Jane Aiken Hodge’s 1984 biography of Georgette Heyer, reissued this month by Sourcebooks, was until very recently the only one available. Published ten years after Heyer’s death, it describes her life primarily from her letters to her publisher. An intensely private person, Heyer eschewed publicity, never giving an interview, and not keeping her papers for posterity. Thus a biographer has relatively little material available. Hodge interviewed Heyer’s editors, surviving family members, and a very few friends (all of whom loved or respected her), and then wove a narrative around the books themselves, using them to illustrate her life, and vice versa.
A lot of the criticism of this biography has focused on either errors Hodge made about the novels themselves, or some kind of personal disappointment the reader feels from finding Heyer “unlikeable.” I personally find whatever errors Hodge made to be minor and forgivable, and find Heyer herself to be witty, strong-willed, and very likable. Her personality erupts from her letters and makes me want to read more of them. Coupled with her friends’ descriptions of her immense style and charm, they make me wish I could have known her.
Her private nature prevented her from discussing her books with her friends. She would talk about everything else in the world with them, but when the conversation came around to her work, she would remain silent on it, leaving any discussion to her husband, or changing the subject. It is hard to tell from this remove (of both time and culture), but it seems to me that this was, at its core, a very large dose of British reticence and self-deprecation. The idea of self-promotion was simply repugnant to her, and since her first novel (written as a serial to amuse a sick brother when she was seventeen and published before she was twenty) had sold well, and a later novel had come out during a general strike with no publicity and yet sold 190,000 copies, she was convinced that she had no need to promote her work. She referred requesters of interviews back to her novels. Hodge reports that she would say: You will find me in my work.
So this biography focuses on her work, and how it informs us about the author. And in that regard, it is particularly interesting to writers. There is advice to new authors (she sometimes read other people’s manuscripts for her publisher) and there is a long incubation and development and experimentation with her own style and various settings before she settled into the Regency period. It took her twenty years, and twenty-four novels, before she did so. For many years she wrote a historical novel and a thriller every year. It was an intense pace. And her meticulous research is always highlighted.
I was surprised by the size of the Sourcebooks edition, which was smaller and thinner than I had expected. The comparative sizes of this trade-paperback-sized edition and the original hardcover edition are deceptive, however. The new edition runs to 256 pages while the original is only 216. The new edition has a new sentence at the end of the Acknowledgements stating that some new material has been incorporated into the text; but while I did not make a word-for-word comparison of the two editions, I did not find any additions or corrections. The most significant difference between the editions appears to be the lack of color illustrations in the new one and the omission of as many as half of the total number of illustrations that were in the original. The hardcover edition is one of the best illustrated books about the Regency anywhere, full of large color and black and white plates of photographs, portraits, caricatures, fashion plates, and paintings, with something on nearly every page. Many, perhaps most, of these are missing in the new edition, and of course the smaller format and plain paper reduce the beauty, and even the utility, of many of those that remain. It is still well-illustrated, just no longer exceptionally so. This is the only thing that restrains what would otherwise be an enthusiastic recommendation of this book to all Heyer and Regency fans. Even so, it is still well worth reading for anyone who enjoys Heyer or who is interested in the development of a successful author’s career.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas. She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility: An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge
Trade paperback (256) pages
© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose