Were I to hold a competition to judge the most difficult book to review from my reading this year, the winner would be, without a doubt, Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester. I read it in April. I have read almost 150 books since then and this one – this dreaded review – has haunted me the entire time.
The problem is this: I love Georgette Heyer but do not love Jennifer Kloester. Since biographies depend on both the subject and the author, this made for a troubling situation.
First, let us get the unpleasantness out of the way and as quickly as possible: Kloester is a clumsy writer and makes no attempt at the kind of analysis that good biographies require. The effort it took to make it through the charmless and plodding first chapter (with its important insights into such details as the infant Georgette’s “good appetite”) was considerable. Kloester is obviously a great Heyer fan and her fascination with her subject did endear her to me somewhat, but that is what has made this review so difficult to write. I love that Kloester feels passionately enough about Heyer to have written this. For years, we fans have had to make do with Joan Aiken Hodge’s The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which does a wonderful job of discussing the novels and detailing Heyer’s research techniques but which is also, like Kloester’s biography, limited by the very private nature of its subject. But once you move beyond some bizarrely structured sentences, a needless amount of detail, a few questionable speculations and a generally awkward style of writing, Kloester does an excellent job of giving her readers what they want: more information about Heyer. That is why I kept reading and that is what, in the end, made this such a fascinating and enjoyable book.
Phew. It only took me seven months to figure out how to say all that.
Part of what appeals to me about Georgette Heyer – beyond my deep affection for her as the author of some of the most delightfully amusing books in my collection – is the very serious way she approached her work. She was not ones of those authors who waxed poetic about their “art” or made any attempts to romanticize it. She had a formula – a very successful one – and she used it to write bestsellers. Give me a writer who writes to get paid, a creator of “good bad books”, and more often than not they will earn themselves a place on my favourites list. Heyer was certainly one of these, alongside my adored Angela Thirkell and the incomparable Agatha Christie, who, it turns out, were among Heyer’s favourite authors as well:
Georgette could be a tough critic and had no time for what she considered verbiage. Her preference was for those skilled in the craft of writing and her favourite authors were those whose mastery of language or distinct voice set their writing apart such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Noël Coward, Angela Thirkell, Stephen Leacock, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean and Raymond Chandler.
(Simon will be pleased to hear that this just makes me that much more eager to read Ivy Compton-Burnett.)
Though Kloester sadly does not go deeply into Heyer’s research and writing process (though, to the best of my memory, the Hodge biography does a very good job of this), what glimpses she does give us are fascinating:
…her characters were often the starting point for her novels. She would first imagine an individual, then spend hours thinking about him or her while playing endless games of patience, fleshing the character out in her mind and devising a suitable name. Once created, a character’s behaviour and dialogue follow naturally. Georgette found it impossible to force one of her creations to behave in a manner contrary to their established personality. When writing a book her dramatis personae lived for her to the extent that they frequently determined the course of the story.
One of the main problems with Heyer for many readers is that, simply put, she was not an easy person to like. Despite the sparkling wit and charm of her novels, Heyer was not a warm woman, nor did she particularly care about making other people like her. She could be snobbish and anti-Semitic, had little patience for her fans, was possessed of a “sharp, all too accurate, caustic tongue” and was shy and impatient when forced to socialise. A social butterfly she was not:
Georgette never sought to be part of a large social group. She was happiest in her own company, with Ronald, or with a small group of intimates (Richard described his mother as ‘very, very shy’ and ‘to hide this, she would talk nineteen to the dozen to strangers’). Although she was interested in people it was more often as an observer of human nature than as someone who wished to befriend them. Those, like Pat Wallace, who penetrated her outer reserve found her a kind, caring and generous friend, but to the rest of the world she could appear grand and formidable – someone who could hold people at a distance with a word or a look.
For her, it was more important to have a small group of intimate friends and, above all, a close relationship with her husband, Ronald. One of the strengths of this biography is Kloester’s portrait of Heyer’s marriage to Ronald Rougier. Part of what makes Heyer’s novels so appealing is the strong understanding and admiration her heroes and heroines feel for one another, the understanding that “a successful relationship takes time and that true love requires mutual understanding and empathy and not mere physical attraction.” There is love and attraction, certainly, but she is very clear that that alone does not a marriage make. Love-struck supporting characters are humoured but not encouraged; if a match is made among these underlings, their happiness is never quite as certain as that of the leading couple who we know will be friends as well as lovers. Kloester takes great care (and it is greatly appreciated) to illustrate Georgette and Ronald’s compatibility and their contentment throughout their marriage. For many years, Heyer was the main breadwinner and, far from resenting her, Ronald served as her greatest supporter, chief critic and main research assistant:
They were great friends. Georgette and Ronald shared many common interests and she endured his irascibility and outbursts of temper while he coped with her forceful personality and determination to be right. When they did fight it was usually over a point of history (one of their more serious arguments was over the Divine Right of Kings) or a word or phrase in one of her manuscripts, rather than over more mundane things like domestic problems or money.
What does irritate me about Kloester’s portrait of the Rougier’s marriage (Georgette was very happy to be Mrs Ronald Rougier in private life) is her speculation about their sex life:
Whether Georgette herself ever experienced an overwhelming urge for sex is impossible to know, although a close friend described her as ‘not terribly interested’ in sex. She and Ronald only had one child and for much of their married life slept in separate beds, giving little or no impression that physical lovemaking was an intrinsic part of their life together. Georgette had her passions but they were not physical. Her marriage to Ronald was first and foremost a marriage of two minds.
That, as far as I can find, is it: on the basis of one remark from a friend and the existence of separate beds, it is decided that Heyer did not like sex. I am not convinced by such limited evidence and I wish biographers (since Kloester is hardly the only one guilty of this) would refrain from such speculation when evidence is so limited.
But limited evidence is rather a theme with Heyer. She was an extremely private person (again, this just makes me like her more) and there were no revealing diaries or indiscrete personal letters for the hopeful biographer to pounce on. Kloester had access to private letters and documents (which had not been available when Hodge prepared her biography) and uses them extensively, though not judiciously, but they are mostly business correspondence. As a biography of Georgette Heyer the businesswoman, this is ideal. As the biography of Georgette Heyer the woman, less so. Kloester does the best with what she has though, even if she is given to quoting incredibly dull and pointless correspondence at length.
This is not a perfect biography but I still adored it. Yes, I have my issues with Kloester but, in the end, she brought me more information about Heyer and, after that difficult first chapter, I found myself too fascinated to care much about any technical or structural flaws in her writing. Whether you like her or not, Heyer is fascinating.
Of course, reading this made me want to reread all of Heyer’s novels. In the spring I was able to resist that urge but reviewing this has brought it back. I can’t help but notice that of the 12 years I have left to complete for A Century of Books, five could be filled with novels by Heyer…