Authorial intrusion and reader response: My Georgette Heyer experience
My column at DA on the relationship between the author, the authorial persona, and the book drew a lot of thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I was especially gratified that so many authors commented, because so often columns of this type wind up sounding as if whatever problems arise should be traced to what authors do, rather than to the interaction of what readers want and what authors provide.
There was a discussion in the comments about biographical criticism and whether it enhanced our understanding of the book to know more about the author. Several commenters brought up negative examples, and one that resonated for me was Georgette Heyer. You only need to be around the historical romance reading community for about a minute to realize what a giant shadow Heyer casts.
People like to trace the romance back to Austen, but the Austen they’re really talking about is the one who wrote scripts for movies starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Or Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Not the Austen who showed her readers how important money and social standing were to a happy marriage. Heyer’s successful formula, on the other hand, led to the creation of romance imprints published as “Regency” romances. They sold well through the 1980s and 1990s, finally giving way to the sexed up, less historically grounded books which bear the Regency designation today.
I discovered Heyer at about the same time that my mother let me use her adult library card, which means I must have been 12 or 13. I read every book of hers that I could get my hands on, hunted them down in used bookstores, and reread them over and over. I’ve reread my favorites more than a dozen times each, and I’ve even read the ones I don’t really like more than once, usually looking for something that will make me like them more. I was determined to own every title I could find, which led to purchases of hardback UK copies in the pre-internet (and pre-paycheck) days. Yes, I was a devotee.
So you can imagine how excited I was in 1984, when I discovered that Jane Aiken Hodge was publishing a biography of Heyer. Hodge had been granted access to Heyer’s papers, and she had interviewed members of the family and Heyer’s close friends. This was clearly going to be a serious book.
Now, you need to remember that back in those days, the main way we learned about authors was through newspaper and magazine articles. Literary authors like John Updike and Norman Mailer were prominent and talked about, and sometimes bestselling authors like James Michener, but steady-selling genre authors did not get much press. Especially if they were publicity-averse, as Heyer was known to be. When the book came out, I purchased it in hardback and started to read.
At first it was wonderful. I found out about her early life, how she wrote The Black Moth to entertain her brother when he was ill, her dreams of writing a Major Novel, her impressive historical research, and so on. But then, as I read on, I started to realize something. Georgette Heyer was not a very nice person. She was not warm. She was not generous. She could be quite contemptuous of her readership. She was extremely status-conscious, to the point of snobbery (ironic given her own background). And she was bigoted.
This last quality was apparent in at least two of her books. The anti-Semitism displayed in The Grand Sophy is well known; she created a character, a money-lender named Goldhanger, who embodied several stereotypical negative Jewish characteristics. But he’s not a one-off. She repeats the moneylender character (albeit more mildly) in April Lady, and in The Unfinished Clue, Heyer depicts a theatrical manager who shares many characteristics of her moneylenders and who is extremely vulgar to boot (a two-for-one in the prejudice sweepstakes).
I had read these characters and taken note of the anti-Semitism and class bias, and I had chalked it up to the times. But when I put these fictional depictions in the context of Heyer’s life, I realized I had been giving her a pass. The Grand Sophy was published in 1950, not 1930. As a point of comparison, during World War II, Mills & Boon author Ida Cook (better known by her pseudonym, Mary Burchell) was traveling back and forth to Nazi Germany at great personal risk, in order to help Jews. Five years after the end of that war, Georgette Heyer wrote a Jewish character who was an oily, grasping, moneylender.
So there I was, a fan of long standing, discovering that one of my favorite authors seemed to be a pretty unpleasant person. Now what?
First, I dissociated the author from the books. I was reading the texts, right? No more biographical criticism for me. But it didn’t work. I kept seeing manifestations of her less attractive qualities in books that I had previously read with great enjoyment.
Next, I stopped reading the books altogether. How could I, a person who studied ethnic and racial inequality and whose career was in part devoted to understanding how it might be eradicated, read and enjoy such books? Well, that didn’t work either. I missed the books. I wanted to read them again. I knew what she was, and I still wanted the experience of reading her books (again).
So I went back once more, and I found that while Heyer the person was still somewhere at the back of my mind, I could reclaim the books that Heyer the author had written. I couldn’t read them with the same innocence; it’s impossible for me not to mentally register the unnecessarily harsh description, for example, of the heroine’s father in A Civil Contract. But despite her own prejudices, Heyer had written a character who was warm and generous in a way she apparently was not.
Of course she had. Georgette Heyer was an extremely gifted author. She might think an industrialist was a boor, but as a character in her book he also needed to be a caring father, and that’s how he turned out on the page. Her books were not the sum of her personality, any more than Hodge’s biography could fully depict the complex person Heyer had been.
I wish I could say that my Heyer experience gave me a template for future dilemmas in which art and reality collided. But it didn’t. All it really taught me was that there are not always bright lines. At least not for me.