Heyer Conference 2009

Date held: Saturday, 7 November 2009

Location: Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, UK

Quite a few of the conference attendees have put their notes on the internet about the conference (see links below) - some of these are so comprehensive that I felt no great urgency to put mine up (tho' I had some quite drastic deadlines at work to get done as well). Having only now just got time to read them all, I think that there may still be some slight interest in me "joining the throng." :-)

Overall, I started the day feeling a bit nervous and wondering what everyone else would look like -- strange querying thoughts of wondering if all Heyer fans could fit some "norm"? -- but I soon settled down to an overwhelming feeling of pleasure and self-indulgence! How often could you find yourself spending a whole day with diverse but like-minded people talking about your favourite author. I believe that the feeling must have been shared by many others on the day. As we started with Jennifer's talk, I think we were all in some sort of disbelief that we were here and it was really happening. This was so evident that when we had our break for lunch and there was a request for some people to go straight away (in order to not overload the dining room), most of us couldn't bring ourselves to leave the conference room and the general discussion (I only counted two who left the room).

I felt so rejuvenated by the morning's experience that I thought myself much younger than I probably appear! I took up a seat next to some young students from Lucy Cavendish and heard how they had been lightly scoffed for enrolling for the conference. However, they got their own back by later informing their friends that it was oversubscribed! I can never meet the newer fans to Heyer without feeling equally envious and reminiscent when I find that they still haven't read all of Heyer's books...ah, to revisit that feeling of a new Heyer discovery. One that I will get not-quite-soon-enough! Jen revealed that she has found some new short stories!! Oh, the thrum of excitement that went down the room -- so much so that there are probably some of us trying to find the old magazines that the stories were published in.

As the day wore on, I took fewer and fewer notes preferring instead to just wallow and enjoy. So, I won't break this page down into each talk specifically (this is done very well by Laura), I'll just sort of ramble on :-) Apologies to anyone who feels slighted by this approach.

There was information about Heyer that came out that I've never known -- very exciting and I'm very much looking forward to Jen's new Biography. Until then and for those who couldn't be one of the 80-odd people attending; Georgette was the daughter of Sylvia Watkins (1876-1962) and George Heyer (1869-1925). Her mother was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music but her strongest parental relationship was with her father (who educated her when she was young). Georgette was the eldest of three children and had two brothers - Boris and Frank. I was very pleased to hear that she was considered something of a prodigy, after all she was only 17 when she wrote The Black Moth.

Speaking of The Black Moth -- Jen said that a 1st Edition cover of the original book has never been recorded anyway -- so if anyone has a copy and can scan it in or take a photo of it and send it to me, I can put a copy up here and put you in touch with Jen.

Interestingly, not only due to the newly found short stories, apparently there has never been a fully accurate bibliography published for GH. Jen's new book will have a complete list and she went through the details of the early years of Heyer's novels. For example, Simon The Coldheart was first published in the USA in May 1925, it was only published in the UK in October.

Some of the more personal details of Georgette's life came out -- 1925 being the year that her father died, something that took Georgette a lot to get over. We were told that she struggled to write after her father's death, this hasn't been so obvious before as These Old Shades was published the next year, but in fact she had already finished writing this book before her father's unfortunate death. These Old Shades was very well received with a first print run in the UK of 3000 copies. One interesting fact that came up during the day was that GH has never been out of print - shows how well-loved her books are!

We saw some family photos of Georgette as she travelled and wrote -- e.g. the grass hut she and Ronald lived in while in Tanganyika. I was quite surprised, given that I have rented accommodation for years now, that when Georgette, Ronald and now their son Richard were living in Blackthorns, not only did they stay there for 6 years but they actually spent money on renovating the property!

We had now reached the point (1935) where Georgette founded the Regency genre with Regency Buck. Then An Infamous Army she thought was one of her best -- it was actually recommended reading at Sandhurst (a military academy for training British officers). In light of the amount of research that Georgette put into her books, this is not so surprising, particularly as the hardcover editions were published with the maps she drew of the battle of Waterloo (at least I trust she drew them!). By this stage, Georgette was so popular that Heinemann were publishing her books unread! Personally, I have mixed feelings about that -- on the one hand, as an author it must be nice to know that you'll be published, but on the other it could be a bit of a slap in the face as you want your books read and approved! Not particularly nice when those writing the blurbs on the back of your books or drawing the cover art admit that they've never read the book :-(

Georgette's writing with the Regency genre seems to have come more and more naturally - again showing how gifted she was at this. She had an instant bestseller with Friday's Child and Faro's Daughter was typed straight out nearly in a single sitting and published directly. I think in this way, she was much like other gifted people and had a natural contempt for what she could do so easily -- if she could do it easily, then it wasn't that worthwhile. However, for those who aren't gifted in a similar way, then we marvel at it. Unfortunately, Georgette never really had a large social circle and was particularly British in her reticence - perhaps reflected in the strong, silent type of Heyeros (an affectionate way of styling Heyer heros, so quite a deliberate mispelling!) and the sentiment of not "wearing your heart on your sleeve."

For those who were interested and could get near London, we were told how to find the chambers in the Albany Apartments that Georgette and Ronald lived in for 24 years; while standing in front of Fortnum and Mason's and facing outwards, look across the street and slightly to the right. While living here, Georgette wrote 24 books!

Heyer had strong views on how her books were marketed and the covers that were used, so it was quite interesting to see some of the covers that Samantha showed us...not all of which could have been approved by Georgette! It was quite interesting the clear link between an elegant cover and the public perception of the style of Heyer's books.

Originally, Georgette insisted on having Philip Gough creating the book jackets. Then Barbosa was also very successful with clean and unfussy artwork that didn't overstress the romantic content. Early book reviews likened Heyer to Jane Austen perhaps influenced by the "classy" artwork. In comparison, the Pan covers were quite dramatically different, causing Georgette to opine "the vulgar phenomenon of paperbacking." Admittedly, the covers weren't too accurate either -- the first cover of An Infamous Army had Babs on the battlefield! There were other sets of paperbacks including a re-release from Pan, another from Arrow that revisited Pan's cameo effect covers, the Ace paperbacks published in the USA and the earlier ones by Penguin that mostly depict "lush and abandoned females" on the covers!!! Quel horreur! The only one I can find of these is the one below...if anyone knows of others, I think it would be interesting (in a macabre sort of way) to see them.

Interestingly, the more recent paperback publications have started using period artwork (including re-visiting the cameo effect from Pan) and B-format paperbacks (the slightly larger ones). For example, the Arrow reprints. These have been so successful that the publishers have been using these styles on other authors, for example, Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh and Julia Quinn. The latest publication from Sourcebooks are going more for a 'Marie Antoinette' look.

Philip Gough
Cover Picture
Arthur Barbosa
Pan (with cameo)

Jay looked into how Heyer incorporates place in her novels using examples in the south of the UK (as she could visit these places herself). Generally, as Jay showed us with examples, Heyer says little but successfully conjures up the whole scenery, landscape and feel of being in each location. She relies on 1-2 sentences to describe geographical place. This is quite unlike the amount of words/sentences that she spends on describing the homes and houses -- for example, in A Civil Contract she can write 1-4 pages on houses and their styles.

For geographical places, Georgette more frequently 'mentions' them than provides descriptions. She uses the names of places to promote the feel of them and the, sometimes implicit, understanding of what the places may be for (e.g. Vauxhall Gardens). Jay drew comparisons to tourism as we know it now and how we often find ourselves or others taking photos of place names or street signs in order to conjure up for ourselves and our memories the stories associated with these names. I guess I'm a victim of this myself! As some of you may have noticed, I've started to collect photos of locations around the UK of characters' names from Heyers books :-)

One interesting link that Jay made was about the difference between the social space of London (effectively Mayfair) and the country house and estates. Apart from Almack's, London is the centre of power for men and is the hub of masculine life -- "doing a bolt to the village". Bath, on the other hand is under female control - women live by themselves (well, with companions) and can walk about the town without fear of being attacked. In her novels, Heyer appears to show that it is in the countryside where love is to be found and/or realised, that all the best Heyeros have country estates and are landed gentlemen. Was this an indication of her own personal beliefs?

The publication of Powder and Patch was also dealt with -- specifically how in the original version ('The Transformation of Philip Jettan' by Stella Martin, try and find that, eh!) Philip and Cleone went to Paris and became exquisites together! In the 2nd version, Georgette had them both retire to country life in the UK.

There were many interesting viewpoints put across at the conference -- things I think I'd never really thought about as I've usually just read and enjoyed Heyer's books and not looked too much further. For example,

  • Laura's talk about the edification to be had from The Nonesuch where we see Heyer pointing out to us through the examples of Tiffany and Laurie what can happen with a lack of education. The direct contrast between Patience and Tiffany indicates for the reader the right and the wrong way for a woman to "go on" in society.
  • Heyer becoming so well-grounded in the British Regency period and the late 18th century that she easily dates novels from events rather than being more obvious. You can see the progression from Regency Buck where there is a date in a letter Judith is reading through to Arabella which can be dated from various topics of discussion throughout the book.
  • Mary drew comparisons between Heyer and Austen and their shared humour - both fun and ironic. Both authors preferred heroines who showed quickness of mind and humour. They were both effectively writing intellectual comedy.
  • The profligacy in Regency is quite clear in Austen's works, but Heyer avoids sexuality to a great extent and implies it rather than makes it obvious - for example, the love child in Friday's Child and the innuendo of sexual relations between Horatia and the Earl of Rule in The Convenient Marriage
  • While Austen promotes an understanding that a fixation on fashion leads to a lack of moral fibre, Heyer is important to changing attitudes about fashion and legitimising them. Think of the scene in The Grand Sophy where Sophy declares that while fashion is not always important to life, one can't deny that it is of paramount importance when one is dressing for dinner!
  • Kerstin explored the concept of hot and cold as a theme in Heyer's novels. From the "cold as a fish" and "indifferent gazes" of the Heyeros before they were 'warmed up' by their Heyeroines. The way the Heyeros would use instruments (quizzing glasses, adjusting a cravat) to demonstrate their power and superiority and the unimportance of others. Then the Heyeroines would break through this indifference and through forcing their Heyeros into all sorts of escapades would warm them up (the action of moving particles and heat was drawn upon) until they became more personable and friendly. Prime examples I can think of would be Sylvester, Venetia and Frederica
  • Catherine reminded us how there were great social changes occurring during Heyer's middle age. The novels are reflections of the norm of society's beliefs during Heyer's life. A lot of the perceived snobbery or class distinctions were truly believed by generations before more recent times have made them anathema. Similarities were drawn between the breeding differences of a thoroughbred racing horse and a shire horse and the notion that 'blood will out' with respect to Léonie and the Bonnard lad in These Old Shades.
  • Sarah introduced us to the Lesbian overtones in Lady of Quality. Claims that Lucilla was "in the clutches of a designing female", the fact that Annis could happily live the rest of her life with her sister-in-law Amabel, Miss Farlow's feelings of being ousted from Annis' affections by Lucilla. All the overtones of homosexual panic fade, however, in the face of the Heyero and the growing relationship between Annis and Oliver.
  • Elizabeth concentrated on the cross-dressing in Heyer's novels - for example in These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, The Corinthian and a bit in The Talisman Ring. While the plot device of the stories employs drag quite seriously in 'These Old Shades' and 'The Masqueraders', it is more of a comedic influence in the other two novels. Later books still show signs of disguise and cross-dressing intention, for example when Deb in Faro's Daughter wishes to be a man in order to run Max Ravenscar "through and through".
  • Choosy Productions in the UK have the film rights to all Heyer books except 'The Grand Sophy' and 'These Old Shades' which are owned by a company in the USA. Hopefully, this means that we could look forward to seeing some movies come out within our lifetimes. Any one who wants to write a screenplay, however, I'm sure it would assist!

Other Notes from the Day

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