Aug 7 2012 10:00am

Working Towards Literary Respectability: Helen by Georgette Heyer

Apparently, Heyer also managed to suppress the cover artHelen is one of the four early contemporary novels that Georgette Heyer later tried (unsuccessfully) to repress. Her biographers note that it has a strong autobiographical element, which, as I’ll note, both explains much about her later books and is slightly alarming. And if not for the name on the cover and the assurances of these biographers that yes, this is really a product of Heyer’s typewriter, it would be difficult to believe that this is a Heyer novel. Only one sentence in the entire book sounds anything like her.

Even more unusually, it begins with the story of a child, a far cry from her usual focus on adults, or at least almost-adult teenagers. And not just the story of a child, but a story told from a child’s viewpoint—something she would never attempt again.

Helen is meant as the study of a woman writer, from early childhood to early mastery of her craft. The first chapters, told from a child’s perspective, are deeply reminscent of two books not repressed by their bestselling, also critically dismissed authors: Agatha Christie’s Giant’s Bread (a non-mystery novel published under the name of Mary Westmacott), and L.M. Montgomery’s Magic for Marigold. This is not a coincidence: Books for adults that used a child’s viewpoint were in intellectual vogue at the time, and all three of these highly popular women writers hoped to gain critical, intellectual recognition through these works. All failed, at least in their own lifetimes, to gain that attention from (mostly male) literary critics.

But after these early chapters, the works greatly diverge, despite some superficial resemblances, particularly between Heyer and Christie. The women were not merely both mystery novelists, but lived in similar social groups and followed similar social dictates, and shared an identical, fierce need for privacy. Heyer, however, was to be much more conservative, even reactionary; Christie accepted the inevitability of change and even welcomed some of the opportunities it brought her. And although Montgomery shared many of Heyer’s regrets for a lost age, she, too, accepted the inevitability of change (while regretting her inability to take advantage of many of its opportunities.)

But the greatest difference lies in their examination of women, and women’s roles in the 1920s. All three, themselves thoroughly professional, career writers, portrayed various 20th century professional career women. But only Heyer actively argued that women are inferior to men. In the words of her main character, Helen (who in this book is meant to speak for the author):

When they [women] start doing things that men do they aren’t as good, and I for one don’t think they ever will be…..You don’t really think that if she [Women in general] were Man’s equal instead of his complement she’d have remained in the background?

This is striking, partly because, by the time this was published, Heyer was a bestselling novelist, with eight books behind her—eight books that may not have gained critical attention, but which had allowed her to support her family. She earned more than her husband did, a situation that would continue even after he became a successful barrister. And yet, in this serious novel, written to gain the serious literary recognition she craved, she could argue for the inferiority of women. Perhaps because she knew that many of the most important literary critics of the period were male?

But something else is evident here: the character saying these words is, in the very fullest sense of a sometimes overused word, privileged. She’s not merely white, but also from a very wealthy background, able to do whatever she wishes—spend several months in Paris, travel around Europe, escape to Scotland when needed, write a novel without having to worry about its popular reception, and so on. She doesn’t even have that very typical concern of the beginning and often even the established writer: bills, and finding the money to pay for them.

This is, to a certain extent, a bit of wish fulfillment from Heyer. Although from a relatively privileged background herself, Heyer never had Helen’s money, and her most recent biographer believes she resented this. (Hints about this litter Heyer’s mystery novels.) She could later show that she understood the desire and need for wealth. (Again, particularly true in her mystery novels.) But at the same time, this also represents Heyer’s inability to understand the reality of poverty. When a minor character accuses Helen of not understanding the need for money, or the difficulties of living without it, it’s an accusation that could have been directed at Heyer herself.

It was not that Heyer never faced financial difficulties – in fact, her middle and late years were filled with taxation issues, and she often found herself having to write a book to pay the tax on the previous books. This is doubtless why she could later write about characters facing financial difficulties with a genuine feeling of compassion. But, with the possible exception of the year she spent in Africa in the rough (a year she knew would be ending), she never faced real poverty, and in Africa, the poverty she saw was the poverty of others. The majority of her characters in financial straits remain upper class characters, with access to resources lower class characters lacked, which they leverage for financial gain. This was the world she was comfortable with; she had difficulties imagining not being part of the upper middle or upper class.

(Mind you, I have to admit that if I could be guaranteed a spot as an aristocrat, I’d be all about living in this sort of world with maids and footmen running around to do my bidding and all that. Alas, I’m fairly sure that with my luck I’d end up as the lowest of the scullery maids, which makes me a little less eager for the return of that period. But I digress.)

Oddly, despite this lack of understanding, Heyer’s snobbery is actually a little less in evidence here than it would be in other books, mostly because with the exception of one butler, she pretty much ignores the lower classes entirely rather than attempting to depict them.

But her other conservative instincts are in full swing. Her attempts to stretch boundaries by including a (gasp) divorced character, Jane, actually ends up reinforcing those boundaries. Jane is more or less accepted in society. That is, she can come to events, but we are told that “no one ever listens to Jane,” and that Jane, as a divorced woman, is clearly not quite good enough to marry the man she falls in love with. Heyer agrees with this. (Agatha Christie, emphatically and by personal example, did not; Montgomery, trapped in a miserable marriage, avoided the the issue.) Later, Helen and Heyer react with horror at the thought of (gasp) premarital sex. (Both Christie and Montgomery were resigned to it.) Heyer may have thought she was being daring, but her firm disapproval of this, highlighted by the contrast with her fellow authors, is purely conventional.

What is considerably less conventional, to the point of being disturbing, is Helen’s relationship with her father, Marchant, which starts out normally enough, and midway through the book gains a distinct incestuous tone. It’s not merely their closeness and their tendency to take long romantic trips to Paris together, but the language Heyer uses on one of their reunions which in pretty much any other context would be a setup for a very bad porn scene. It includes gems like this:

Marchant bent his head to kiss her. An arm was flung round his neck, and strained him tightly to a warm young breast.

Er….ok then!

This goes on, by the way, and Heyer makes it clear that Helen cannot fall in love with any other man as long as her father is alive. It would be less disturbing if Heyer’s family hadn’t brightly told us that Helen is the most autobiographical of Heyer’s works, and if, thinking it over, Heyer’s work did not feature so few mothers, and so many distinctly older heroes who decide to take their much younger heroines firmly in hand.

Well. Perhaps we should just assume that the autobiographical elements are restricted to just the London parties and Helen’s decision to be an author.

A few other things will probably strike devoted Heyer readers, including the book’s almost complete absence of humor. Even in her later, more serious and/or disturbing books, Heyer provided at least a few moments of levity and snappy dialogue. Here, she has none of it, and her character voices are curiously undistinguishable, especially given Heyer’s gift for creating memorable minor characters. I confess I had problems telling Helen’s various suitors and friends apart.

I don’t mean to be completely negative here. Heyer does paint a fascinating picture of the way her male friends and her father eagerly signed up for World War I, telling her and themselves that they didn’t want to miss out on the adventure. I’ve read this sort of thing from enough World War I authors that I have to start believing this really was the initial reaction to the outbreak of that war, but it’s difficult to believe, partly knowing the outcome of that war, partly in contrast to the reactions I saw among men of a similar age when the first Gulf War broke out. No one was rejoicing or eager for adventure; instead, the general sense was dread, and relief when that war ended quickly, since, of course, at the time we had no idea we’d get mired in a second one later.

And Heyer also provides some intriguing glimpses into London society, and some of its more bohemian aspects (although she was clearly never entirely comfortable with this).

But in the end, this more serious novel, Heyer’s attempt at to be taken seriously by male critics, went nowhere with those same critics because her unconventionality was, indeed, fully conventional, and because, most critically, in a novel that tells the tale of a girl from babyhood to adulthood, Helen never really changes, never really learns anything about herself. The closest she comes is realizing that she was only infatuated with a man she thought she might love, but this is not character growth, and it is not a particularly insightful comment on the human condition. Heyer would actually show more and deeper insights in later, fluffier novels—where, interestingly enough, she could finally begin to push against conventions.


Look at other posts in Mari Ness’ reread of Georgette Heyer’s novels.

Mari Ness is going to be slow in responding to comments again this week thanks to some real life excitements. She assumes she cannot be the only person eagerly awaiting September.

1. Tehanu
I’ve read this sort of thing from enough World War I authors that I have to start believing this really was the initial reaction to the outbreak of that war, but it’s difficult to believe,
Well, the disillusionment didn't take long to set in, but the enthusiasm and idealism were real at the start -- although I suspect that upper class men were more enthusiastic than working men were. Look at Rupert Brooke. There was a very powerful sense that the war was going to bring a healthy dose of reality into a society that was shackled by old conventions and expectations. Unfortunately for them, the dose of reality was way past "healthy."
Ben Goodman
2. goodben
That type of excitement about war was common before Vietnam (and can still be evident as seen in the expectations concerning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars).

The first major battle of the Civil War--the First Battle of Bull Run--took place about 25 miles from Washington DC. Politicians and others made the trip down to watch the Army thrash the rebels. The result was a lot less romantic than they had imagined (not only did the Union Army lose, it was routed). The slaughter and carnage of the battle even shocked the winners.
Azara microphylla
3. Azara
As a teenager, I was very aggrieved when I couldn't find copies of this and the other 'suppressed' Heyer novels. As an adult, I'm glad that you've read it so I don't have to.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Tehanu , @Goodben -- I think it also in part had to do with how many people in a given society could remember a hellish war. The run up to World War II contained far fewer historical accounts of people thinking this would be an adventure -- patriotic duty and the right thing to do, absolutely, but adventure, not so much. (That came in post World War II depictions of World War II.)

I do agree that the war = adventure idea has never completely gone away, even if it seems less strong than it reportedly was in the very initial stages of World War I in Britain.

@Azara -- I actually was glad to finally get a hold of them, if only to assauge my curiousity, but reading them, I can see why Heyer suppressed them. They aren't terrible, and two of them I think are actually more enjoyable reads than, say, Cousin Kate, and Barren Corn (which I will be discussing) has some fascinating things to say about marriage and British society, but I don't think any of these novels match her later work, perhaps because Heyer's gift was not for "serious" "literary" writing.
5. tb
Thanks, Mari, I always enjoy your essays so much. I have read almost all Heyers' romances but few of her mysteries and had never heard of this. Very interesting. I wonder also, about the second world war, whether the expectations about the war were coloured by having fought so often as colonists against poorly armed opponents? I really am pretty ignorant about the beginning of the 20th c, so perhaps not.
6. romney
The comparison with Christie is interesting. (I should catch up on her pseudonymous books) A female genre writer of the same era, Christie also comes in for criticism when faced with class, etc. and I particularly remember a "blood-will-out" plot from Crooked House which rather spoilt the book for me. Yet, whether more palatable or just writing in a slightly more respectable genre, Christie remains much more widely popular.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@tb -- Helen isn't one of her mystery novels. Those came later and are of varied quality; I'll be looking at a few of them, including two of the three that do work as mysteries.

I do think people's expectations of World War I were colored by recent experiences of colonial wars, as well as the assumption that Germany couldn't possibly be that serious, and as soon as it was confronted by the combined forces of Britain, France and Russia, Germany would sabre-rattle for a bit, then back off, forcing Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, who lacked Germany's resources, to capitulate. That turned out to be an overly optimistic assumption.

The expectations for World War II were more realistic.

@Romney -- Christie has certainly been nailed for her take on class issues. She and Heyer also came from similar social/financial backgrounds and moved in somewhat similar circles -- the English gentry.

But they also have some significant differences. When Christie says that blood will tell, which you are right to note that she does frequently, she's not necessarily speaking of class and aristocratic manners as Heyer is. She's talking about two different issues: ethnicity (which Christie has been strongly criticized on) and her belief that traits of insanity/deception/evil can be inherited, as in Crooked House. But she does not necessarily believe that aristocrats or the British class system are superior. Death on the Nile, for instance, contains some very interesting statements regarding class which are not kindly to British aristocrats, and Christies' detectives, unlike Heyer's, for the most part have more marginal roles in society, whcih in turn, Christie notes, allows them to see society clearly. In Heyer's world, the most insightful, intelligent and resourceful people are aristocrats.

The other big difference is what happened after World War II. Christie accepted that the world was changing, showed her characters adjusting to changed social roles, tried, not altogether successfully, to increase her depiction of ethnic characters, and wrote a self-deprecating biography where she depicted herself as intellectually slow, a low-brow, and someone who should not be taken seriously. Heyer retreated even further into her publicity-shy shell, and even as her books finally began to acknowledge some social/economic tensions and issues (Bath Tangle and Charity Girl), they also became still more reactionary. And Heyer always, until her death, hoped to be recognized as a serious novelist (something she shared with Lucy Maud Montgomery, who did get that recognition, then lost it, but eventually regained it well after her death), something that Christie at least never publicly claimed to be seeking.

In terms of popularity, I'd say that Christie wrote masterpieces of an entire genre (mystery); Heyer wrote masterpieces of a subgenre (Regency romance.) And although they both wrote unreadable books at one time or another, Heyer wrote more of them, and Christie's unreadable books really didn't hit until the very end of her career; Heyer's unreadable books hit early on. But they both certainly can be counted as highly popular authors.

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