Monday, November 09, 2009

Heyer 2009: Jennifer Kloester: 'The Life of Georgette Heyer'

In her presentation, ‘The Life of Georgette Heyer,’ Jennifer Kloester revealed that she has completed a new biography of Heyer and hopes it will be published next year by Random House. [LV comment: Random House, under its Arrow imprint, has reprinted Heyer's works and published both Jennifer Kloester's Georgette Heyer's Regency World and Jane Aiken Hodge's biography of Heyer.]

Jane Aiken Hodge, who died earlier this year, granted Kloester access to her own research archive on Heyer but the new biography will also draw on a great many other archives which were not available to Hodge. Kloester has had extensive access to many letters written by Heyer which were untapped by Hodge, as well to the archives of A. S. Frere, Heyer's friend and publisher. Richard Rougier, Heyer's son (now also deceased) gave Kloester copyright permission to quote from his mother's letters. Kloester has a number of photographs of Heyer, including some taken in front of the the Rougiers' "mud hut" in Tanganyika [LV comment: A. S. Byatt, in her very short "biographical portrait" published in 1975, reports that "The Rougiers were [...] living in a hut made of elephant grass, in a compound in the bush, prowled round by lions, leopards, and rhinos."] and one by E. O. Hoppé. She also showed us photos of Heyer's family: her mother, Sylvia Watkins (1876-1962), her father, George Heyer (1869-1925), who graduated from Cambridge with a degree in classics and introduced Heyer to Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare, her brothers Boris and Frank, her son, Richard Rougier, and her husband, Ronald Rougier. Ronald had a varied career: originally training as a naval cadet before his defective eyesight was discovered, he retrained to become a mining engineer, briefly ran a sports shop and finally retrained yet again, becoming a barrister. Kloester has also found seven published, but since forgotten, short stories by Heyer, one of which was published pseudonymously.

Kloester gave a brief outline of Heyer's early life and publishing career. Georgette Heyer began writing at a very young age, and was described as a "prodigy." The Black Moth was published when she was very young. Heyer later suppressed her early contemporary novels Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930), in which she struggled with the issues of gender and male/female relationships. In Helen the heroine's beloved father dies suddenly, much as George Heyer did, but at the time reviewers criticised what they considered this contrived aspect of the plot. Regency Buck (1935) was Heyer's first Regency romance. An Infamous Army (1937) was the novel that Heyer herself considered to be her best, and for a time it was recommended reading at Sandhurst because of its detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo. Kloester concluded by describing Heyer as a "great, enduring, bestseller" whose books continue to sell extremely well in the twenty-first century.


  1. I thought Jennifer Kloester's paper was a terrific opener for the day: her style as a speaker was relaxed and engaging, and her material was wonderful. We were given a privileged preview of what will undoubtedly become the standard biography of Heyer, whose place as a major novelist of the 20the century will only become more secure as time goes on.

    Having read the Jane Aiken Hodge biography years ago, I was well aware of its limitations and knew that they were not the author's fault, but I suppose I had not expected another biographer, in the fullness of time, to be able to go so much deeper. I am looking forward to Jennifer's book eagerly -- and I think we can be sure that everyone who was present will be buying it when it appears.


  2. "I suppose I had not expected another biographer, in the fullness of time, to be able to go so much deeper."

    I only read the Aiken Hodge biography recently, while I was writing my paper, but what I read about Heyer's desire for privacy made me doubt it would be possible to find out much more about her, particularly as her son had since died. So it was a lovely surprise to find out that Jennifer Kloester's had access to so much new material.

    And I too got the impression that pretty much everyone who was there will be wanting to get their hands on a copy of the new biography as soon as it's published.

    I really do hope that Heyer's "place as a major novelist of the 20the century" does "become more secure." Certainly she's not fading away into obscurity yet, and it'll soon be 90 years since her first novel was published. Clive Bloom, in his Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), states that "Heyer’s work is to the popular historical romance as du Maurier’s is to the popular gothic romance" (152).

  3. Yes, I had the same impression, Laura -- that more private and detailed information would simply never be available. I think Jennifer Kloester's combination of scholarly determination and Aussie charm and friendliness has worked wonders.

    The judgement of history is often rather different from contemporary judgement, and I suspect that the reputations of several of the popular novelists of the 20th century will ultimately endure better than those of some of the 'literary' ones that may have been regarded as far more significant at the time. I don't have anyone particular in mind, I hasten to add.