Working Towards Literary Respectability: Helen by Georgette Heyer

Helen 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.


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