Monday, 19 March 2012

Fretting About Georgette Heyer

I've always loved Georgette Heyer's regency novels, since my mum introduced me to them in my teens. They're light, frivolous and romantic - the ultimate escapism - and also impeccably researched with true attention to detail in everything from battles, to fashions, to authentic slang and speech patterns. (I've even heard that The Spanish Bride was on the reading list at Sandhurst for its detailed analysis of  the battles of the Peninsula War...) As a result, I was rather disappointed to read in Rachel Cooke's review of Jennifer Kloester's Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller that:
 Heyer was neither romantic nor funny nor zippy. She was a sour and rather cynical snob, rapacious when it came to money, mean-spirited when it came to other writers and to her readers, whose fan letters she liked mostly to drop straight into the nearest wastepaper basket, and with a strangely overdeveloped sense of her own importance. Full text of the review is here on the Guardian website.

In some way I clearly want Heyer to have been as witty and generous as her heroines, and this raises the question of whether the views of the creator affect their creations. Certainly there are snobbish elements in Heyer's writing. She admires the world of the haut ton, the Upper Ten Thousand, and while there are no shortage of sympathetic cheeky urchins, hard-working lower orders etc, her greatest scorn is for the 'cits' - the vulgar nouveau riche upstarts who lack the instinctive elegance and taste of those born into high society (if not money - there are plenty of impoverished aristocrats in her books).

Reading the comments at the bottom of the online edition of the review, though, I can see that other readers dispute both Cooke's analysis of the biography and Heyer's snobbishness, preferring to describe her as "of her time". Now there's a label that can cover a multitude of sins! Still, I don't think this is enough of a concern to stop me enjoying her books - it's not the worst thing an author can be accused of, after all. I think I will put the biography, as well as Jean Aiken Hodge's The Private World of Georgette Heyer , on my reading list and judge for myself, as well as leaving worrying about Wagner for another day!

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