Georgette Heyer’s Imagined World

Stream: Historical materialism
Date: Thursday, 19 May 2022
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm


In recent years Heyer’s novels have begun to receive the critical attention they merit. Long dismissed as slight entertainment or romantic fluff, their staying power, despite her death in 1974, has been remarkable: her substantial historical oeuvre has remained in print without interruption. Careful assessment of her work reveals an impressive power of storytelling. What were its origins? This paper will assess the immediate success of her first published novel, The Black Moth, in 1921 - when she was only nineteen - as the product, not only of wide reading, but also of ideas absorbed and adapted from friends, events, trends and motifs encountered in her early years. This fully illustrated presentation will trace the origins of her first novel in family storytelling, before describing and analysing the development of Heyer’s richly detailed imaginative canvas, which in turn incorporated elements from childhood play, as well as literary, social and cultural sources. Attention is owed to one friend she had as a child, and more enjoyed as a young woman, including two other soon-to-be published novelists, Joanna Cannan and Carola Oman. The paper will show that these connections allowed Heyer to add depth to her observations of people, so that she could invent a convincing cast of characters at this early stage of her writing life, although it was to extend over five decades. Significant material objects, too, are present in The Black Moth and in the two contemporary short stories she published very soon afterwards. The latter sprang from elements of her real world while she was maturing, and the former from her individual re-creation of past eras, fully visualised in her first historical publication. A selection of indicative objects and their origins will be discussed. Heyer’s first published short story, A Proposal for Cicely (1922) appeared in The Happy Mag, catalogued as a publication of humorous material for children. The way in which many of this story’s components, including characters, objects and social background, paved the way for her later contemporary fiction, will be explored. Equally cogent was The Little Lady, published in another periodical, The Red Magazine, in December of the same year. This particular tale has an earnest tone and sentimental, quasi-mystical tropes and references uncharacteristic of Heyer’s other work. Nevertheless all these features are closely linked to a favourite book, an object from her childhood reading, as well as to the world she inhabited. This title read in her early years has much to say about values and beliefs she retained throughout her life and career. At the same time, the impact of historical events she had lived through, and the roles and reactions of real people affected by them, have their reflection in this short story. Finally, through an examination of extracts from her early business correspondence – rarely discussed or considered – insights into Heyer’s focus and preoccupations while she was still an emerging author will follow. The object of the presentation is to identify new connections between Heyer’s life experiences, her cultural focus, and her creative inspiration as a young writer who achieved bestselling status before she turned twenty.


Ruth Williamson (Presenter), JASA
Ruth Williamson MA (Hons) joined the Jane Austen Society of Australia in 1997 and currently edits its newsletter, the Chronicle from her base in New Zealand.
She has taken many active roles in JASA and Heyer conferences in Australia. In 2017 she presented material at the Immortal Jane conference at Flinders University SA, and at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM in California. She published essays in The Joy of Jane (2017) and Heyer Society (2018) and presented a paper on Austen biographies at the Centre for the Book symposium at Otago University in 2019.