Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller by Jennifer Kloester


I'm not much of romance reader, but back when I lived in Texas I read The Grand Sophy for my Jane Austen book club and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Georgette Heyer wrote 50 novels, mostly historical. They're rather light and fluffy, but mostly great fun and they're very well researched. I was poking around Half-Price Books in San Antonio and found this biography, so I thought it would be a good addition to my TBR Pile Challenge list. Georgette Heyer wrote 50 novels. in 72 years. Starting when she was just 17, she published a book nearly every year of her life, sometimes more. Most of them were romances and historical fiction, but she also wrote mysteries and a few contemporary novels, and nearly all of them are still in print. 

Heyer's first novel, The Black Moth, began as a story she made up to amuse her younger brother, who suffered from hemophilia. She continued writing after her marriage to a mining engineer, with whom she moved to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Macedonia. They moved back to the UK and Heyer mostly supported the family with her writing while her husband made some career changes (he and her son both became lawyers). Heyer's commitment to research and her literary output are pretty astonishing -- her historical novel An Infamous Army is now considered one of the best historical works on the battle of Waterloo. And once she had completed the research and settled on the plot and characters, she could write a book in a matter of weeks. 


Though she's now best known for her historical romances set in the Regency period, she actually only wrote one (Regency Buck) before WWII. Her most successful novel before that time was about the Napoleonic Wars, but she couldn't bear to write a war novel during the Blitz. Heyer was afraid that it was frivolous to write a light historical romance, but she needed a distraction and wrote a Regency novel, Faro's Child. It was just what the public wanted and was a huge success. Thereafter she continued with mostly Regency novels until her death. 

This book is very fact-heavy, especially on issues of publication and tax payments -- often she would write a book specifically to pay off a debt. She also sometimes made unwise decisions to sell off the rights to books for what now seems a pittance. I would have loved to read more about her creative process, but Georgette Heyer was an extremely private person and gave almost no interviews, so Kloester had to rely on letter and papers. However, I found it an extremely fast read. There were some surprises, like the fact that Heyer's publishers did essentially no editing -- she would just send them the title and some basic information, then her manuscript would arrive and that was pretty much it! She did have some fights with printers who would take it upon themselves to change spelling without consulting her -- then had the nerve to charge her! 

Even if you're not a fan of Heyer's romances, this is an extremely interesting look at the life of a prolific writer (it also inspired me to read two more of her books while I was reading this one!) I still  have literary biographies and memoirs of three other writers on my TBR Pile Challenge list: Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Bloggers, which should I read next?

This is my second book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2019. Only ten left to go!

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for the nice review. One correction: Regency Buck (1935) was Heyer's first Regency Romance.

    Jerri

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well done on tackling your TBR pile!

    I've tried a couple of Heyer titles (one Regency Romance and one mystery) and unfortunately did not love either. I don't think I am the right audience. But her life is interesting and I would totally enjoy this biography.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have to be in the right mood for them, and I admit there are some that I enjoy more than others. But I really admire how hard she worked and her ability to keep coming up with bestsellers for so many years. She also had to deal with other writers plagiarizing her work, including Barbara Cartland.

      Delete
  3. i think GH is greatly under-appreciated. she's a very witty and original author and deserves to be more widely recognized, imo... plus her books are VERY FUNNY!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are funny! She doesn't get enough credit. Her books were very popular with a wide range of people, including the Queen. There's a fun story in the book about Heyer visiting Buckingham Palace, apparently they really appreciated her books.

      Delete
  4. Oh, how interesting! I just finished a really good Heyer story, The Unknown Ajax, and I recommend it. The romance is fairly incidental and there's lots about free traders (smugglers). I'd like to read a Heyer biography!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've read that one! It's been awhile but I remember liking it. So far my favorites are Sylvester, The Grand Sophy and The Quiet Gentleman.

      Delete
  5. I am a Georgette Heyer fan though I've only read a few of her books so far. But I'm intrigued by this biography. I'd love to know more about her. Great review! (And I vote for the Edith Wharton biography next.) :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I do want to read the Wharton bio but it's so long!

      Delete
  6. Hi Karen,
    This bio sounds so fascinating. Heyer was a literary heavy-weight in all she turned her pen to, no question. It makes me wonder if anyone has done a critical anthology of her work. I'm sure there must be a bit of that on an online site somewhere.
    Do you feel inclined to read more Heyer after reading this biography??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I definitely want to read more Heyer! I actually did read two more of her books while I was reading the bio off and on, The Reluctant Widow and These Old Shades.

      Delete
  7. I am a huge Heyer fan and The Grand Sophy is one of my favorites. I really enjoyed Jane Aiken Hodge's (sister of Joan) bio of Heyer and haven't got around to the Kloester book yet. I am glad you reminded me! (and although I have read a lot since January 1, I am only just starting my TBR)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't seen the Hodge bio, I'll have to look for it!

      Delete
  8. Georgette Heyer is a writer I have heard great things about but have yet to read. I would probably start with The Grand Sophy. I think its very impressive that Heyer's books would be turned into her publisher with very little editing required. It speaks to what a talented writer she was. As for what author bio to read next I would say Margaret Mitchell and I look forward to your review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Mitchell sounds good, especially as it's so different from the others on my TBR challenge list -- I realize now nearly all of them are rather similar, set in the UK in the first half of the century, mostly about middle and upper class women. I wish now I'd picked a wider variety.

      Delete
  9. STILL not dipped my toe in with Georgette Heyer's novels but I'd like to read this. I'd like to know how much she was influenced by Jane Austen. Enjoyed reading your review!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Georgette Heyer novels are comfort reads, even An Infamous Army, which I’ve read twice. She is an interesting person—a professional writer who was a master of her chosen genre and a pragmatist. You wrote a really interesting review—I’m not sure I’ll read this since I too am more interested in the creative process—enjoyed the review.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I read a number of her novels when I was a teenager because my mother borrowed them from the library and we both read and enjoyed them. I will put her biography on my to be read list because now more than ever I am interested in these women writers who quietly supported their families with their writing.


    ReplyDelete