Forgotten Authors No.27: Georgette Heyer
Sunday 15 March 2009
Georgette Heyer is not entirely out of print but, for someone who was one of the most popular writers in the country, she has fallen into a strange and rather airless niche market. Heyer was a literary phenomenon who wrote bestsellers throughout her career, without ever giving an interview or making any kind of public appearance. A recluse in her private life, she was driven to communicate with her readers through a series of light Regency romances for which she had scant regard, saying only that "I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense". Her novels received no critical acclaim, but sold so well that her name alone was enough to guarantee success. In total, 51 novels, short story collections and mysteries were published, appearing at a rate of one or more a year throughout her life.
Heyer was born in London in 1902, and continued writing until her death in 1974. Her narratives were peppered with wicked dukes, hearty knights, feisty ladies and headstrong rakes whose amorous escapades unfurled against colourful historical backdrops. Along the way, eyes flash, bosoms heave, horses rear and ladies of quality exhibit a tendency to faint. Her pages are packed with desperate elopements, crimes of passion and descriptions of the prevailing fashions. No wonder, then, that critics were sceptical and dismissed each arrival merely as "the latest Georgette Heyer".
This gap between popularity and peer respect was created largely by Heyer's worldwide readers, who lapped up the romances while failing to notice their favourite author's meticulous attention to period detail. Her books were a perfect combination of undemanding plot and colourful characterisation, but to my jaded eye at least, seem almost parodic in their earnest desire to entertain. They're well-written, not very thought-provoking, but tremendously entertaining. And her work improved; the late comedies of manners now best stand the test of time.
Heyer left behind the unfinished manuscript of a serious medieval book, since published, that revealed her great skill and love of research. Although she left no early drafts, dismissed her first four novels and kept only one fan letter, she was greatly concerned that her books should provide historical accuracy. Why then was she so utterly self-deprecating about her work?
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