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Friday, May 24, 2013

New Georgette Heyer Biography

Two years after it was published in Great Britain, Jennifer Kloester's brilliant biography of Georgette Heyer has been brought out this year in the U.S. by Sourcebooks. Kloester dedicates the book to Heyer's only child, Richard Rougier (1932-2007) and to the author of the 1984 biography of Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, both of whom gave her complete access to their letters, notes, and in the case of Rougier, remembrances. He also provided the author with many personal pictures of Heyer.

The new biography differs vastly from Hodge's earlier effort. While both stress that Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was intensely private, never gave interviews, never took a book tour, did not sit for autographing, refused to pose for author pictures, and never revealed her married name (Rougier), Aiken's book attempts to reveal Heyer's personality by analyzing her novels—and in many instances by supposition and inferences.

Kloester's imminently readable book makes no inferences but lets Heyer's extant letters, numbering over 1,000 pages, breathe life into the clever, erudite, humorous, and self-deprecating Heyer, who wrote 55 novels, six of which she later suppressed.

The heart and soul of Kloester's 400-page book are the letters Heyer wrote to her agents and publishers over the course of her career. In her ten years of researching, Kloester managed not only to assemble these letters from the earliest days of Heyer's 50-year career but also to present them in highly readable form with elucidating footnotes and helpful contextual information.

A published author—at 18 

 Heyer was a rare breed like J.R.R. Tolkein who invented a genre which has been widely imitated. Astonishingly, the first of her Regency romances was written when she was just seventeen. The Black Moth, her first book, debuted in 1921 and has remained in print for more than 90 years.

During those early years, she dabbled with serious contemporary, coming-of-age stories as well as an ambitious Restoration-era tome, but found her calling with her witty period romances that were noted for their humor and the thoroughness of her research.
Heyer’s research

For Infamous Army, she read 26 books about Waterloo’s campaign, soldiers, officers, etc. and for four months filled notebooks with detailed information on the hundred days between Napolean’s escape from Elba and the clash at Waterloo. This included biographies of notables, troop movements, uniforms, weaponry, first-person accounts, maps, and a detailed chronology. She was flattered that her book was used by military students at Sandhurst.

Her personal library included more than 2,000 historical reference books, even though she preferred primary references.

In fact when she wanted her publisher to sue Barbara Cartland for a number of instances which Heyer considered blatant plagiarism, she said words she had used – and which had been copied—she had never seen anywhere else except in one of her unpublished sources. (The Aiken biography never names Cartland as the author imitating Heyer.) Though Heyer felt strongly Cartland had plagariized not only her plots but many of her characters as well as terminology, no lawsuit was ever filed, but her publishers must have been in communication with Cartland’s publishers because the “copying” stopped.

The Breadwinner

After a five-year, largely absentee courtship and two months after a heart attack claimed her adored father, Heyer at age twenty three married mining engineer Ronald Rougier. Her father's sudden death left her mother in financial difficulties, and Georgette took on the burden of providing for her mother and paying for the education of the youngest of her two brothers.

Between 1921 and 1935 she published 19 novels, and from the time that Ronald gave up his engineering career to return to England, Heyer was never free of financial worries. Her letters to her agent are full of her blown-up fears of bankruptcy.
In 1935 she suffered a nervous breakdown, and the following year she backed her husband's plan to study for the bar even though it meant she was the only wage earner for their family of three as well as her mother.

Her financial worries continued to mount. It is interesting to read her complaints to her agent about being treated like a midlist author, though that term was never used:

            They [publisher] are only concerned with their high lights. . . First, they apparently regard me as a certain seller up to a certain number of copies, & see little point in trying to push sales beyond that maximum. Second, they do not advertize me. Third, they seem to be unable to get the book reviewed.

More of her discontent with her publisher was expressed to her agent in 1937 when she informed her agent she was quite sure her editors “or any member of the firm” ever read her books. “No one ever bothers me for a synopsis for the purpose of advertising.”  In that same lengthy diatribe, she writes that no one in the firm even realized Devil’s Cub was a sequel to her popular These Old Shades.

She was always encouraging her agent to get her books serialized in the magazines, which was not only a great way to build an author but also paid extremely well. 

Sells rights to books for £250 

At one point she was so desperate for money, she sold the rights to three of her books for £750—or £250 a book! In 1940 she signed away British Commonwealth copyrights to These Old Shades, Devil's Cub, and Regency Buck to her publisher, Heinemann. Reflecting on that 30 years later when she was at the pinnacle of her success, Heyer wrote:

            Doesn't it seem fantastic thirty years later that £750 should have been considered by the valuers on both sides to have been a pretty generous price? It led me to rout out my old account book, and I see that it was generous! In those days my gross income very rarely got into four figures. It is now five figures. . . They got a very good bargain, but I don't begrudge it them, remembering, as I do to what straits we were reduced at the time.

The golden years

It had taken her more than twenty years to build her career to be lucrative, and by then—in the late 1940s—she had to pay the Inland Revenue approximately 85 percent of her annual earnings. At that time Ronald purchased a Rolls Royce, and they had moved into Albany, a quiet oasis in the heart of London. Albany had been the residence of several noted authors and a couple of prime ministers over its two-century history. The Rougiers would make their home there for a quarter of a century.

 Though her books had sold moderately in the United States over the years, sales took off in the 1950s. From the late forties until her death in 1974, she was one of the world’s bestselling authors, though she had difficulty believing that “books of substance” did not sell better than her “fluff.” She was shocked when her publisher told her there was no other author who could rival her world-wide sales.

The had always aspired to write respected historical novels and never realized the witty Regency romance genre she created would immortalize her. Now, forty years after her death, her books are still bestsellers.—Cheryl Bolen, author of the Regent Mysteries

Friday, May 17, 2013

End of the Regency...or is it?

File:King George IV 1809.jpg

The term Regency applies to the small timeline in England beginning in 1811 when time King George III was declared legally mad, or insane, and his son and heir was named Regent to rule in his stead. It is widely believed that George III had porphyria which affected his sight, his hearing, and eventually his sanity, which had been teetering for years. His final collapse into insanity might have been triggered by the death of his reportedly favorite daughter, Amelia, who died of tuberculosis.
His eldest heir, George IV, the Prince of Wales (given the derogatory nickname "Prinny") was declared Regent of England. During the Regency Era, Prince George did little more than indulge in parties and debauchery, leaving the running of the country to his mother the queen, and to Parliament. The death of King George III officially ended the Regency Era in January of 1820, but King George IV's coronation didn't take place until a year and a half later because he wanted to plan out every minute detail of the grand affair. His coronation was the biggest,  most ostentatious event of the century, one designed to outdo the coronation of Napoleon.

Here is a picture of the coronation banquet. I found the picture on Wikimedia Commons. It surpasses the imagination, doesn't it?
 File:George IV coronation banquet.jpg

There are some more lovely picture of the coronation here.

Though the reign of King George IV officially ended the Regency, its influence lives on in the hearts of millions of Jane Austen fans, and those of us who continue to read and write Regency.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Annulments, Separations, Divorce and Scandal

Despite what readers sometimes encounters in historical romance novels, annulments and divorces in Regency England were not easy to obtain.

The idea that a couple could get their marriage annulled if they didn’t consummate it did not apply in Regency England, nor to my knowledge, at any time in England.

In truth, annulments in England in the 1800's were never easy, quick or painless. Consummation was not a requirement for marriage. However, a marriage could also be annulled if the husband were declared impotent.  According to Regency Researcher Nancy Mayer, a leading expert on all things Regency: "1820 Hilary Term Norton vs Seton Reports of Cases in Ecclesiastical Courts Philimore has a long discussion of people who succeeded and failed in their requests for nullity due to impotence. Inspectors of the husband's organ of regeneration were surgeons etc." So if one of the couple was impotent or incapable of sexual intercourse, they could ask for an annulment on those grounds but this had to be proven by a medical examination which few people would succumb to having (not to mention, they'd have to be willing to admit to this problem). During earlier eras, this was determined by "Trial by courtesan" a medieval concept that used a panel of three high-ranking courtesans to render judgment. By the Regency era, doctors, not courtesans, were used. If one party refused to consummate which was considered the same as impotency. This could also be determined if there were a visible physical abnormality.

There was one interesting case about a man who went through the embarrassment of being declared impotent and getting an annulment, then later married and had a child. Reportedly, one of the judges wanted to overturn the annulment, but another said that it was possible that a man could be aroused by one woman and not another. According to Ella Quinn: "This is [case is] listed in one of the comments in Haggard's or Philmore's reports on cases in the Ecclesiastical Courts."

Marriages that could be annulled if they were invalid from the beginning. These included when either person was already married, when one of them was under age without proper permission, or if a person was insane or so feebleminded she did not know what she was doing. Some couples received an annulment due the following: errors in names or because the couple was too closely related and were prevented from marrying due to consanguinity.  Also, if one of them was deceived as to who he/she was marrying, that may be grounds for annulment. I used that as a potential loophole in The Stranger She Married because the hero wore a mask and wasn’t entirely honest about a great many things :-)

In the case of one of my favorite books/movies, Jane Eyre, the husband couldn't divorce his wife or annul the marriage because the wife was considered insane when she married. Her husband would have to prove she did not know what she was doing at the time she married. As he did not know there was anything wrong when they married (her symptoms did not fully develop until later) there were no grounds for annulment or divorce. The courts of England believed that insane people often had lucid intervals during which they could marry and would have known what they were doing, which means the marriage was valid.

If you've read a lot of  Regency romance novels, you've probably encountered some favorite plots in which a woman is forced to marry a man. In the novels, she usually learns to love him. However, even if she wanted out, she could not sue for annulment or divorce to due marriage under duress. Basically, the law says that she said her vows, she did not say no, and no one he was holding a gun on her during the ceremony.

If a woman’s marriage was annulled, she was reduced from the status of wife to concubine, and any children resulting from the union were illegitimate. Nice, huh? And worse, her husband was not required to support her or pay her alimony if their marriage were annulled. 

In Regency England, there were two different actions called divorce. One was what today is called a legal separation because the people remained legally married. A man could decide to live apart from his wife if he wanted to but a wife had a harder time just deciding to live apart from her husband. He could have the sheriff force her to return to his house and bed. If they just decided to live apart, the wife had no protection and no claim on his financial support, but a legal separation required the man to pay alimony to the woman. If the woman had an affair from which children resulted, the legal separation protected the man from having to claim and support his wife's illegitimate children. Either way, husband and wife living apart was considered scandalous, especially for the wife—she usually had to curtail her social life. But it doesn't seem to have affected the man too much. It's that kind of double standard that takes some of the magic out of historicals, doesn't it? Plus, there was no way they could re-marry if they didn't get a divorce.

Divorce was expensive, messy, a huge hassle, and scandalous. Only the very wealthy and well-connected could get a divorce because nobody else could afford it, and it was never amiable. If a man sued for divorce on grounds that his wife was unfaithful, he had to sue his wife’s lover in regular court for crim.con (adultery) and collect damages. A man seeking divorce also had to sue for a church divorce which was separation from bed and board. Then, if he got the decision he wanted from these two different courts, he had to petition parliament for a bill of divorce. This was handled just like other bills with public arguments—with three readings and three votes. Court and filing fees all cost money. In a divorce action, the women is basically convicted of having committed adultery and so has no right to the children. A man could gain sole custody of the children and she may never see them.

No amount of money could get a couple a quiet divorce. All bills of divorce which reached were treated exactly as any other bill in that they were public and reported in the newspaper. The trials in church courts for annulment or divorce were also public. The cases were also collected and printed in reports of the courts. Divorces were in Church court and the Church still adhered to the belief that marriage was forever. For many, it was still a sacrament. 

There was no way to save their reputations and have an annulment or a legal separation or a divorce.  I've heard of other authors having their characters divorce in foreign countries, such as revolutionary France, but I find the accuracy is suspicious. Even if it were true, the result would still be permanent scandal, at least in England.

So the next time you're reading a Regency romance novel where a married couple's troubles are so bad that you wonder why they don't give up and get a divorce or an annulment, now you know. And furthermore, they just didn't think that way. Until the last fifty years or so, marriage was a lifetime commitment, for better or worse. This forced them--at least in the romance novels--to work through their problems and find happiness together. In a way, I find that admirable. Yes, I'm a dreamer, but hey, it works for me. And I always believe in that all powerful happily ever after.

Thank you to Nancy Mayer,  April Kilstrom, Ella Quinn, and the members of the Beau Monde Regency RWA group for helping provide information for this post.