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.
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.
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 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.
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.