The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge

 The Private World of Georgette Heyer  cover

I’m not what you would call a huge fan of Georgette Heyer but I have probably read and enjoyed around ten of her books and they are a bit more than just good comfort reads as Heyer put a massive amount of effort into researching the historical periods that she wrote about. She compiled books of Georgian/Regency slang, fashions and such, including cutting out illustrations from magazines and drawing different types of carriages and even coats of arms, so that she could describe them properly in her books.

While she was actually writing her books she was inclined to be her worst critic and often described the one she was engaged in writing in letters to friends as being a STINKER. But once it was completed her opinion often changed.

To begin with she appeared to be very different from most authors in that she seemed very normal and went out of her way to avoid publicity, never gave interviews or did anything to promote her books. Even her married name was kept from the public and she wanted nothing to do with any other writers. I often judge people by whether I would be happy to have them as a neighbour or not and to begin with I would have been more than happy to have Heyer as one, but as the book progressed my opinion changed.

For one thing when she was actually writing books she wrote well into the wee small hours. I doubt if many readers would have guessed that her book writing was fuelled by Dexedrine and gin. Yes she was apparently on speed! She and her husband were obviously the type of people who always lived beyond their means, despite the fact that they must have had a huge annual income between them. During the war they took out a lease on chambers in The Albany. I watched a TV programme about that place a few years ago and it is only the super wealthy who can afford to live there, it has always been a very salubrious address. They chose not to buy property and didn’t even employ a proper accountant which led to great difficulties with the Inland Revenue over the years – stupid beyond belief! She was one of those women that don’t like other women and she was quite open about her dislike of young girls.

I suspect that the trouble was that she and her husband were very keen social climbers and for them it was imperative to own a new Rolls Royce and other such fol-de-rols. Heyer had in fact financed her husband through his law degree and he did eventually go on to become a successful QC, but before that he had run a sports shop with his brother-in-law and spent his time re-stringing tennis racquets and such. They both came from rather lowly backgrounds but that seems to have been forgotten when Heyer in later years described other lawyers’ wives she had met as being not out of the same drawer as her!!

One heartening thing was that they both loved Scotland and habitually holidayed there, but she hated Ireland, in fact she said that she had never been the same woman since visiting Ireland!

She was a wonderful letter writer though and I imagine that a book of her letters would be very entertaining, she was very witty as you would expect from her books.

Heyer was dogged by ill health for years, particularly problems with her throat so I was astonished when towards the end of the book it was mentioned that she smoked between 60 and 80 cigarettes a day. Given that – the drugs and the booze it’s just amazing that she lived to the age of 72.

All in all this is a good read. Georgette Heyer was just quite a flawed and odd character, but then most writers are and I’ll continue to read her books from time to time.

Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! cover

Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill is the first book by her that I’ve read and I enjoyed it so much that I’ll definitely be seeking out her Costa Biography award winning book Somewhere Towards the End.

The book begins with a little introduction which starts: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just thinks’: I have forgotten who it is who is supposed to have said that, but it is a good description of a state quite often observed in a retirement home, and considered pitiable.

I knew immediately that that quote came from Winnie the Pooh ( I blame a misspent adulthood!) but I’ve subsequently discovered that L.M. Montgomery apparently used that phrase first.

Anyway by the end of this book Athill does indeed decide to go into a retirement home where you are allowed to just sit and think if that is what you feel like doing. It sounds like a remarkable place, full of interesting people and great staff, if only they were all like that.

The author was very old when she wrote this book, 97 I believe and the thing about very old ladies is that they just don’t care any more, so they just say exactly what they think and that always leads to good entertainment. In conversation with another old folks’ home resident it transpired that they both spent time thinking about all the men they had ever slept with! They found it hilarious of course. I suspect that in that position I would be thinking about all the gardens I’ve ever planned and planted up!.

But this book begins with a chapter about her grandparents’ garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk – a huge property by the sound of it. There were quite a lot of similarities between this book and Penelope Lively’s book A House Unbound, but Athill is much more forthcoming about her private life – love affairs, abortions and a miscarriage later on in life.

This is a slim volume at just 161 pages but she packs a lot into it. Growing up in rural splendour, the war, fashion, post war holidays, books, work – it’s a great read.

You can read a short Guardian interview with her here.