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Kirsten Elliott, Bath writer and literary historian
20 January 2014
Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) is remembered as a British historical romance and detective novelist, though for most of her readers, she is the former rather than the latter. Five of her novels are about Bath, and Kirsten Elliott described these in her talk. 2014 is the fortieth anniversary of her death, but in 2009, a critic writing in The Independent said that ‘she has fallen into a strange and rather airless market.’ Yet her name calls up 109 results on Amazon, and she still outsells J.K. Rowling, Dickens and James Patterson. As of 2014, some 30 million copies of her novels have been sold. Her pages are ‘packed with desperate elopements, crimes of passion, and descriptions of prevailing fashions.’ Heyer conducted meticulous historical research, to ensure accuracy, and there are many references to the novels of Jane Austen. She was an expert on women’s and men’s clothing of the period, and also drew on The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811.
Heyer did research on boxing and cockfighting, among other unexpected areas of life in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Her novels began with These Old Shades in 1926, a work which was sufficiently popular to be reissued I 1937. Equally, she researched carefully William of Normandy’s crossing of the English Channel for her later novel, The Conqueror. Kirsten discussed in most detail the five Bath novels, beginning with Friday’s Child (1944), which was Heyer’s favourite novel, joyous and farcical. The link with Bath was important to Heyer, as her brother Frank taught at Downside Abbey. The next Bath novel, The Foundling (1948) is Kirsten’s own favourite, and we were assured that it is very good, well plotted and convincing. Less good was the third Bath novel Bath Tangle (1955), in which it appears that the hero is more like Mr Rochester than Mr Darcy. Another favourite of Kirsten was Black Sheep (1966), which pays special tribute to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, also set in Bath. The final Bath novel was Lady of Quality (1972), in which the heroine is very uncertain of herself, and in which there is doubt about a happy ending. By the time Lady of Quality was published, Georgette Heyer was already ill.
Heyer put wealthy people I Laura Place, as did Jane Austen, and featured North and South Parade, Sydney Gardens, and the Pump Room, together with Mailer’s Library in the High Street ,York House, the Christopher Hotel and the Theatre Royal. She was much less interested in the Royal Crescent or Lansdowne Crescent. For the detail, Heyer used The Improved Bath Guide for 1815, and Paterson’s Roads, 1829 edition. It is said that her husband George Ronald Rougier, a mining engineer, sometimes provided basic plot outlines for her, and she provided the background and details. At the time of her death, 48 of her books were still in print. A final one, My Lord John, appeared posthumously.
Robert Blackburn, Literature and Humanities Convenor, 2014