A few months ago, I blogged about some fabric depicting Regency Costumes that I had found at Quilters Trading Post which made me think of Georgette Heyer’s heroines. The fabric brought to mind a film adaptation of Heyer’s Reluctant Widow and, when the British Film Institute showed this film on 17 March, I was invited to introduce the screening. I did some further research into the film for the introduction, and here it is:
On August 6 1949, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that “at last British Studios have seen something that has been staring them in the face for years – it is the amount of good screen material to be found in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.”
Between 1921 and 1974, Heyer wrote over 50 novels, most set in the Regency period. She remains incredibly popular today with a dedicated fan base. But unlike many bestselling authors, very little of her work has been adapted for the screen. A rare example is The Reluctant Widow which was published in 1946 and released as a feature film in 1950 as the last of the period dramas made by Two Cities Films during the late 1940s. So why is so little Heyer seen on screen?
The answer might lie with Heyer herself. Her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge (The Private World of Georgette Heyer) was of the view that “Georgette Heyer’s books with their brilliant plotting and distinctive style and language should be naturals for film and television, but not, perhaps, with their strong-minded author at the director’s elbow.”
In principle, Heyer was open to having her novels adapted, as this could have increased her earning power. Despite earning significant income from her writing, she always felt short of cash and worried excessively about her tax bill. In 1939, there were discussions with Alexander Korda about filming her novel about Charles II, Royal Escape, but these came to nothing, as did proposed films of False Colours to star Anna Neagle (a Heyer fan) and to be directed by Herbert Wilcox, and a mooted production of An Infamous Army.
When The Reluctant Widow came to be filmed, Heyer found that she was not in control of her story – and she didn’t like it.
Screenwriters Gordon Wellesley and Basil Boothroyd made alterations to supporting characters Becky and Nicky (who, as written, are great examples of Heyer’s shrewd old governesses and hilarious younger brothers); added a mysterious smuggler; and, most significantly, created a new character – Madame de Chevreaux played by Kathleen Byron – who does not appear in the novel at all. A very exciting duel scene, made much of in advance publicity, is not in the book; and London scenes featuring Guy Rolfe are inventions of the film makers. There is also a very strange second marriage, which makes no narrative sense. And Heyer was powerless.
Jane Aiken Hodge quotes her as saying “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham (Studios) … I feel as though a slug had crawled over me. I think it is going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. Already I’m getting letters reproaching me. They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” She cannot have felt reassured by a review in the Daily Express that described Jean Kent having “a whale of a time. She has a part … that is a cross between the Wicked Lady, Forever Amber, and the barmaid at the local.” (April 28 1950)
Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller) reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because, “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting.”
Heyer ultimately refused to see the film, so she didn’t get to see what the director, Bernard Knowles, had made of her work – and her refusal meant that she missed seeing some of the very interesting aspects of the film.
To start with, she was wrong about Jean Kent, who played the role of Elinor much as written for much of the film. Guy Rolfe, who played Lord Carlyon, is now mainly remembered for playing English villains, but in The Reluctant Widow he had a rare opportunity to play the romantic lead and did so with conviction.
Heyer also missed out on an early screen appearance of Julian Dallas as Francis Cheviot. Advance publicity from Two Cities tells us that the Rank Organisation saw Dallas as “the new James Mason” and said that “if his acting and personality come over on the screen successfully he may be offered a long term contract.” Dallas was, indeed offered a long term contract, but not by Rank. Under his real name, Scott Forbes, he went to Hollywood under contact to Warner Brothers in 1950. After appearing in a number of films, he starred in the popular television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, from 1956-1958. According to Forbes’ 1997 obituary in The Independent, It was a well-kept secret … that Jim Bowie, with his deep Southern drawl and astonishing good looks, was played by an Englishman educated at Repton and Balliol College, Oxford. The promoters of the series, feeling that the US public would not accept a frontiersman played by an Englishman, launched him with a fabricated biography, claiming that he had been born in South Africa and grown up in eastern Pennsylvania.” (29 April 1997)
Heyer’s world was created on screen by Carmen Dillon at Denham Studios. Dillon was the first woman to win an Academy Award for set decoration, for Hamlet in 1948 – having overcome opposition to her work in the 1930s when she overheard someone saying, “That bloody Carmen Dillon is keeping a man out of a job.”
Dillon caught the mock-gothic settings of The Reluctant Widow with her usual excellence. In the novel, Elinor jokes about the character of Highnoons, the house she inherits, saying:
“The house is clearly haunted. I have not the least doubt that that is why only two sinister retainers can be brought to remain in it. I dare say I shall be found, after a night spent within these walls, a witless wreck whom you will be obliged to convey to Bedlam without more ado.”
With props to add to the sense of chaos of a neglected, crumbling mansion, notably in the decadent master bedroom, Dillon’s work resulted in a convincing Highnoons.
For the London scenes – also created at Denham – Dillon depicted architecture in the style of William Kent, who designed Horse Guards Parade, and she created views – seen through windows – of St James’ Park and the Treasury Building as in 1815. Props included a campaign sheet of the Peninsular War printed in 1815; a copy of The Morning Post borrowed from the British Museum, and some bombards, small shells used in the Battle of Copenhagen. Research was undertaken into the regiments stationed at Horse Guards in 1815 to ensure that the costumes were correct.
Overall, the film is an interesting addition to the history of British costume drama. It is particularly notable given its status as a very rare feature filmed based on a novel by Georgette Heyer – and, perhaps, answers the question “Why are books of this very popular author so rarely filmed?”