Jane Aiken Hodge's The Private World of Georgette Heyer is a slim volume, easy and fast reading, all the more so because the subject is so fascinating. As with so much nonfiction it's chock full of interesting facts and I feel like I need a second reading for it to all sink in, but it was a nice overview of her life and work. Initially Hodge didn't feel she had enough material for a straightforward biography and would concentrate solely on her books, but after getting access to letters to her publishers (which she quotes from liberally) and talking with Heyer's friends and family, she found she could easily flesh things out and talk about the personal side of Heyer as well. I should add that Hodge is an enthusiastic biographer and writes about her as an admirer, though she isn't afraid to share some of her blemishes as well.
As I mentioned before Heyer guarded her privacy with great intensity. I don't believe she gave a single interview during her lifetime, made no public appearances and agreed to be photographed only once for publication. Her first book, The Black Moth, published at the age of nineteen was a hit. Her success meant she would have to figure out how to keep her privacy under wraps while still satisfying fans, but this was easily accomplished when she married. Georgette Heyer was the author, and Mrs. Ronald Rougier was the wife and mother--jobs she took even more seriously and gave her the most satisfaction. Considering the period she lived in, she managed to have it all--family, and successful career, though perhaps without the literary recognition that would have brought gratification as well.
She was a very paradoxical person, however. She strikes me as a formidable woman and seemed at times prickly, so it's interesting that she wrote such endearing books that are even now in print and beloved by so many. I think she had quite a reputation with her publishers, but that said Hodge shared anecdotes by those who met her as Mrs. Rougier and she was extremely personable, almost shy at times, and pleasant (though she did have her opinions and was fairly conservative socially and politically). It was not below her to cook meals for guests as well as help serve along with her husband.
As for her writing, it seems what she really wanted to write and be admired for were her serious historical novels that she spent so little time on (her masterpiece remained unfinished at the time of her death), and her affinity was for the Medieval period rather than the Regency. It was her Regency romances that sold well, however; they brought in the money and paid the bills. She was never or very rarely reviewed by serious newspapers or literary journals. I think she would have appreciated a little acclaim for her books, though they were immensely popular with the reading public. Probably what frustrated her so much was her books were written off as mere romances, but what she was writing was social comedy. She was always so self-deprecating, on the one hand calling her own books "another bleeding romance" but still working on them with such meticulousness, careful to get everything just right. Rarely did a mistake ever appear in her stories. She had amassed a huge reference library with over a thousand volumes, which unfortunately no longer exists, so she certainly did her homework.
Amongst the first group of books written in the 1920s there are four contemporary novels that she would later suppress. "The first three are about young girls growing up, the last and least successful is a brave tackling of the problem of class in English society." I don't believe any of these are still in print and am not sure if there are plans to reissue them or whether they can be located easily in a library, but they are probably the only "evidence" as Hodge calls it of Heyer's early life, which is probably why she didn't want them available. Of course this makes me curious about them and would love to find used copies to read. I get the feeling it would shed yet more light on Heyer's life.
Along with her Regency romances and historical novels she also wrote a series of thrillers or detective stories. She collaborated with her husband, Ronald, on these novels. He provided the plot and Georgette filled in and expanded on the characters lives and relationships. While she was writing her thrillers, in total about ten years, she was producing not only a detective novel but a romance each year as well.
"The early Thirties were a good time to be trying one's hand om the field of mystery. The novel was in its usual state of twentieth century disarray, with Proust and Joyce in the ascendant and Virginia Woolf far out in The Waves(1931). People who wanted to write good old-fashioned tales (and make some money by them) were increasingly taking refuge in the detective story and the straight thriller. In them, moral standards and a happy ending were not just tolerated but expected, and in those days they had not succumbed to the twin modern curses of sex and violence."
I've yet to read any of these detective novels, but I have a few to try out and would love to add them to the mix soon, since I seem to be having a small Heyer reading-fest at the moment.
I feel like this is just a quick and dirty overview, but it was a good read with so much information to process it's impossible to touch on all of it. If you are at all interested in Georgette Heyer or her novels I highly recommend it, as it's all very entertaining and enlightening. I'm still working on The Talisman Ring. Sourcebooks was kind enough to send it to me, but they've asked that I not post my review until May, so I'll be writing about it later. In the interim I might just join Cornflower's Book Group for their discussion of A Civil Contract.