Top 12 Free Things to do in London

There are so many reasons why London is my favorite city in the world, not just the city’s obvious reverence of the past. No matter how many times I visit this vast, varied, and vivacious city I keep finding fresh things to do. And many of them are free–which is good since London is an extremely expensive city in which to stay and to eat.

Most of the great free museums ask for donations and have Plexiglas receptacles for these.

I was unable to limit myself to ten, so here’s my Top 12 List of Free Things to Do in London:

1. The National Portrait Gallery. Backing up to Trafalgar Square, this is my go-to place on every visit to London. The collection of Regency portraits is outstanding. I typically visit here several times each trip just to oogle.

This portrait of the Regent dominates one of the chambers dedicated to the Regency. Note Emma Hamilton next to him.

This portrait of the Regent dominates one of the chambers dedicated to the Regency. Note Emma Hamilton next to him.

You can also see the controversial (with only a hint of her spectacular smile) portrait of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and a fabulous informal one of her handsome hubby with his devilishly cute brother. Remember, the gallery’s open late on Thursday and Friday evenings and be sure to check out the bar/restaurant at the top. The London views from there are spectacular.

2. The Wallace Collection. Yes, this is one of London’s great art museums, but what makes it a must-see for those of us who love the English Regency, it is housed in a London townhouse built in the late 1700s for the Duke of Manchester, when it was known as Manchester House. In 1797, Lord Hertford bought the lease, and the house in Manchester Square became known as Hertford House. The Regent visited here regularly since Lady Hertford was his mistress. In Victorian times, the house came into the possession of the illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), of the bachelor 4th Marquess of Hertford. Wallace inherited his father’s extensive art collections and chose to display them in this home. His widow gave the house and its contents to the nation. Hertford House is located close to the Bond Street shopping.

One of the rooms at Hertford House

One of the rooms at Hertford House

3. Kenwood House/Hampstead Heath. Do I begin with the heath or the house? Oh, but I love Hampstead Heath! One can stand amidst natural vegetation unchanged in centuries and enjoy spectacular views of London below.

Kenwood House overlooking Hampstead Heath and London

Kenwood House overlooking Hampstead Heath and London

At the heath’s eastern edge stands the villa known as Kenwood House, which was remodeled by Robert Adam in the late 18th century. Kenwood houses another fabulous art collection bequeathed to the nation, along with the house, in 1927 by the Earl of Iveagh. Artists whose master works are here include Rembrandt, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The house has many attractions, including Adams’ incredibly elegant library, and an orangery–the first one I ever saw. No trip to London is complete for me without visiting the borough of Hampstead, and no trip to Hampstead is complete without a visit to one of my all-time favorite pubs, the Spaniards Inn, a 400-year-old inn adjacent to the vast heath.

4. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Even though it’s touted as the world’s greatest museum of art and design, it’s so much more–especially to those who love Georgian England. You’ll see jewels belonging to long-dead aristocrats and royals, clothing, furnishings, and you’ll even learn about some of London’s great houses that have been demolished.

One of the hundreds of displays at the V&A

One of the hundreds of displays at the V&A

Like at the British Museum, you can spend days here.

5. Primrose Hill. I read somewhere (probably in Georgette Heyer!) that duels used to be fought here during the Regency but have not been able to verify this. Now Primrose Hill is located in an extremely posh area of London near Regent’s Park and St. John’s Wood.

Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill

During one visit here with my son’s London friend, I was shown the nearby house of actor Jude Law. I have since come to understand many, many British celebs live in the Primrose Hill area, including Simon Callow, Daniel Craig, Kate Moss, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, and Robert Plant. The real attraction here–day or night–is the spectacular panoramic view of London.

6. The British Museum. One could spend weeks here. Even more memorable than the Rosetta Stone to me are the Egyptian mummies.mummy And one cannot go to London and not see the Elgin Marbles.

 

7. London Parks. I couldn’t list just one. My personal favorite, though small, is Green Park. Begin adjacent to the Ritz on Piccadilly and head west all the way to Buckingham Palace. I never tire of the Palladian elegance of Spencer House, which backs up to the park. Hyde Park is huge, and I confess that I’ve never seen all of it, even though on two different stays my London flat was just across the street from it.

Hyde Park

Hyde Park

Another great large park is Regent’s Park, which I will attest to seeing all of, and I had the sore feet to show for it! The neighborhoods around Regent’s Park are exceptionally posh. Expect to see homes belonging to sheikhs. A wonderful smaller neighborhood park is Holland Park in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (which I’ve blogged about when I wrote about Holland House–then and now). The gardens are lovely, and visitors can stroll through the old arcades left from Holland House, where the Barons Holland resided in Georgian times. Much of the house was destroyed in World War II.

8. Cheyne Walk. This is a rarity in London: a street of lovely, substantial mansions practically on the banks of the River Thames. This unforgettable street in Chelsea was home in the 19th century of many artists and authors, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Eliot, JMW Turner, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

This home on Cheyne Walk, overlooking the River Thames, is where Dante Garbriel Rossetti lived in Victorian times.

This home on Cheyne Walk, overlooking the River Thames, is where Dante Garbriel Rossetti lived in Victorian times.

In the 1930s Laurence Olivier lived here, and in the 1960s Mick Jagger lived at Number 48 with Marianne Faithful, and fellow band mate Keith Richards lived at Number 3. The houses have fences around them for privacy and locked gates, but their view of the bustling river has not been obstructed. The closest I’ll ever be to glimpsing inside one of these houses is rewatching a Jeremy Britt episode of Sherlock Holmes. One of Holmes’ fictional clients lived on Cheyne Walk, and a scene supposedly depicts the home’s great river views.

9. Portobello Road. This antiques Mecca comes alive every Saturday when hundreds of stalls open. I’ve been coming here for two decades and I confess to being a bit disappointed in it in recent years. It’s been discovered by the masses, many of whom probably learned about it from the Julia Roberts film Notting Hill. It’s gotten very crowded, prices have skyrocketed, and a lot of cheap imports have wormed their way in. portobelloStill, it’s a great place to see all kinds of “small” antiques, ranging from fine silver and pottery to ladies’ dresser sets and artwork. Many shops and stalls start closing in the afternoon, so come early.

 

10. The British Library. Close to the British Museum, the new British Library doesn’t have the fabulous reading room of the old British Library, but it’s still worth a visit. I came armed with archival references, a pencil with which to write (no pens permitted), and applied for and received a card. The average tourist will want to see the Magna Carta and other priceless documents on display.

These ancient sacred writings are on display at the British Library.

These ancient sacred writings are on display at the British Library.

11. Kensington Palace Gardens–the street. This street on the north side of Hyde Park is the most expensive address in the world and is sometimes known as Billionaire’s Row. Case in point: the de Rothschilds lived here until 2000. One house recently sold for £90 million–$140 million in U.S. dollars. Many foreign embassies are located here, and while it’s pedestrian friendly, armed guards control vehicular access.

This is the entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens Street from Bayswater Road. Mansions line either side of the street, which abuts Hyde Park.

This is the entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens Street from Bayswater Road. Mansions line either side of the street, which abuts Hyde Park.

12. London Walks. Not to be confused with the commercial London Walks (like Jack the Ripper’s London, or Beatles London, or any of those informative walks I highly recommend), I advocate walking London. Regency buffs will enjoy a stroll along St. James where they can pick out those famed clubs such as White’s or Brooks. There are also self-guided walks of Fleet Street and Legal London, Royal London, and many others.

Strolling on the South Bank of the River Thames

Strolling on the South Bank of the River Thames

I urge visitors to walk the city. When I first started going to London many years ago, the East End and south of the Thames were not that desirable. Not so today. One of the best walks in London is along the South Bank of the River Thames. We start at Westminster Bridge and go all the way to Tower Bridge. It can take a full day if one stops along the way to see the Globe or the Tate Modern or any of the trendy restaurants.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s not a part of this burgeoning metropolis I don’t enjoy walking. Or visiting. That’s one of the reasons why it’s my favorite city.–Cheryl Bolen, whose articles on Georgian England can also be found on her website, http://www.CherylBolen.com.

London’s Devonshire House–Gone

Though it was demolished 90 years ago, Devonshire House was one of London’s most fabulous aristocratic homes for a couple of centuries. One of the things that set it — and a handful of other aristocratic homes — apart from typical town homes of the nobility was the plot of land that surrounded it. While many of London’s grandest houses were terraced (what Americans might refer to as “row houses”), Devonshire House sat on three choice acres on Piccadilly, with a view of Green Park from the front and a view to the garden of Berkeley Square from the rear (across the gardens of Landsdowne House).

Devonshire House, late 1800s

Devonshire House, late 1800s

As with Melbourne House (now Albany), Burlington House, and Landsdowne House (all significantly altered), Devonshire House was entered through gates large enough for a carriage to pass, and gardens and outbuildings were located within the walls.

Cheryl Bolen with Devonshire House Gate behind her

Cheryl Bolen with Devonshire House Gate behind her

Today, the gates of Devonshire House have been relocated across Piccadilly to serve as an entrance to Green Park. (In the photo, I’m seated within Green Park with the Devonshire House gates behind me.) A London underground ticket office now lies beneath what was once Devonshire House, and now the Ritz is across the street. (In the photo below, the French-looking Ritz Hotel is on the right, abutting Green Park, and the office building that replaced Devonshire House in the 1920s is the larger building in the picture.)

Home to the Dukes of Devonshire, the Palladian house was completed in 1740 for the 3rd Duke, with William Kent serving as architect. This structure replaced the former Berkeley House, which burned. Berkeley House, bordered by Piccadilly and Berkeley Street, had been built in 1665-1673 by Lord Berkley and was later the residence of Charles II’s mistress, Barbara Villiers before the 1st Duke of Devonshire bought the classical mansion.

Though the exterior of Kent’s Devonshire House was plain, the interiors were said to be sumptuous, with a 40-foot long library the highlight of the three-story house.

It also housed what was said to be the finest art collection in England. Many of these paintings can now be found at the current duke’s opulent country house, Chatsworth House.

Devonshire House was famed in the late 18th century as the nucleus of Whig politics, presided over by the duchess Georgiana, wife to the 5th duke. A hundred years later a grand dress ball to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was held there. Also during Victorian times, the house was altered by James Wyatt, who was one of the most fashionable architects in the late 19th century.

Large white building replaced Devonshire House in the 1920s; French building at right is Ritz; white, flat building in foreground is for London Underground. Taken from Green Park.

Large white building replaced Devonshire House in the 1920s; French building at right is Ritz; white, flat building in foreground is for London Underground. Taken from Green Park.

Following World War I, Devonshire House was abandoned in 1919 as the 9th Duke was the first to be required to pay high death duties. These amounted to £500,000 (approximately $16 million today). The 9th duke sold off much of his fine library, including a Caxton and many first editions of Shakespeare. In 1921, he sold Devonshire House and its three-acre garden for $750,000. The house was demolished in 1924, and an office building–also called Devonshire House–now stands on the site–Cheryl Bolen. See http://www.CherylBolen.com for more articles.

Barbaric Practices in the Name of Medicine

“I was obliged to send for the Apothecary, who bled me very plentifully, but, tho’ it made me faint, it has reliev’d me wonderfully. Tonight I feel languid and stupid.” Those two sentences were written around 1800 by Lady Harriett Bessborough to her lover, Granville Leveson Gower. (A couple of days later, she came down with the chicken pox.)

Bloodletting
Bloodletting

 

As those of you familiar with the 18th and 19th century know, the aforementioned blood-letting was a common occurrence up until the 20th century. It was only one of the idiotic practices that were inflicted upon well-educated people by medical practitioners whose knowledge of  the human body–by today’s standards–was nonexistent.

In my reading of journals and letters from the era, I’m quite often shaking my head in disbelief over the barbaric treatments subjected upon patients by apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, oculists, and dentists. Here are some of these bizarre treatments I’ve underlined in my readings.

Take Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, sister of Lady Bessborough. When her eye swelled up, the surgeons were summoned. Among these oculists was Senior Surgeon-Extraordinary to King George III.  One of these so-called learned men almost strangled her to death in an effort to flush the blood up to her head. They also “broke” her eye, rendering her deformed for the rest of her life.

Bear in mind, there was no anesthesia at the time; so, most of these procedures were done on patients who were awake.

One wonders how people survived at all. Of course, we know life expectancy was quite low, and many early deaths must be laid at the door of these quacks. These medical practitioners had no medical training. They studied astronomy, thinking that the human body’s “humours” were affected by astronomy.

Another case of misguided doctoring occurred with the young son and heir of Lord Elgin (of Elgin Marbles fame). The sickly lad suffered from asthma, so it was recommended to have him drink mercury. His doting mother, thinking she was spurring her son to good health, kept dousing him with the toxic mercury.

Needless to say, the lad never inherited his father’s title for he died young after suffering a lifetime of very poor health. (His father’s title passed to a son from Lord Elgin’s second wife, after he divorced the lad’s Scottish heiress mother.)mistress

In her memoirs Mary Elizabeth Lucy, the mistress of Charlecote Park, tells of a tumble she took as a girl around 1810. It loosened her teeth. Her concerned mother took her from their home in Wales to consult a dentist in Liverpool who was known to be very clever. He immediately recommend removing every tooth in her mouth, setting them in gold, and putting them back. He said if he didn’t do that, all the teeth would drop out.

A panicky Mary Elizabeth entreated her mother not to allow the dentist to remove all her teeth. And at age 80, all her teeth were still intact.

Mary Elizabeth also tells of the three doctors who attended her daughter, who’d suffered an attack of tetanus. “They cut off all her beautiful hair, blistered her poor head and nearly her whole body and applied such hot bottles to her feet and legs that they made them perfectly raw.” Remarkably, she survived that treatment, but her lifespan was less than half of her mother’s.

Reading these accounts deglamorizes the life of the rich and famous of Georgian England and makes me ever so glad I was born when I was.–Cheryl Bolen, whose newest Brides of Bath book, Love in the Library, is now available. 

19th Century London at Dawn

What were Londoners doing if they were not born into the class that was permitted to sleep late? Just after the break of dawn, shops – and, surprisingly, pubs (public houses) – opened. Here’s an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which was published in installments beginning just after the Regency, in 1837. This short excerpt paints a vivid picture of the various conveyances and workers, including milk women.

milk woman

milk woman

 

 

In the Bethnal Green Road the day had fairly begin to break. Many of the lamps were already extinguished; a few country wagons were slowly toiling on toward London; now and then, a stage-coach, covered with mud, rattled by: the driver bestowing, as he passed, an admonitory lash upon the heavy waggoner who, by keeping on the wrong side of the road, had endangered his arriving at the office a quarter of a minute after his time.

 

The public-houses, with gas-lights burning inside, were already open. By degrees, other shops began to be unclosed, and a few scattered people were met with. Then, came the struggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with live-stockor whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people, trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town,

 

[In] the City the noise and traffic gradually increased; [and in] the streets between Shoreditch and Smithfield it had swelled into a roar of sound and bustle. It was as lilght as it was likely to be, till night came on again, and the busy morning of half the London population had begun.

Lord Nelson’s Pitiable Wife

  Every Regency history buff knows about Lord Horatio Nelson’s love for Emma Hamilton, and many of us have felt sympathy for poor Sir William Hamilton, the most openly cuckolded man in England. But few have spared a thought for Nelson’s pathetic wife, the former Frances “Fanny” Nesbit.

Fanny Nesbit
Fanny Nesbit

 

  Nelson met Fanny when he was 26 and in commanded of the Boreas while it spent time in the West Indies.  Just a few months older than Nelson, Fanny had been widowed three years previously when her son, Josiah, was only two years old. Upon her husband’s death, she returned to the Indies to live with her uncle, a planter who was the largest land owner on the island of Nevis.
  Nelson was good with the lad, and a romance with the mother blossomed. On the outside, the plain, slender woman appeared the perfect wife for a man who had grown up in a country parsonage with a curate father, like the senior Nelson, who sired five sons and three daughters. Fanny certainly was the complete antithesis to Emma Hamilton, a former courtesan.
  The romance between Nelson and Fanny began, on his part certainly, as somewhat of a love match. Prince William of the Royal Navy would write, “Poor Nelson is head over ears in love.” When Nelson and Fanny had to be apart, he wrote affectionately to her with phrases like this: “At first I bore absence tolerably, but now it is almost insupportable.” Not exactly bursting with the passion that would later scorch the pages of his letters to Emma, but affectionate nevertheless.
  They married on March 22, 1787, and set sail for England. Five peaceful years at his father’s parsonage (which Edmund Nelson turned over to the newlyweds) followed before he was called back to active duty after the French Revolution. One wonders if the marriage may have been different had Fanny been able to conceive her husband’s children.
  Horatio and Fanny Nelson would be apart a great deal over the next six years – and indeed the remainder of their marriage – though all that he was and all that he felt (mostly about his career) he would impart to his wife in letters – even after he lost his right arm.
Lord Nelson

Lord Nelson

  Then in the summer of 1798 their lives would dramatically change when he demonstrated his superiority in naval battle strategy and gained fame across Europe as the Hero of the Battle of the Nile. Not only did he earn a peerage, but during his subsequent posting in Naples (while Fanny was glorying in the accompanying fame back in England) the beautiful wife of the elderly English ambassador at Naples threw herself at Nelson’s feet – or, more appropriately, in his bed.
  Nelson and his “Beloved Emma” would remain passionately in love until a musket ball killed him at Trafalgar in October 1805.
  While Lord Nelson never had any compunction about later shunning his own wife at every turn, strangely, he never wished to estrange Sir William; therefore, Nelson, Lady Hamilton, and her husband would thereafter live together in a bizarre triangle – even while Emma attempted to conceal her pregnancy with Nelson’s child (whom he later adopted – and adored).
  Nelson did not return to England until a year and half after the Battle of the Nile, and he would return accompanied by the Hamiltons. He would tolerate Fanny’s company only for a few weeks before he formerly separated from her. For her part, Fanny had attempted in every way to do all that was pleasing to her hero husband.
Emma Hamilton

Emma Hamilton

  Though Nelson’s last thoughts and last concerns were about Emma, Fanny came out the winner. Of sorts. Emma was denied the pension Nelson begged that she receive and died in poverty. Fanny would forever be Lady Nelson and receive a generous pension from a grateful nation. Sadly, both women died heartbroken.– Cheryl Bolen, whose next Brides of Bath novel, Love in the Library, can be preordered now at all sites.

Casting Judgment from White’s Bow Window

The following poem takes a tongue-in-cheek peek at the arbitrators of fashion who sat in the infamous bow window of White’s on St. James. The author is Henry Luttrell (1765-1851) who Byron referred to as “the best sayer of good things, and the most epigrammatic conversationalist I ever met.”White's_Club_St_James's_Street_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1375768

Indeed, all the diaries and letters I’ve read from the era refer to Luttrell as the great wit. The most recent edition of the Englilsh Dictionary of National Biography says that, unfortunately, most of Luttrell’s wit does not translate well two centuries later. It’s one of those cases where ya had to be there.

Luttrell was the illegitimate son the 2nd Lord Carhampton.

The Bow Window at White’s

By Henry Luttrell

Shot from yon Heavenly Bow, at White’s,
No critic-arrow now alights
On some unconscious passer-by
Whose cape’s an inch too low or high;
Whose doctrines are unsound in hat,
In boots, in trousers, or cravat;
On him who braves the shame and guilt
of gig or Tilbury ill-built;
Sports a barouche with panels darker
Than the last shade turned out by Barker;
Or canters, with an awkward seat
And badly mounted, up the street.
Silenced awhile that dreadful battery
Whence never issued sound of flattery;
That whole artillery of jokes,
Levelled point-blank at hum-drum folks;
Who now, no longer kept in awe
By Fashion’s judges, or her law,
Strut by the window, at their ease,
With just what looks and clothes they please!

Since George “Beau” Brummell was known to occupy a seat in that most well-known of bow windows, I suspect Luttrell is poking fun at him in this poem which first appeared in Luttrell’s Advice to Julia, published in 1820, four years after Brummell fled to France to keep from debtor’s prison. I found it in my little 1909 gem, The Lure of London.—By Cheryl Bolen, who’s delighted to announce the release of a Christmas novella (The Theft Before Christmas) in the Regent Mysteries series is now available in print and eBook.

Beau Brummel

Beau Brummell

Q & A with Heyer’s Biographer

Note from Cheryl Bolen: Jennifer Kloester was kind enough to allow me to interview her and has also consented to be available here Oct. 8 to answer questions from readers. To see a comprehensive review of Kloester’s biography, read my June 18 blog.

Wow, Jennifer. I am so pleased you’ve agreed to come on my blog to discuss your research into Georgette Heyer and Regency England.

~ It’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you for inviting me to your terrific blog.

I see where your research is tied in with a doctoral dissertation. Can you speak to that a bit? Which came first? The Heyer biography? Or the post-graduate work? And from what institution did you earn your doctorate? Georgette Heyer

~ I earned my doctorate from the University of Melbourne, who were incredibly supportive of my work on Heyer. I had a scholarship for the duration of my degree as well as a couple of travel grants during the three years I was studying. The doctorate actually arose out of my fascination with Heyer’s Regency novels and what I saw as her seamless integration of history and fiction. There are so many instances in her books where, unless the reader knows the history, it’s impossible to tell whether a character or event is real or made up. I found that intriguing. I began researching Heyer in the late 1990s but it was the research for my doctorate (which I began in 2001) that prompted me to think about writing the biography. I’d discovered so much new and fascinating material about Heyer that I really felt compelled to share it.

I see that you live Down Under. Were you living in England at the time of your research, or did you plan dedicated research trips? How much actual time did you spend in England doing this research?  

~ I would love to spend a year living in England but so far that’s still a dream. Between 1999 and 2009 I made 9 trips to the UK to research the biography, discovering more and more information each time. The longest trip was six weeks and the shortest was ten days when I went over for Sir Richard’s memorial service. Every trip was jam-packed with research and interviews and meeting everyone I could find who had known her.

Gosh, I’m in awe. You actually interviewed Georgette Heyer’s son and former daughter-in-law. How were you able to accomplish this? 

~ I first wrote to Georgette’s son, Sir Richard Rougier in 2001. I sent a formal letter telling him about my doctorate and asking if I could interview him. He wrote me a charming reply and invited me for lunch at his home in Somerset. That first meeting was amazing: he was a little guarded at first but as the lunch progressed he began to tell me more and more about his parents. In fact, at the end of lunch he unexpectedly told me about his father’s suicide! After our first meeting he and his wife invited me to stay for a few days so I could thoroughly peruse Georgette’s notebooks and private papers. You can imagine how thrilled I was and that first stay would prove to be the first of many delightful visits to their home. Each time I went, Sir Richard would tell me more about his mother and produce more material to help me in my research. I’ll never forget the day he produced the family photo albums – including the one from Georgette’s time in Tanganyika – and Georgette’s baby book. On my second trip, Sir Richard introduced me to his first wife, Susie, Lady Rougier, and we have since become great friends. As you can imagine, her insights into Georgette were fascinating!

In my opinion, the most fascinating aspect of your biography was the correspondence between her and her publishing associates. How were you able to get your hands on letters that are 80 and more years old? 

~ Finding so many early letters was the most exciting part of the research. I already knew about the letters to Georgette’s publisher at Heinemann because they were such an important part of Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography but I was sure there must be other letters. I learned about the amazing collection of Heyer letters held by the University of Tulsa in December 2001, just after I had first contacted Sir Richard. I needed his permission to use them and so I wrote to him in great excitement and he very kindly authorized me to have them copied and sent out to Australia. Tulsa University were brilliant and when the box arrived with over 600 pages of her letters I actually cried. These letters dated from 1923 when she was only twenty and was writing These Old Shades. I also discovered another, small archive at the British Library, and in Australia I was contacted by a woman who, as a teenager, had corresponded with Georgette after the Second World War and had half a dozen delightful letters to share with me. The other fabulous collections were in private hands and I was lucky enough to be given permission by the owners to copy these. One collection had 93 personal letters to A.S. Frere, her friend and publisher at Heinemann, and the other was the Reinhardt collection and together they gave me tons of new material. It was the most exciting thing reading these letters for the first time (and many times after) because they provided so much new insight into Georgette Heyer as both a woman and a writer.

It is clear from your biography that you went back over Heyer’s works and reread them. Did you read all of them again? Was it hard finding copies of her suppressed books? JK - 017  © Greg Noakes 2011

~I reread her books many times – although some more than others. There was so much new information in the letters that it sometimes changed my previous understanding of the book and how it had been written. It was also fascinating to discover her own attitude to her work and especially to read and find so much of Heyer herself in the text. The four suppressed contemporary novels are a great example of this because these are her most autobiographical novels. Helen, in particular, has several important parallels with Georgette’s own life, while Pastel seems to reflect some of her ideas about marriage and relationships. Most of those who have read Barren Corn dislike it, but I read it three times while writing the biography and found it remarkable in several ways, not least for its insight into human psychology. It took a little while to get hold of copies of the suppressed novels but in the early days of my research I was able to get them through inter-library loans. Later, with the rise of the internet and used-book sites, I was able to buy my own copies. Today, I actually own a copy of Instead of the Thorn that Georgette signed to her agent, L.P. Moore.

Please discuss Heyer’s research notebooks. (I first learned of these years ago in Hodge’s book and would almost give my firstborn to see them.) Where did you see these, and do you know where they are now?  

~ These are a fascinating collection held by the family. When I went back to stay with Sir Richard he very generously gave me the run of his study where the notebooks where kept on a shelf. As you can imagine, I found them utterly absorbing. They are very ‘Heyer’ in their type and style of information recorded and over the years I believe a few of them have been lost. It’s interesting that about two-thirds of the notebooks are dedicated to her research into the medieval period and the rest are Regency.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing your research? What was the hardest part of writing your fabulous biography? 

~ The most surprising thing was realising just how much of the Regency world Heyer had known firsthand. She grew up in a house that had a cook and two maids, she would have travelled by horse and carriage and been very class conscious. Think season one of Downton Abbey and that is a world Georgette would have known through her friend Dorothy Arbuthnot and her father’s connections in the theatre. I was also amazed at just how much of herself she wrote into her novels – especially the suppressed contemporary books.

~ The hardest, most difficult part was getting the balance right between the light and the dark sides of Heyer. She could be so difficult, self-deprecating and acerbic at times and yet she could also be so kind and generous, witty and affectionate. I found her an immensely complex person and I wanted to show all her facets so the reader could understand her. One of the challenges was having so many of her letters and wanting to let her speak for herself. I had to use the letters because they are the main primary source we have from her and her writing is compelling, but letters are a very private medium and I’m not sure she’s always her own best advocate in them. I’m so glad you enjoyed them though and Sir Richard did say she wrote her letters exactly as she spoke.

Ten years? You really did spend a decade on this research? Could anything have occurred to speed up this process? 

~ Looking back it seems amazing to me that it took that long. Mind you, I spend three of those years doing the doctorate, wrote Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and then began writing the biography. I originally thought the biography would take me about 18 months to write but I kept discovering more information and archives of letters that necessitated another trip to England. In the end the biography took me nearly five years to write but I don’t regret a moment. What I hadn’t realised when I began was how many new research lines would be opened up by her letters or that I would feel compelled to follow up every single one. So I guess there was no real way to shorten the process.

At what point in the writing process did you secure a publishing contract? Were you agented at the beginning? 

~ I had an Australian agent for my first book, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, but my current US agent sold the biography to Sourcebooks in America. That was really exciting.

What pleases you most about your biography? 

~ One of the main reasons for writing the Heyer biography was to see her properly acknowledged. Although her fans understand the brilliance of her writing, there are far too many people who haven’t read her and don’t understand her achievement. I mean, Georgette Heyer created the Regency genre of historical fiction and is still one of the great bestsellers, as well as one of the few of her literary generation popular in the twenty-first century. I like to think that my biography reveals what a wonderful writer she was as well as a fascinating and very private person.

Do you see any more biographies of dead English women (my favorite genre!)  in your future? TCM-cover for media large

~ Well, I think a biography of Angela Thirkell would be interesting to write but for now I’m loving writing fiction. My first novel The Cinderella Moment came out last month and, even though it’s contemporary YA, it has definite Heyer influences!