Two years after it was published in Great Britain, Jennifer Kloester’s brilliant biography of Georgette Heyer has been brought out this year in the U.S. by Sourcebooks. Kloester dedicates the book to Heyer’s only child, Richard Rougier (1932-2007) and to the author of the 1984 biography of Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, both of whom gave her complete access to their letters, notes, and in the case of Rougier, remembrances. He also provided the author with many personal pictures of Heyer.
The new biography differs vastly from Hodge’s earlier effort. While both stress that Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was intensely private, never gave interviews, never took a book tour, did not sit for autographing, refused to pose for author pictures, and never revealed her married name (Rougier), Aiken’s book attempts to reveal Heyer’s personality by analyzing her novels—and in many instances by supposition and inferences.
Kloester’s imminently readable book makes no inferences but lets Heyer’s extant letters, numbering over 1,000 pages, breathe life into the clever, erudite, humorous, and self-deprecating Heyer, who wrote 55 novels, six of which she later suppressed.
The heart and soul of Kloester’s 400-page book are the letters Heyer wrote to her agents and publishers over the course of her career. In her ten years of researching, Kloester managed not only to assemble these letters from the earliest days of Heyer’s 50-year career but also to present them in highly readable form with elucidating footnotes and helpful contextual information.
A published author—at 18
Heyer was a rare breed like J.R.R. Tolkein who invented a genre which has been widely imitated. Astonishingly, the first of her Regency romances was written when she was just seventeen. The Black Moth, her first book, debuted in 1921 and has remained in print for more than 90 years.
During those early years, she dabbled with serious contemporary, coming-of-age stories as well as an ambitious Restoration-era tome, but found her calling with her witty period romances that were noted for their humor and the thoroughness of her research.
For Infamous Army, she read 26 books about Waterloo’s campaign, soldiers, officers, etc. and for four months filled notebooks with detailed information on the hundred days between Napolean’s escape from Elba and the clash at Waterloo. This included biographies of notables, troop movements, uniforms, weaponry, first-person accounts, maps, and a detailed chronology. She was flattered that her book was used by military students at Sandhurst.
Her personal library included more than 2,000 historical reference books, even though she preferred primary references.
In fact when she wanted her publisher to sue Barbara Cartland for a number of instances which Heyer considered blatant plagiarism, she said words she had used – and which had been copied—she had never seen anywhere else except in one of her unpublished sources. (The Aiken biography never names Cartland as the author imitating Heyer.) Though Heyer felt strongly Cartland had plagariized not only her plots but many of her characters as well as terminology, no lawsuit was ever filed, but her publishers must have been in communication with Cartland’s publishers because the “copying” stopped.
After a five-year, largely absentee courtship and two months after a heart attack claimed her adored father, Heyer at age twenty three married mining engineer Ronald Rougier. Her father’s sudden death left her mother in financial difficulties, and Georgette took on the burden of providing for her mother and paying for the education of the youngest of her two brothers.
Between 1921 and 1935 she published 19 novels, and from the time that Ronald gave up his engineering career to return to England, Heyer was never free of financial worries. Her letters to her agent are full of her blown-up fears of bankruptcy.
In 1935 she suffered a nervous breakdown, and the following year she backed her husband’s plan to study for the bar even though it meant she was the only wage earner for their family of three as well as her mother.
Her financial worries continued to mount. It is interesting to read her complaints to her agent about being treated like a midlist author, though that term was never used:
They [publisher] are only concerned with their high lights. . . First, they apparently regard me as a certain seller up to a certain number of copies, & see little point in trying to push sales beyond that maximum. Second, they do not advertize me. Third, they seem to be unable to get the book reviewed.
More of her discontent with her publisher was expressed to her agent in 1937 when she informed her agent she was quite sure her editors “or any member of the firm” ever read her books. “No one ever bothers me for a synopsis for the purpose of advertising.” In that same lengthy diatribe, she writes that no one in the firm even realized Devil’s Cub was a sequel to her popular These Old Shades.
She was always encouraging her agent to get her books serialized in the magazines, which was not only a great way to build an author but also paid extremely well.
Sells rights to books for £250
At one point she was so desperate for money, she sold the rights to three of her books for £750—or £250 a book! In 1940 she signed away British Commonwealth copyrights to These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Regency Buck to her publisher, Heinemann. Reflecting on that 30 years later when she was at the pinnacle of her success, Heyer wrote:
Doesn’t it seem fantastic thirty years later that £750 should have been considered by the valuers on both sides to have been a pretty generous price? It led me to rout out my old account book, and I see that it was generous! In those days my gross income very rarely got into four figures. It is now five figures. . . They got a very good bargain, but I don’t begrudge it them, remembering, as I do to what straits we were reduced at the time.
The golden years
It had taken her more than twenty years to build her career to be lucrative, and by then—in the late 1940s—she had to pay the Inland Revenue approximately 85 percent of her annual earnings. At that time Ronald purchased a Rolls Royce, and they had moved into Albany, a quiet oasis in the heart of London. Albany had been the residence of several noted authors and a couple of prime ministers over its two-century history. The Rougiers would make their home there for a quarter of a century.
Though her books had sold moderately in the United States over the years, sales took off in the 1950s. From the late forties until her death in 1974, she was one of the world’s bestselling authors, though she had difficulty believing that “books of substance” did not sell better than her “fluff.” She was shocked when her publisher told her there was no other author who could rival her world-wide sales.
She had always aspired to write respected historical novels and never realized the witty Regency romance genre she created would immortalize her. Now, forty years after her death, her books are still bestsellers.—Cheryl Bolen, author of the Regent Mysteries