Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A Long Twelve Years

I wish I liked milk. All my life, I've watched other people go to the fridge, pour
out a glass of the stuff and drink it down, and envied them. They appear to enjoy it so much, but, whenever I try to do the same thing, I find myself gagging at the first sip. This might be because of the childhood experiences I had with milk, experiences that transformed me into a lifelong Thatcher supporter. I don't know: all I can say for certain is that I can't remember a time when milk didn't make me feel sick. I also can't remember a time when I didn't wish that I liked it.

I thought about milk and my longing to love it when I was reading a review of a biography of Georgette Heyer in the London Review of Books the other day. Like milk, Heyer seems to give lots of people lots of pleasure, while leaving me cold.

She wrote tons of books but the ones she is famous for are her Regency romances, a couple of which I got hold of at some point and plodded my way through.

The LRB review starts off by suggesting that these Regency books of Heyer's may be a poor man's Jane Austen, so perhaps that was the hurdle I couldn't get over. After all, I'm not wild about Jane Austen, (with that sentence I suspect I've alienated huge chunks of the world's population, but I find her conspiratorial tone irritating - she makes me feel as if I've been trapped on the edge of a ballroom by a particularly catty gossip who assumes I share all her prejudices and never gives me a chance to observe anyone and make up my own mind about them without heavily loading the dice, for or agin. "Show don't tell," I want to shout at her as she insists, for instance, on pointing out that Mr Collins is "absurd", just in case I'm really so dim that I can't  work that out for myself. What is more, I resent her lack of sympathy, her shrewishness in fact, even though it is also the central ingredient, I suppose, of her so-called wit. I long for her to wonder what circumstances have made Collins the man he is, so unsure of his position that he feels the need to behave with perpetual sycophancy towards those whose power he depends upon. I'd be happy too if she'd acknowledge that Mrs Bennet might actually have genuine cause to worry about what might become of her daughters should they not find well-heeled husbands.)

But, gosh, how unusual, I digress - it's the LRB review I want to talk about, not my misguided opinions about Austen. The review's author is Lidija Haas. It is about a biography by Jennifer Kloester and, although it is only around 3,000 words long, it contains quite a few funny bits, which is the reason I thought I'd mention it.

First, there is the wonderful note of bathos in the detail Haas includes about how Heyer's father "married ... a Royal Academy of Music graduate whose family were successful tugboat operators". This reminds me of the woman who told me years ago that what her husband - who at the time was carpet laying - really wanted to do was "break into the lawnmowing world".

Then there is the admirable lack of pretension exhibited by Heyer about her own work: she is quoted as describing one of her novels  as ' the worst book I ever wrote; the sort of book that makes you wake up shuddering in the night" - I'd never realised that this might be one of the perils of authorial life.

Next comes the revelation of one of Heyer's odd - but possibly correct? - beliefs about human psychology, (a belief that may, I suppose, have originated from an early exposure to British Christmas pantomime), which she expresses in a letter about a new novel she has written: "I have made my heroine masquerade as a boy for the first few chapters. This I find always attracts people!"

Finally, there is the mind boggling piece of information that the only fan letter Georgette Heyer was really proud of "came from a woman who had spent 12 years as a political prisoner in Romania and wrote to say that retelling the story of Friday's Child over and over to her fellow inmates was what had kept them going."

Here is the plot of Friday's Child, copied from Wikipedia:

"The wild young Viscount Sheringham is fast running through his considerable income through gambling and other extravagant pursuits; and he cannot as yet touch the principal, unless he marries. As the lady with whom he currently fancies himself in love, the beautiful Isabella Milborne, is also an heiress, he proposes.

Isabella rejects him with contumely, citing his dissipated lifestyle. A lively quarrel then follows with his obnoxious widowed mother and her brother, who wish to retain control of his father's fortune themselves. The Viscount storms off in a fit of pique, vowing to marry the first female he meets.

This turns out to be the pretty but orphaned and shy Hero Wantage, who has secretly loved him since they were children, and who now lives with one of his neighbours in the position of Cinderella, complete with Ugly Sisters.

The rest of the novel, chronicling the Viscount's gradual transition to maturity and the realisation that the one he really loves is Hero (the "loving and giving" child of the title), is told with Miss Heyer's characteristic wit, and features some of her most memorable dialogue, plot twists and characters (such as the fiery but lovelorn George Wrotham, whose hobby is fighting duels)."

Imagine 12 years of that.


  1. "I have made my heroine masquerade as a boy for the first few chapters. This I find always attracts people!"

    Well, think of "Twelfth Night", or the other disguises (not quite from the start) in "The Merchant of Venice" or "Cymbeline" (The odder in that as first produced one had a boy playing a woman playing a boy--as in "Marriage of Figaro" or "Rosenkavalier" one has a woman playing a young man playing a girl.)

    "Imagine 12 years of that."

    Perhaps the Romanian translation improved on the English style. As for the plot, any of several novels I can think of, set to be sure in the days before the Regency, do suffer when considered by summary of the plot: Tom Jones, Amelia, Roderick Random.

    But yes, I think I'd rather put in my hard time trying to reconstruct "Casey at the Bat" or "The Face on the Barroom Floor".

    1. I've always remembered a hostage emerging from their Middle Eastern captors (I think it may have been Terry Waites) saying that the poetry he'd been made to memorise as a child was what kept him going. It's an odd argument to put for compulsory rote learning, but it has some resonance, at least with me: "You must learn that Shakespeare sonnet because it will be invaluable if you're chained to a radiator for 7 years."