All Things Georgette

“Georgette Heyer – The Shy Bestseller” by Coral Craig

In 1952, an Australian journalist, Coral Craig, contacted Georgette Heyer’s publisher to request an interview. Ms Craig had been a journalist at Consolidated Press since 1935 and in 1943 had been granted accreditation as an Australian War Correspondent. Living in London in the 1950s she wrote for the Australian Woman’s Day magazine and covered the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. A longtime fan of Georgette Heyer, Ms Craig had formed her own ideas about one of her favourite writers and so she was startled to discover that, unlike most other authors, Miss Heyer did not give interviews. For some reason – as yet unknown – Georgette invited Ms Craig to visit her at home at Albany on the strict condition that they not talk about her books or writing. The following is the article published in Woman’s Day on 27 October 1952. The quoted parts in bold are the original article with additional information from me in square brackets.

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Coral Craig
Photo used with permission.

“From Miss Coral Craig of our London Office” – Australian Woman’s Day

Miss Georgette Heyer, whose delightful Cotillion begins in Woman’s Day next week is undoubtedly one of the most widely read authors in the world. She is also perhaps the most publicity shy; certainly the shyest of personal publicity I have met.

In the highly competitive book world it usually needs only a telephone call to the publisher of a new novel to get plenty of biographical material and a kindly photograph of the author. Miss Heyer’s publishers, Heinemann’s, responded: “Sorry, there are no pictures of Miss Heyer. She dislikes personal publicity. We can tell you she has published 20 or so historical novels and detective stories [Cotillion would actually be her 39th novel] and, of course, we’ll pass on the message that Australians are interested in her, but she is never, never interviewed.” [Georgette seemed to have a soft spot for Australians who had loved her novels from the first, and she was very kind to her young Australian correspondent, Rosemary Marriott, to whom, in 1952, she was still sending her annual chatty letter along with a signed copy of her latest book.]

She is probably about 90 and unphotogenic, I reflected a little sourly, adding up how many moons had come and gone since I had fallen in love with the hero from “These Old Shades”. [An Australian librarian wrote to Heyer after “These Old Shades” was published there to tell her that she was “A bonzer woman” and that “‘all the girls who read the filthiest books like yours!”]

My hazy mental picture of Georgette Heyer, which I find not unlike the picture many of her readers cherish for want of more precise data, was of a frail, silver-haired old lady living in a Regency mansion amid the atmosphere of elegance she writes about. Tucked away, of course, in a remote, lavender-scented hamlet, probably scorning new-fangled motor cars and travelling only by coach-an-four. [Georgette had certainly lived in a hamlet in Sussex in the 1930s, but it was more likely to have been tobacco-scented than lavender! Needless to say, Georgette found this fantasy of her and her life hilarious!]

Pray, imagine my surprise (as one of Miss Heyer’s characters would say) when I was asked to her flat – for a drink. [Georgette enjoyed a drink, though her daughter-in-law, Susie, has explained that whiskey was generally her first preference; probably not what you’d offer your guest in the afternoon, however.]

“Charming Hostess”

She lives in the very heart of London (within 100 yards of Piccadilly Circus) and is a tall, dark-haired distinguished woman, a charming hostess, who mixes an excellent dry martini, wife of a well-known Scottish-born barrister [Ronald was actually born in Odessa but he did have some Scottish forebears] and has a 21-year-old son at Cambridge. [Richard was up at Pembroke] She was smartly dressed in navy and white and the only suggestion of the 18th century was in a few fine prints on the walls. [Georgette always took great pride in her appearance. The prints are still in the family]

Her age–no secret since it’s published in Who’s Who–is 49, and she looks scarcely that. She was only 17 when she began writing and has now forgotten exactly how many books have been published. One or two she prefers to forget entirely. [Those she had suppressed by this date include her four contemporary novels, along with “The Great Roxhythe” and “Simon the Coldheart”]

Miss Heyer’s publishers were right. She isn’t interviewed. She made it quite clear, with a subtlety conveyed neither by word nor gesture that this was a social occasion and no questions, please, about Georgette Heyer, author. [This was typical of Georgette, who deemed vulgarity the one unforgiveable sin. She would have thought it very vulgar to talk positively about her work – especially to someone who admired it] As the name on her old, polished wood door said, she was simply Mrs G.R. Rougier. [She always enjoyed the anonymity given her by her married name.]

As such, my hostess tossed the conversational gambits back and forth across the centuries, discussing in a most definite manner any subject except her own work. She talked of The Albany [for my blog about Albany, click the link] where she lives with her husband and son. It is one of London’s most splendid buildings which, in grander days, 1770, was built as a town mansion for Lord Melbourne. Marble wall plaques bear witness that Gladstone, Lord Macaulay [whose ghost was said to haunt the Rougier’s apartment, F.3. Georgette appreciated the ghost but always said it never troubled her.] and Byron are among the famous who have resided there since it was converted to apartments.

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Georgette never travelled without the love letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.

“Good town address”

The Albany, you may remember, was also the good town address Oscar Wilde gave to his gay bachelor Jack Worthing in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. [Georgette loved Oscar Wilde’s wit, which was not unlike her own. In her own novel, “The Foundling” she gives her handsome bachelor, Gideon, an apartment in Albany.]

She spoke of poets:–Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: “I never travel without The Browning Letters.” These are the love letters written between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett from 10 January 1845 until 18 September 1846 – a week after their marriage. Not only are they among the most romantic letters ever written and later published, they also provide important insights into the ideas, thoughts and lives of these two beloved poets. Knowing that Georgette always travelled with them reveals something of the romantic side of her nature.]

The 18th century:–“The Age of Elegance I would choose to have lived in–with the required wealth, of course.” [Here is a clue to her early books – “The Black Moth”, “Power and Patch”, “These Old Shades”, “The Masqueraders”, and “Devil’s Cub” are all 18th-century novels and each reflects Georgette’s idea of “the Age of Elegance”.]

Critics:–“I do not think that professional critics’ opinions have much, if any, effect on sales. I do not read them. Cherishing reviews of one’s own books has always appeared to me to be the ‘last infirmity of noble mind'”. [Georgette is here quoting Milton from his poem, “Lycidas” , in which Milton declares Fame as the infirmity: “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise, (That last infirmity of noble mind)”. Georgette also refers to the poem in her novel, “Cotillion” when Kitty and Olivia Broughty are confronted by the lascivious Sir Henry Gosford and he calls Kitty “the Attendant Nymph” and Olivia “fair Amaryllis”. Kitty – as well read as Georgette -is delighted to correct his misquoting of the poem.]

Films: “‘The Reluctant Widow” is the only one of my books made into a film. Jean Kent was the widow. I didn’t see it. My son went and said, ‘Don’t go, Mother. You would hate it.’ One other book was bought by Korda and never produced–which I regard as the happiest ending to any story of mine.” [In 1939, the film director, Alexander Korda, had shown interest in filming Heyer’s novel, “Royal Escape”. At the time, Georgette had real hopes that the film would come off, as Korda had enjoyed huge success with his film “Henry VIII” starring Charles Laughton. Nothing came of Korda’s interest, but despite her avowal to Coral Craig that she was happy about it, Georgette continued to hope that someone, someday, would make her books into films.]

We regard as a happy ending to this story Miss Heyer’s comment when she read this article: “I am hugely flattered by your description of me–and shall take good care it never comes under the eye of my irreverent family. I can well imagine the reactions of my brothers!” [Georgette’s younger brothers, Boris and Frank, although huge fans, often teased her about her books and writing. This was always taken in very good part by Georgette for humour and joking had been an intrinsic part of their growing up. She enjoyed the sallies and ribald humour of all the men in her family.]

Coral Craig, “Georgette Heyer – The Shy Best-Seller”, Woman’s Day, 27 October 1952.

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