Anne here, introducing my friend and fellow writer, Dr. Jennifer Kloester. Jennifer is the author of the wonderful Georgette Heyer's Regency World, which was first launched in Melbourne (my home city). Of course, being a lifelong Heyer addict, I had to go to the launch, and the rest is… history.
Her book was released in the US in August 2010 and I'm delighted to present Jennifer Kloester here as a Word Wench guest.
I should add that if any wenchly reader hasn't read Georgette Heyer, they're missing something wonderful. I'm asking readers to share their first and favorite Heyer, so there will be a list in the comments to help guide you.
Jen, tell us how you first came to Georgette Heyer's books. What was your first?
I was living with my husband (an engineer) in a small mining town in the remote Star Mountains in Papua New Guinea and the YWCA had a little library in one of the houses which had several Georgette Heyer novels. My first book was Friday’s Child which has been a favourite ever since. I was delighted when I discovered that it was Georgette’s own personal favourite among her Regencies.
What made you decide to study the world Heyer created for your doctoral dissertation?
We had moved to the Middle East in the mid-1990s and I had begun reading Georgette Heyer again. At the time I was studying for my Bachelor of Arts in history and literature as an off-campus student. I had done some study while living in PNG and had taken it up again in Bahrain (it took me thirteen years to eventually get that degree – at the rate of one subject a semester). Anyway, I was having a lovely time re-reading Georgette’s novels and discovering some I hadn’t read and introducing her to friends who didn’t know her work. In 1996 I had the idea of writing a kind of ‘handbook’ to her novels. You know, explaining all the things that might not be familiar to a modern reader – what a barouche looked like and a pelisse, and all about etiquette and dancing and coaches. Things like that.
When I returned home, I finally finished my BA and began working on the handbook. I didn’t really know how to set about it but I made lots of alphabetical lists and a large card index file and slowly worked my way through her historical novels, marking them up as I went. One day I told one of my former lecturers about my project and he sat back in his chair and said ‘that’d make a fantastic PhD’. It was an epiphanic moment and it sent me off to do an Honours degree so that I could apply to do a doctorate.The year I finished the PhD was the year Random House offered me the contract for what became Georgette Heyer’s Regency World.
Your book, Georgette Heyer's Regency World, arose from your thesis. It's now become a popular reference on the Regency era. Has that surprised you?
In a way, although when I wrote the book I did it as a brand new project. It’s true that it is based on a chapter in my thesis (with the same title as it happens) but of course that chapter is a lot shorter than the book and I did almost another thesis’ worth of research for Regency World.
I think that the fact that all the history in my book is inspired by the history in Georgette Heyer’s novels counts for a lot. She was such a meticulous researcher and her ability to weave the historical Regency with her fictional stories is second to none. In that way I’m not so surprised that Regency World has proved to be popular because it has so much Heyer-inspired material in it and I think that comes through. And, of course, the Regency era is enduringly popular.
It's a fascinating read, as well.
For the last five years, you've been working on Georgette Heyer's official biography. It's to be launched next year in London on 6th October. Tell us about it.
I am so excited about the biography. It’s taken ten years of research and five years of writing and I could never have imagined how rewarding it would be. My aim was to bring Georgette to life for her readers and to really show how significant she is in the writing world. She was a fascinating person and someone who internalized much of her life – her outlet was her writing and it’s astonishing just how much she revealed of herself in her books and letters and short stories.
Writing the biography has been a marvellous journey of discovery, full of twists and turns and unexpected revelations. One of the things I especially loved about writing it was being able to let Georgette tell quite a bit of her own story in her own words. I really hope that readers will enjoy that as much as I did!
I’ve also had the most wonderful support from Georgette’s family. Her son, Sir Richard Rougier,(pictured here as a child with his mother) and her former daughter-in-law, Susannah, Lady Rougier, have been tremendous and as well as giving me all sorts of material they have enabled me to meet most of the people who knew Georgette. I was also really fortunate to get to know Jane Aiken Hodge, Georgette’s first biographer, and she has been the most wonderful friend and counselor. It was really important to me that she was able to read and approve the biography manuscript before she died.
You've had unprecedented access to the Heyer family papers, including the fabled notebooks (an example of which is pictured here below). What else have you discovered?
That’s been an incredible part of the writing journey and part of my excitement is due to the discovery of so much new material. Over the past ten years I have discovered several new, untapped archives of Georgette’s personal letters – the earliest of which was written when she was eighteen and had just received the contract for The Black Moth. There are over a thousand pages of letters detailing so much of her writing life, her thoughts, experiences and feelings, it’s been an extraordinary journey of discovery and I really feel that I have come to know Georgette Heyer.
And it’s not only the letters. I’ve also had access to her baby book, written by her mother during the first few years of Georgette’s life. I’ve discovered nine previously unknown short stories, I’ve been able to view and photograph all of the family photo albums. I’ve spent time among the remnants of her library and at the places she used to stay such as Greywalls in Scotland. I’ve followed her research footsteps at the London Library and had access to all the Heyer files at the Random House Archives in Northamptonshire. I’ve been to her homes in Wimbledon and to her chambers in Albany and her homes in Sussex and so much more. I’ve had so many extraordinary moments of discovery and I feel really lucky and privileged to have taken this journey.
Did anything surprise you?
So many things. For instance, I had never realised just how important Georgette’s early years were to her later writing. She knew so many aspects of Regency life first hand because they still existed when she was a child. I was also surprised by the number of family legends that were actually wrong. Having so many of her early letters has shed new light on a number of things and altered her story considerably.
It was also fun to discover that she really had lived in a grass hut in Africa. When I was writing my doctorate my supervisor (who was South African) pulled me up on a quotation from Ronald saying that he and Georgette had lived in a grass hut in Tanganyika in the 1920s. My supervisor told me that no English person living in Colonial East Africa had ever really lived in a grass hut and that I had been watching too many Hollywood movies. You can imagine my surprise (and delight) when I was given the family photo albums to study and photograph and found among them the Rougiers’ African album. In it were several photos of Georgette and Ronald in their compound outside their very own GRASS HUT! I loved that in true Georgette style she nicknamed it ‘The Manor House’.
(Anne here — having seen some of Jen's wonderful Heyer photos I can vouch for the grass hut. It's fabulous!)
You're a woman of parts; as well as studying the life of Heyer, you study karate. Tell us about Jennifer Kloester and karate.
I’ve found that being a writer is not exactly ideal for my body. Long hours at the computer writing or sitting reading and researching make me feel like the tin man! So four and a half years ago I took up karate. It proved to be the ideal outlet after a day of writing and I got hooked. I began teaching a couple of years ago and have a children’s class which I love. It’s wonderful watching them start out knowing nothing and then week by week seeing them improve and grow in confidence and skill. One of my students (a 13 year old girl) just got her 1st kyu last week and that means her next belt will be her black belt. I am currently a first kyu myself and am hoping to grade to my black belt next year. It means a lot of intense training but it’s good for my brain and my body and it really does help me to write.
Thanks, so much for this interview, Jen, and for sharing with us a little of your encyclopedic knowledge of a brilliant and fascinating author.
I plan to interview Jennifer again just before the Heyer biography comes out. Last week I spent a blissful day at Jen's house, where she showed me some her collected material on Heyer —simply superb! I cannot wait for the biography to come out. But in the meantime, there is the delicious GEORGETTE HEYER'S REGENCY WORLD awaiting you.
If you have any questions, I'm sure Jennifer would be glad to answer them.
And I'll ask one question of readers: which was your first Heyer? And which is your favorite?
One lucky commenter will receive a copy of Jennifer Kloester's GEORGETTE HEYER'S REGENCY WORLD