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.  

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