The Early Life of Georgette Heyer
Author of Historical and Detective Fiction
16th August 1902 – 4th July 1974
From 1932 onwards a historical novel or a crime novel by, Georgette Heyer, was published every year. When she died, forty-eight of her books were still in print. Although she had not completed her last book My Lord John, the first of a trilogy about the house of Lancaster, which she regarded as her most important work, it was published after her death. Most of her historical novels are still being published. Therefore it is not surprising if we want to know more about her.
After the success of her novel These Old Shades released during the General Strike, Georgette Heyer believed publicity was unnecessary. From then on she gave no interviews, confiding in a friend: “My private life concerns no one but myself and my family.”Her best sellers, which journalist Lesley McDowell described as containing "derring-do, dashing blades, and maids in peril", were popular during the Depression and World War Two. In trying times they provided temporary escape from the realities and deprivations of war time. Her mention of Friday’s Child in a letter was: "'I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense. ... But it's unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu."
Georgette, a feminine version of George, was named for her father and grandfather. It is possible George Heyer senior’s family was Jewish, for his father was a merchant in Southern Russia who lived in Kremenchuk Village where Jews were allowed to settle. In 1859, twenty-seven year old, George junior, a fur merchant, came to England from Kharkov, possibly to escape a Russian progrom. According to his granddaughter, he was an affectionate family man full of fun and stories. If he was a Jew by birth, he reinvented himself in England, where he first became a warehouseman. In 1863 when he was a large woolen wholesaler’s foreign agent he became a British citizen. Three weeks later, he married Alice Waters, from a family long-established in Norfolk.
In 1869 Alice gave birth to a son, who was not, according to Russian tradition given his father’s second name. Instead the baby was christened George. In many ways George senior was ridding himself of his past and adopting all things British.
George junior was brought up to become an English gentleman. Amongst other subjects, including French and Greek, he excelled in literature. His parents must have been very proud when he won a scholarship to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, founded by Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex. The college was a Puritan foundation with the aims: some good and goodlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge. What George thought of one of the first students, Oliver Cromwell, whose head is buried beneath the College’s Ante-Chapel, is not known. It is known that George became very popular while taking advantage of good learninge during the four years he studied for his Classics degree, years in which he wrote poetry, something he would continue writing throughout his life.
George hoped to become an archaeologist, but when family fortunes did not permit it he became a teacher in Weymouth for some years before marrying Sylvia Watkins in August, 1901.
Sylvia’s family was wealthier than the Heyer family. Her father, who died in 1900, and his brother helped their father make a success of his international tugboat business. It is interesting to note that in Joseph Turner’s famous painting The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken is towed by Watkins’s tugboat Monarch.
Waited on by servants, Sylvia, who had seven brothers and sisters, grew up in a substantial Victorian house, a happy home. Since Sylvia was musical, she received cello and pianoforte lessons. In 1895, at the age of nineteen she entered the internationally prestigious Royal Academy of Music where she studied for three years at the cost of eleven guineas a term. She dreamt of becoming a professional musician but conformed to society’s expectation that a young woman’s duty was to marry well and become a good wife and mother.
In the year when Sylvia began her studies at the Royal Academy of Music the Heyers moved into the house next door to her family. Six years later George junior and Sylvia married.
On the 16th of August, 1902, the recently married couple was delighted by Georgette’s birth in their house in Wimbledon, the first of many houses, mostly in the same town, that Georgette would grow up in.
A daughter in a well to do, but not rich, upper middle class parents, and with affectionate grandparents, aunts and uncles, Georgette grew up with pleasing manners, knowing how to behave in society and waited on by servants.
George Heyer adored his daughter. He had a ‘hands on’ approach to fatherhood unusual for an Edwardian gentleman. The baby developed to the sound of her father’s voice telling her tales from the Bible and Shakespeare, as well as children’s stories and nursery rhymes. She also listened to her mother playing musical instruments and singing.
From infancy onwards Georgette absorbed Victorian and Edwardian pride in the British Empire, the importance of class and good breeding along with a horror of vulgarity – factors prominent in her novels.
Educated at home until the First World War, Georgette’s love of literature was fostered by her father who encouraged her to read, and never forbade her to read any of her books. However, he insisted she master English grammar. He was delighted with her progress but her lack of musical talent disappointed her mother.
In 1907, when Georgette was five, her brother George Boris, (always called Boris) was born, to be followed in 1911 by the birth of her younger brother, Frank Dimitri. Throughout her life, Georgette would be the loving older sister portrayed in a charming photo. Smiling, her long hair loose, Georgette is standing by stool on which a top spins. Fascinated, Boris is looking down at it and Frank is peering over the edge of the stool enchanted by the sight.
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When Georgette was three years old her father, a very popular school master, quit his position as a French teacher at Kings College School in Wimbledon. Kings College Hospital, in need of £200,000 for new buildings, had appointed George as Appeals Secretary. By the time his first son was born he had also been given the position of Dean of the Medical School. He also found time to write and his poems were published in The Pall Mall Gazette, The Saturday Westminster Review and Granta. As for Georgette she made up stories and shared her father’s love of reading and writing,
To raise funds, George organised a carnival at Crystal Palace in Sydenham to raise funds. He also raised money through successful matinees in London at the Lyceum Theatre, Theatre Royal and Drury Lane, which gave him the opportunity to meet famous theatrical personalities and members of the nobility. Subsequently, he resigned from Kings College Hospital to become the Organising Secretary of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee, and we can imagine him sharing his love of the bard and the theatre with his young daughter.
Throughout her childhood, Wimbledon with its leafy streets and large common, offered much to the future novelist. Sometimes George Heyer took her to meetings of the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society. George also taught his daughter to ride, which would stand her in good stead when writing historical fiction; and so did the horse drawn traffic, tradesmen’s, privately owned carriages, hackneys, the Box Hill stagecoach, the fire engine and powerful draught horses which pulled heavy loads.
In 1914 after George became the manager of the Paris branch of Cox’s bank he took his family to France. George Heyer appreciated the opportunity to enjoy French culture and society. Sylvia must have been delighted by musical entertainments not the least of which was the Paris opera. As for Georgette she stored up experiences and impressions, which she would one day use in her contemporary novel, Helen, in which the motherless heroine visits Paris with her father.
The outbreak of the First World War caused the Heyers return to Wimbledon, at which time, to avoid people thinking the surname was German, its pronunciation changed to hare.
Too old to be conscripted George believed it was his duty to enroll in the army. In September 1915 Lieutenant George Heyer joined The British Expeditionary Forces, Central Requisition Office in Rouen. Until then George had supervised his shy daughter’s education. Not only did his absence deprive her of his companionship, it also meant that at thirteen she must attend school for the first time. Georgette found it hard to adjust to the discipline at Oakhill Academy. Unfortunately, the intelligent girl with an unusual upbringing, who excelled in English language, literature, history and French, found it easier to make friends with teachers than she did with other girls. Those were difficult days for Georgette. Her mother, who had joined the Red Cross, was finding it difficult to manage financially. Conscious of the horrors of war, Georgette wrote to her father frequently about her life, obeying the unwritten rule that she should be cheerful.
When Georgette was seventeen, as well as corresponding with her father, Georgette wrote the first of her of novels, The Black Moth, in the form of a serial to amuse her brother Boris, a hemophiliac, while he was ill. In 1918 Georgette left Oakhill to attend The Study which promoted physical activities and offered a limited curriculum that did not interest her. The tedium and anxiety about the war was briefly alleviated when her father returned to England to be at his dying mother’s bedside. Subsequently her father, by now a Captain, received the MBE, but his father died without knowing about it; however her father’s inheritance enabled Georgette to participate in social life.
During the following year she met two daughters of Oxford dons, who would become her lifelong friends. The first was, Joanna Cannan, the twenty-two year daughter of a historian. Before the war Joanna’s poetry book was published. After the war, she wrote historical fiction and, amongst other things, historical biography. The second was twenty-three year old Carola Oman, who wrote children’s pony books and detective stories.
Georgette frequently met her friends, who hoped to be published, to talk about books. They also discussed each others works-in-progress and offered constructive criticism of it.
It would be interesting to know whether she discussed The Black Moth, about a gentleman highwayman accused of cheating at cards, with Joanna and Carola. Certainly her father enjoyed it and encouraged her to prepare it for submission to a publisher. The novel, which heralded her long career, was released in 1921. One of her biographers, Jane Aiken Hodge claimed the novel was typical of Heyer’s historical fiction with “the saturnine male lead, the marriage in danger, the extravagant young wife, and the group of idle, entertaining young men.”
The Black Moth 1921 Powder and Patch (originally published as The Transformation of Philip Jettan 1923),1930
The Great Roxhythe 1923 Simon the Coldheart 1925
These Old Shades 1926 The Masqueraders 1928
Beauvallet 1929 The Conqueror 1931
Devil’s Cub 1932 The Convenient Marriage 1934
Regency Buck 1935 The Talisman Ring 1936
An Infamous Army 1937 Royal Escape1938
The Spanish Bride 1940 The Corinthian 1940
Faro’s Daughter 1941 Friday’s Child 1944
The Reluctant Widow 1946 The Foundling 1948
Arabella 1949 The Grand Sophy 1950
The Quiet Gentleman 1951 Cotillion 1953
The Toll-Gate 1954 Bath Tangle 1955
Sprig Muslin 1956 April Lady 1957
:Or the Wicked Uncle 1957 Venetia 1958
The Unknown Ajax 1959 A Civil Contract 1961
The Nonesuch 1961 False Colours 1963
Frederica 1965 Black Sheep 1966
Cousin Kate 1968 Charity Girl 1970
Lady of Quality 1971 My Lord John 1975
Pistol for Two 1960 containing the following historical short stories.
Pistols for Two, A Clandestine Affair, Bath Miss, Pink Domino, A Husband for Fanny, To Have the Honour, Night at the Inn and The Duel, Hazard,
Snowdrift, and Full Moon.
Other short stories
A Proposal to Cicely (1922) The Bulldog and the Beast (1923)
Linckes' Great Case (1923) Runaway Match (1936) Pursuit (1939
Instead of the Thorn (1923) Helen (1928)
Pastel (1929) Barren Corn (1930)
Footsteps in the Dark (1932) Why Shoot a Butler? (1933)
The Unfinished Clue (1934) Death in the Stocks (1935)
Behold, Here's Poison (1936) They Found Him Dead (1937)
A Blunt Instrument (1938) No Wind of Blame (1939)
Envious Casca (1941) Penhallow (1942)
Duplicate Death (1951) Detection Unlimited (1953)
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jaine Aiken Hodge Bodley Head.
Georgette Heyer Biography of a Best Seller, Jennifer Kloester