All Things Georgette

The Black Moth – from teen novel to enduring bestseller

Georgette Heyer turned 17 in August 1919. Some months later, her younger brother Boris became seriously ill. By February 1920 he was recovering but it was felt that a change of scene would do him good. Sea air was thought to be an excellent remedy and so the Heyer family left Wimbledon for Hastings on the English south coast so that Boris could convalesce. Though a pretty seaside town, Hastings did not offer much in the way of amusement for the teenage Georgette, and Boris, too, was bored. And so, to alleviate the invalid’s ennui, his clever sister made up a story…

Hastings Pier in 1920. Georgette and her family chose Hastings for Boris’s convalescence. Hastings Pier Archive Copyright unknown.

‘I was 17 when I started to write my first book … and I originally started the book as a serial-story to relieve my own boredom and my brother’s

Georgette Heyer, letter to her publisher, 1962

“Wildly readable”

The story was enthralling. Day by day, episode by episode, the young Georgette regaled her brothers with the story of Jack Cartstares, disgraced Earl of Wyncham, and his many adventures. Sacrificing his home and title, Jack has become a highwayman with a charming alter-ego in Sir Anthony Ferndale. There would be sword fights and romance and an abduction with a desperate race at the end to rescue the heroine. One can imagine Boris and his younger brother, Frank (then aged seven), held in thrall as their sister told them the “wildly readable” story of the earl turned highwayman and his encounters with his dastardly, debonair enemy, “Devil” Belmanoir, Duke of Andover. It is the duke, “clad in his customary black and silver and with his raven hair unpowdered”, who, like “a black moth”, would give the story its title. The Black Moth entranced its young audience and Georgette went on and on writing until the story was finally finished.

Georgette with her brothers Boris and Frank around the time of writing The Black Moth.

Only seventeen

There are not many seventeen-year-old authors whose first novels are considered worthy of publication, but Georgette Heyer was one of them. Despite its swashbuckling element, in may ways The Black Moth is a surprisingly mature work. The portrayal of Jack’s brother, Richard, for whom Jack has given up everything, is insightful and says much about the youthful Georgette’s ability to understand people. She depicts Dick’s burden of guilt, his moods of depression and his encounters with his tempestuous wife (the woman for whom he has sacrificed his honour) with genuine perception and empathy. Most seventeen-year-olds are preoccupied with their own feelings and situations to bother observing the people around them, but the adolescent Georgette had already developed a degree of perception and an understanding of human nature that must be considered unusual in one so young. Even if she was drawing on her own experience or taking inspiration from the people she knew, to be able to create such well-realised characters and portray their difficult relationship as effectively as she did at just seventeen was a remarkable achievement.

My father thought well of it, and insisted that I should do some serious work on it, with publication in view. I did, and it found a publisher in Constable’s – first crack out of the bag!

Georgette Heyer, letter to her publisher, 1962

“First crack out of the bag”

Encouraged by her literary father, Georgette submitted her first novel to the London publisher, Constable, for their consideration and a few months after her eighteenth birthday, they made her an offer. Constable offered her a contract with a £100 advance for the British and American rights to The Black Moth. It must have been a thrilling experience to have her work accepted ‘first crack out of the bag’ and it would not have been surprising if Georgette had leaped at the offer and signed the contract without further consideration. But she was not without some experience of the publishing world, albeit vicariously. Her father, George Heyer, was himself a minor author with poems and essays published in Granta, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Athenaeum, The Saturday Westminster Review and Punch. He also had theatrical connections through his work for King’s College Hospital and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Committee. Georgette had listened and learned from his experiences. and so, before she signed the contract with Constable, she sought professional advice.

The Society of Authors

On 28 March 1921 Georgette wrote to the Society of Authors:

Dear Sir

Herewith the contract of which I wrote. I should be very glad if you would give it your attention – especially clause 17.

Yours truly

Georgette Heyer

Society of Authors Archive (1876-1982), British Library

Established in 1884, the Society existed specifically to protect the rights of authors and assist them with advice regarding agents, publishers and contracts. The Secretary of the Society was a solicitor and members could receive legal advice from the Society’s committee and solicitors without cost. Georgette’s earliest known letter extant was written to the Society. Three days later she received a comprehensive reply in which her correspondent raised a number of issues relating to several of the contract clauses.

Her First Contract

It is impossible to know the precise contents of Georgette’s first contract as the document was destroyed along with the rest of Constable’s archives in the bombing raids on London during the Second World War. Some sense of The Black Moth contract clauses is apparent, however, both from the Society’s letter and from Georgette’s prompt and decisive reply. Despite her young age, her letter is impressive, not only for its clear-headed grasp of her correspondent’s detailed advice, but also for her insight into her publisher’s position:

Thank you very much for the advice on my contract. On most points I agree with you, but Clause 3 – concerning the American sales, I am leaving as it stands. Houghton Mifflin are collaborating with Constable’s, and publishing my book in America. The profits of net sale are to be divided equally between Constable’s and myself. As Constable’s run a certain amount of risk in bringing out an entirely new author, I think this is generous.

Georgette Heyer to the Society of Authors 1 April 1921, Society of Authors Archive (1876-1982), British Library

Even at 18 Georgette had an unusual degree of confidence in her writing and in her literary future:

‘As to Clause 17 – concerning my future three books, I intend to ask that in the event of my second book reaching 10,000 sale, when I shall receive 20% on it, my third book shall start at that percentage’.

In the end she decided that her request for a higher royalty for her third book “was too much to ask, and I didn’t ask it!” In the spring of 1921 Georgette Heyer signed her first book contract and set her feet upon the path that would in years to come would see her recognised as one of the world’s bestselling authors.

The Black Moth was published in September 1921, one month after her nineteenth birthday. Almost one hundred years later, it is still selling.

A delightful addition to Georgette Heyer’s debut novel, Reading Heyer: The Black Moth is offers readers a modern-day take on this classic historical romance. Perfect for the twenty-first century first-time reader as well as the diehard fan looking for further insight into Heyer’s famous novel, Reading Heyer: The Black Moth is wonderfully entertaining.

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2 thoughts on “The Black Moth – from teen novel to enduring bestseller”

  1. I enjoyed your informative post. It makes me want to read The Black Moth again. The connection to These Old Shades is interesting and I hope you will write about that also.

    1. Thanks for posting, Lynn. I am writing about each of the books in order so These Old Shades will be posted on 4 June 2020. Just a few weeks away. I hope you enjoy reading about it.

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