Q & A with Heyer’s Biographer

© Cheryl Bolen

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.

JK - 017  © Greg Noakes 2011

Jennifer Kloester

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?

~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!