Call it kicking against our multicultural, street-wise age, or even "ritualising the fear of modernity" (as one academic does), but our affection for books by white, middle-class, conservative, English lady writers shows no sign of diminishing. And to prove it, this year will see the launch of reprinted novels by two of the most popular: Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers. Arrow are reprinting and repackaging 36 of Heyer's novels, and Hodder are re-setting all of Sayers's novels, clearing up textual mistakes as well as giving them a new look.
Why, when the literary world can't get enough of D B C Pierre, should anyone bother to revamp work that says nothing to us about our own lives and times? Heyer's historical romances are necessarily anachronistic, hovering between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Sayers's inter-war detective fiction is even worse, with an aristocratic amateur detective who is literally tucked up in bed at night with a fluffy eiderdown by his butler (check The Nine Tailors if you don't believe me). Yet they have never stopped selling. According to Carolyn Caughey, Sayers's publisher at Hodder, "Sayers uses themes that are still current. People read her and get little resonances they weren't expecting. She might have been writing three-quarters of a century ago but it wasn't another planet."
The past might not be another planet, but it is, as we know, another country, and one where they do things differently. Both Sayers and Heyer are from another age both were born at the turn of the last century, Sayers in 1893 and Heyer in 1902 and both came from upper-middle class, professional families. Heyer's father was a scholar who tended to look down on women writers; Sayers's father was a High Anglican clergyman and headmaster. Heyer largely educated herself, and wrote her first book, The Black Moth, at the age of 19, in order to cheer up her brother Boris who was ill; Sayers went to Oxford where she scored a first in Modern Languages. Both ended up writing popular fiction Heyer established the "Regency Romance" genre with the best-selling Regency Buck in 1935, and Sayers introduced Lord Peter Wimsey to the book-buying public with Whose Body in 1923 yet both craved intellectual acclaim. Heyer left an uncompleted manuscript on her death, a serious historical work about John, Regent of France during the reign of Henry VI, and Sayers spent her last years translating Dante's Divine Comedy in terza rima.
Their appeal lies of course in the way both writers create worlds so different from our own. In one letter, Heyer herself rather tartly admitted: "It is an accepted fact that women form the bulk of the novel-reading public, and what woman with romantic leanings wants to read novels which have as their heroes the sort of men she meets every day of her mundane life?" That Heyer's sparkling brand of escapism should have reached a hiatus during the Depression and immediate post-war years is not surprising: a tale or two of derring-do, dashing blades and maids in peril are just what you might need if you are caught in your "mundane life". "I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense," she said of her 1943 novel, Friday's Child. "But it's unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu."
Novelist Rafaella Barker endorses this she has read all of Heyer's novels "about 20 times" and saves them for when she's "ill or depressed then I read as many as I can". And like many Heyer fans, she was introduced to them by a family member: her father, the late poet George Barker, "only ever read John Buchan and Georgette Heyer", she says. Likewise Margaret Drabble, who read first Heyer's novels when she was at school, encouraged because "the whole family read them." Yet Drabble goes beyond the theme of escapism to highlight another facet of Heyer's appeal: "There is something very invigorating about her heroines," she says. "As a girl I was very drawn to these enterprising young women. They're very like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice but where Austen's heroines go on to become quite quiet, Heyer's get wilder and I loved that."
It is almost a given that romantic fiction and detective fiction should be branded escapist, part of a popular culture that encourages such narcotic qualities, but both genres are often dismissed for offering little more than that. Yet Drabble highlights that crucially feisty aspect of Heyer's work, an aspect that is often ignored. I was introduced to Heyer by a friend who had practically been fed Heyer's novels from the womb, her mother was such a fan. She grew up with books about young women holding their own against a dastardly uncle or wicked adventurer, and as a result they gave her the most savvy outlook on men I have ever come across (she can spot a cad at 10 paces, while the rest of us coo over how lovely he is). Present day chick-lit is useless for this. We don't need to know that Mr Caring-Sharing-Works-With-Animals is Really Nice. We can figure that out for ourselves. What we want to know is how to battle it out with witty repartee and a little dangerous flirting so that we always come out on top.
It is ironic, however, given their long-lasting success in the sphere of popular culture, that populism was something both Heyer and Sayers despised. Sayers is often credited with being the first crime writer to elevate the detective novel, with literary references and extensive research, leading many to wonder if she was ashamed of the genre. It could be argued that, as a result of their distaste for popular culture, both writers made attempts to go beyond the confines of a conservative populism in their books, to give us something new. In her detective fiction, Sayers's hero, Wimsey, is a "descendant of the Scarlet Pimpernel", as academic Alison Light has pointed out. He is a hero who, in the difficult, uncertain inter-war years, represented a much needed "more modest, sometimes agonised sense of English manliness", she argues. And with her historical romances, endlessly re-read and recycled among friends and family, Heyer repeatedly defies the Warhol definition of popular culture that condemns us all to a disposable 15 minutes of fame.
For there is nothing disposable about either Sayers or Heyer, as their longevity has proved. When I told my friend that Arrow had sent me six of the new Heyer reprints, she insisted I pass them on to her with such ferocity I didn't dare refuse, demanding which ones were they? Which matters, of course. For she has read them all. At least twice.
The first six Georgette Heyer reprints are published by Arrow this month (£6.99). Six Dorothy L Sayers novels are published on 16 February by Hodder (£6.99) and more will appear later in the year.Reuse content