This week I spent a day with Georgette Heyer. Billed as The Nonesuch Conference, this was at a hybrid gathering at London University, offering a selection of papers from accredited academics together with reader/writer participation from people labelled in the programme as independent scholars.
Clearly, and heartwarmingly, most of the speakers I heard were also fans.
It was preceded by a writing workshop the day before. And there was a Regency Soirée in the evening after the conference, which sounds like a lot of fun.
Sadly, I couldn’t make either of these events. For one thing I’m still convalescent. (My energy gives out unexpectedly, so I didn’t want to push it.) For another, the programme was really full. Academics seemed to be supercharged, cheerily steaming from session to session, enthusiasm still at white heat.
When I read my notes I was astonished at the sheer volume of ideas I had noted down for further consideration.
Who Was Georgette Heyer?
Most of the readers of this blog will know. She was a best seller, the inventor of the supremely popular genre of Regency romance.
She wrote her first novel, The Black Moth, when she was seventeen. It was published two years later, to instant success. The Times Literary Supplement called her deeply principled highwayman-with-a-Past “a fascinating hero of romance”. They were not wrong. She has never been out of print since that first book was published in 1921.
She even has a blue plaque now, thanks in large part to Jennifer Kloester, her devoted biographer.
For the rest, she was an inveterate researcher, though she always felt the contrast between her own work and that of her old friend Carola Oman, distinguished historian, prize-winning biographer, CBE.
And more than that, she was a stylist, a great creator of character, a master of comic timing, who has given pleasure to millions and taught many of us more about history than any teacher could.
Georgette Heyer — the Writer’s Perspective
As a writer, I have always warmed to her. She knew herself. “My style is really a mixture of Johnson and Austen,” she wrote. (Though, personally, I suspect that she is selling Horace Walpole and his wondrous letters a little short here, not to mention my dear PGW.) “What I rely on is a certain gift for the farcical.” And also, I would contend, emotional truth. Restrained but unmistakeable. Some moments still stop me dead in my tracks.
She didn’t know what would happen in her books until she finished. (Oh, the relief of that!) Editors messed with her work at their peril. And she hated her blurbs.
She wasn’t all that keen on other writers, either. She called us Inkies. Though at the conference Regency author Louise Allen, describing similarities and points of difference between her own work and Heyer’s, revealed a research habit that Heyer would have recognised instantly.
Would she have believed that anyone would bother to set up a Heyer study day, let alone a conference? I very much doubt it.
Georgette Heyer — the Scholar’s Perspective
How would Georgette Heyer have felt about all this close attention? It was certainly respectful. But she was touchy and self-deprecating and might not have liked people getting so close. This was a very full programme, with about twice as many sessions as it was possible to attend. So this is the merest canter through a few that caught my imagination.
A terrific paper from Vanda Wilcox made the point that, however precise Heyer’s grasp of strategic issues at Waterloo might have been, her officers “embody World War I values and leadership style”. At the same time Heyer’s other ranks (gorgeous Gideon Ware’s straight-talking soldier servant, for instance) are basically WWI Tommies in red coats, rather than Wellington’s rapists and pillagers. Convinced me completely.
Amused and pleased
Geraldine Perriam‘s delicious account of the unheroic Freddie Standen from Cotillion (1953) was a delight.
Putting him firmly in the context of other 20th century silly asses — Sir Percy Blakeney, Albert Campion, Lord Peter Wimsey and Bertie Wooster, she revealed that Freddie, while more modest than your Alpha hero, is very much his own man and a thoroughly worthy object of Kitty Charing’s affection.
Love Freddie — though I did expect Alpha Jack to emerge as the hero when I first started reading the book. I was hugely relieved when Kitty rejected him in the end. Wonder if this was one of the books where Heyer didn’t see the end coming when she started? Very satisfying.
Lucie Dutton whole-heartedly agreed with Georgette Heyer’s dire assessment of the movie The Reluctant Widow. The (British, alas!) screen writers, both men, inserted smuggling, two additional midnight wedding scenes AND a duel. Lucie thought it might have been to raise the adventure quotient, thereby aiming to please the male audience. Fascinating stuff, this. Not to mention a hoot.
Jean Kent — personally I thought she looked altogether too mumsy to be Elinor — actually had the reputation of being a Silver Screen Bad Girl at the time. Certainly the poster that Lucie showed seemed to be aiming for that impression. Clearly this was the aspect that most appalled Heyer.
Science fiction writers and readers embrace the Heyer world, write thoughtful essays on her books, honour her at their conferences and even overtly reference her.
Kathleen Jennings galloped us through Heyer In Space at a rate that left me breathless — and with a mightily expanded To Be Read List. First up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s take on A Civil Contract. Only I need to read at least another one of the Vorkosigan Saga first, apparently. It sounds as if it will be a pleasure.
No wonder the woman’s novels have lasted so long. Only three years until The Black Moth hits its century.
The whole event sounds fascinating, Sophie – thanks for sharing this. Many of us have Georgette Heyer to thank for hours of endless reading pleasure and the inspiration to write our own version of Regency romps!
Sophie is away today so she’s asked me to field the comments on her blog.
I found the piece fascinating too, Rosemary. And as you’ll know from my Love Letter to The Grand Sophy, I’m a huge Heyer fan.
Half way through Friday’s Child at the moment but I’ve just read your Love Letter to The Grand Sophy, Joanna. I think it will have to be next on the list though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read it – as I imagine all Georgette Heyer fans may have done. I know of no other author whose work I can return to over and over again with so much joy and engagement.
So right, Natalie. A friend of mine was downsizing recently and had to get rid of quite a lot of books. Now, if that were me, the very last to go would be any of my Heyers, battered and worn though they are as a result of constant rereading.
I wouldn’t say that The Grand Sophy is my favourite. It’s one of them. Favourite tends to vary with my mood. But I wrote that Love Letter when I’d just reread Sophy and was overwhelmed by it, yet again. As you say, “over and over again”.
I LOVE this post. Had one of those “Of course!” moments when reading about the WW1 similarities and wondered why I hadn’t seen it before – but, of course, you’re not meant to. It’s there to make sure the reader understands. And didn’t everybody expect Jack to win the first time they read Cotillion? Now I’ve got to re-read them all again…
Agree about WWI similarities, Lesley. Cotillion is a masterclass in introducing a character (Jack) that the author intends the reader to dislike. It’s very subtly done, with the lightest of touches. Heyer might not have known at the outset how the story would end, but I really do think she intended us not to be rooting for Jack.
What a fabulous post. I, too, attended the conference AND the workshop AND the soiree. I have been in recovery mode ever since. I was disappointed to miss Freddie but, as you say, it was a huge programme and I haven’t yet mastered the art of being in two places at once. I have, since leaving the conference, reread The Reluctant Widow and am now rereading False Colours. I fear all other authors will be bypassed for the time being (with apologies) while I work my way through her repertoire – again! Georgette Heyer has always grabbed my imagination in a way that no other author ever has (apologies again). I worship at her feet.
Not surprised you’re still in recovery mode, Natalie. Well done for covering so much.
So agree about the imagination-grabbing. I marvel at Heyer’s plotting; and her books still make me laugh, even on the umpteenth reading.
Loved this post as I am in the process of re-reading all my Heyer regencies ( do this on a frequent basis). Am in the middle ofFalse Colours, one of my favourites.
So glad you enjoyed reading about it, Jenny. Some of the papers were brilliant but I think the truly best bit for me was swapping ideas with fellow readers. It’s a long time since I read False Colours. Must go back to it.
See? There ARE other people who are as daft as I am… After Joanna’s Grand Sophy post on here, I re-read thewhole lot, Natalie, and now I’m going to do the same thing again. And, as Joanna says, no need to apologise; she was my inspiration, or one of them, anyway, and remains my favourite, along with – equal first – Ngaio Marsh, closely followed by PGW and Jerome K Jerome. BUT! Has anyone read GH’s detective stories? I have all of them, too…
Add me to the group, Lesley. Whenever I need to check something in a Georgette Heyer, after I’ve done so, I always end up re-reading the whole book. And the probably the two on either side of it as well!