Regency Brighton and the Royal Pavilion is an inspiration for many authors, artists and visitors in general. None more so than 20th Century author Georgette Heyer (1902 – 1974), known for her historical fiction.
Although born in Wimbledon, writer Georgette Heyer spent many years living in Horsham and Brighton. In fact, it was in the village of Slinfold near Horsham where, in 1935, she wrote the novel many consider her defining work, ‘Regency Buck’. A story of mystery and intrigue set in 1811 and featuring the dandy, Beau Brummell, it was the first of the ‘Regency Romance’ genre she single-handedly created and proceeded to add to at breakneck speed.
Full of young women navigating high society, handsome men with more money than sense, duels, danger, and romance, Georgette Heyer’s novels paint a world that was far from the one lived in by the 1920s and ‘30s readers who were the first to eagerly flock to her work. Writing an incredible 56 works of fiction in her life, mainly historical but also contemporary and mystery-detective works, Heyer’s output was staggering and led to her sniffier critics claiming that she was nothing more than a dumbed down Jane Austen. This didn’t appear to bother the writer. She described being in the public eye as ‘nauseating’, and anyway, didn’t need the publicity to sell her works by the thousands to her faithful fans, who made her one of the twentieth century’s most successful – and loved – authors.
As a child, Heyer was a bookworm who loved reading and discussing books with her friends. She started to take her career seriously aged 17 after writing a story to entertain her younger brother who was ill while holidaying in Hastings. In 1921, it became her first novel, ‘The Black Moth’. When her third novel. ‘These Old Shades’ was inadvisedly released without fanfare in 1926 – the midst of the General Strike – yet still sold 190,000 copies, her future runaway success was assured. In the 1920s Heyer continued to write even though her husband’s career as a mining engineer took them to Macedonia and Tanzania, where they lived in a grass hut. Returning to England in 1929, the pair settled in Slinfold where Heyer, now the main breadwinner, discovered the appeal of the Regency period for readers while her husband ran a sports shop in Horsham.
From 1939 until 1942 the family lived in Brighton, first on the Kemptown seafront, then Adelaide Crescent in Hove. It’s tempting to think that, with Brighton and the Royal Pavilion playing a major role in many of her books, the Regency squares and terraces of the town must have made an evocative and inspiring backdrop to Heyer’s writing.
With the fantasy and romance of her historic novels finding an eager readership in war torn Britain eager for some escapism, novels followed at a rate of two per year.
Although often derided for the speed at which she brought her novels out, she was known to have been a minute researcher, poring over reference books and tending to every last detail. For ‘An Infamous Army’, for example, she claimed to have purchased a book of the Duke of Wellington’s speeches to ensure that everything he said as a character in the plot, was authentic. At her death Heyer still had 48 novels in print and, despite never having given an interview, courting publicity or having any of her novels reviewed in a serious publication, was a best selling author with millions of fans all over the world.
Today, the serious literary establishment may not have softened their stance on the quality of Heyer’s work but her fans continue to grow, with modern readers pointing out her wit, cleverly thought out plots, and female characters who shoot, speak out of line, and show independent spirit subverted conventional feminine behaviour.
She’s also an important ambassador for Brighton, with many visitors having had their first tantalising glimpse of the city’s Regency past and the Royal Pavilion – and making a decision to visit one day – through the pages of a Georgette Heyer novel.
Women are still pushing the boundaries as to what can be achieved as female authors today. Our current exhibition, 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin (showing at Brighton Museum until 7 June 2020) features novelist Dame Hilary Mantel DBE FRSL. She is the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction twice, in 2009 and 2012. In it’s 51 year history, only 16 women have won this annual award.
This blog is part of our 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series, written by social historian, Louise Peskett.