Oh, Netgalley, I kind of wish I hadn’t read this.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad book. I didn’t hate the writing, and it didn’t make me hate Georgette Heyer; it also didn’t knock the acclaimed Regency (etc) author off any pedestal, since I didn’t have her on one to begin with. I’ve only read (listened to) one book of hers so far, and kind of hated that, although I do have a box full of paperbacks I fully plan to read. I’ve heard many wonderful things about the books, and I chose this biography with an interest in, cart-before-the-horse-like, learning more about an author I expect to become a favorite.
Well, maybe her books will become favorites.
The biography of Georgette Heyer’s life lingers over her relationship with her father, and provides loving detail about how she wrote her first book at age seventeen and published at nineteen. And on through her prolific career, her tussles with publishers and financial woes, her marriage and motherhood, moves from residence to residence and publisher to publisher and ailment to ailment. And while I didn’t finish up hating Ms. Heyer, I really, really don’t like her.
This is a bio written by someone is passionate about her subject, and even she couldn’t make Georgette Heyer winning. She (Heyer) was … well, for starters, she was a hypocrite. She was the sole breadwinner for her family for many, many years – and also supported her brother and mother – and yet was vehemently against women having careers, much less running businesses. She was constantly in debt for more than half her life, and somehow didn’t ever seem to twig to the fact that this was in large part because she spent money as though she had it in abundance; she and her family blithely continued to wear the best and eat the best and take month-long vacations, despite the fact that there were many times when, according to the letters quoted, she was afraid of local merchants stopping her credit because of past-due bills. She lived with a perpetual overdraft. She seems to have refused to acknowledge the fact that she was not of the silk-and-diamonds class she wrote about, and instead plunged into such projects as completely refurbishing her (rented) house. (I haven’t a great deal of respect for her husband, either, or the brother who couldn’t seem to hold a civilian job and seems to have sponged off her for decades without a qualm, yet was perfectly fit for service in WWII and acquitted himself quite well.)
Heyer was blunt and tactless, violently unromantic, and the embodiment of the cliché of British coolness and reserve. She enjoyed a drink – or several – or many – and her use of shall we say other chemical enhancement as well raised my eyebrows. She was a horrendous snob: adamantly anti-American, at least mildly racist, surprisingly sexist, proudly unsympathetic (until, apparently, later in life) to those in shakier financial positions than her own (she called it being “conservative”), and oozed contempt for the fans who adored her books. Sometimes she expressed her contempt in tearing up fan letters; sometimes she expressed it by writing back. I’d bet money that were she writing today she would be a Goodreads Author Behaving Badly. She also seems to have embraced the Darcy characteristic: “My temper would perhaps be called resentful. — My good opinion once lost is lost for ever.” She could – and did – hold a grudge like a bulldog.
None of this makes me like her any better. She was almost unfailingly self-deprecating – but in the manner of someone who downplays her achievement in the expectation that the person being addressed will correct her enthusiastically. She expected a conversation (live or by letter) to proceed along the lines of: “The new book I’m writing is rubbish” “No, what I’ve seen of it is wonderful!” “Really, the only place for it is the incinerator!” “No, truly, it will be a tremendous hit!” – and if her partner in the discussion did not play along she was peeved, to say the least. She claimed publicly at one point that she never read her reviews, which made me snort in disbelief, because she hung on them. And negativity in reviews nearly always meant that the reader was wrong, how dared they … yes, unless someone sat on her she definitely would have been on the bratty authors list on GR. (And God help anyone who found an anachronism in her writing.)
However. This oughtn’t to be a review of Georgette Heyer, but of Georgette Heyer, if you see what I mean. So to that end: not bad. Not great, but not awful. There is a fair amount of punctuation misuse which will hopefully be picked up before the final draft, comma abuse and overuse and so on (even above and beyond what Heyer herself was guilty of in the letters quoted). Formatting – block quotes and line breaks to indicate the insertion of a section of a letter – will also, I trust, be cleaned up. (Someday Kindle galleys will grow out of their awkward childhood, right?)
All else aside, I found myself most annoyed by the repetitiveness throughout the book. The author set down a statement – such as that last sentence – and then explained and/or backed it up with an anecdote from Heyer’s life. These brief stories seemed to take their tone and pace from whatever their sources were, for they were not uniform, but generally took up between a paragraph and a page. And at the end of it would come a summation repeating in much the same wording as that first statement, as though to make sure that the point had been gotten across. Once or twice would have raised a sigh, but over and over and over, reiteration reiterated, it became a frustration.
It’s awkward – but inevitable – that the correspondence quoted throughout the book is one-sided; Heyer did not keep letters, apparently. I can only imagine she would have been contrarily pleased that her correspondents kept her letters, though, as she made frequent jokes about her future biographers, with the same sort of tone as her self-deprecation: she wanted, desperately, to be reassured that she would be remembered, while fiercely protecting her privacy. However, this leads to unfortunate gaps and unanswered questions which niggle.
It seems harsh to say this, but I can’t help feeling there had to be another way to present the events at the end of Heyer’s life. As she grew older, she became accident-prone – to an extent that I can’t but think today’s authorities might take a look into possible elder abuse. But as her books came less often and the ailments and accidents came more often it started to be almost farcical – Another fall??. It’s certainly not funny to read about a seventy-year-old woman’s injuries and illnesses, but after a certain point it just seemed like much too much: someone should have been looking after her better. And that’s sad, because whatever else can be said about her she did sacrifice herself (however unwillingly at times) to tend her mother and mother-in-law and anyone else who needed it, all her life long.
My other quibble about the end of the biography is that the author relied on jumping from Heyer novel to Heyer novel like stepping stones throughout her life. When Heyer’s output began to falter at the end, so does the pacing of the biography; it suddenly picks up speed as though to sooner reach a point at which Heyer’s legacy can be discussed and the book wrapped up. Unfortunately, this is part of why the injuries and sickness turns into something almost ridiculous; also, I found it distractingly annoying that another part of this was the mention in passing of the divorce of a couple who had, a few pages before, been blissfully happy. No explanation is given, or expansion of the circumstances; there is just the merest mention of a split and a remarriage and that’s it.
Finally, if I had to read the word “sparkling” one more time in regards to the Heyer oeuvre, I would have screamed. Roget. Just … Roget. Please.
On the positive side, the research that went into this biography is almost as impressive as Heyer’s own. The foreword details years of investigation and reading, and the discovery and thorough examination of what seems like reams of previously unknown or forgotten material. It’s a wonderful effort, and obviously a labor of love. I just rather wish it had all come to more than this.
I don’t have to like, or even respect, an author to like her books. I just simplistically prefer to. So here’s hoping.
- Portrait of a witty – and private – author (miamiherald.com)
- Day 6: Books (ephiriel.wordpress.com)
- Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer (gcbooks.wordpress.com)