big action sequence has happened. It really undermines him. It undermines their relationship, in fact, because if you imagine if it was exactly the sort of same but with him, if he was injured, and then Léonie had to help him and then nurse him, there’s such intimacy in that, growing in that relationship.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, I’m not sure why she made that decision, really. I don’t know if it was just to get Rupert there so that they have this jolly cast of characters.

SARA-MAE: This is a really interesting point in relation to our overarching investigation into why Heyer’s books haven’t been made into films. As we go along, you’ll hear me asking book club participants if they feel the book in hand would make a good film. As to this point about Avon, I think Sonali is probably right: film makers might well give Avon the more heroic action to do, but in a way, having thought it over, I know why she wanted him acting more like a deux ex machina; Avon uses his brain as a weapon, whereas Rupert is all about the brawn. Léonie needs Avon’s guile more than she needs brute strength.

SARA-MAE: I think what she was trying to do was develop this idea that not only is Léonie changing him as a person towards herself, she’s also changing him towards his family and friends, because he’s very, very grateful to Rupert. In the past, it’s kind of Rupert’s been a bit overawed by him, because he’s his big brother that is always kind of supercilious and sort of ripping him to shreds because he’s a bit silly. But this is the first time that he feels he gets a bit of respect from him. And as Rupert says – I thought it was quite funny:


‘Gad,’ said Rupert irrepressibly, ‘I thought we’d not bask much longer in the sunshine of your approval.’

SARA-MAE: Once they are safely at a local inn, Avon arrives and the three wait for the Comte.


‘That’s it, Léonie. Stand up to him and hit out from the shoulder. It’s more than I ever did in my life!’

I am not afraid of Monseigneur,’ said Léonie, elevating her small nose. ‘You are just a coward, Rupert.’

‘My child,’ the Duke turned his head, ‘you forget yourself. You owe some gratitude to Rupert.’ ‘Hey, up I go, and down you go!’ said Rupert. ‘Ecod, it’s a seesaw we’re on!’

Monseigneur, I have been grateful to Rupert all the morning, and now I am not going to be grateful any longer. It makes me cross.’

‘So I observe. Your manners leave much to be desired.’

‘I think that you are very cross too,’ Léonie ventured. ‘Voyons, what does it matter that Gaston does not come? He is silly, and fat, and Madame Field is like a hen. We do not want them.’

‘Here’s a fine philosophic spirit!’ cried Rupert. ‘You used to be much the same yourself, Justin. What’s come over you?’

Léonie turned to him in triumph. ‘I told you he was different, Rupert, and you would only laugh! I never saw him so disagreeable before.’

‘Lud, it’s easy to see you’ve not lived with him long!’ said Rupert, audaciously.

His Grace came away from the window. ‘You are an unseemly pair,’ he said. ‘Léonie, you were wont to respect me more.’

She saw the smile in his eyes and twinkled responsively. ‘Monseigneur, I was a page then, and you would have punished me. Now I am a lady.’

SARA-MAE: This bickering like small children. Then I guess, again, I think she’s trying to make the point that maybe Rupert isn’t right for Léonie because they’re like children together, whereas the Duke understands her on a deeper level.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, I mean, it might be our modern perspective as well, of what we consider to be a healthy and happy relationship.


SARA-MAE: I asked my cousin, Genna, whether she thought Rupert would be a better love interest for Léonie.

GENNA TUSON: So, for the Duke, with her, what he needed was just this blind trust and pure love, and just this, this young girl and her complete and utter giving over of herself to him. She just completely, just loved him, head-to-toe kind of thing. So, I think that’s what he needed in her. And I think with her, because so much of her life, she’d had to be self-sufficient and she’d had to look out for herself and be like this brave, forward-thinking caretaker of herself, and to have this older guy who just – she was his priority and her safety meant so much to him, and her happiness meant so much to him, and he would provide her with whatever she needed. And I think combine that with the hero thing she had with him for rescuing her, she found what she was looking for. She found what she was missing, and he did too. And I think they very much completed each other. And with Rupert, it was a very, very platonic sibling relationship – they bicker, they fought – and he was in a way too young for her, I think? I think that’s why she and the Duke also got along so well, because as you said, she was like this young girl, but she’d also been through a lot and she knew things that maybe a girl her age shouldn’t or wouldn’t usually know. And she’d learned about vice and sorrow and grief and all that. And I think Rupert – while their relationship is wonderful, and probably very beneficial – he wasn’t really quite grown-up enough to see that and take it into account. Whereas the Duke, I think, was very, very much aware of that. And it was like a lot of his love for her and his anger on her behalf was because he saw so much of that in her.

SARA-MAE: He recognised that in her, whereas Rupert probably wouldn’t have been able to appreciate what she’d gone through.


SARA-MAE: And how brave she was.

SARA-MAE: I think Genna has hit the nail on the head here in terms of why, ultimately, Avon is better for Léonie, in spite of his flaws.

SARA-MAE: His sister also turns up and I’m like, “Oh God, she’s the worst. I hate her”. [laughs]

She’s got this fake coyness…


SARA-MAE: …which really, really profoundly annoys you. She’s turned up to come and see them because she’s heard from the chaperone lady who’s fainted dead away through all the excitement, and she wants to kind of nose out what’s going on, because it sounds really exciting. She’s come to France, against her husband’s wishes, and you get this feeling, it’s just like part of this weird foreplay that they have where she does something naughty, and he comes in and shouts at her and he sort of wins her over. I just find it tedious to be honest with you. Again, a well-drawn character because she is a very stark contrast to Léonie.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, yeah. Now that Léonie is ready and is now well-versed in how to be an aristocratic female, he is going to present her as his ward to society. We start to get an inkling of how his plan is shaping up. And Léonie is in enormous success because she’s absolutely ravishingly beautiful, but also has this sort of feisty, straight-talking edge. So every young eligible bachelor at these balls, that are arranged at great expense and widely publicised all across Paris – anyone who’s anyone has been invited to these balls by the Duke and been introduced to Léonie. Everyone wants to dance with her, she’s getting invitations, and so this is where Lady Fanny is like, “we’ve never been so popular”. Like, there’s a prince who clearly wants to marry her. But all in all, you understand that actually, the main reason for this is to rub Saint-Vire’s nose in the fact that the Duke has Léonie as his ward and that he knows what they did.

SARA-MAE: Just a reminder, Saint-Vire swapped his baby daughter with a neighbouring farmer’s son so that he could ensure his cousin was cut out of succession. Pretty cold-blooded.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: And you’d have to say, as you said before, that maybe this is a comment upon the nature of aristocracy and lineage and this sort of inherited wealth.


SONALI BHATTACHARYA: And you start to understand that actually, the Duke of Avon is genuinely angry that this was done to Léonie, who he has grown to love. His main motivation now and he’s wanting to seek revenge – but upon the Count de Saint-Vire, because it wasn’t really his wife’s fault, his wife was sort of pressurised into doing this…

SARA-MAE: And also re-establish her as in her rightful place. At the moment, it’s a bit worrying because it’s almost like it might backfire because people are looking at her and whispering, they’re saying, “Oh, she’s a bastard” or…I don’t know if they’re also kind of going, well, now people are looking at the clod-hopping farmer’s son, Armand, and going “Wait a minute, I always thought he stank of manure!”

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: He’s always cuddling that baby sow! So, that’s very important, that there’s whispers that she might be illegitimate, because that is the final and crucial plot point. So, there’s a string of women’s hearts, basically, that the Duke has broken over the years because he’s an incredibly attractive Fassbender-type bad boy. And it’s at one of these parties, one of these women very cruelly corners Léonie…

SARA-MAE: His ex-mistress.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: …clearly believes that Léonie and the Duke are in a relationship, a secret relationship, and is very jealous, and she is the first person to put it to Léonie that she is an illegitimate offspring of Saint-Vire. So, then there’s a brief period where Léonie tries to adjust to this. She’s now very aware of her feelings for the Duke, that she wants to be with him. And she’s sort of asked him quite boldly, whether he thinks it could ever work between someone like a high-born person and someone of what she believes her status now to be, which is sort of the illegitimate offspring of a high-born person and, I don’t know, some oik somewhere. And he doesn’t sort of answer in a way that reassures her.

SARA-MAE: Which is a bit…it’s a bit strange, that, because actually if he’s so smart, you’d think that he’d pick up what she…And in fact, all the way through up until that point, he’s kind of made it really clear that class will out. So obviously when he then reiterates that it would be disgusting almost to have a relationship like that, you can understand why Léonie’s like, “Oh, okay”’. And I mean she adores him. One of the sweet things in this part of the novel is she’s constantly going to balls – and I mean, I love the descriptions of the balls, just in terms of a very escapist kind of thing. It’s…

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, they’d be lavish.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, it’s really fun to imagine all the lavish gowns and all that kind of thing. But even if it’s all of that, and it’s not like she hates it, which I also quite liked. I mean, she didn’t do this thing where she was just constantly wanting to sharpen a sword, and she enjoys all that stuff for what it is. But then she’s always kind of creeping off to where the Duke is, and afterwards sitting with him, to imagine him allowing her – and that’s right from the beginning – to encroach, you kind of feel his walls just breaking down. She gets in when no one else has managed to get in. So, she’s obviously destroyed by this news. And in fact, she thinks that once this truth comes out, I don’t think she sees this as his big concoction or anything…that everything has happened because he’s put these things into play. Once he finds out, his reputation will be ruined.

GENNA TUSON: It’s very much a trope of a romance novel, where the guy will leave her for her own good because he’s strong and self-sacrificing. And I feel like to have flipped that and been like, she thought that if she stayed, she would do harm to this dude that she loved. And she was like, “Cool, I’m not gonna do that”, and she left, and I thought that was really refreshing.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, she runs off, and there’s a slightly frustrating bit where they all talk about how she’s run off – that would absolutely be edited down in a film. The Duke knows immediately where she’s gone.

SARA-MAE: She goes to speak to her…father, I guess. The guy who kidnapped her. She goes to his house, doesn’t she?

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Oh yes. She goes and confronts him. Yeah, that’s good, that bit. She runs in with a gun and she says that if he ever tries to slur the Duke of Avon…and she says I’ll go – which is what he wants as well – and you’ll never see me again. But this is basically the deal.

SARA-MAE: Just on the whole gun thing and it being convincing – because another theme throughout the book is that redheads are all hot-tempered, obviously. So, Saint-Vire is known for having this terrible temper and, and in fact the Duke uses this to goad him into various overblown reactions and in fact a very catastrophic one at the end.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Oh, just a wild cat.

SARA-MAE: Yeah. So, then she runs off to this kindly curate.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Who we’ve already met. We already know from when the Duke still appeared to have a very dastardly plan and was going and investigating her background. I mean, the curate basically told him what happened.

SARA-MAE: And luckily, she’d been educated by him. The Curé is of noble descent himself, he’s kind of rejected that whole life.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, the Duke of Avon knows exactly where she is because she has this sort of father figure in the Curé and goes back to get her. And basically this is where she expresses her love for him and tells him that she wants to be with him.

SARA-MAE: The obstacle is that she feels like she’s not worthy.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: He tells her, “Don’t worry! You’re absolutely pure aristocratic blood, so it’s fine. We can be together.” But also, she does break him down a little bit because he does try to do the right thing. He’s like, “I’m ancient. Why don’t you marry Rupert?” And he tries to be quite selfless because we know at this point that he does actually really adore her. And he tries to say also, not just that he’s old, but also that he’s had a really sketchy past. He doesn’t feel like he actually is worthy of her. But she breaks him down with her, the intensity of her love and devotion. And this is the point where they agree to marry. But there’s just one last thing to do before that happens.

SARA-MAE: Ah no, wait! He’s done that before he goes to collect her, actually.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Oh, no. You’re right!

SARA-MAE: She goes off, but the Duke is kind of, “Oh, it’s all going to my plan”. So, he tells them to all turn up at this literary soirée. They turn up at this thing.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: So, the Duke says, “I have a story to tell”, and really enjoys, in a crass, sadistic way – not naming any names, it’s been trending for months! So, once he starts telling this story about an aristocratic couple, and the fear of losing their inherited wealth and the disappointment of having an infant girl instead of an infant boy, and seeing an opportunity when a farmer they know happens to have an infant son at the same time, to swap the babies and make sure that the wealth is inherited by their son. Everybody starts to put two and two together. You really feel for the Countess here because she clearly would rather just have her daughter with her and has been sort of tortured psychologically and is clearly in a very abusive relationship because her husband made her give up her child. But the Count de Saint-Vire – because he is an evil, selfish man – he only cares about himself and now his reputation is being absolutely destroyed. The highest of society have been invited here to witness this. And as you say, it has been established he has a very hot temper. Once everyone realises this must mean that this is Saint-Vire who has committed this act, the Count de Saint-Vire grabs a gun and shoots himself in the head.

SARA-MAE: I find that so disturbing on so many levels.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Really disturbing!

SARA-MAE: Just totally. I don’t think you could have that in the film – you’d certainly have to have it the next day. They hear

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: In a way, it’s justice.

SARA-MAE: I asked Genna what she thinks about the Marquis’ actions.

GENNA TUSON: Yeah, no, that was hectic. I think it is also very much a thing of the time period, the whole “Now, I have [been] dishonoured”, he’d done some pretty shady stuff. But that drama, that dramatic, like “Now I must die” kind of thing – it’s a product of the time, but also, I think it spoke to how good a storyteller he was, how well he could use his words and how manipulative he could be. How he knew which strings to pull on to make people see it…yeah, I thought that was quite a chilling look into what he’s capable of. He was always the mastermind.

SARA-MAE: I mean, I would have just bluffed it up. I would have been like, “Great story”.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Well, exactly, but I guess she’s trying to avoid having the Duke commit a horrible act of murder.

SARA-MAE: His intention is that the guy will commit suicide. And I just feel like…that’s a big leap to me.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I mean, I think in terms of the story, I’m not sure if it entirely works, but he’s supposed to be brought down by his own vanity and commitment to his…

SARA-MAE: Pride.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: …and his status. And so, if he didn’t have that, then he wouldn’t have killed himself. So, I think in terms of the book, it’s trying to say he’s almost like a victim of his own…

SARA-MAE: His own character.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Certainly. I think the unintentional effect is that the Duke of Avon seems really sadistic and manipulative. And his response is very cold and a little bit, it’s quite chilling, really, and then ends with his wedding. I think we’d have to see real doubts in the Duke about whether this was the right thing to do. We’d have to see further cruelty from Saint-Vire. That and also, we would have to understand more about what Léonie endured because of his actions.


SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Because that is all entirely hidden. So those two things…I mean, then it almost becomes more like a Dickensian thing where this is the morally complex world we’re in – there are innocents, but innocence can be taken away very quickly.

SARA-MAE: But having said that, one of the things that makes Léonie and the Duke suitable partners is that she is quite bloodthirsty as well. And that’s because she’s had this harsh upbringing. And when in fact he comes in at the end to take her away from the curate, she’s absolutely ecstatic. Not only is the Count dead, but that the Duke engineered it. She’s completely on board with him having done it on purpose.


SARA-MAE: So, in that sense, I think she wouldn’t actually be suited to someone like Rupert because they share a sort of darkness.

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, but then it’s about tone, isn’t it? Because it feels like if this were to be adapted for a modern audience, that tone would have to be much more consistent. Something like ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ has an incredibly dark tone and you sympathise with characters who do terrible things because they are consistent and also because you understand their motivations throughout. And in fact, that is quite a good reference because there is a really morally ambivalent character in that who also falls in love and he finds his humanity. But then it’d be a dark film.

SARA-MAE: If you were going to direct a section of it, or if you were going to adapt it as a play, which bit would be your favourite bit to adapt?

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I guess the bit where she’s learning how to become a woman, that idea that all gender is a construct – we’re all sort of in drag at the end of the day, it’s just that a lot of us can pretend that we’re not because it’s societally normalised. And that’s something quite interesting to do in the modern context there, I think.

SARA-MAE: In terms of the class thing…

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I found it really difficult. That was the most problematic part of the book for me. And if I were to go to see a film like this, which had that, uncritically, it would make me very angry. Because it absolutely fits with an idea that poverty’s inherent, that class is inherent, that we basically all deserve the lot we’re born into, because that’s just the way of the world. So obviously, that’s very problematic. But I have a feeling that if it were ever to be adapted, that element would not survive.

SARA-MAE: Wondering what Genna’s least favourite bits were?

GENNA TUSON: So, in the beginning, it was quite a struggle to get through. But um, once that had been sorted out and I knew who the Comte de Sainte-Vire was, and I knew who the Duke was, and I could distinguish them all from each other, I knew what was going on and I knew what the point was, then it got a lot more interesting.

SARA-MAE: And then what were your favourite bits?

GENNA TUSON: Yeah, I thought she was so funny. I don’t know, just the way she spoke and, the simplicity with which she put forth these complicated ideas. It really tickled me, the way she insisted on calling him…

SARA-MAE: The Comte de Saint-Vire.

GENNA TUSON: …the ‘pig person’ and also with Rupert, I really enjoyed their relationship, the sort of back-and-forth they had and how she was constantly calling him an imbecile, an idiot. And so, I really enjoyed when Rupert came, and the Duke was away, and their relationship grew, and it was really a very refreshing, platonic relationship. I found it very funny and very…I’m using too many adjectives…but very truthful, and I really enjoyed that.

SARA-MAE: The last question is, have you been converted to Georgette Heyer? Would you consider reading another one?

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: I have nothing but respect for you and your tastes, Sara-Mae, but I’m afraid it’s not really my bag. But I have to say the only historical fiction I’ve ever been interested in is more about the untold stories, I guess. So, it was gonna be a hard sell for me anyway. But it was great to read something new. And it was great to be exposed to a new writer I’d never heard of.

SARA-MAE: Are you a convert?

GENNA TUSON: What I tend to do is go through obsessions where I’ll read one book from an author and then that’ll be the only thing I read. And then I start talking like they write, and I start narrating in my head. It’s terrible. It has been noticed by my sister that I’m talking like a complete ponce. The other night, I told her that my other sister, my twin, should be ‘a suitable companion’ for her to go to the shops with. [laughs] I’m very much in that vibe at the moment, that, that period…the drama and the mystery.

SARA-MAE: There’s not a lot of looking at the vast range of humanity here. It’s quite specific to a certain kind of class. Jane Austen’s the same…

SONALI BHATTACHARYA: Yes. I’m not an Austen fan either, though, I’m afraid. [laughs] I’m more interested in the lady in the attic, then, but that’s the place that I feel I’m from, I guess. But it was good to read it, and yeah, thanks for asking me to be involved.

SARA-MAE: Thank you so much for spending this time. I really appreciate it.

SARA-MAE: Austin Dobson’s poem that inspires this book title begins:

What is it that attaches

Your fancy so to fans and masks,

And periwigs and patches?

And ends: 

Whereas with these old shades of mine, 

Their ways and dress delight me; 

And should I trip by word or line,

They cannot well indict me. 

But—should I fail to render clear

Their title, rank or station—

I still may sleep secure, nor fear 

A suit for defamation.

In These Old Shades Georgette was innovating historical romance. Unlike many other literary heroines of the time, Léonie is not weak-willed, without agency or dynamism. Instead, she’s in control of her own destiny. Despite everything life throws at her, she is undaunted and gallant. In this, Léonie is similar to her creator. Georgette wrote much of the book a few months after her father’s death. Writing her period romances was always an escape for her, though she confided to LP Moore that she didn’t have the heart to write at that time. Even then, she instantly curtailed all suggestion of sentiment, describing her feelings as ‘slop’, which he shouldn’t be worried about. Happy endings in romance novels, are, after all, a given.

In 1940, Georgette sold the British and Commonwealth copyrights in These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub and Regency Buck to the publisher Heinemann for £750, and the contract included a clause stating that they got 50% of any film rights to These Old Shades. In 2000, Random House (who now own the Heinemann UK trade publications) voluntarily agreed to cancel the 1940 contract – returning all rights to the Heyer estate. Perhaps they did this in recognition of the fact that the earlier contract was a little unfair – Georgette was notoriously bad about reading through the contracts her old friend and publisher, Frere, wrote up for her. When the rights were later sold for £5,000, she only got half, and Kloester speculates as to whether or not this may have contributed to ‘her eventual estrangement’ from Frere. Still, this was far in the future – we’ll examine Heyer’s life during wartime in future episodes.

Next week, we’ll be speaking to novelist Emma Darwin about her love of Heyer, examining her writing techniques and getting some hot tips from Emma herself.

And remember, you’d have to have been in the sun a trifle not to rate, review and subscribe.

Until next time, as Léonie would say: ‘Adieu!’


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 helped with production and performed as George Heyer.

Michael Mandalis edited and recorded Beth’s bits, and he did a marvellous job. 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.

Our fabulous voice talent includes Helen Davidge as young Heyer, Thomas Golding as young Boris, Cathy Tuson and Karim Kronfli. I’ll be putting info about them in the show notes.

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 work. 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.

Special thanks to the Audible team for letting us use an extract from the book. Do go out and buy it, it’s a fabulous listen.

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.


Listen to this episode here.

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SARA-MAE: Previously, on Heyer Today. [See last week’s episode here – link to previous episode]

BETH: Georgette never fully recovered from the sudden loss of her beloved father. Two years later in her contemporary book, Helen, she writes of a grief so huge, so devastating and so terribly dumb.

GENNA: I caught on when they started dropping the subtler hints, but in the beginning when I started reading it, I was very much like, okay, nice next, but when they started dropping the hints, I was like, oh, okay, that very much sparked my interest.

SARA-MAE: Wait a minute, I always thought he stank of manure…

SARA-MAE: Welcome to Heyer Today! Last week, we converted one new reader to Heyer’s work – if you missed our discussion with playwright, Sonali, and my cousin Genna, about These Old Shades, do go back and listen. That’s one out of two converts so far. Yes, I am adding them up.

This week I’ll be chatting to Emma Darwin, and, apart from being possibly the only author to be simultaneously listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book, AND the Romantic Novelist’s Association Book of the Year, she has one other small detail about her ancestry that people tend to fixate on. Yes, she is Charles Darwin’s great-great granddaughter. But she’s so much more than that, an accomplished novelist and teacher and yes, a fan of Georgette Heyer. Yet, her past has shaped her life, as she discovered when writing This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin.

On her website she writes: “Writing the novel became a fierce struggle between my heritage and my identity as a writer – and ultimately a struggle that nearly killed me. When I was better, I realised the only way to write about the creative lives of my family was through the lens of my own creative struggle, telling the story of my journey through my family as I tried – and failed – to write the novel.”

As one reviewer said: “She explores the tricky business of historical novelists walking a tightrope between research and imagination.”

There is a fascinating, and relevant thread here, tying Emma to Georgette: both were attempting to walk this tightrope the reviewer describes – and both managed to do it with grace and humour.

More directly, Emma’s written A Secret Alchemy, which reached the Sunday Times Bestsellers List, and was named as one of The Times’ Best Paperbacks of that year. It’s set in the exhilarating world of the Wars of the Roses.

I’m dying to discover more about Emma’s love of Heyer – with her PHD in creative writing she’ll be able to really dig into Heyer’s novels with me.

EMMA: I find the lives of really professional writers very fascinating. The two biographies of her also as an insight into the professional writer I think, is really, really interesting. With my writing tutor, you know, writing mentor head. Though obviously, the book trade has changed enormously, but actually the business of getting your bum on that chair and writing one or in her case, sometimes two books a year, you know, is fascinating to look at.

SARA-MAE: I’m going to ask you more about the biographical process later. But let’s begin with the basics.

EMMA: I am a novelist and a non-fiction writer. And I also do a lot of mentoring and teaching writing. And in fact, my most recent book was published a couple of years ago, and it’s called Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, which, hopefully does exactly what it says on the tin. So, I’m also very interested in the process of how books end up looking like a book on the shelves and the process of getting them to that point.

SARA-MAE: Yes, and I’m sure that most writers of historical fiction will be very interested to find out the minutia and the mechanics of it.

EMMA: Basically, I love Heyer because I just love being in that world. But I do think that technically she is extraordinarily good and she’s really worth studying from that point of view as well. We can all learn a lot from what she does, those of us who write historical fiction.

SARA-MAE: Yes, as a technician, I think that was one of her greatest strengths, wasn’t it? I do not know how she churned out two books a year to such a high standard. It took me four years to write my first book, and I’m still working on the eighth draft of my second!

EMMA: Well, she had enormous depth of research. And all in her head. I mean, obviously, she also had it on her bookshelves, but what it meant was a lot of the stuff that we have to go away and find out, she just knew.

SARA-MAE: How does this depth of research help an author?

EMMA: Well, it helps in two ways. One, you don’t have to go away and look it up. But also, it means that on the page, it comes along very, very naturally. And it comes along just as part of her imaginative process, which is partly why, on the whole, she matured as a writer. You never feel that there are these huge lumps of historical information being chucked at you. It comes along as naturally as if she was writing about her own high street, in her own time, and that’s part of it.

She’s writing within a short span of time, she’s writing about a very narrow slice of the world and actually, an artificial one. It bears about the relationship to the real Regency world as PG Wodhouse does to the real 1930s. And I think in lots of ways there are they’re rather parallel those two, because they serve up this very particular world and if you discover it, and you like it, you kind of settle down for life.

SARA-MAE: Yes, exactly. I love PG Wodhouse as well.

EMMA: Yeah, yeah. And it’s consistent. And that is a lot to do with the fact that they’ve found a voice that works. They found their voice. And so, there’s a lot of things that, book by book, she’s not having to work out from scratch each time. That, and an extremely supportive husband and only one child who went to boarding school. I think that helps too.

SARA-MAE: Yes, exactly. And I don’t think he was even allowed to stay in the uh… when they were living in that sort of posh… the Albany or, as Stephen Fry corrected me, it’s just Albany.

EMMA: Yes, yes, Albany. And there was something about… they did manage to get a special dispensation for him to stay in the school holidays, but he was not around day-to-day needing taking to school and picking up and giving having his socks darned. And that would help!

SARA-MAE: What do you think of her use of gin and Dexedrine to… I’m always interested in how writers such as yourself… what’s your process? Would you ever consider gin and Dexedrine to keep you up all night?

EMMA: I’m not sure, can you buy Dexedrine these days? You certainly could then. I wouldn’t use gin. [It’’s] not unknown for a bottle of wine to feature. I would, but I have learnt, on the whole, that if I stay up very late, not just till bedtime, but well beyond normal bedtime, I do get lots written but actually I take out the changes the next day and the next couple of days. And I’m not sure… I mean it can be the right thing to do because if you’re on a roll then you probably want to go with it… But you do then actually find the next couple of days, even if you can write, you don’t write nearly as much. I suspect that one’s average over the week is much the same, whether you do it in one mad go all night, or whether you do it in steady chunks through the week. Also, I used to find when I was doing that with essays at university that I invariably got an outrageously appalling cold shortly afterwards, it’s terribly bad for your immune system, I’m sure Dexedrine is as well!

SARA-MAE: I have a feeling that it probably isn’t the best.

EMMA: But, you know, it gets the books written. And it depends whether you think that’s worth it. One way to make a name for yourself. To make sure there’s a new book every year to, you know, for everybody… they’ve only just finished noticing the last one when the new one comes along. And that sustains that career in a way that it’s quite difficult to do otherwise. It’s still the case for my friends whose writing lives are in that mould: [where] there’s got to be a book a year.

SARA-MAE: I ask Emma whether there is some merit in the idea of training your brain to squeeze out an entire book very quickly… sort of like a mental tube of toothpaste.

EMMA: Yes. Well, I mean, I think it depends a lot on what you want to do. I think it’s only feasible if, as with Heyer or, as with someone who’s writing a detective series with a serious detective, but there has to be a lot of stuff you don’t have to make up from scratch. If you look at the most exciting authors at the cutting edge of literary writing, you know where the art form is going, they will not be doing that because they are… at the beginning of every novel, they go right back to zero, what am I doing? How am I going to do it? You know, Heyer is not thinking, “How do I write this novel?” She’s thinking, who are my people? Where is it set – between 1719 and 1830 or thereabouts? You know… who’s in love with who, who doesn’t want to be in love with who, and so on. And those are all incredibly important questions, but she’s not thinking, shall I tell it backwards? Shall I tell it inside out?


EMMA: You know, she’s not thinking about the voices. And that’s the thing. And I think that’s a big difference.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, she wasn’t troubled by post-modernist ideas.

EMMA: Ah, I think not. Though, certainly her comments on other people’s writing that I’ve come across in the biographies are extremely shrewd. I mean, like any writer, she reads much more widely than she writes. I don’t know What she would have thought of some of what’s being written these days. She might just have shrugged and then said “not what I want to write”, which we all have to do. And we all have to make our peace with the kinds of books that we admire, but don’t write.

SARA-MAE: This is a tough thing for any creative person to get to grips with. If your heroes are people like George Elliot and Austen, it’s hard to look at your own work and go, ‘yep, this is pretty good’, or it is for me, anyway. But if you allowed this feeling of inadequacy to stifle you, you’d never write anything. There’s room and readers for many different kinds of books – and they don’t all have to be ‘high art’. The reason Heyer has been so misunderstood by many is because she meets at the intersection between high and low art. But, as I saw someone saying on Instagram recently, there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, is there?

EMMA: Yes, you do what you do and there will always be someone to despise you for what you do. Whatever you do. You know, everybody has snobbery, some people’s snobberies are the other way up. I write what the book trade… well, the most positive term is ‘Book Group Fiction’, which is on the kind of literary/commercial borders. And that’s just me. When I was trying to write and getting feedback, it was before the rise of the book group. So, it was considered a tricky area to sell into. And I used to think I should try to be more literary, I should try and be more commercial… and my sister looked me in the eye and said, “But Emma, that’s who you are. You like Virginia Woolf, and you like Georgette Heyer.” So, I’ve learned to live with it and decide, well, I’m just gonna have to do what I do, as well as I possibly can and Heyer does what Heyer does. Well, she invented a genre. How many people get to do that?

SARA-MAE: Unfortunately Heyer is often lumped in with her far less talented imitators, or worse, seen as a bodice-ripping fluffy romance author, not that I have anything against romance novelists, I read an awful lot of them. But she’s so good, I feel she deserves to be in a class of her own.

EMMA: Yeah, I think that always happens with an innovator. I mean, I used to grumpily think that I didn’t like Mahler. I still don’t like Mahler because he sounds like film music. Well, actually, that’s because it’s the other way around. [Laughs] Film music sounds like Mahler because Hollywood music was largely written by refugees from Austria and Germany who fled the Nazis. And so, it was written by Mahler’s pupils, as it were. But if you listen backwards, you know, you hear it the wrong way around. And I have to say, I don’t read other Regency stuff. I only read Heyer.

SARA-MAE: It doesn’t surprise me that Emma doesn’t read other Regency romances. People on the Georgette Heyer Facebook fan club often suggest books they think will satisfy the Heyer itch. Since doing this interview I’ve read a few more of these sorts of works and I actually really enjoy many of them – but not for their likeness to Heyer. In fact, the more they try and ‘ape’ her distinctive Heyerisms, the more they annoy me or seem like a very hollow and unsatisfying attempt. With Heyer there’s such a sense of her strong guiding hand, I always feel enveloped in the warmth and elegance of her world.

EMMA: Yes, it is because she invented it, but I think it’s also because when she was finding her voice, when she was working her way towards what Jane Aiken Hodge in her biography calls her ‘golden vein’, she was drawing on the original sources. She was drawing on Austen, she was drawing on Johnson, she was drawing on the fiction written at the time, the ‘silver fork’ novels, as they’re called. And so, in a sense how well it is built of the original sources, when people write Regencies now, what they’re doing is they’re third hand, because they’re drawing on an already digested form, if that makes sense.

SARA-MAE: I’m going to be talking to author Mary Jo Putney in episode 16 all about this, possibly perceived, problem. Mary Jo is a best-selling author who’s written many Regency romances, so it will be fascinating to hear her take on the challenges of writing historical novels through a 21st century lens.

EMMA: But I do occasionally pick them up and think, ‘ooh, that looks fun’, and I read about two pages and think, well, I can’t be doing with this. I mean, I see that because I work with people who write historical fiction a lot, obviously because I do myself and because of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is now out there… what I find is that a lot of beginners are channelling their favourite historical novelist. So, you know, a lot of secondhand Bernard Cornwell, a lot of… some secondhand Heyer. And so, of course, it’s important that that’s where they get a lot of their sense of story. But if they want to write something that is really fresh and jumps off the page, they’re going to have to go back to the places that Cornwell drew on, the places that Peter Akroyd drew on. Because that’s the only way you’re going to find something fresh and original. And of course, that’s what Heyer did.

SARA-MAE: Emma’s book The Mathematics of Love is set in Regency England. And I was interested in whether or not Emma struggled, being such a Heyer fan, when it came to slipping in any of Heyer’s famous cant.

EMMA: Not too much, actually. I went back to Austen. Obviously I grew up on on Austen, my mother used to read her to us aloud. And reading aloud is brilliant for getting the sort of cadences… but I did go back and look at her sentences. There are a lot of memoirs from the Napoleonic Wars. I had a lot of that. I did know where I could find the sources that Heyer found for the camp. I mean, it’s all there. Most of it’s on the shelves of the London Library. And I didn’t go and find them because that wasn’t who my character was. He wasn’t an idle young man about town playing with thieves’ cant for the fun of it. I mean, I’m absolutely sure there are Heyerisms in there. If I went and looked, and that’s fine, you know, she’s tuned my ear, just like Peter Akroyd’s tuned it, you know. And I read a lot of Dick Francis as an adolescent, I spent most of my time alternating between, you know, 1970s racecourses, and Almacks in 1815. So, you know, you never quite know where bits come from. I don’t remember having to tell myself not to, I think they just didn’t because of who my character was, who Steven was. And he was a soldier and wasn’t in that world, but maybe I can’t remember to be honest. [Laughs]

But I’m sure that the cadences… in some senses, what I did was what Heyer did and went back to the originals. You know, it’s worth remembering she was born in 1880… [Editor’s note: 1902] Her earliest books are now… I realised this the other day with a bit of a shock… the earliest books are written exactly halfway between us now and the period she’s setting them in. The Black Moth came out in something like 1921.

SARA-MAE: As we mentioned in last week’s episode, Georgette wrote her first book at the age of nineteen – ludicrously young. This is a very lowering thought for those of us still wrestling with manuscripts in our thirties.

EMMA: I think one has to remember that women’s lives and the education of women was an awful lot narrower. You know, we all know an awful lot about biology and physics, than I’m sure she did. You know, and her father had a good library and she just… and there was no telly. So, you know, she just would have spent a heck of a lot of time reading. Mine came out different because I am different.

SARA-MAE: Everything we’ve been talking about comes back to the question of finding your voice as a writer – but in our early work we often lift our skirts and show the er…ankles of our influences? Wow, that metaphor was tripping over itself. Get it? (Sheesh I’m glad I didn’t tell that joke to Emma.)

EMMA: I’m never bothered by a student who’s writing feels like them trying to write like some famous writer, I think that’s completely fine. It’s a very natural process. What you want to do is then encourage them to kind of move on from that with the tools that it’s taught them and then find what their own particular synthesis is of what they’ve read, and who they really are.

SARA-MAE: Emma’s written two books, A Secret Alchemy and The Mathematics of Love, in which she tackles two very different time periods, Mediaeval and Regency. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt it myself, because the thought of all the research involved puts me right off, whereas both Emma and Heyer appear to be drawn to that very academic side of writing, enjoying poring over historical texts. Emma’s resources were a little closer to home. In The Mathematics of Love (a seductive combination of regency romance, gothic novel and Bildungsroman) she drew on the experiences of yet another of her famous ancestors, Thomas Wedgwood, who pioneered advances in early photography. Incidentally, her family tree is littered with talent and genius, with at least ten Fellows of the Royal Society and several artists and poets (including the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams)…

EMMA: There’s kind of two stages to the challenge of researching in order to write historical fiction. And first is finding the star. And you know, frankly, it’s an awful lot easier if you’re researching the stuff of your own country. And it is there and a lot of its online now, though, not all of it. But I think there’s a second process that has to go on, which is what Rose Tremain calls ‘leaving the research behind’. And she says, all the research you do, whether it’s historical or, you know, for other purposes, you know, geographical or factual, she says it must come untethered. It must loose definition until it’s ready to be used by the creative brain.

SARA-MAE: Emma cites this quote in its entirety on her excellent blog: The Itch of Writing. It comes from Rose Tremain’s essay “The First Mystery”:

“…All the research done for a novel – all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been – must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question…

Graham Green, when asked by a journalist how he would make use of an important experience he’d had in South East Asia, replied: “It’s yours to remember and mine to forget.” He was talking about the novelist’s task of reimagining reality. Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction. Data transferred straight from the research area to the book will simply remain data. It will be imaginatively inert.”

EMMA: One thing I’ve noticed is that if someone says please write a blog post about your process, a lot of my process is actually about trying to allow that business of letting go of the facts. I never write worse than when I’ve got the textbook in the other hand, because the printed words, they’re terribly powerful, it’s very…they dominate your brain, and they have a source of authority. That means they march straight across from the textbook onto my own pages, and it’s extremely difficult to tell them to bugger off. And so I have to do that by putting the book back on the shelf and going away and doing something else. And then writing the scene when I forgotten it all. And just trusting my memory. Maybe I took notes, but I haven’t got the notes in my hand now… trusting my sense of story to bring up the stuff that the story needs and not bring out the stuff that’s just tasty historical material that I want to put in. You have to let the story control what it needs. And it might need really very little.

When I am working with writers and actually just when I read historical fiction that I don’t think is very good: published stuff, very often it feels as if the research tail is wagging the story dog. I’ve got plenty of history stuff on my shelf, what I want is a story that reads as naturally as if they’d written a story about London in 2017. And I think that’s what Heyer’s good at.

SARA-MAE: A lot of Heyer’s very deep research is undervalued by critics. Her books on the Napoleonic Wars, An Infamous Army and Spanish Bride in particular, were meticulous in their period detail. I have to say, though, these two are not my favourites, but An Infamous Army is still used as a teaching tool at Sandhurst. Georgette was very proud of this.

EMMA: And I think she suffered actually from the fact that the spine of the story was, you know, a man and a woman getting together and failing to get together and all that stuff. And the fact that she was a woman, she suffered…historical fiction in general suffered as well from being dismissed from it being assumed that it was silly lady novelists… that’s actually partly to do with how history developed as a discipline in the 20th century, but she did suffer from it and [was not] taken as seriously.

SARA-MAE: Heyer longed to be able to write more serious novels like Penhallow, but they simply didn’t sell as well as her Regency romances or her detective fiction. And because she always seemed to be strapped for cash, she ended up focussing more on these sorts of works. Personally, I find Penhallow very tough going, possibly a deliberately punishing read about a family in Cornwall with an abusive patriarch. Also, her ‘tec fiction as she called it, isn’t as successful. For me, her Regency work is where her genius really came into its own.

EMMA: I do like Golden Age detective fiction, I adore Sayer and Allingham. And I like Christie. I mean, I don’t find hers particularly… I don’t think she took them terribly seriously, to be honest. They always were, you know, on the whole, they’re a nice break from writing what she really wanted to write and you know, and they made some extra money. I think one problem is that they date because they’re contemporary to then, and therefore they feel very ’30s and ’40s. Whereas historical fiction, actually it dates because you know, she is writing in the ’30s or the ’40s. But it doesn’t…it’s not so obvious that it dates because the slang is Regency slang. Her heart’s clearly in the historical stuff. I think she did, to some extent, in order to keep on publishing and keep on selling… I mean, God, the amount she sold, she must have made choices about what to write and what not to write. I mean, it’s notable that she’s writing a broader spread of, of different kinds of things earlier. I know Jennifer Kloester talks about how you can tell from the some of the jackets and so on, her historical fiction was published as fiction, if you see what I mean… general fiction that happened to be historical.

It’s only as the century goes on, that she starts being slotted into that niche. I mean, I think that would be common…I can’t say I’ve studied it in detail, but I think you’d find that was true with a lot of historical fiction writing that historical fiction in general got shoved off into a ghetto. I mean, it always reminds me a bit of Terry Pratchett saying you can write about, you know, the future of the universe, the depths of the heart, but as soon as you put a dragon in it, it gets put in science-fiction. It’s a bit like that… you can write about absolutely anything under the sun and as soon as you put a corset in it…

I think it’s changed enormously… I was a teenager when people like Peter Ackroyd were writing and then and there’s people like William Golding and John Fowles, and I’m afraid it’s partly because they’re men, they got taken more seriously. But also, it was that history with a capital ‘H’ is the discipline in the 20th century, it went through very sort of scientific stages, it reacted against the Victorian idea of kind of grand stories of great men and got down and dirty with, you know, parliamentary division roles and got very, very technical and was trying – possibly as a reaction to what had happened in the First and the Second World Wars – it was trying to be very emotionless and very much not about great people, or even small people, but not about people, but about social movements. And of course, Marxism had a big influence. Social movements and economic structures… and therefore anything that looked as if it was telling stories about history was deeply suspect, rather vulgar and probably very “girly” –  in quotation marks, I hope you realise!

And so, Heyer, along with people like Mary Renault, who is one of the great 20th century novelists, but because she’s writing about ancient Greece, she for a long time was considered… you know, parked off in that ghetto. And so, I think Heyer has suffered from that too.

SARA-MAE: We talked earlier about Heyer’s imitators, but it suddenly occurs to me that in some ways, you might say that Heyer was imitating Austen, whom she greatly admired. There are some people who wouldn’t want to mention Heyer in the same breath as Austen, such is their disdain for her. What does Emma think?

EMMA: I think Heyer clearly draws enormously on Austen. I think she has different settings. The voice very clearly draws on that, you know, if there’s a fluffy cloud somewhere with the world’s great writers on it, unquestionably has Austen on it. I don’t think it has Heyer on it.

SARA-MAE: This gets to the heart of one of the things I want to explore over the series. What makes a writer canon? What excludes Heyer, for example, from the fluffy cloud? I suppose for one thing, she wasn’t remotely religious, which is one of the reasons some of her Medieval novels didn’t quite ring as true as her Regency era books. She never fully understood the depth of passion for God, which people of those times would have felt. Still, what is it that sets top tier writers apart as classic authors?

EMMA: I’m talking about the hundred greatest writers all the way around the world there. But you know, that’s a bit like saying because we’ve got Beethoven, we don’t need Franz Lehar.

SARA-MAE: I admit, my classical music knowledge is sketchy. I had to look Franz Lehar up – FYI he was an Austro-Hungarian composer known mostly for his operettas… I have to admit, I’d have slotted him and Beethoven into the same category. So, for the sake of the other dummies out there, let’s swap him out for a more low-brow option: Nickelback? The Spice Girls? Bon Ivor?

EMMA: It’s not a particularly useful thing to put them up against each other. It’s apples and oranges to some extent, you know, any more than it’s useful to say, is Wodehouse as good as Dickens? Well, who cares?

SARA-MAE: This is an interesting point, and also, what do you mean by ‘good’ anyway? The reason I’ve been drawing the Austen/Heyer parallel, is because, often when I mention Heyer to people, they look at me blankly. So, it’s been easier for me to say, if you want that Austen fix, why not give Heyer a go?

EMMA: Depending a bit on what you love about Austen, but yes. A friend of mine, called [Heyer] brain chocolate, and I think that’s absolutely perfect. I certainly think if you like a really clever, witty, ironic… I think one thing that Heyer suffers from this is that people don’t see the irony? She’s very sharp. Somebody called Jane Austen sharp-tongued comedies about sex and money. And she’s absolutely right, though there is always at the heart of a Heyer, you know, the question of can a man and a woman work it out so that they can make a partnership.

You know, there’s a lot of irony. There’s some very sharp descriptions. She’s quite cynical in some ways. What it’s not is ever sentimental. And always shrewd, I think, is the word I want.

SARA-MAE: Yes, very shrewd about her characters, particularly the ones she’s kind of…her sort of tropes. Her heroes and…speaking of which, what are your favourite Heyers? And why?

EMMA: My favourite-ist of all Heyer, is Venetia.

SARA-MAE: That’s mine as well.

EMMA: Well, I think also, it’s because Venetia is one of her most proactive heroines. And she, you know, she basically does make her life, you know, with incredibly limited possibilities for a gentlewoman of that date to actually have any agency about shaping her own life. And she really does. It’s difficult not to succumb to that. I never know it’s DAME-erel or DAM-erel… I think partly because one of my personal ‘buttons’ is the bad man who heroically won’t ask you to marry him because he’s a bad man, that kind of thing. Terrible, terrible. But also, because it’s a particularly equal partnership. In how they make friends, what they like about each other. You know, in any world that’s appealing and particularly in a world where the genders are not equal at all. I think it’s a very convincing exploration of how to make a marriage equal, when the world doesn’t think you are, if that makes any sense.

SARA-MAE: And also how the fact that she has, like you’re saying… she has so much agency and dynamism even though she’s surrounded by selfish men in her life, that kind of… the ones who should be seeing to happiness and she has to take it into her own hands. And everybody in her life wants to tell her exactly how to live it and what you should do and she’s determined to bypass that and be happy.

EMMA: Yes, and to do things that are not terribly respectable, and to pull herself free from the selfish people. All the people who don’t care. I think it’s a lovely book. And actually, of course, Damerel is the least selfish of all in the sense that he refuses to ask her to marry him because he knows that she’ll say yes. And he doesn’t think she should say yes.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, he doesn’t think he deserves it.

EMMA: It gets me every time.

SARA-MAE: I know…and just the dialogue and the humour. And also, it’s not like she’s blinded to his faults. She loves him in spite of his faults. And they joke about his peccadilloes and things, which is really fun.

EMMA: His disreputable behavior. I mean, you know, it’s crossed my mind that the real Damerel would have had syphilis.

SARA-MAE: Not a good look.

EMMA: Not a good look. But actually, of course, I mean, that I do think is part of the appeal. One has to admit to it, that it’s not the real world at all. No, and there are lots of ways in which it conforms to an ideal sort of, well, the ‘golden world’ and you know, that’s part of the comfort that’s why one reads her when one’s got flu.

SARA-MAE: Hmm. So just to finish off on a biographical note. In her biographies, Heyer can sometimes… she comes across a little bit caustic, a tiny bit crusty when it comes to dealing with people.

EMMA: Oh, yes. I think she’s very forthright. Yes.

SARA-MAE: As someone who’s had numerous books written about various illustrious family members, I really want to know if Emma thinks a biography can truly get to the truth of a person? I’ll caveat this thought by saying I think both Jennifer Kloester and Aiken Hodge did a great job, especially Kloester, who had access to a treasure trove of letters which Aiken Hodge didn’t.

EMMA: Yes, I agree, I think they did. And actually, I have to say that I don’t think I would have liked her at all. [Laughs] I mean, the caustic side, it can be good fun, and it’s definitely what makes her books not marshmallowey and soppy. It’s because she can be very sharp about people. I think her politics were extremely… not mine. You know, she was an unashamed snob, which is one reason that it works in the historical fiction because you know, the class divisions there, whatever you think of them being wrong, historically, you don’t have to pussyfoot around them, because everybody agreed they were there. Much more problematic in the second half of the 20th century. I don’t think I would have liked her at all.

In terms of biography, I do think they both bring her alive. A biography can bring someone to life in a way to the extent that a photograph can. If you ever see two or three photographs of the same person, they can look remarkably different, and have a very different feel. And part of the biographer’s job is to create a sense of a convincing, whole person. But another biography might create a very convincing person who does seem a bit different. Herbert Butterfield, who was a very interesting early 20th century historian who, interestingly, was not as passionately anti-historical fiction, as most of them and wrote an interesting little book of historical fiction about different periods and how it brings history alive. And he said, just because there are a million views of a mountain, does not mean that all views are true, or no views are true. Which I think is really, really worth… it’s actually very worth hanging on to when you’re thinking about historical writing as a discipline. But I think it applies to biography as well as the sort of… there is the core truth which is the real person. And then good biographies give you a really good sense of that real person, but they cannot be the real person. And then there will be biographies you read and you think, ‘This is not a view of the mountain’! That’s not the mountain, but nothing can be the mountain, except the mountain.

SARA-MAE: I suppose what Emma means here is that, unless you’re talking to the person yourself, Mohamed going to the mountain so to speak, you can’t really get at the pith of someone, only an approximation based on assimilating many different facts. Perhaps biographies always bear the writer’s stamp. Jennifer Kloester talked to me about this in an upcoming episode – and she had many previously undiscovered letters at her disposal. But even letters and diary entries can be misleading. That’s why I don’t keep a diary, I tried it once and it was hopelessly self-indulgent. What I mean is, even these sorts of epistles might be misleading as to the true nature of their subject – though I suppose it depends who we’re writing for.

EMMA: There’s always the question of audience, you know, one’s writing a letter to a particular person. I find that very fascinating in fiction, actually, because you have a more direct sense of ‘audience’ and also when one writes letters to a particular purpose. I mean, even in the days when people wrote  letters instead of phoning up, there was a reason that you spoke to this or that person. I always think it’s a bit hard when someone digs into some famous person’s letters and finds them being a bit of a snob.

We all talk differently to intimates from how we do publicly. But that’s not the whole picture. People’s public-facing – photographers know this – how the person presents themselves is just as interesting.

SARA-MAE: In spite of her real-life crustiness Heyer is one of those authors I can read again and again, a port in a storm where I can rest assured that I’m in safe hands as soon as I open one of her books.

EMMA: Yes, you know what you’re going to get. And of course, that’s one of the ways you make a career writing the same sort of book is that people buy them knowing that they’re going to get something which is both new and interesting because it’s a new story, but also utterly reliable in what sort of pleasures it’s going to deliver. You know what you’re going to get, I mean, statistically the most likely next book for any person to buy, is a book by an author they’ve just read. And that is because you know what you’re going to get! I recently chaired the debut Crown Judges…

SARA-MAE: Emma’s referring to the Historical Novelist Society competitions which they call the ‘Crowns’, much like the Crime Writer’s Association has the Dagger awards.

EMMA: And I was blogging about those books on the shortlist and what a historical fiction writer could learn from any writer really. And I find the word that kept coming up was confidence. And these are new writers, then I was trying to think, okay, it’s all very well telling people to have confidence when they write, but what’s it made of? And I realised, it was about knowing what you’re trying to do and doing it very wholeheartedly. Not pulling back, not having doubts. Well, you might have doubts in the writing, but it comes across as I’m doing it wholeheartedly and wholly, and that gives the writing this coherence and consistency and working in a particular way. With Heyer one sinks into it. You know, it’s going to work. And I’ve made some converts. I usually suggest reading either Venetia or The Grand Sophy.

SARA-MAE: What does Emma say to convince people to read Heyer?

EMMA: Her research is impeccable. But also she’s very sharp and she’s very, very funny. And I say try… if you want something funny, then The Grand Sophy probably is as funny as any of them. And there’s this sort of energy, partly because of who Sophy is, you know, there’s a tremendous energy there. And also in some ways, it’s kind of classic Heyer because there it is in London, it’s the social round, all the balls, you know, all that stuff. But for the really…in some ways, the deeper certainly there is a quite a deep exploration of what makes two people be the right people for each other. I think Venetia maybe because it’s slightly slower paced, and it’s not endless balls. And also because there are obstacles in the way of them getting together. Time for Heyer to explore what it is that makes this sort of deeply satisfying partnership that we really want to work. Certainly, I would always prescribe for anyone writing historical fiction. A) For voice, not to imitate it, but to discover what a consistent voice feels like. And also, for how the research (and particularly the later books), it doesn’t stick out as research.

SARA-MAE: No, she wore it very lightly.

EMMA:  And I’m sure it was because she’d done it so often.

SARA-MAE: Thank you so much for spending time chatting with me today.

EMMA: You’re very welcome. It’s lovely, always very happy to talk Heyer.

SARA-MAE: To finish off, I ask Emma what’s she’s working on at the moment, and where you can find her on the interwebs.

EMMA: Emmadarwin.com, they can find out more about writing on my blog about writing which is This Itch of Writing, which you can Google. And I have just finished the first draft of a big novel, there’s a lot more to do, which is set in the 16th century, which is a great big beast. I mean, my next job is to get out of the machete and have a real hack at it. So, I’ve just finished that. And I also just wrote a rather peculiar memoir, lovely to talk to you.

SARA-MAE: Cheers. Have a great day. Bye.

SARA-MAE: Remember I mentioned her novel This Is Not a Book About Darwin? This is the memoir she’s talking about – you can buy it now at any good book seller. The 16th century book she’s referring to is A Secret Alchemy – which is also available to buy. Go and grab these fabulous reads now.

Next time, we’ll be having our second book club episode, covering Devil’s Cub – be sure and hop over to Audible to listen to the audio book – it’s a fabulous, swashbuckling read, featuring murder in the first chapter (well self-defense), a kidnapping and a hero with what some might call… severe impulse control problems.

I’ll be trying to convert the bassist from my band, Khalid Ham to Heyer’s work, and, as he’s the same age as the hero, trying to establish if the modern youth duels and shoots the flames off candles quite as much as their regency counterparts.

All of that, plus we’ll be looking at what was happening in Georgette’s life at the time – with brilliant voice actors recreating Heyer’s excursion to Tanganyika, Africa…hint, there’s a rhino involved.

Till next time, don’t be a muffin-faced clunch – stream us on 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 picking up milk and stellar production assistance.

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

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

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

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


I’ll sing a song of you, Georgette,

I’ll sing a song of you;

You’ve silky, brownish sorts of locks,

And cheeks of fairest hue;

You wear such pretty light blue frocks;

And joy to kick off both your socks —

I’ll sing a song of you.

And when you are asleep, Georgette, 

Oh when you are asleep,

Above the bordered coverlet

The little fingers peep;

I’d like to venture near, and set 

A kiss upon their tips, Georgette,

Because you are asleep.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SARA-MAE: We’ve got a pass, yes.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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


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

SARA-MAE: Oh, wow. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SARA-MAE: Indeed, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

SARA-MAE: Yes, yes, Hugo.

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

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

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

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, yeah.

SARA-MAE: …the Earl of Rule…


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

SARA-MAE: And just dip in.

STEPHEN FRY: Yeah, absolutely.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, my goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, it is. Absolutely right.

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

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

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

STEPHEN FRY: Yes. Exactly, yeah.

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


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

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

SARA-MAE: Yes, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, abridged!


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

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

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

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

STEPHEN FRY: And occasionally they do them on radio.

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

STEPHEN FRY: Oh, well…

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

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

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

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

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

STEPHEN FRY: Well, it’s a great…

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

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

SARA-MAE: Yes. Drusilla.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SARA-MAE: Thank you so much.

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

SARA-MAE: You too. Bye.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I need to go and have a lie down…


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

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

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

You can find Message to Bears here: messagetobears.com

Tom’s music here: tomchadd.bandcamp.com

And Emma’s website is: emmagatrill.com

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

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

We’re taking a short break…


We’re taking a wee break to work on the second half of the season and make it as good as it can possibly be. We’ll be back in a few months’ time with episodes 13-25 to finish telling Georgette’s story and solve the mystery of why her books have yet to be made into films. In the meantime, read the books on our reading list, and rate, review and recommend!

Find all 13 books here.

Take part in our conversation here:

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Find out how to support us here.

Book club episode no. 6: Cotillion

It’s another book club episode! This week Sara-Mae talks to Jojo Thomas – a trained Co-Active coach, and master hypnotist, plus Aiden Truss. He’s a novelist and copywriter, who is into sci-fi and edgy post-modern literature. Will either of them fall for Heyer’s delightful, frothy classic? The score so far is six yays to two nays.

Also this week, Georgette faces the media at a Tatler party. She and Pat have a gossip about the literati, and to her chagrin, Georgette is mistaken for Dame Edith Bagnold…

Remember there are spoilers so do read the book before listening…





Join in the fun by checking out our book list here: https://fablegazers.wordpress.com/heyer-today-reading-list/

And take part in our conversation here:

Twitter: @fable_gazers

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Heyer biographer Jennifer Kloester reveals illuminating details behind her work


This week Sara-Mae chats to Heyer biographer and novelist, Jennifer Kloester. As a world-renowned expert on Heyer, they discuss the mysteries of Heyer’s life, her relationship with Ronald, plus Jen’s journey to creating her great work – and the friendships she made along the way.

Listen, as Jen regales us with fascinating stories about fellow Heyer biographer Jane Aiken Hodge and Georgette’s son, Sir Richard Rougier, as she widens the aperture through which we get to see Heyer’s life.

Articles cited:

Heyer Films: Mythconceptions – All Things Georgette: https://jenniferkloester.com/2-heyer-films-mythconceptions-things-georgette/

Take part in our conversation here:

Twitter: @fable_gazers

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Facebook: fb.me/fablegazerspodcasts


Book club episode no. 5: The Quiet Gentleman

In this week’s book club episode on The Quiet Gentleman, we try and convert ‘corporate misfit’, competitive power lifter and comedian, Dom Patmore, as well as Sara-Mae’s cousin Talitha, who is also a digital strategy mogul and yoga teacher. But will they fall for the charms of this romantic Regency thriller?

Also this week, we find Georgette having the difficult task of breaking off her relationship with long-time father figure and agent, LP Moore…



Remember there are spoilers so do read the book before listening…

Join in the fun by checking out our book list here: https://fablegazers.wordpress.com/heyer-today-reading-list/

And take part in our conversation here:

Twitter: @fable_gazers

Insta: @fablegazers

Facebook: fb.me/fablegazerspodcasts


Movie magic: An interview with Andy Paterson and Peter Buckman about Heyer

This week we chat to film producer Andy Paterson and agent for Georgette Heyer’s estate Peter Buckman, as we try to unravel the mystery of why Heyer’s books haven’t been adapted for the screen. Andy, who has produced such luminous hits as Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Railwayman, chats to us about his latest project, and Peter Buckman elaborates on the more frustrating elements of metamorphosing a book into celluloid…


Join in the fun by checking out our book list here: https://fablegazers.wordpress.com/heyer-today-reading-list/

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Twitter: @fable_gazers

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Book club episode no. 4: Arabella

Heyer Today, the most epic literary podcast ever made, continues with our 4th book club episode. Our convert tally is 3/4 so far, but will this week’s victims, Robert (Global VP of Finance at Impact) and the very right Reverend Caroline Risdon, say yay or nay to our Regency queen?

Meanwhile, Georgette and her son Richard are in the Albany cellars as the doodle bugs fall on London. Luckily, they’re in good company: no less personages than JB Priestley, GB Stern, Graham Greene, Margery Sharp, Harold Nicholson and Edith Evans huddle beside them. Surely, if a bomb destroyed their apartments, London’s literary elite would be decimated!


Voice talent includes: Hedley Knight (JB Priestley and Graham Greene), Cathy Tuson (Margery Sharp), Helen Rose-Davidge (Georgette Heyer), Holly Golding (young Richard Rougier) and Fiona Thraille as Dame Edith Evans

Remember there are spoilers so do read the book before listening…

Join in the fun by checking out our book list here: https://fablegazers.wordpress.com/heyer-today-reading-list/

And take part in our conversation here:

Twitter: @fable_gazers

Insta: @fablegazers

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As ever, don’t forget to rate and review!




Episode 7 is out: Find out which are the definitive, primo Georgette novels…

Heyer Today is the ultimate Georgette Heyer podcast. This week, we’re interviewing Sunday Times best selling author Harriet Evans. She’ll be sharing her top 10 favourite Heyers.

We also chat about the perils of being a woman writer, comparing Austen and Heyer, plus dream up new rules for being a romantic hero/heroine. Stay tuned for the Stephen Fry appearance!

Join in the fun by checking out our book list here: https://fablegazers.wordpress.com/heyer-today-reading-list/

We discussed a plethora of Georgette’s Regency romances, including:

  • Black Sheep
  • Friday’s Child
  • Devil’s Cub
  • Lady of Quality
  • Faro’s Daughter
  • Arabella
  • Venetia
  • The Nonesuch
  • Bath Tangle
  • The Convenient Marriage


Don’t forget to take part in our conversation here:

Twitter: @fable_gazers

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And please, if you want to help keep us going, do give us a lovely review & rating.


Lots of love,