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.

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26 thoughts on “Authorial intrusion and reader response: My Georgette Heyer experience

  1. I never read the Heyer biog because there were enough hints in the books (the attitude to servants and the working classes) that I suspected I wouldn’t like her. That said, I hand out quite generous hospital passes to authors from different eras. It’s part of the reader-editing process for me.

  2. I am mostly able to do that, but sometimes the author’s attitudes seep in enough to affect the reading process with me. I found that to be true with Angela Thirkell’s later novels as well. It’s fascinating from an analytical perspective to watch her become increasingly embittered at the postwar Attlee government, and in some characters it fits well. But it sounds like the voice of the author rather than the voice of the character at times.

    • While reading your excellent post I immediately thought of Angela Thirkell. I devoured her books in my teens, and while the pre-war ones were charming comedies of manners with romantic interludes, her snobbery became unbearable in the later works, even to a fairly uncritical teenager.

  3. I have never been a particular fan of Heyer’s writing, despite the fact that she is the mother of the trad Regency. Of course, my reading in that particular sub-genre is not vast; maybe if I was better read, I would appreciate her more. At #IASPR, Jennifer Kloester spoke about her upcoming biography of Heyer, and seems to have a much more positive view of her.

    I enjoyed reading the comments on your post at DA, btw, but didn’t have anything constructive to add. My position on the author/reader relationship is very similar to Keishon’s.

  4. I consider myself lucky that the authors I dislike based on their online personalities and opinions are either authors who’s writing I had already disliked or ones who’s works I’ve never read. (The same is true for people in movies/tv.) It’s part of the reason why I’m not a fan of seeing authors all over the place online…one of these days I’m going to find out that Sherry Thomas and Nalini Singh regularly get together to kick puppies and I’m going to be devastated. I’m just not generally interested about the lives of my favorite writers unless they’re long dead–then I’m mostly able to read their works with a, “Well, that’s just how it was back then” (unless it’s an issue that hits close to home for me). If they were still alive and writing after I was born? Their books would have to be truly amazing for me to be so unconcerned.

    I’ve never had the slightest interesting in reading Heyer. I THINK that if I had really loved her books before finding out about her I could still enjoy those books but I wouldn’t be able to read anything new to me. Like how I still love the hell out of A Few Good Men even though Tom Cruise is forever ruined for me (fortunately other than his work in AFGM I was never much of a fan).

  5. I’m looking forward to the Kloester biography too.

    I can separate the work from the author pretty well as a rule, especially if the author’s voice is one that really appeals to me. The one artist that I can’t do that with, and whose work I greatly admired for many years, is Woody Allen. There is no way I can see his movies now, and revisiting something like Manhattan is really difficult, given what we know now.

  6. Even though I look upon authors as the gods behind what I see, I think readers expect too much of authors, in the same way, probably, that some expect too much of the deity, at times. I think authors must have the same kind of flaws, prejudices, approvals and disapprovals as most readers probably have. If would be surprising if they were unable, regardless of good intentions, of keeping those things from echoing in their writing. I know mine do.

    • I agree. That’s why I think the confusion between the author-as-person, the authorial persona, and the authorial voice gives rise to problems for both readers and authors, especially in the online world. Obviously there are continuities across all three author presentations, but there are also distinctions. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and have a post in the works about the power of the authorial voice.

  7. I’d never read anything about Heyer’s life, so I was able to enjoy her books without any of her personality intruding on my experience. I haven’t read any of the books you cited as being especially grievous. Maybe that’s why I’ve like her books so well. I’m not sure I’m eager to try the others now.

    Even as a preteen when I first read Austen’s Emma, I was appalled that Harriet ended up with the simple farmer instead of the more handsome and elegant Elton. I had liked her and wanted her to be happy. I was very uncomfortable with the idea that Austen expected she would have been happier not having married ‘above’ her station in life.

    • I think that once you know something about an author you see it in her books more clearly. In Heyer’s books, once I saw the extreme class snobbery in one book, I started to see milder manifestations of it in others. As I said, I can still enjoy her books a great deal, but it’s there. It hinders my ability to lose myself as fully in her novels’ worlds as I used to, but I still find them worth reading.

    • You didn’t think that Elton was an idiot? I couldn’t imagine anyone being happy married to him, so I was glad that Harriet was allowed to marry the man she actually loved rather than the man she thought she ought to aspire to.

      • Elton is a complete ass. No one deserved him. But there was that schoolgirl idea that the love interest would be dashing, and the farmer is steady and decent and really excellent husband material. But he wasn’t thrilling. And the way that Emma felt the difference in their classes made me sad and disappointed in her.

        • I agree that Emma is a total snob and that made me even more glad that in the end Harriet didn’t listen to her. Emma is one of my least favourite characters in fiction, but there’s something wonderful about the idea that even someone as flawed as she is can find a happy ending with a man who knows all those flaws and still loves her.

        • But class differences were extremely important. I’ve seen cross-class and cross-caste marriages in India, and they could be fraught with difficulties. It would have been comparable to an interracial marriage in the US before the civil rights movement. Great material for a romance, but hard to live in real life, and Austen was *not* writing romances, no matter how much the romance genre claims her.

          • I think that’s completely true. Cross-class marriages at the time were rarely seen as a happy thing. But growing up in the post civil rights movement northeast, I idealistically believed that none of that class stuff matters. And it shouldn’t, but it often does.

  8. I thought I was looking forward to the Heyer biography but the more I think about it, the less interested I am in reading it. It’s the books I love not their author. And I’ve never enjoyed a biography of any author. I’d rather read a romance novel!

  9. Thanks for a very thoughtful post — I suppose the bright line differs for everyone. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I wonder if the next “big” topic might not be servants — well, a subject for another day.

  10. This week the entire Heyer body of work is on sale. A couple of weeks ago I would have snapped up some of the otherwise expensive books. It’s not some big PC statement. I just don’t feel as tempted now.

    It’s like the Tom Cruise thing. When I see him, I see crazy couch-jumping Tom, not the actor. It sort of ruins the experience.

    • It’s like a tough breakup. At first you can only see the difficult stuff, but over time I think one comes back to a middle ground. I was so disillusioned with Heyer for a while. Now I still see everything but it doesn’t keep me from enjoying the good parts.

  11. Sunita, there’s also this other aspect of taking books personally by the reader. Will a character’s prejudice always reflect back to the author? That is, it’s not the character being prejudiced, but rather the author projecting her prejudice on the character. And if the author’s personal (and/or character’s) prejudice is evident in the characterization, then the reader is offended thinking the prejudice is directed at them. This turns them off so much that they throw the baby out with the bathwater–the whole book is now unreadable or even a whole series/backlist. And this is all without reading the author’s biography (with the attendent biographer’s prejudices).

    • You make a very good point. Liz McC is much more knowledgeable about this issue than I am, and I’m hoping she’ll write a post on the narrative voice v. the author voice. Good writers can often help the reader to separate the character from the narrator; in the old days, when omniscient POV was more common, I saw this quite a bit. Today it seems less common.

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