Guest Blogger Keira Soleore chats to Jennifer Kloester about all things Heyer…
Keira Soleore is a book reviewer for International Examiner, Frolic Media, USA Today and more. She’s also a lapsed engineer, editor and proofreader…
He is complete to a shade, a downy one, high in the instep, and a neck-or-nothing bruising rider of blood cattle.
She is a prime article, but an ape leader who has not a feather to fly with.
Will he offer her a slip on the shoulder, a carte-blanche, or become riveted to her?
Will she be on the high ropes, ring a peal over his head, or pull caps with him?
Will they end up making a mull of it or smelling of April and May?
During the early 19thcentury, it became quite the fashion for young upper-class gentlemen living in London to adopt some of the terms of the lower classes in their daily speech. You can imagine a conversation like the one I made up above. Georgette Heyer enjoyed researching these phrases and sprinkled them in her Georgian- and Regency-set novels to the delight of her readers.
In their relaunch of eleven of Heyer’s Regency romances as part of their Signature Collection, Sourcebooks included a Regency Glossary excerpted from Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester in the back of every book. The novels also included Reading Guides, which “embody readers’ Heyer Moments,” according to Deb Werksman, Editorial Director of Sourcebooks Casablanca. The Guides allow readers to “share these books in the context of their own lives.”
Three of the eleven titles were released on September 2018: Arabella, Frederica and The Grand Sophy. These were followed by These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub in January 2019, An Infamous Army and Cotillion in April 2019, False Colours and Black Sheep in July 2019, and Regency Buck and Venetia in September 2019.
Known for her shrewd insight, clever turns of phrase, and a genius for delicious romantic comedy, Heyer has delighted millions of readers for decades. According to romance author extraordinaire, Nora Roberts, “[Heyer’s novels have] utterly timeless charm. The dialogue sparkles with wit. And beneath that period speech, the ring of truth, the human flaws and virtues, speak just as perfectly to today’s reader.” And to draw in new readers of today to Heyer’s novels, Sourcebooks completely redesigned the covers.
The following interview with Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer’s official biographer, was first published by USA Today Happy Ever After. It is reprinted here with Kloester’s permission.
KEIRA SOLEORE: Jennifer, what led to your fascination with Georgette Heyer? And what was the impetus behind your choosing to write the biography of this reclusive author?
JENNIFER KLOESTER: My fascination with Georgette Heyer began with her books, and in particular her Regency and Georgian novels. I was living in the jungle in Papua New Guinea in a small mining town when I first discovered her novels at the tiny YWCA library there. Her books were wonderful, laugh-out-loud funny with an ironic wit that repaid multiple readings. She was such a breath of fresh air, and I loved her clever plots and the way her characters leapt off the page, not to mention that incredible sense of actually being in that Regency world. The more I read her books – and I read them again during our three years living in the Middle East and in all the years in between – the more I wanted to understand how she’d done it. How she’d achieved that seamless blend of history and fiction so that her readers utterly believed in the world she’d created.
When I returned to Australia, I won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne to do a PhD on Georgette Heyer and her Regency novels. As part of my research, I made contact with Heyer’s son, Sir Richard Rougier, who invited me to his home in England and gave me unfettered access to his mother’s papers. Sir Richard and I became good friends and on every subsequent research trip to England, he and his wife would have me to stay and he would tell me more and more about his mother and let me see the family photo albums, her baby book and a host of other material to do with her life and writing. Sir Richard also introduced me to other people who had known his mother and, perhaps most importantly, gave me permission to have access to the untapped archives of her early letters which I’d discovered in the course of my research. He also gave me permission to quote from them and from her novels and short stories.
Reading those 800-plus pages of Heyer’s letters was a revelation. Here at last was the woman whose work had so long fascinated me. Heyer was such a determined recluse – she never gave interviews or appeared in public and always refused to talk about her books. And now I had her own words and thoughts from 1921-1944, from when she was just eighteen years old and right through her twenties, thirties and forties in hundreds of handwritten letters.
Jane Aiken Hodge’s excellent 1984 biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyerhad only had letters dating from 1944 when Heyer was in her early forties and already very well-known. Given the wealth of fresh information a new biography seemed right. Sir Richard was totally supportive of the project, and I was so happy that he’d been able to read an early draft of the book before his untimely death in 2007.
Keira: What is your opinion about Heyer’s uncanny ability to offer the reader a front-row seat to a fully-realized complex Regency world? How much of it was actual research on her part and how much of it was invention?
Jennifer: Heyer’s world-building was extraordinary, and I think it’s definitely one of the reasons she’s still so popular today. Her Regency world draws readers in and is utterly convincing, and there are several reasons for this. Heyer was incredibly well-read and had an extraordinary memory. She made a point of going to the original sources for much of her information about Regency life, society and culture, and she read the diaries, letters and journals of people like Lady Sarah Lennox, who had lived through the period, as well as works like Pierce Egan’s Life in London. She had a wonderful ear for language and, as any Heyer reader will tell you, her dialogue is marvelous and one of the hallmarks of her books. She was also a huge Jane Austen fan and if you know Austen, you’ll find her language throughout Heyer’s novels. Heyer also sometimes used Austen’s plots as a starting point for her own novels which I think adds another layer of authenticity to her work.
The other thing that enabled Heyer to bring the period to life was her own childhood. Growing up in Wimbledon in the early 1900s she knew first-hand what it was like to have servants, to ride in a carriage, to be part of a strictly-ordered social hierarchy. She was also raised with a strong set of principles and these come through very strongly in her books. Of course, Heyer’s Regency is a slice of the historical Regency – it’s a carefully constructed world with a focus on the upper class. Naturally it’s imbued with Heyer’s twentieth-century worldview – she couldn’t escape that – but it didn’t stop her from creating a Regency world that feels totally real.
I doubt that Heyer would have felt that she “invented” her Regency world. She was meticulous in her research and worked hard to achieve the level of historical detail that seems so effortlessly diffused throughout her writing.
Keira: Heyer is said to have said, “I am to be found in my work.” She was known to be rather circumspect with her personal life, so what sort of information did you uncover that revealed aspects of who Heyer really was in her books?
Jennifer: It’s true that there is much of Heyer, the private woman, to be found in her books, and Heyer did say that in a letter to her agent, Joyce Wiener. Pivotal moments in her life are reflected throughout her novels and certain novels are a kind of marker of particular events in her life. For example, there are definitely times when her deep grief over her father’s shocking and unexpected death comes through in her writing – in Bath Tangle, Lady Serena can hardly bring herself to speak of her beloved father’s death. Heyer wrote that book thirty years after her own father’s passing, but she never really got over his death and there are moments in that book that reflect some of those feelings. She would never have had her wounds held up for public scrutiny and she kept a very tight hold on her emotions in her personal life, so I think her main emotional outlet was her novels.
There is so much emotion in her books and such insight into human nature. You only have to read a book like A Civil Contract to see how clearly Heyer sees people with all their strengths and weaknesses. She was ferociously private and would have found talking about her books or her writing success extremely vulgar. Vulgarity was for Heyer the worst kind of social solecism.
Apart from her deep inner life there are other things about Heyer to be found in her novels. Arabella, for instance, is one of Heyer’s most delicious confections and it’s the book that first alerted me to Heyer’s love of Austen, who was her all-time favourite author. Arabella Tallant’s family reminded me strongly of Austen’s family, with the bookish, intellectual clergyman father and the highly intelligent mother who is determined to see her children succeed, and I suspect it’s from them that Heyer took her inspiration for Arabella’s lively family. There’s also Arabella’s brother Bertram who is sent down from Oxford and gets into all sorts of trouble from which she must rescue him. Heyer had two younger brothers of her own and though they were never sent down, there’s no doubt that Heyer felt a strong responsibility for them, especially after their father’s unexpected death when the boys were still teenagers. Brothers loom large in Heyer’s novels, and I think she understood them very well.
The Grand Sophy tells us a lot about Heyer’s passion for historical detail and her love of good books. There’s so much in a Heyer novel that to tease out all the parts that make up the whole is impossible, and Sophy is no exception. An immensely satisfying novel, in Sophy among other things, Heyer reveals more of her literary heritage through the wonderful character of Augustus Fawnhope, the absent-minded poet, and shows us how much she disapproves of pretension and self-righteousness in her depiction of the pious Eugenia Wraxton.
Keira: In your afterword for Arabella, you’ve mentioned that living in Albany in central London, Heyer was ideally situated to imagining Arabella living in that world. Why is this so?
Jennifer: Albany is in the heart of central London. A grand late eighteenth-century building, it is set well back from the busy thoroughfare that is Piccadilly but directly across the road from the famous grocer, Fortnum and Mason. There’s no public access to Albany, which was turned into flats (known as sets) in the early nineteenth century, so despite the traffic noise, it’s incredibly quiet and peaceful. Many famous people lived there, including Lord Byron, Dame Edith Evans and the historian Macaulay, whose ghost was said to haunt Heyer’s third-floor apartment. Her writing desk looked out over Vigo Street with Sackville Street just beyond, an aspect little changed since the days of the Regency. I don’t think it would be hard, living in such a place, to imagine the horses and carriages, the street-sweepers, the peddlers and pie-sellers calling out their wares, the street-urchins begging in their rags, the chimney-sweepers, the lamplighters, the ladies in their walking dresses being attended by their footmen, or the gentleman on their horses on their way to Hyde Park. The streets where Arabella walked or drove are still there today and in 1949, when she wrote the novel, Heyer would have still found many remnants of Arabella’s world in the London streets and buildings around Albany.
Keira: How did the cosmos of writers, artists and actors of Albany inspire Heyer? Was she much given to parties and socializing?
Jennifer: Well, she loved the privacy and atmosphere of Albany and all of its connections to bygone days. This was a very civilized and rarified world in many ways and an ideal place to write books – especially books set in the Regency era, as Albany had been converted into bachelor apartments in 1802. She loved it there, and she even made it a home for her fictional Captain Gideon Ware, the hero’s hugely attractive cousin in her 1948 novel, The Foundling.As for socializing,she very much enjoyed dinner parties where there were not too many people and she could easily converse with the other guests. She had a marvelous sense of humor and a booming laugh but she was also incredibly shy – an aspect of her personality that she frequently camouflaged by talking nineteen to the dozen to strangers. She enjoyed a convivial drink and sometimes went to cocktail parties at the Albany with her husband. Her publisher, A.S. Frere, the CEO of Heinemann, and his wife, Patricia Wallace (daughter of author Edgar Wallace who wrote King Kong), also had a set in Albany, and they often invited authors and other artistic people to dinner or drinks in their home. Heyer and her husband Ronald were frequent guests, and she enjoyed mingling with other writers such as Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Margaret Kennedy and Rebecca West. Heyer was a great reader and was fascinated by different writers and writing styles. She read many contemporary authors as well as reading history and the classics, especially Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, in whose works she found much to inspire her own novels.
Keira: In your afterword, you’ve said that you consider The Grand Sophy to be Heyer’s funniest novel. Why do you think so? What is it about this book’s imbroglio ending that makes it so memorable?
Jennifer: Heyer wrote a remarkable number of very funny novels, including The Grand Sophy. She was a master of ironic comedy and took great delight in turning romantic stereotypes on their heads. Among her most brilliant novels are several, including Friday’s Child, Cotillion, Sylvester andThe Unknown Ajax, all of which have superb imbroglio endings. The Grand Sophy is another of these and it’s also a novel that is funny all the way through. In it, Heyer assembled a cast of characters to entertain (as she would say) even the most world-weary or cynical reader. Sophy, of course, looms large, but her personality, wit and perception are all thrown into sharp relief by the other players in the novel. The dour and judgmental Eugenia Wraxton is the perfect foil for lively and principled Sophy and their scenes together are not only funny, but also immensely satisfying. Lord Bromford, with all of his glorious pomposity and self-assurance, inspires laughter whenever he appears, as does the divinely handsome but inept poet, Augustus Fawnhope. The plot becomes wonderfully tangled as Sophy sets about putting everything to rights. Every character and every scene is perfectly constructed to lead the reader on a merry chase to the end. And what an ending – complete with a shooting, a rescue party, star-crossed lovers, wayward ducklings, a Spanish Marquesa in a sacking apron, bad poetry and a hero who tells his beloved that he “dislikes her excessively.”
Keira: What did Heyer think about the story? Did she have any concerns about it as she was writing it?
Jennifer: Though she actually wrote her novels with what appears to most people to be extraordinary ease – she could write a 100,000 word novel in a few months – there were times when Heyer felt her writing to be a struggle. Though she did not encounter any real obstacles in writing The Grand Sophy, when asked about it she replied in typically self-deprecating style that, “My brother says it is most amusing, but I have bought a large bottle of disinfectant.” While in the throes of writing a particular book she would sometimes tell friends and family that it “stank.” Once it was published, however, she would think much better of it and was even known to acknowledge the worth of a novel a few years after publication. When Sophywas finally finished and handed to her publisher she did admit that the story did “not perhaps stink as much as at one time I feared it might.” Of course, the novel did brilliantly and was an instant bestseller. It did well in America, too, where Heyer had by now attracted a very large audience:
Heyer’s self-deprecation has become legendary but it was not a reflection of her real feelings about her books. She loved writing and she yearned to be taken seriously. Always well-reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, she struggled as I think every author does to hold fast to her confidence. Every new book was a brand new undertaking. She gave her heart and soul to her writing which was just one reason why her books proved so successful and enduring. The truth was, as her son Richard said, “she was a compulsive weaver of stories and it was just talk to say she had to write another Regency to pay tax.”
Keira: You’ve remarked in your afterword for Federica that the book reflects some of the joy that Heyer felt in her son’s marriage. How so?
Jennifer: She adored her son’s wife, Susie as well as Susie’s boys from her first marriage, and I think they were the inspiration for Felix and the Merriville’s happy family life in Frederica. Felix is such a lively and engaging character and he has such an unexpected effect on the cynical Marquis of Alverstoke, erupting into his life and bringing all that joyful, innocent energy and affection with him – not unlike Heyer’s new step-grandsons. Heyer had initially been a bit wary of her only son marrying a divorcée with children, but Susie and her boys won her over to such an extent that Heyer later said she couldn’t imagine how she’d gotten on without Susie in her life.
Keira: Sourcebooks’ delightful new covers of some of the novels feature dogs. Did Heyer love dogs or is it simply a coincidence that many of her novels feature them?
Jennifer: She adored dogs and had them from infancy. Her grandmother and aunts had dogs, and Heyer had a series of dogs through her childhood. There’s a gorgeous photo of her taken about the time of writing The Black Moth when she was 17 and she’s sitting with her hand on her beautiful Pekinese. Another beloved dog was Roddy the Sealyham who was with her when she married and went with her to Africa in 1926. Roddy was still with her when they moved to Sussex in 1930. After Roddy died, they acquired Jonathan Velhurst Viking, a pure white bull-terrier with a pedigree and known in the family as Johnny. Johnny ruled the roost and was a highly intelligent animal but he preferred people to dogs and adored baby Richard. As a toddler Richard would sometimes take his nap with Johnny beside him, and Heyer once described finding her son fast asleep while “firmly clasping the large & grim-looking bull-terrier in his arms. How unhygienic, but such a nice picture!” In the mid-1930s, Heyer also acquired a magnificent wolfhound named Misty Dawn. They were great pals, and she once told her publisher in response to a request for publicity that she would bring her wolfhound to the Ritz as she was sure that would definitely create a stir. Though they took Johnny to live with them in Albany in 1942, after he died, Heyer had no more dogs as it was just too difficult while living in an apartment.
Keira: One of the most delightful nuggets of information I gleaned from your afterwords is that Queen Elizabeth declared herself to be a Heyer fan. How did you discover this?
Jennifer: Heyer wrote a wonderful long letter about it to a friend in South Africa of which I have a copy. In it she gives a brilliant description of being “rung up by a male character, who asked me if I would speak to Sir Mark M[ilbank]. AsBlack Sheepwas just out, & I had been besieged by telephone calls from the worst kind of reporter, I was wary, & said, very frostily, ‘Who is Sir Mark [Milbank]?’ The voice responded starchily: ‘I am speaking from Buckingham Palace!’ Rocked off my balance, I said weakly that I would speak to Sir Mark. He turned out to be the Master of the Household, & he’s quite a poppet.”
He had rung to ask if Heyer would “lunch informally with the Queen & the Duke on Nov. 3rd? (‘We are all madly keen on your books here!’)” Completely stunned, she meekly informed him that she would “be honoured.” A fortnight later, Harrod’s chauffeur drove her to Buckingham Palace in Ronald’s Rolls Royce. Heyer was a little nervous but the chauffeur reveled in the occasion and on arrival at the palace gate told the policeman “haughtily, ‘Miss Georgette Heyer to lunch with Her Majesty!’ The rozzer then bowed, & stepped back, & the chauffeur inclined his head graciously––! and swept on, visibly at bursting point!”
Heyer had “looked forward to this do with extremely mixed feelings” but in the end she found it “all very easy, but also very funny.” When she eventually sat down to lunch (after drinks and conversation and the corgis jumping all over the Queen), “a certain air of unreality came over me” and she could only think, “like the old woman in the nursery-rhyme, ‘Lawks-a-mussy on me, this is none of I!'” She enjoyed herself, though she thought “it was the oddestparty! There were ten or twelve guests, & I was the only Female!!!…I have since learnt that there is never more than onewoman at these informal lunches she gives to People in the News.”
Heyer sat on the Duke’s right hand and they conversed amicably through the first two courses before he turned his back on her and spoke to his left-hand neighbor for the remainder of the meal. Having been “brought up NEVER to slew round in my chair at a dinner-party, presenting my back to my other neighbor,” Heyer was a little shocked and “pleased to see that the Queen was also brought up like that!” She had liked the Queen, whom she perceived “had a merry twinkle, & quite a lively sense of the ridiculous,” but she was also amused to discover that her monarch seemed to be a little in awe of her. Carola Oman had warned her of the possibility “because Royals are always frightened of Inkies. I didn’t foresee it, but it rapidly dawned on me that she was! She kept on stealing sidelong looks at me, & blushing pink whenever I happened to catch her eye.”
A few days after this memorable lunch Heyer visited Harrods’ book department where the manager, Miss Lindsay, told her that the Queen had been in to buy twelve copies of Frederica. Her Majesty had mentioned Heyer’s visit and remarked “she’s a formidable woman.” Heyer’s reaction on telling her publisher, Max Reinhardt, this story over lunch at the Hyde Park Hotel was to ask loudly, “I’m not formidable! Am I formidable, Max?” But the Queen was right, and it was the word friends and family most often used to describe her.
Keira: It’s been wonderful speaking with you, Jennifer. Thank you very much for making time for me.
Jennifer: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Keira.