A Seasonal Countdown with Georgette Heyer

I collect vintage editions of Georgette Heyer’s novels, and in December – the season of sharing good things – I like to share my collection with other Heyer readers, and Twitter provides me with a great place to do so. While Twitter nowadays can be a fairly toxic environment, the online Heyer community is a warm and friendly place. So I have been tweeting a Georgette Heyer Advent Calendar as a thank you to my fellow Heyer-ites.

It’s very enjoyable. I choose a book each day, take out my vintage editions, snap a quick picture, draft a short summary, and post it on Twitter. Throughout the day Heyer readers reply. They comment on the choice of book, their views of particular characters, they discuss the plot, analyse the covers, advocate for their favourite supporting characters – the dialogue the Calendar inspires is absolutely splendid.

For this year’s Calendar, I started with Venetia, a great favourite among Heyer-ites. But Damarel divides opinion – some readers love him, and others really, really dislike him. Should Venetia have married him? Well it depends which reader you ask!

GHAC - Venetia

Venetia. This edition: Heinemann 1958.

Days 2 to 5 were Beauvallet, Sylvester, Sprig Muslin, and The Convenient Marriage. Two of these are particular favourites of mine – Sylvester and The Convenient Marriage – both of which have particularly engaging heroines in Phoebe and Horatia (and I adore the Earl of Rule!). And those Beauvallet covers are marvellous!

Day 6 involved The Masqueraders, which divides opinion. I don’t especially like it (I cannot bear The Old Gentleman), but I know people who adore it, and I wanted to share a lot of the books I knew others enjoy. Day 7 was Faro’s Daughter, and a number of people said they really must re-read it. I know I haven’t read it for years, so it has gone onto my To Be Read pile for 2020. Day 8 was Regency Buck. This book really does split the Heyer community – some readers really dislike Worth and Judith; others are very fond of them. This was my first Heyer, so I have a real soft spot for it. And I definitely like Worth.

Day 9 was Frederica. This book is absolutely adored by many Heyer fans. Rather than attempting to do justice to Heyer’s sparkling plot, I summed it up with humour: “Never leave your hot air balloon unattended. And make sure you have Dr Ratcliffe’s Restorative Pork Jelly to hand in case of injury or illness.”

GHAC - Frederica

Frederica: These editions: Bodley Head 1965, Book Club 1965.

Days 10 and 11 were The Quiet Gentleman and The Grand Sophy respectively. ‘Does Sophy’s conduct go “from bad to worse?” Is Cousin Charles a dictator? Is Eugenia a suitable bride for him? Or will Sophy disrupt the entire family?’ I asked.

And then on Day 12 I had a dilemma. Should I include My Lord John, Heyer’s longstanding, unfinished John of Lancaster project, published posthmously?  It’s not widely read, even by Heyer-ites, so was I wasting a day on an unpopular choice, so unlike her lighter novels that are so beloved? As her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge wrote, one of the problems with My Lord John was that ‘Heyer could not make her characters think like mediaeval people and, fatally, she could not make them talk like them either’. (The Private World of Georgette Heyer, p.76). And Jennifer Kloester noted, ‘In this book, Georgette had failed to wear her learning lightly’. (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, p.385).

GHAC - My Lord John

My Lord John. This edition: Bodley Head 1975.

It’s that learning that fascinates me: Heyer was a meticulous researcher. She went to enormous efforts to research My Lord John and this research was very important to her. Photographs of her notebooks intrigue me – her drawings of armour, of coats of arms, of maps. Her card indexes of materials relating to the project. Her efforts to read mediaeval English. I felt that the painstaking process of her research and her persistence in maintaining this project had to be acknowledged. So I included it.

I re-read Friday’s Child for the first time in years and laughed again at Ferdy, George and Gil (and disliked Sherry, but loved Hero) in preparation for Day 13. And I blundered on Day 14 with Devil’s Cub. My memory told me that Mary shot Vidal by mistake, and Heyer-ites kindly pointed out that my memory was at fault. As one reader tweeted: ‘She definitely means to do it’. Either way, Vidal definitely deserved it! And Powder and Patch gave readers a lot of pleasure on Day 15.

More enjoyment came with The Talisman Ring – another popular choice, largely due to the love readers have the heroine, Sarah Thane. I wish there was another novel about one of the secondary characters, Eustacie de Vauban – who provides lots of laughter. Day 17 was The Corinthian, and Day 18 brought These Old Shades. I have to confess to disliking These Old Shades – I don’t like the characters – but it’s very popular with other readers, so it had to be included. And both Day 17 and Day 18 provoked comments about the cover illustrations, and how faithful or otherwise they were to the plots.

I had a message from a Heyer reader expressing a wish for Cotillion so that came in on Day 19, and there was much love for Arabella on Day 20. Day 21 was reserved for An Infamous Army, which divided opinion. Was Heyer’s recounting of the Battle of Waterloo fascinating and informative, or was it to be rushed through to get on with the story? Was Barbara liked or loathed?

I had to include The Reluctant Widow on Day 22 – it’s the Heyer I have probably re-read the most because of my research into the 1950 film adaptation. It isn’t a favourite of mine, but it probably contains the most loved younger brother character in all of Heyer – the hilarious Nicky and his dog Bouncer. And Day 23 was Bath Tangle which provoked some strong reactions – Serena and Rotherham really aren’t popular!

So what of Day 24? Well, there’s only one choice really. It has to be The Unknown Ajax and the marvellous Hugo Darracott. “Hugo, how dare you call me love?” asks Anthea, but readers everywhere would give much to be in her shoes. If you haven’t read any Heyer, The Unknown Ajax is an ideal place to start. There is intrigue, family tension, mystery, humour, and love. And an absolutely ideal hero. Does anyone not love Hugo?

GHAC - The Unknown Ajax

The Unknown Ajax. This edition: Heinemann 1971.

It’s been lovely to read all the comments and discussions while I have been posting the Georgette Heyer Advent Calendar and sharing my collection. If you would like to have a look, you can find the 2019 Advent Calendar here on Twitter.

The Georgette Heyer community is a friendly place – so why not join us and tells us your favourite Heyer, your first Heyer, your most loved characters, and what Georgette Heyer means to you?

 

Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck and Admiral Lord Nelson

This post contains spoilers about Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck.

Regency Buck Pan Paperbacks

A sewing session provides a perfect opportunity to get lost in a good audiobook. I have spent many happy hours listening to the novels of Georgette Heyer – the perfect sewing companion – and was delighted when, on 5 June, 2015, her childhood home, 103 Woodside in Wimbledon, London, was given a Blue Plaque by English Heritage.

Earlier this week I was listening to an old favourite – Regency Buck (1935). This was Georgette Heyer’s nineteenth book and the first set in the Regency period (1811-1820). It isn’t my favourite Heyer novel but I have a soft spot for it because it was the first of her novels I read. I love the strong heroine, Judith Taverner, who flouts convention by driving her curricle to Brighton in an unladylike race with her brother, takes snuff, battles against the restrictions places upon her by her guardian, and ensures that looking like a mere Dresden china miss is offset by a decided air of resolution in the curve of her mouth.

Regency Buck Hardback

While listening to Judith’s story unfold, I was stitching the Nelson Quilt. To my surprise I heard something I had never noticed before: daring, unconventional Judith Taverner has been an admirer of Admiral Lord Nelson since her childhood. And this admiration is used to signal the traits of a couple of her acquaintances. Firstly, it is clear that Judith’s uncle, Admiral Taverner, is going to turn out to be a bad sort:

To relieve the awkwardness of the moment she turned to the Admiral, and began talking to him of the Trafalgar action. He was pleased enough to tell it all to her, but his account, concerned as it was merely with his own doings upon that momentous day and interspersed with a great many oaths and coarse expressions, could be of little interest to her. She wanted to be hearing of Lord Nelson, who had naturally been the hero of her school-days. It was her uncle’s only merit in her eyes that he must actually have spoken with the great man, but she could not induce him to describe Nelson in any other than the meanest terms. He had not liked him, did not see that he could have been so very remarkable, never could understand what the women saw in him – a wispy fellow: nothing to look at, he gave her his word.

Pan Paperbacks: Regency Buck

Pan Paperbacks: Regency Buck

In contrast, the Duke of Clarence, a good humoured easygoing Prince known as the Royal Tar, has much to recommend him. He joins Judith on a phaeton ride around Hyde Park:

He was not at all difficult to talk to, and they had not driven more than half-way round the Park before Miss Taverner discovered him to have been a firm friend of Admiral Nelson. She was in a glow at once; he was very ready to talk to her of the admiral, and in this way they drove twice round the Park, extremely well pleased with each other.

I hadn’t picked up on the Nelson references in Regency Buck before. I probably wouldn’t have paid them much regard had it not been for the Nelson research I’ve been doing as part of the Nelson Quilt project.

The Nelson Quilt at 2,900 squares: 28 June 2015. 300 squares to go.

The Nelson Quilt at 2,900 squares: 28 June 2015 – 300 squares to go.

I now feel I know Judith Taverner a bit better – and I would bet that some of her flaunting of convention was inspired by Nelson himself. Given Judith’s habit of taking snuff, I imagine that she would have had a decorative box to carry with her such as this one, inscribed England expects every man to do his duty, which is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Or she may have had a commemorative pill box in her reticule:

Commemorative Nelson Pill Boxes on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

Commemorative Nelson Pill Boxes on display at the   National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

Georgette Heyer was a meticulous researcher and very knowledgeable about the period and people of whom she wrote, weaving real events and individuals into her narratives with great skill. Judith Taverner’s admiration of Nelson would have been no accident. I’m really pleased to have found it and understood its significance while working on my own Nelson project.

Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck: Adventure! Excitement! Romance!

Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck:                           Adventure! Excitement! Romance!

Reflecting on The Reluctant Widow

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

 PictureShow, 13 May 1950

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:

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

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.”

Reluctant Widow Editions

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.

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

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?”

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

Sewing Regency Romance with Georgette Heyer

Regency Plate Blocks

I like to listen to audiobooks while I sew. Charles Dickens, Hilary Mantel and Josephine Tey are all in my listening library; another author who also features strongly is Georgette Heyer. The drama of Devil’s Cub, the humour of The Unknown Ajax, the tribulations of April Lady – all these make good quilting accompaniment.

Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was an incredibly prolific writer, with 40 historical novels and 12 thrillers to her name. Her most popular books are her Regency romances. Many people do not take Heyer’s work seriously, but her books are engaging and well written, and her background research impressive. Heyer was a thorough researcher and stickler for authenticity. She kept meticulous, extensive notebooks about the historical periods about which she wrote. These notebooks were filled with her drawings and references relating to styles of dress, types of carriages, and even slang usage.

Given my listening habits, I was delighted to find some Regency Costume Panels at Quilters Trading Post which immediately reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s heroines.

Georgette Heyer Block

Could this be Sylvester’s Phoebe? Or The Grand Sophy? I don’t think it is my favourite heroine, Horatia from The Convenient Marriage,  but it could be Regency Buck’s Judith.

Despite their popularity, hardly any Heyers have been adapted for film or television. There is a German television version of Arabella and a British film adaptation of The Reluctant Widow, directed by Bernard Knowles and released in 1950.

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

In principle, Heyer was keen for her novels to be filmed, partly as a way of easing her financial worries. Unfortunately, she found the filming of The Reluctant Widow an unpleasant experience. Her 1984 biographer Jane Aiken Hodge, quotes Heyer thus: “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham [Studios], and am trying to think what I can do about it. I feel as though a slug had crawled over me … They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” Perhaps Kent’s earlier ‘bad-girl’ roles in films such as Caravan and Good Time Girl influenced Heyer’s perception.

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography 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 that it is putting me right off the stroke.”

The Reluctant Widow

Heyer failed to have her name removed: the opening titles of the film read: “Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe in The Reluctant Widow. Based on the novel by Georgette Heyer.” She did not see the film herself, but her son did – and walked out, furious, half way through.

Had Heyer seen the film, she may well have found it turgid rather than salacious; there is no chemistry between Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe as Elinor and Lord Carlyon; and the novel’s exciting sub plot about French spies is rendered dull, even though the usually excellent Kathleen Byron is one of the plotters. The character of Nicky – one of Heyer’s impeccable comic creations – is no longer an irrepressible youth sent down from Oxford University following a prank involving a bear, but a callow boy who wouldn’t play a prank of any kind.

So, if you don’t know Georgette Heyer, I wouldn’t waste time seeking out this poor film adaptation, but go straight to the novel – Heyer’s irresistible take on the Gothic romance. Or better still, get an audiobook and sew along to it.

Reluctant Widow Editions