This Monday, 16 August 2021, marks Georgette Heyer’s 119th birthday. A remarkable writer whose beloved novels have long outlived their author, she would have been pleased to know that she was remembered and celebrated with so much affection from readers around the world!
Born in Wimbledon
Georgette was born in Wimbledon, a few miles south-west of London, in the bedroom of her parents’ house at 103 Woodside. The house is still there and in June 2015 the famous actor and author, Stephen Fry, unveiled a prestigious English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating Georgette Heyer’s birthplace. She was an adored baby – the first of three children and the only girl born to her parents, Sylvia and George Heyer. Named for her father and grandfather (also George Heyer), her mother recorded that their daughter’s name was to be pronounced à la française – thus “Georgette” with a soft g. She was an adored baby whose parents read to her, sung to her, played music, recited poetry and took her on regular visits to her grandparents. Georgette’s acute intelligence was evident at an early age and was fostered by both her parents. When Georgette was just eighteen months old her mother wrote in her baby book that
“She certainly is a darling and so intelligent. She dances & plays the piano & sings & pretends to be an old woman. She is very great on kissing, especially anything in the male line. She says a good many words but does not talk yet.”Sylvia Heyer, in Georgette Heyer’s Baby Record, 18 March 1904.
A Baby Book
Baby books first appeared in England in the 1880s and became popular a few years later on the birth of Edward (later Edward VIII, who would abdicate in 1936)to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1894. When R.I. Whitehouse published the second edition of his Baby Record he made sure to include the words “As used by THE ROYAL MOTHER of the future KING OF ENGLAND” on the title page. It was in a copy of this book that Sylvia Heyer recorded the birth of her daughter, Georgette, and in which, over the next five years, she occasionally made entries about her adored baby girl. Reading it, there is no doubt that Georgette Heyer was a very bright and personable child with a vivid imagination. Her mother even noticed her toddler’s keen eye for discerning character and personality. Georgette and her father developed a very close bond early on and there are several hints and suggestions of the creative mind that was forming in those early years. The original Baby Record earned a witty review in the Illustrated London News that so pleased Woodhouse he included it as a second Preface:
“In many books, the farther one goes the worse one fares; but this is not the case with ‘Baby’s Record,’ the plot thickens, the incidents multiply as we go on. ‘Early Incidents—First Crawl,’ the art of locomotion in a nutshell … ‘First Walk’: this is even still more full of rapture. “’The dear, lumpish baby, humming like the May-bee, meets us with his bright stare, stumbling through the grass.’ He does totter and lurch a bit—he has not got his land-legs on yet—but how delightfully he does it in his mother’s eyes! ‘First Word’: good heavens! he says ‘Dada,’ and (forgetting Balaam’s ass) she [the mother] imagines that he has established his superiority over the brute creation. Let us hope that ‘big, big D’ will never pass his lips in another form and with less obvious effort. ‘First hair-cutting,’ also a great event: every hair will be religiously preserved and put into a locket—a thing that never happens to me, alas! though there is not, as in his case, ‘plenty more where that comes from.’ The entrancing chapter ends with ‘First Visit to the Sea’ and ‘First Ride,’ presumably on a donkey.”Sir Walter Besant, The Illustrated London News, 13 July 1889.
“This book is for my daughter”
“This book is for my daughter Georgette if she cares to have it – I think it may be very interesting and perhaps useful to her when she is grown up & has children of her own – In any case it is of great interest to her father and mother and calls up many amusing, happy recollections which otherwise might be forgotten.”Sylvia Heyer, written inside Georgette Heyer’s Baby Record, no date.
“Georgette has been growing apace”
“A dreadful long time has elapsed since I wrote in this book. Georgette has been growing apace. She has five teeth now & a sixth will soon be through. She crawls a great deal & walks holding on to chairs etc. Her favourite position is at the window. She stands up & watches the things passing – looks most sweet. She does not talk yet. She is very keen on her Dad…”Sylvia Heyer, Georgette Heyer’s Baby Record, 1 October 1903
A proud father
George Heyer was a proud father. He and Georgette took to each other from the first. An eager parent who found his small daughter fascinating, he spent hours with her. Sylvia recorded how, even before Georgette could talk, she loved to see father and baby “chatting” away to each other. George was passionate about books and reading and had a wonderful ear for rhyme and rhythm. He was a minor poet who could recite entire chapters of Dickens by heart and he endowed his daughter with a literary legacy that would eventually inspire her own literary efforts. When Georgette was six months old, George Heyer put some of his feelings about his baby daughter on paper. He wrote her a special poem and to mark the occasion he made it into a little book with parchment pages and a red ribbon tied into a bow at the spine. The verses were written in emerald green ink with the first letter of each verse in red pencil. The vibrant colours reflected George’s delight in his daughter and the poem’s whimsical lines offer a joyous picture of Georgette as a bright, active infant with the sort of energy that made her parents bless her sleep time.
“She is going to be clever”
“Babs is now two and a half & over & has quite grown out of a Baby. She is such a dear mite. Her hair curls so prettily & she chatters away to any extent. She knows heaps of nursery rhymes, has known them for some time now. She is going to be clever I think, she so soon picks up anything that one reads to her. Also her imagination is very much alive & plays a great part in all her games. Her eyes are grey-blue and her nose is still a dear wee snub. She still sucks her beloved thumb and hugs her “eidy” when she is tired. Her Dad is so proud of her & so is her Mum.”Sylvia Heyer, Georgette Heyer’s Birth Record, 20 April 1905.
“Her brain is best left alone”
Georgette’s mother was an intelligent and accomplished woman who loved her small daughter deeply. A graduate of the the Royal Academy of Music and a medal-winning cellist and pianist she also had a lovely singing voice . She introduced Georgette to music from birth and loved to see her baby move to the piano or respond to the music box. Though she always loved music and listened to the classical artists and opera singers, Georgette herself was not talented musically. She did, however, develop an acute ear for syntax, inflection, rhythm and melodic prose and these things would become intrinsic to her later writing. In her earliest years, however, her parents – recognising their daughter’s acute intelligence – were content to let Georgette grow and develop without being pushed.
“We moved a year ago on March 12th. Tooley stayed with her Grannie at Fairfield during the move. She can count up to 100 and knows all her letters & can make a few. But I don’t teach her as she so very quick & alert I think her brain is best left alone for the present.Sylvia Heyer, Georgette Heyer’s Baby Record, 10 March 1907.
Happy birthday Georgette!
TO GEORGETTE - AGED 6 MONTHS - FEBRUARY 16 1903 I'll sing a song of you, Georgette, I'll sing a song of you; You've silky brownish sorts of locks, And cheeks of fairest hue; You wear such pretty light blue frocks, And joy to kick off both your socks,– I'll sing a song of you. Your eyes are like the sky, Georgette, Your eyes are like the sky, When on a sunny April day Two clouds are passing by;– Between them shines a liquid ray Of blue,– and just that blue are they, Your eyes are like the sky. You've such a clever hand, Georgette, You've such a clever hand; The little fingers softly strum On airy pianos,– and The very knowing little thumb Can go directly to the gum,– You've such a clever hand. When you are very tired, Georgette, When you are very tired, That chubby little fist it knows Exactly what's required; And busily to work it goes To rub away your little nose, When you are very tired. And when you are asleep, Georgette, Oh, when you are asleep, Above the 'broidered coverlet The little fingers peep; I'd like to venture near, and set A kiss upon their tips, Georgette, Because you are asleep.