She was born 121 years ago today, on August 16, 1902, the daughter of a British Army officer and a classically-trained musician. She grew up in Paris and London and–when her sickly brother was bed-bound in 1919–began to tell him stories set in Georgian (eighteenth century) England. Those stories were, with the encouragement of her father, later published as Georgette’s first novel, The Black Moth.
She married George Rougier in 1926, and embarked on a life as the wife of a mining engineer, moving around the world and continuing to write her books, which had achieved quite a following by this time. A very private person, she eschewed any sort of publicity tours, refusing to appear or speak in any promotional venues. Nevertheless, her literary career flourished.
After George retired from his job and the couple moved to Horsham, their main income was derived from Georgette’s writing until her husband entered the Bar (became a lawyer) in 1939. Owing to some tax difficulties, and the dependence of other family members upon her largesse, Georgette found herself working as a book reviewer, an article writer, and she transferred the rights from some of her early works entirely to her publisher. She never really got out from under the debts incurred during those years, despite much success on her own account as a writer of Regency romance novels.
She died after several years of ill-health, on July 4, 1974, at the age of just 71. (As a person only a little more than two years from that milestone myself, I suddenly realize how young it is…)
I first encountered Georgette Heyer at the age of about eleven, when I was a pupil at The Abbey School in Malvern Wells. The small bookshelf that passed for a library, containing books deemed suitable for gentle girl-children to read, included several of hers. And so I fell in love, with the spirited heroines, the dashing and often troubled heroes, and the inevitable happy endings.
It was a love that I took with me across an ocean, to another country, through high school and college, only to rediscover–late in life–several years ago.
You see, Georgette Heyer could write. She wasn’t interested in the witlessly prurient, or the sappily romantic. (I thought of her as the anti-Barbara Cartland). Her novels were literate, well-plotted, meticulously researched (her book on the Battle of Waterloo–An Infamous Army–was required reading for Sandhurst cadets for decades, may still be for all I know). And they always ended well.
Over the years, she expanded her oeuvre, from England’s Regency period (Jane Austen territory) to the medieval (My Lord John), the English Civil War (Royal Escape), and she wrote half-a-dozen or so quite good mysteries featuring Scotland Yard’s Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway.
But it was the Regency romances that won the hearts of adolescent girls worldwide.
She really was the twentieth century’s Jane Austen.
No less a writer than A.S. Byatt, who wrote Possession–IMHO the best British novel of the late twentieth-century** (it’s not for the faint-hearted, so if you’re not up for the struggle, don’t bother)–thought so highly of Heyer that she wrote of her genius:
[It is] in the precise balance she achieves between romance and reality, fantastic plot and real detail. Her good taste, her knowledge, and the literary and social conventions of the time she is writing about all contribute to a romanticised anti-romanticism: an impossibly desirable world of prettiness, silliness and ultimate good sense where men and women really talk to each other, know what is going on between them, and plan to spend the rest of their lives together developing the relationship. “
So here’s to you, Georgette Heyer, on your birthday. Thanks for many years of enjoyable and often informative reading on one level and–on another–of your mastery of what I’ve come to call, over the years, “the tasteful bodice-ripper.” It’s the only kind I indulge. And when I can’t find any new ones, I go back to the source.
**Whatever you do, do not see the 2002 movie version of Possession, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. It’s in the same category as the Eskimo Cookbook’s recipe for Loon Soup, which is–if you’re not familiar with it–“Do not make loon soup.”