Monday, 18 June 2012

Kicking myself a bit -

- because if I'd looked at the calendar before posting yesterday, I'd have realised that today, 18 June, is of course Waterloo Day. It would have been a much more appropriate date for my post about Georgette Heyer, in recognition of An Infamous Army, arguably her best book. It combines romance, social comedy and meticulously researched history, with a large cast of fictional and real life characters. Her description of the battle is supposed to be one of the best ever written; at one time it was recommended reading at the Royal Military Academy  at Sandhurst.

Georgette Heyer used the Battle of Waterloo again years later, to provde a plot twist in A Civil Contract, another book which is rather different from her normal light hearted romance and comedy.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Queen of the Regency

I've just finished the new biography of Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester. I'd been looking forward to reading it, but I came away decidedly disappointed.

The early chapters, on Georgette's family background and childhood, were well researched and interesting. It's worth picking up the book in a shop or library to look at the many photographs of Georgette at different stages of her life; apart from anything else, they are a fascinating record of the changes in women's fashion in the twentieth century.

The book is a detailed factual account of the events of Georgette's life, her various homes, what was published when, and her relationships with her publishers and the taxman.

But I found it sadly lacking in any critical discussion of Georgette as a writer. What were her strengths and weaknesses? Which were her best and least good books, and why? (Leaving aside Georgette's own opinions on the subject, which are well known.) How did she hit on the hugely successful Regency formula (which did not happen until she was already established as a writer of historical fiction and contemporary detective stories)?  What was the process by which she conceived and developed the plot and characters for each book?

Georgette did not keep any notes of work in progress, and she destroyed her manuscripts once the book was published - but Jennifer Kloester  acknowledges the assistance of Georgette's son, the late Sir Richard Rougier. He could surely have provided some insights, and Jennifer Kloester herself might have attempted a detailed analysis of at least one book to demonstrate why Georgette was so successful.

In order to write a biography of a historical novelist, it's probably necessary for the writer also to be a historian, to interpret both the period in which the writer lived and the period in which she set her novels.

Jennifer Kloester isn't, and she assumes a similar lack of knowledge in her readers. She finds it necessary  to add a footnote to tell us that it was 'typical' for a woman of Georgette's class and generation to call her parents  'Daddy' and 'Mummy'.

She discusses Georgette's use of  'in-law' for step relationships without appearing to be aware that it's used by Jane Austen - after which no further justification for Georgette's use of it should be necessary. 

There are some odd interpretations of Georgette's character.

Wanting some feedback from her publishers about what they liked or disliked about a manuscript - or indeed some indication that they had actually read it - is seen as a need for praise.

Leaving it to her agent to handle difficulties with her publishers, rather than dealing with them directly herself, is a dislike of confrontation and ‘not a courageous stance’. It is in fact part of an agent’s job to mediate between author and publisher; it‘s what he‘s paid for.

Refusing to be a ‘Celebrity’ and preferring a social circle of close friends is ‘reclusiveness’.

And - a final nitpick - the name of Georgette’s recurring detective, Superintendent Hannasyde, is spelled wrongly throughout.

Jennifer Kloester had unlimited access to Georgette Heyer’s letters and papers, but overall I don’t think this book adds greatly to the account of her life given in Jane Aiken Hodge’s earlier work.

In her Regency romances, Georgette Heyer created a whole new genre, which is still enormously popular today. Every so often, a new writer is hailed as ’the successor to Georgette Heyer.’  Unfortunately, these authors often do not have the lightness of touch, the command of language and of period detail that contributed to Georgette’s success.

Their books tend to fall within the limits of the genre as established by Georgette Heyer,  so there is novel after novel featuring dashing young aristocrats, spirited heroines, curricle races, balls at Almacks,  and occasional references to French spies or Waterloo.

Clearly there is a continuing demand for this type of book. But it would be refreshing if a writer with a talent equal to Georgette Heyer’s could establish a new voice and style, push the boundaries a little and redefine the Regency genre.  

Thursday, 7 June 2012

'The tumult and the shouting dies -

- the captains and the kings depart.'

There's little left to say about the Jubilee that is deeply profound.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that the processions, the heraldry, the ceremonies, the rituals, are not mere 'pageantry' or 'fairy tale', put together because they are colourful and give the crowds something to cheer at.

They all have meaning and say something about the evolution over the centuries of the United Kingdom and of the monarchy, and about the monarch's  relationship with his or her subjects.

Before widespread literacy and mass media, these visual signs and ceremonies told people who was who and how they related to each other and to the crowds who watched.

Much of the ceremonial reinforced the fact that the sovereign, in England, has never had absolute power. The ritual whereby the sovereign formally requests the Lord Mayor's permission to enter the City of London reminded everyone, not least the sovereign, of how dependent he or she was on the goodwill of the City.

Other, lesser, conventions of protocol and etiquette also have meaning.

Too often, journalists refer to the Queen being introduced to Mr or Mrs Somebody.

The Queen is not introduced to anyone. People are introduced to her.

Referring to the Queen being introduced to someone implies that the person to whom she is introduced doesn't know who she is, which is nonsense.

A gentleman is introduced to a lady.
A lower ranking person is introduced to a higher ranking one.
A younger person is introduced to an older one.
Among reigning kings and queens, the one who has reigned longest is considered senior to the others.

Going by these rules, there is no-one on the planet who outranks the Queen. 

The proper form of words is
'Mrs Jones, may I introduce (or, more formally, may I present)  my friend Jack Robinson?'

This, theoretically, gives Mrs Jones the opportunity to decline the introduction if, for example, Mr Robinson is a young man of dubious reputation whom she doesn't want anywhere near her daughters.  

Having been introduced they would continue to be 'Mrs Jones' and 'Mr Robinson' unless or until Mr Robinson did become Mrs Jones's son-in-law, when less formal forms of address might be adopted.

Ignoring the conventions did not necessarily make for a pleasantly informal atmosphere. It could cause embarrassment by forcing people into a degree of intimacy they didn't necessarily want, or cause relationships to be misinterpreted - if, for example, Miss Jones and Mr Robinson were addressing each other as 'Maisie' and 'Jack' when they were barely acquainted.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many guides to etiquette were published, on their own or as part of guides to household management.  They advised people  what to say or write in any conceivable situation - a servant giving notice, a housewife complaining to the milkman, a father asking a young man's intentions towards his daughter, a young woman declining a proposal of marriage, a man applying for a job. They used to be easily obtainable in secondhand bookshops.

The BBC should acquire some - and give the first one to the reporter who referred to Her Majesty the Queen as 'Her Royal Highness'.