From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
My regular readers and friends will remember how much I admire and enjoy reading the Queen of Regency Romance, Georgette Heyer. We reviewed all her historical novels during a month-long celebration here on Austenprose in 2011.
While I continue to work through the long list of her books, there are scholars who have read them all and studied her life and work. The first among them is Dr. Jennifer Kloester. Austenprose reviewed her Georgette Heyer: A Biography of a Bestseller when it released in 2011 and have followed her career ever since. I was delighted when she agreed to an exclusive interview. Her extensive knowledge of Heyer and her own talent and brilliance are dazzling.
Please join me in welcoming Dr. Kloester to Austenprose today. Additional questions by readers are welcome, so please have your share of the conversation!
What was the first Georgette Heyer book that you read, and what were your first impressions?
The first Heyer novel I ever saw was Cotillion but the first one I ever read was These Old Shades. I loved it! I’d never read anything like it and it only made me long for more. Luckily the tiny YWCA library in the remote mining town where I was living in Papua New Guinea had a wealth of Heyer novels and I soon became immersed in her world. I remember being carried away by the story and characters and the language–– oh, it was wonderful, so alive and fresh and co completely convincing. Even when I didn’t understand a particular word, Heyer’s skill always meant I got the gist of the meaning. Her characters lived for me then and they live for me now.
Why were you inspired to write a biography of her life?
It was her books that began it. They introduced me to a world and a writing style that inspired me from the first. Heyer is a prose master, a lover of language with a genius for creating memorable characters, plots and dialogue. Once I’d discovered her, I read everything of hers that I could find. Like so many readers, her Regency and Georgian novels are my favourites, though I also really enjoy her detective novels. It was Heyer’s Regency novels that led me to do my Doctorate on Heyer and History in Fiction, then to write my first book, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. While researching my Doctorate I became good friends with Heyer’s first biographer, Jane Aiken Hodge. In 2002 I was lucky enough to visit her in her home in Lewes in Sussex. We had a wonderful and truly memorable lunch at the end of which she gave me her entire research archive! It was a goldmine of information. My research also led me to write to Heyer’s son, Sir Richard Rougier. We became good friends and he and his wife generously had me to stay in their home several times. Sir Richard gave me unfettered access to all of his mother’s private papers and notebooks, as well as permission to quote from her novels and from the untapped archives of her letters that I’d discovered. By the time I’d finished my Ph.D. I had a wealth of new material dating from 1921 when Heyer was eighteen and had just been offered a publishing contract for her first novel, The Black Moth. With so much fresh information about the reclusive bestselling author, I felt compelled to tell her story. I was also driven by a strong desire to see her properly acknowledged for her extraordinary writing achievements. Though Heyer is loved by millions of readers around the world, since her death there has been a tendency – by those who have not read her – to dismiss her as a writer in the vein of Barbara Cartland. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth and I hope Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller does her justice. I certainly felt proud in 2015 when English Heritage awarded Georgette Heyer a Blue Plaque in recognition of her contribution to literature.
Nonfiction books inspired by Georgette Heyer’s novels and her life: Georgette Heyer’s Regency World (2005), and Georgette Heyer: A Biography of a Bestseller (2011), by Jennifer Kloester. The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken Hodge (1984).
Were there any surprising discoveries unearthed during your research?
One thing that really struck me that I’d never realised before I began my research was the degree to which she had personally experienced several aspects of Regency life. Heyer was born in 1902 at the beginning of the Edwardian era. In the years before the Great War things such as carriages, servants and a strongly hierarchical society were still very much the norm. The stage-coach still ran through Wimbledon where she lived and her grandmother had a carriage so she would have known those things first-hand. She loved to visit her grandmother at “Fairfield”, the big house with its retinue of servants and large garden. I’d never realised what a powerful impression the class structure had on Heyer until I researched her early life and family background, but her strong sense of the different social classes that was typical of the time informed not only her writing but also her worldview. The other surprising thing I discovered was that for the first twenty years of her career, she wrote all her books longhand! What makes this even more amazing is the speed at which she wrote them. Most of The Convenient Marriage was written in just six weeks and The Talisman Ring took Heyer only two months. Even more amazing to me is that her first drafts were often her final drafts – a skill I envy!
Do you see any influence by Jane Austen in her writing?
Definitely. Jane Austen was a huge influence on Georgette Heyer. Austen was Heyer’s favourite author and there are many Austen moments in Heyer’s Regency novels. Heyer considered Jane Austen a genius and was always careful when using Austen’s language to never directly copy it. She had huge respect for Austen and though she frequently took an Austen character or plot as a starting point for one of her novels, Heyer always made a point of taking her story in a different direction from Austen. Though she was proud of her books, Heyer never felt that they compared to Austen’s six brilliant novels and she once tore up a letter from a fan who tried to tell her that Pride and Prejudice was “a Heyer book with a lot of unnecessary padding”! Throughout her novels, Heyer frequently pays tribute to Austen with her use of ironic comedy, her observations of human nature, and her inversion of Austen plots. Heyer’s novel, The Foundling, is one example of this, for it is a delightful comedy with its roots in Austen’s Emma – only instead of a managing, outspoken heroine, Heyer gives us the shy and untried Gilly, the young Duke of Sale who must manage the lives of several unexpected acquaintances. Like Emma, he too ends up attempting to help a naïve and slightly dim girl – the foundling (like Harriet Smith) of the story. Throughout the novel, there are many subtle references to Emma and I am sure that Heyer enjoyed paying literary homage to her favourite author in both this novel and others among her Regency stories.
What are Georgette Heyer’s superpowers as a writer? What was her Achilles heel?
What a great question. Her superpowers are her superb prose, her sparkling dialogue, her grasp of Regency argot, her clever plots, and characters who leap of the page and live for the reader, her laugh-out-loud comedy and her magical talent for making her Regency world seem real. Her Achilles heel is more tricky but perhaps her use of certain stock characters: the ponderous and verbose young man, the Miss Bates type of lady’s companion, the obsequious inn-keeper, the dim-witted but likable young dandy. Someone recently likened some of these secondary characters of Heyer’s to a kind of supporting repertory company with its character woman and players with their regular designated roles and I think that’s a fair comment, although it did not stop Heyer from bringing even her most minor characters to life. More recently some commentators have objected to what they see as Heyer’s deliberate exclusion of persons of colour and LGBTQ individuals from her Regency novels and I guess they would see this as an Achilles heel. It is true, however, that Heyer’s understanding of the Regency period came from the sources available to her at the time and this meant that it would never have occurred to her to include such a diversity of characters. The social and cultural diversity we aspire to today was not a mainstream concept during Heyer’s lifetime. Her chosen slice of Regency history and the world she created based on it was deliberately narrow and dealt mainly with the aristocracy. Heyer had no concept of what today is called ‘inclusivity’.
Three of Jennifer’s favorite Georgette Heyer novels: The Unkown Ajax (1959), Frederica (1965), and Friday’s Child (1944).
Which are your top three favorite Georgette Heyer novels, and why do they rate so highly?
A Civil Contract for its realism, pathos, and insight. Sylvester for its clever plot, fully-realised characters and for its comedy. Cotillion for the genius of its plot with its four couples who, as in the dance, must wend and weave their way through the story and through each other’s lives until the dance is done and everyone ends in their rightful place. I could also mention Venetia for its superb story, brilliant romance and clever ending, The Unknown Ajax for one of the most brilliantly staged and comical endings in all of Heyerdom, Frederica for its hero who undergoes genuine change because of the heroine and for its shaggy dog, Lufra, The Talisman Ring for having one of the finest heroines and some of the best dialogue and for its ventre à terre scenes and then there’s Friday’s Child and… you get the idea
Who is your favorite hero and heroine from her canon?
Hugo Darracott for his glorious sense of humour, his intelligence, his kindness, and his ability to resolve difficult problems. I love Lady Hester Theale from Sprig Muslin. She is such an overlooked woman and yet she has a deep inner life and a delightful sense of humour. All she needs is to be released from the shackles of her home and awful family and she is a woman who will reach her full potential. She’s smart and kind and capable and she loves deeply. I’m also a bit in love with Lord Legerwood from Cotillion. He only appears in a handful of scenes but such is Heyer’s skill that he is incredibly attractive and he truly lives for the reader.
How has Heyer influenced your own writing?
Enormously. I only wish I had a tenth of her talent and her ability to write so quickly and so consummately. Her Regency language and her ability to bring the era to life and make me feel as if I were really there are part of what inspired me to write my latest novel, Jane Austen’s Ghost. That novel has an important Regency element and even though Jane Austen’s character ends up in our modern world, she speaks the language of her own time. When writing the novel, it was really important to me to try and give Jane Austen an authentic Regency voice. I love researching the Regency era and working out the language of the time. Of course, Heyer borrowed from Austen’s language and there’s no doubt I’ve been hugely influenced in my own writing by both authors.
Are there any contemporary Regency romance novelists that you read and admire?
I love Anne Gracie’s novels for their humour and characters. These days not many authors attempt the more traditional type of Regency of the sort Heyer wrote but many writers have made the modern Regency their own, among them: Grace Burrowes, Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh, the late Jo Beverley, Stephanie Laurens, Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, and Lisa Kleypas.
What is Georgette Heyer’s lasting legacy?
Heyer’s depiction of the Regency is so powerful that it created a genre. Though her world was grounded in history and its ephemeral details are accurate, it is a created world and one whose rules have had a lasting impact on modern historical novels. Heyer set a very high standard of prose, plot and character and dialogue and many of her novels can be read as a masterclass of writing technique. She could create a character in a sentence and set a scene in a paragraph. Many best-selling authors and legions of her fans acknowledge their debt to Georgette Heyer.
Jennifer Kloester is the bestselling author of Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller and an avid Jane Austen fan. Persuasion is her favourite Austen novel, though Jennifer readily acknowledges that Emma is Austen’s most brilliant book and Pride & Prejudice her most romantic. Thanks to Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer Jennifer has a love of all things Regency and is a popular presenter on the subject. In 2015, with Stephen Fry, she was thrilled to speak at the unveiling of Georgette Heyer’s English Heritage Blue Plaque in Wimbledon. Jennifer has given talks, writing workshops and public presentations in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand on Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and the Regency. She recently published her third novel, the genre-bending Jane Austen’s Ghost – a contemporary-historical-paranormal novel with a Regency twist! Jane Austen’s Ghost is available in both print and digital.
- Read our review of Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester
- Visit our Georgette Heyer Archive
- Read our preview of Jane Austen’s Ghost, by Jennifer Kloester
Cover images courtesy of Source Books, & Penguin Random House; text Jennifer Kloester & Laurel Ann Nattress © 2020, Austenprose.com