Sunday, June 07, 2015

Georgette Heyer's birthplace gets a blue plaque

On Friday afternoon, I found myself standing outside a late 19th century semi-detached house: 103 Woodside, Wimbledon, together with a small crowd of about fifty people. We were waiting for the unveiling of one of London’s famous blue plaques to commemorate the life and work of the much-loved novelist, Georgette Heyer (1902-1974). She had, in fact, lived in a number of houses in London but this house best fitted the English Heritage criteria: Georgette Heyer had been born there; it had changed very little since 1902; and passers-by could see the plaque from the pavement.
103 Woodside gets ready. The plaque is up behind the red curtains and the press are waiting.
 
 
There were four speakers: Professor Martin Daunton from English Heritage; Dr Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer’s biographer; Major General Jeremy Rougier, her nephew; and Susanna, Lady Rougier, her daughter-in-law. Stephen Fry, writer, actor, broadcaster, and appreciative reader of Georgette Heyer, would do the honours, formally pull the cord and reveal the plaque.
The four speakers: l-r: Dr Jennifer Kloester; Stephen Fry; Susanna, Lady Rougier; Major General Jeremy Rougier
 
 
Professor Daunton opened the proceedings and began by settling the pronunciation of ‘Heyer’- with so many family members present, he had to get it right. ‘Heyer’ rhymes with ‘mayor’, and ‘Georgette’ is pronounced in the French way with the ‘g’ soft, as in the second ‘g’ in ‘garage’. He then gave us the background of the blue plaque scheme and said that the committee had been delighted to honour Georgette Heyer with a plaque.
Professor Mark Daunton: deputy chairman of the English Heritage Blue Plaque panel
 
 
Dr Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer’s biographer, spoke passionately about Georgette Heyer’s career and why her novels are so loved for their wit, intelligence, and historical accuracy, adding that they also show the importance of the social mores of Georgette’s own Edwardian upbringing.
Jennifer Kloester speaks
 
 
Susanna, Lady Rougier, talked about Georgette Heyer as a person: a formidable woman, always elegant and stylishly dressed, she could be intimidating. In fact, the first time she met her, she was so terrified that her knees were shaking. Fortunately, Georgette Heyer took to her and Lady Rougier recalled numerous gossipy phone calls, and her kindness and generosity. She said that Georgette Heyer wrote her novels extremely fast, usually in a couple of months – a feat many of us would like to be able to emulate.
Sylvester
 
 
Major General Jeremy Rougier, Georgette Heyer’s nephew, spoke amusingly about his aunt. He once asked her why she continued to live in Albany on Piccadilly, an address which, in those pre-double-glazing days, suffered badly from traffic noise. She replied that it was equidistant between her two favourite shops: Fortnum and Mason’s and Harrod’s! 
Stephen Fry speaks
 
 
Stephen Fry spoke enthusiastically of Georgette Heyer’s stylish and witty novels. He’d discovered them at school and has loved them ever since. He finds them great comfort reading if ever he’s under the weather. (I was amused to hear that Nigella Lawson is another Heyer fan.) He then pulled the cord and the curtains slid open to reveal the plaque. We all cheered. This was followed by a bit of checking to see if the curtains really had opened.
Just checking!
 
 
I’ve always enjoyed behind the scenes stuff, so I hung around to see what happened to the white wooden pelmet with the English Heritage logo and the curtains. When the guests of honour had left, Trevor Ramsay, the English Heritage blue plaque installer, moved in with a ladder and an electric drill. His assistant posed herself at the bottom of the ladder. Trevor climbed up, removed the curtains and the cord and threw them down to his assistant who neatly folded them for use next time. He unscrewed the nails which held the pelmet in place and carefully took it down. He then photographed the plaque for his records and that was that. It took a matter of moments, though he told me afterwards that he’d had trouble getting the plaque up. It was larger than usual – due to ‘Georgette’ being a long name, and positioned high up on the circle - and correspondingly heavy.
Trevor Ramsay does his stuff. Note the folded red curtains – they will be used again
 
 
Jenny Haddon, Jan Jones and Roger Sanderson from the Romantic Novelists’ Association had prepared a wonderful spread for us in St Mary’s church hall (the church where Georgette Heyer and Ronald Rougier were married in August 1925). It was good to sit down, eat the delicious sandwiches and cakes, drink our tea, coffee, or champagne and talk to fellow Heyer enthusiasts. I was delighted to meet our very own Amanda Grange and we chatted happily about our favourite scenes and characters.
Amanda Grange and Elizabeth Hawksley. I love Amanda’s elegant green shoes! The church where Georgette Heyer was married can just be glimpsed in the background.
 
 
The actor Ric Jerrom gave some splendid readings (the scene where Venetia meets Damerel from Venetia, and the terrific denouement from The Unknown Ajax), and we heard a few more lively reminiscences from Georgette Heyer's friends and relatives.
Friday’s Child
 
 
The afternoon ended as we raised our glasses to the ever-green memory of Georgette Heyer. It was an exhilarating occasion and I’m thrilled that Georgette Heyer, who has given so much pleasure to so many people, has been remembered in this way.
The plaque revealed.
 
 
For more information on the blue plaque scheme go to: www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques  They have an excellent account of the blue plaque installation for Georgette Heyer.
Elizabeth Hawksley
 
 
 

22 comments:

Amanda said...

Thanks for this wonderful account, Elizabeth. I had a fantastic time. It was lovely to see you again and honour Heyer in this way.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Amanda. It was good fun, wasn't it? It struck me that it's a long way from her comparatively modest birth place to her classy 'set' in Albany - not to mention all that shopping in Fortnum and Mason and Harrods! But she certainly deserved her success.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you for such a great account and wonderful pictures, Elizabeth. It brings it alive for those of us who couldn't be there. It's super that the incomparable GH now has a blue plaque!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Nicola. It's amazing how many people are Georgette Heyer fans - and not just women. Lady Rougier told us that she'd mentioned to her gardener that she was going to a blue plaque ceremony the following day and he asked whose it was. She said, 'Oh, you won't have heard of her. It's Georgette Heyer.' His face lit up. 'Georgette Heyer!' he exclaimed. 'I have all her books at home!

Christina said...

It sounds like a wonderful afternoon and I wish I could have been there! I'm very pleased that Ms Heyer has been commemorated in this way, she definitely deserves it! Thank you for such a descriptive post Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks, Christina. I think you'd have enjoyed it. I particularly liked Ric Jerrom's spirited reading of the scene at the end of 'The Unknown Ajax' where Richmond is shot whilst engaged in smuggling and Hugo (and Claud) save the day. It was great to have a whole roomful of people laughing at a scene one's always enjoyed oneself.

Jennifer said...

What a wonderful account of the day, Elizabeth. I'm so glad you were there though I wish I'd had time to talk to you! Jenny Haddon and her team did such an amazing job and the whole experience was one of the most memorable of my life. I feel so grateful to everyone who made it great. It is an incredible feeling to see Georgette Heyer honoured in this way. It feels like the fulfillment of a dream. I hope it paves the way for greater acknowledgement of women writers everywhere. Thanks again for a lovely post.

Helena said...

As Nicola Cornick says, you've brought it alive for those of us who couldn't be there. Thank you! Maybe you or Amanda could tell us about the anecdotes over tea in another blog post?

Jane Jackson said...

Others have already said it, but thanks for a fascinating and informative post, Elizabeth. The photos were superb - almost as good as being there. I'm an avid fan of Heyer's books and they are high on my 'comfort' reading list.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Jennifer. (I'm assuming that you are Jennifer Kloester. I can't see another Jennifer on the guest list!) I think a lot of the impetus for getting the plaque up there is thanks to your efforts. I very much enjoyed your speech which gave us a fascinating whistle-stop tour through GH's writing career. It must have been slightly nerve-wracking with family members breathing - literally - down your neck.

What I particularly enjoyed, and I'm sure you did, too, is to discover just how many people - of both sexes - are fans. For example, I had a long chat with Professor Mark Noble, Hon. Professor of Cardiology at the University of Aberdeen, looking splendid in his smart blue jacket and bow tie. He was introduced to Georgette Heyer as a young medical student! Somehow that's very reassuring to know. I think reading a GH should be prescribed!

Thank you so much for commenting.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for dropping by, Jane. You are too kind about my photographs. I had to photograph everything from a slight angle and heads kept getting in the way. And I did an awful lot of trimming when I got home. I'm hoping that they capture something of the feel of being there as part of a crowd.

rebroxanna said...

Thank-you for the great pictures and detailed account. I find it amusing that I have always pronounced "Heyer" correctly but now find I have been mispronouncing "Georgette!"

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Hi Rebroxana! Join the club! I, too, never pronunced 'Georgette' in the French fashion until the blue plaque ceremony. Bu the time I'd heard her nephew, daughter-in-law and biographer all using it, I decided to fall in line; it seemed only courteous!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Helena. I'm delighted that you enjoyed the post. Lady Rougier treated us to an amusing description of Georgette Heyer's flat in Albany. The downstairs rooms - dining room, drawing-room and entrance - were of magnificent Regency splendour but the kitchen, up narrow wooden stairs was tiny. It had obviously been converted from a servant's bedroom in about 1920, she said, and not touched since. The oven was primitive, to say the least. And then she added, 'As for the sink! Words fail me. I shall not even attempt to describe it!'

Somehow, Georgette produced delicious meals in that basic kitchen but toiling up and down the narrow wooden stairs to the dining-room with the food for the guests was hazardous. And Lady Rougier drew a discreet veil over the washing up experience!

Marion Rose said...

A great post - makes me want to retire to the library and read Georgette Heyer!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks, Marion. You'd be in good company. Stephen Fry called reading Georgette Heyer 'His guiltiest pleasure'!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Heyer is still one of my favourite "comfort reads" - it doesn't matter that I have read them all before, her writing is just so good that I can always go back and re-read them. Thank you for posting this Elizabeth, it sounds as if it was a wonderful day - a really special occasion.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I do agree, Melinda/Sarah. And a surprising number of people at the ceremony, including Stephen Fry and Professor Noble said exactly the same: if they're feeling under the weather or in need of a little TLC, a Georgette Heyer is guaranteed to make them feel better!

Fenella Miller said...

i wish I could have been there - Heyer is the reason I'm a writer. I started reading her books in my early teens and remember my father actually approving of my book choice. He read her books himself.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Your comment made me smile, Fenella - my father read GH, too, although, admittedly, it was my mother who actually bought the books. Georgette Heyer's books have always been enjoyed by men as well as women, including many of her husband's legal associates.

Helena said...

Thank you for the description of the Albany flat!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

My pleasure, Helena. Georgette Heyer has a nice description of Captain Gideon Ware's 'set of chambers' in Albany in Chapter 5 of 'The Foundling' which comes across as completely authentic. I wonder if she was describing her own set.