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by Bamber Gascoigne

Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) - Also wrote as Stella Martin


British writer who published about 40 historical novels - Regency romances - and a dozen detective novels from the 1930s to the 1950s. Georgette Heyer's best known detective characters are Superintendent Hannasyde and Inspector Hemingway. Her Regency novels meticulously recreated the period in the smallest detail of social code, dress, food, and language. Heyer also wrote short stories and a radio play from her own novel.

--"He looked up, seeing in the light of a bedroom-candle held aloft in a fragile hand, a feminine form enveloped in a cloud of lace, which caught together by ribbons of the palest green satin. From under a nightcap of charming design several ringlets the colour of ripe corn had been allowed to escape. The gentleman on the stairs said appreciatively: 'What a fetching cap, love!'" (False Colours by Georgette Heyer, 1963, p. 3)

Georgette Heyer was born in Wimbledon, south-west London, the daughter of George Heyer, a French teacher at King's College School, and Sylvia Watkins, whose father owned tugboats on the River Thames. Sylvia, an accomplished pianist, was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music. Georgette was their first child. For Sylvia's disappointment, she lacked musicality; her literary talents came from her father, who wrote poetry and short stories. At an early age, she began to read books from her father's library. Her favorite childhood stories included Darley Dale's The Shepherd's Fairy, which she received as a birthday present, and J.W. Fortescue's The Red Deer.

Heyer was educated at seminary schools and Westminster College, London, but never passed any form of examination. Smart and sharp-tongued, she wasn't very popular at school. Her father died of a heat attack after a game of tennis with George Ronald Rougier, her fiancé. They married in 1925, a few months after his death. Rouguier was a mining engineer, and Heyer moved with him for three years to East Africa. There she wrote the essay 'The Horned Beast of Africa' (The Sphere, June 1929) which told of her experiences in Tanganyika and especially of a rhinoceroses she encountered with Ronald.

Her first novel, The Black Moth (1921), Heyer wrote at the age of 17 to amuse her sick brother Boris. Heyer's father had encouraged her to send it to an agent and eventually it was published by Constable, London, and Houghton Mifflin, Boston when she was nineteen. The opening words already revel Heyer's strength and lifelong fascination with details: "Glad in his customary black and silver, with raven hair unpowdered and elaborately dressed, diamonds on his fingers and in his cravat, Hugh Tracy Clare Bermanoir, Duke of Andover, sat at the escritoire in the library of his town house, writing."

From 1928 to 1929 Heyer lived in Kratovo, Yugoslavia, where her husband was employed by the Kratovo Venture Selection Trust Ltd. While in Macedonia she finished Beauvallet (1929), set in the time of Elizabeth I. Her final contemporary novel outside the mystery genre was Barren Corn (1930). After they settled back in England Ronald quit his job. For some years he run a sports shop in Horsham in Sussex, and then he pursued a career as barrister. He was called to the Bar in 1939. However, his wife's earnings largely supported them in the 1930s, and Ronald played the role of a supportive husband, helping her with ideas and technical information on guns, cars and boats, and reading proofs. Their son, Richard, born in 1932, also became a barrister and a colorful High Court judge, who earned a reputation as a hard-liner in a series of prominent criminal cases in the 1990s. He died in 2007.

Due to Heyer's health problems, the family spent some time in Scotland to help her to recuperate. At the end of 1941, Heyer was treated with increasing amounts of arsenic for her skin condition. "I have been in  bed for a week, wholly unable even to sign my name," she wrote to her agent, Leonard Parker Moore. "Better now, having jettisoned the cure." (Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester, 2013, p. 229)  During the war, Heyer reviewed books for her publisher, Heinemann; she had an eye for a saleable book. Despite the air raids, the Heyers moved from Sussex to London.

The Transformation of Philip Jettan (1923) came out under the name Stella Martin and later under her own name. Ronald is said to have devised plots to several of his wife's mysteries. Heyer's accurate knowledge of the legal system is seen in Duplicate Death (1951). The motive of the murderer is in many cases acquisition of an inheritance. Usually Heyer set her stories in the English village milieu or in the social circles of London. In The Grant Sophy (1950) the protagonist arrives in London to find a husband. She lacks beauty - so she thinks - and she has a mind of her own. However, Heyer always found suitable husbands for her heroines.

Although Heyer's early works were swashbuckling adventure stories, the great majority of her novels are historical romances. They offer much information about the costume, social customs, and forms of speech of the era – these are the traits for which her books are still read and admired today. These works were well researched, and in addition to her large reference library, Heyer had a good memory; she rarely made mistakes. When a reader alerted Heyer that Barbara Cartland 's Knave of Hearts (1950) had similarities with her These Old Shades (1926), set in the Georgian period, she found out that Cartland had copied  names, characters and plot details from her novel without attribution to her. Irritated by Cartland's act, she said to her agent: "I think I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate. I think ill enough of the Shades, but, good God! That 19-year-old work has more style, more of what it takes, than this offal which she has written at the age of 46!" ('Georgette Heyer decries plagiarism with her rapier wit' by Alison Flood, The Guardian, 2 August, 2011) There were  other novels too which had similarities. Following Heyer's protests and her solicitor's letter to Cartland, the plagiarism stopped before it was made into a public scandal. Knave of Hearts was reissued in the United States under a new title, The Innocent Heiress (1970), and a heading: "In the tradition of Georgette Heyer".

An Infamous Army (1937) showed Heyer's skill as a war historian. This book has been praised for its accurate and truthful portrayal of the battle of Waterloo. The Regency comedies sometimes used elements from crime stories, as in The Corinthian (1940), or spy fiction, as in The Reluctant Widow (1946). In later period she produced works which had humor and irony, and dealt with family relationships. In Beauvallet (1929) an English buccaneer harassing Spanish ships under Queen Elizabeth is distracted by his love for a Spanish Protestant noblewoman. The Talisman Ring (1936), which combines romance with murder, depicts a murder suspect, who meets a woman fleeing an arranged marriage. In Faro's Daughter (1941) the heroine runs a gaming salon. Frederica (1965) centers on the initiation of an outsider aristocratic male into a domestic world of family relationships.

Four of Heyer's classical style mysteries feature Superintendent Hannasyde, Death in the Stocks (1935), Behold, Here's Poison! (1936), They Found Him Dead (1937), A Blunt Instrument (1938). His associate, Inspector Hemingway, features also in four, No Wind of Blame (1939), Envious Casca (1941), Duplicate Death (1951), Detection Unlimited (1953).

Heyer's immense popularity and success embroiled her in tax problems from which she tried to escape by producing more books. She also supported her mother and  her brother Boris in addition to her own household. With her husband she started their own company, Heron Enterprises, to manage taxes; they sold the company in 1967 to Booker Bros.

From the beginning of her career, she refused to give interviews and did not have much interest in marketing her books and herself. "I know it's useless to talk about technique in these degenerate days," she once said, "but no less a technician than Noël Coward reads me because he says my technique is so good. I'm proud of that." (Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester, 2013, p. 356) 

Heyer also published short stories, and two articles on literary topics, 'Books About the Brontës' and 'How to Be a Literary Critic,' both of which appeared in Punch in 1954. Her last major projects included the trilogy of John, Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V. This magnum opus was never finished; the first volume was prepared for publication by her husband. Her final completed novel was Lady of Quality (1972). She wrote it in Knightsbridge, where they had noved in 1971. The apartment, with a views over Hyde Park was "beautifully spacious and blessedly quet," as she descibed it. (Georgette Heyer, History, and Historical Fiction, edited by Samantha J. Rayner, Kim Wilkins, 2021, p. 7) Georgette Heyer died of lung cancer on July 4, 1974. Her husband died on the following year.

As her own model Heyer mentioned Jane Austen, with whom she shared the same the ironic tone. In addition, the both wrote about the manners and marriage plots of the upper middle class. Often the fast paced and ironic dialogue contrasted attitudes and roles of her female and male characters. Heyer's Regency romances have been criticized for their conventional plots and "escapist" qualities or, alternatively, acclaimed for historical accuracy and authenticity of the dialogue and slang.

Elaine Bander wrote that Heyer preferred the company of men to that of women, throughout her life. "Attractive, unusually tall, intellectually arrogant, and caustic, she was particularly close to her father, who stimulated and encouraged her intellectual and creative interests." ('Georgette Heyer' by Elaine Bander, in Great Women Mystery Writers, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, 1994, p. 157) Feminist critics have noted that Heyer's spirited heroines are "tamed" at the end by the love of a good man. Often her women concentrate entirely on the business of getting married like Austen's heroines, and they show intelligence and and strong will. Heyer's work have influenced such novelists as Jane Aiken Hodge, the daughter of Conrad Aiken and sister of Joan Aiken. The singer Cilla Black named Heyer as one of her favorite writers.

Two of Heyer's books have been filmed, The Reluctand Widow (1950), starring Jean Kent, and Arabella (Bezaubernde Arabella, 1959), made in Germany and starring Johanna von Koczian. The British film producer and director Herbert Wilcox, married to Anna Neagle, an actress and friend of Heyer's, planned to produce False Colours (1963) as a television series in America.

For further reading: The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge (1984); Georgette Heyer's Regency in England by T. Chris (1989); 'Georgette Heyer' by Elaine Bander, in Great Women Mystery Writers, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein (1994); 'Heyer, Georgette,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. M. Seymour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996); 'Heyer, Georgette,' in Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Mavid Mote (1997); Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective by Mary Fahnestock-Thomas (2001); Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller by Jennifer Kloester (2011); Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester (2013); Georgette Heyer, History, and Historical Fiction, edited by Samantha J. Rayner, Kim Wilkins  (2021). Other 20th-century writers of historical, romantic novels: Daphne du Maurier, Catherine Gavin, Constance Heaven, Pamela Hill, Victoria Holt, Joanna Trollope, Phyllis A. Whitney.

Selected works:

  • The Black Moth : A Romance of the 18th Century, 1921
  • The Great Roxhythe, 1922
  • The Transformation of Philip Jettan, 1923 (as Stella Martin)
    - U.S. title: Powder and Patch, 1930 (as Georgette Heyer)
  • Instead of the Thorn, 1923
  • Simon the Coldheart, 1925
  • These Old Shades, 1926
    - Onnen velka (suom. Sirkka Salonen, 1981)
  • Helen, 1928
  • The Masqueraders, 1928
  • Pastel, 1929
  • Beauvallet, 1929
  • Barren Corn, 1930
  • The Conqueror, 1931
  • Footsteps in the Dark, 1932
  • Devil's Cub, 1932
    - Paholainen rakastuu (suom. Sirkka Salonen, 1982)
  • Why Shoot a Butler?, 1933
  • The Convenient Marriage, 1934
  • The Unfinished Clue, 1934
  • Death in the Stocks, 1934
    - U.S. title: Merely Murder, 1935
  • Regency Buck, 1935
  • The Talisman Ring, 1936
    - Onnen sormus (suom. Riitta Immonen, 1983)
    - Play: The Talisman Ring (2006), performed at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago, Illinois
  • Behold, Here's Poison!, 1936
  • An Infamous Army, 1937
  • They Found Him Dead, 1937
  • Royal Escape, 1938
  • A Blunt Instrument, 1938
  • No Wind of Blame, 1939
  • The Spanish Bride, 1940
  • The Corinthian, 1940
    - U.S. title: Beau Wyndham, 1941
    - Maailmanmies (suom. Kirsti Peitsara, 1968)
  • Faro's Daughter, 1941
  • Envious Casca, 1941
  • Penhallow, 1942
  • Friday's Child, 1944
  • The Reluctant Widow, 1946
    - Film 1950, prod. Two Cities Films, screenplay Basil Boothroyd, Gordon Wellesley, dir. by Bernard Knowles, starring Jean Kent, Guy Rolfe, Kathleen Byron, Paul Dupuis, Lana Morris
  • The Foundling, 1948
  • Arabella, 1949
    - Arabella (suom. Seere Salminen, 1968)
    - Film: Bezaubernde Arabella (1959), prod. Rhombus Film (West Germany), screenplay Peter Berneis, Fritz Eckhardt, dir. Axel von Ambesser, starring Johanna von Koczian (Arabella), Carlos Thompson and Hilde Hildebrand
  • The Grand Sophy, 1950
  • The Quiet Gentleman, 1951
  • Duplicate Death, 1951
  • Cotillion, 1953
  • Detection Unlimited, 1953
    - Sotkuinen syyllisyys (suom. Mirjam ja T.O. Ikonen, 1955)
  • The Toll-Gate, 1954
    - Radio drama, Saturday Night Theatre, 1958, with Isabel Dean and Noel Johnson
  • Bath Tangle, 1955
  • Sprig Muslin, 1956
  • April Lady, 1957
  • Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle, 1957
    - Radio drama, Saturday Night Theatre, 1959, with Isabel Dean Noel Johnson
  • Venetia, 1958
    - Venetia (suom. Heidi Järvenpää, 1967)
  • The Unknown Ajax, 1959
  • Pistols for Two and Other Stories, 1960
    - Play: Pistols for Two (2001), performed at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago, Illinois
  • A Civil Contract, 1961
  • The Nonesuch, 1962
  • False Colours, 1963
  • Frederica, 1965
  • Black Sheep, 1966
  • Cousin Kate, 1969
    - Kate-serkku (suom. Sirkka Salonen, 1982)
  • Charity Girl, 1970
  • Lady of Quality, 1972
  • The Georgette Heyer Omnibus, 1973 (Faro's Daughter, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch) 
  • The Toll Gate, 1974
    - Radio play, from the novel publ. 1954
  • My Lord John, 1975
  • These Old Shades, 2003 (with a foreword by Stephanie Laurens)
  • The Foundling, 2003 (with a foreword by Kay Hooper)
  • The Black Moth, 2003 (with a foreword by Diana Palmer)
  • Arabella, 2004 (with a foreword by Stella Cameron)
  • Beauvallet, 2004 (with a foreword by Heather Graham)
  • The Unknown Ajax, 2005 (with a foreword by Cathy Maxwell)
  • The Toll-Gate, 2005 (with a foreward by Christina Dodd)
  • A Civil Contract, 2005 (with a foreword by Jo Beverley)
  • April Lady, 2005 (with a foreward by Kasey Michaels)
  • The Quiet Gentleman, 2006 (with a foreword by Karen Hawkins)
  • Bath Tangle, 2009 (with a foreword by Candace Camp)
  • Pistols for Two, and Other Stories, 2012
  • Snowdrift: And Other Stories, 2017

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