I must acknowledge that it is well-nigh impossible for me to be objective when it comes to reviewing Jennifer Kloester’s new biography of Georgette Heyer which was released this month in the UK. Rarely have I looked forward so much to reading a biography. But be assured, gentle reader, that had I found it sub-standard, I would tell you so. Instead, I am delighted to report that it met or exceeded almost all of my expectations.
This is a more traditional biography than Hodge’s, which discusses each work Heyer wrote in some detail, creating a dual focus on the events of Heyer’s life and her works, occasionally feeling as though the biographical material is merely a bridge until the next novel. Kloester’s treatment of Heyer’s workplaces them firmly in the context of the events of her life, with emphasis most definitely on her life.
Kloester had access to more of Heyer’s letters than Hodge (and Hodge generously gave Kloester all of her Heyer research notes). The bibliography is divided into two: published sources and archival sources, and the latter is extensive, with letter collections located all over the English-speaking world. (Oklahoma? New Zealand? Who knew?) Heyer didn’t keep her own manuscripts, and very few letters, but private archives such as the Frere families provided Kloester with dozens of frequent, chatty letters over several decades that reveal Heyer’s personality clearly, as well as some of the more mundane details of her life.
Kloester reveals more details about the incidents of plagiarism that Hodge mentioned. The first copier was indeed, as Heyer fans have long agreed amongst themselves, Barbara Cartland. The second, some years later, was Kathleen Lindsay.
One point I found particularly interesting is Kloester’s treatment of Penhallow. Hodge reported that this was intended as a contract-breaking book. Kloester’s research revealed that this notion was, in fact, a family legend built up after the fact. At the time, Heyer had the highest expectations of the novel and hoped it would be well-received in the literary world— and in fact, it was, garnering several positive reviews, but never high enough to satisfy her. She always yearned for more serious literary recognition, and never felt that she received it.
This biography is interesting (to me, at least) on so many levels, especially placing Heyer’s life in a chronological context. The Regency setting of her later novels was less than a century before her own birth in 1902. She personally experienced the transition of the world from Edwardian times— when carriages and servants and indeed much of social and even some technological norms of the Regency were still an ordinary part of life for the upper-middle class of which she was a part— to the new world “after the war” (i.e., World War I) of the twentieth century. Numerous small details of Heyer’s early life, and even of her antecedents, inform incidents in her novels. For example, Felix’s obsession with steam engines and his trip up and down the Thames in a steam-boat (Frederica) comes directly from Heyer’s grandfather’s successful tugboat fleet.
Like other biographies of authors, including Hodge’s, this work provides insights into the author’s creative process that other writers will find interesting and informative.
The only minor criticism I have is that some of Kloester’s examples and quotations are the same as Hodge’s. This is completely understandable as they are perfect choices to illustrate certain points, but I found myself slightly (and unfairly) resenting any duplicate quotations, as I wanted more and new quotations! (Perhaps Kloester will publish an edition of Heyer’s letters!)
The book itself is produced beautifully. The pages are stitched, the paper is substantial, and the photographic plates are well-chosen and well-described. The cover is stunning: I literally gasped when I opened it, not having seen it online first. This is a fine book that is aesthetically an admirable complement to the most fastidious collector of Heyer’s first editions or uniform editions. And substantively it is just as pleasing. Congratulations, Ms. Kloester, on a job exceptionally well done and worthy of its subject.
5 out of 5 Stars
Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester
William Heinemann (2011)
Hardcover (464) pages
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).
© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose