Hazel McHaffie

Upstairs Downstairs

Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer. The name brings a warm glow to my day. In my teens and twenties I was a huge fan of her Regency novels and snapped them up whenever I saw them second-hand.

Some for one shilling each, as you can see. Others the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence! I owned and read all except one of them, I think, and marvelled that a girl of 15 could write something as good as The Black Moth, initially to amuse her convalescent brother, but later published in 1921.

By the time she died in her seventies, she was the acclaimed author of over fifty books, but in spite of being a huge fan of hers, I confess that till this week, I’d never read one of her twelve murder mysteries. Time to remedy that and relax my mind at the same time, then. I’m in sore need of undemanding recreation right now. Think shades of Upstairs Downstairs meets Agatha Christie. The book is Why Shoot a Butler?

And indeed it’s a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder Dawson, the trusted old butler of Norton Manor – a stately old fossil. Frightfully keen on the done thing, found with a bullet through his body on a remote road. Three murders and two burglaries keep the bumbling police totally confused while a scornful, enigmatic and imperious barrister, Frank Amberley, unravels a complicated and involved plot of much more significance then the murders themselves.

So why does Amberley keep quiet information about a female person found at the scene of the butler’s death? What is so important about a book borrowed from a dusty under-used library? What is the strange young woman at Ivy Cottage concealing, and why won’t she confide her secrets? Who is the sinister new butler who appears out of nowhere bearing unverified references? Who exactly is to be trusted?

This time around I’m much more aware of literary issues with Heyer’s writing, much as I thoroughly enjoyed the witty dialogue and element of suspense. But after all, this one was written in 1933 – language, publishing, social mores, well, pretty much everything really, was very different back then.

Nowadays most editors would pounce on a lot of nitpicky points, from frequently changing points of view within chapters, through to numerous typographical errors. Modern authors are taught to keep the choice of words pared down to avoid distraction: he ‘said’ – not he ‘expostulated’, ‘ejaculated’, ‘retorted’, ‘interposed’, ‘asseverated’. The prose should show emotion not spell it out – bin the adverbs – ‘tetchily’,  ‘grumpily’, ‘maliciously’, ‘tranquilly’. It would take a brave or foolhardy man to call a fiancee ‘dear old soul’, ‘old thing’, today, I rather think. So, a product of its day, then, but a diverting read for all that, despite all the anomalies and anachronisms. And in the character of Frank Amberley I was forcibly reminded of all the rude, supercilious, entitled cads in Heyer’s romances who rode roughshod over other people’s finer feelings but nevertheless won the heart and hand of the fair lady.

Thank you again, Georgette Heyer, you lifted my spirits and took me away from twenty-first century problems. Exactly what I needed. And now, of course, I’m wanting to read the other eleven mysteries.

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Interviews

You may or may not be aware that I’ve recently added a new page to my website: Interviews. Obviously not all interviews are available in an accessible format, but the ones I’ve done this year that were recorded can be seen at the click of an icon, giving folk an idea of what I think and how I come across. Apparently I do a lot of hand gesturing!

Having added a third interview this week, I was watching other interviews on TV with more than usual interest. And one with Fay Weldon, the veteran novelist, jumped out at me – not just because she has very large hands which she uses a lot close to her face, but also because I’ve actually met, and subsequently corresponded with Fay. We appeared together at a Literary Salon at the Brighton Festival many moons ago, and she gave two of my novels very kind endorsements back in 2005. I was particularly pleased with her comment that they were ‘…medical, ethical, romantic and fascinating. An entirely new genre for fiction‘. Back then it lent credence to my contention that there was an unfilled niche in the market for these stories. Fay Weldon said so!

Anyway, she was on BBC Breakfast this week talking about her new book, Habits of the House, and Bill Turnbull and Susanna Reid asked her lots of good questions. Some interviews come across as very superficial and rigged, don’t they? but this one wasn’t; they seemed genuinely interested and engaged. I discovered that she chose the title because a much-travelled guest in her own home once said, the secret of being an accommodating guest is learning the habits of the house. Fay’s ears pricked at this: an excellent title for a book. I agree, but I like the concept behind the comment too.

There’s a sticker on Habits that says, if you enjoyed Downton Abbey you’ll love this book. No, Fay admitted, she hadn’t watched Downton Abbey – she was ‘too jealous’ to watch it ‘without pain’ – but she was happy with the caption as a marketing ploy. She was also quick to chip in that she was there first, and this I can believe. Publishers have their own speed of working, and the time lapse between conceiving a book and its appearing in the bookshops is considerable, usually years. It’s frustrating when you the author are then thought to have copied someone else’s idea. I’ve had news items as well as TV dramas mirroring points in my plots before my books reach the bookshelves. However, Fay’s an experienced interviewee, and she managed to make all her responses sound amusing and faintly self-deprecating, and she kept her toothy smile fixed firmly in place.

Habits of the House is about a large household with servants and rich masters. I haven’t read it (yet) but the first paragraph sets the tone:

In late October of the year 1899 a tall, thin, nervy young man ran up the broad stone steps that led to No. 17 Belgrave Square. He seemed agitated. He was without hat or cane, breathless, unattended by staff of any kind, wore office dress – other than that his waistcoat was bright yellow above smart striped stove-pipe trousers – and his moustache had lost its curl in the damp air of the early morning. He seemed both too well-dressed for the tradesmen’s entrance at the back of the house, yet not quite fit to mount the front steps, leave alone at a run, and especially at such an early hour.

I draw a veil over the scathing comments my editor would make if I used that many adjectives and parentheses! But then I don’t have Fay’s credentials or track record or sales figures.

She was asked, why this subject? Haven’t upstairs/downstairs stories been done to death? (Now, you might not know it but this question had particular resonance because Fay wrote the first episode of the legendary BBC film, Upstairs Downstairs, broadcast in the 1970s, a fact which I’d forgotten.) Not a bit of it, she said, we’re all interested in injustice, and the haves and have-nots in these large households are just one expression of that kind of inequality and unfairness. Besides this, her personal fascination with the period around the turn of the 20th century, fuelled by her grandmother’s stories and her grandfather’s writing, make such choices natural ones for her.

Habits is the first of a commissioned trilogy and Fay has already finished the second one, so Bill asked her, did she know what happened in the third book? No, she admitted, she had no idea. Wasn’t that daunting? ‘Very frightening!’ Fay admitted. But her laugh and bounce said she would soon crack that little conundrum. And indeed, I know myself that by the time you’ve written two books about characters, they’ve got passports and birth certificates; indeed it can be hard to keep pace with their antics and decisions.

Watching this interview I concluded that I should try to

  • write an episode for a landmark TV series
  • sit on my hands, or at least keep them low
  • find a very good manicurist
  • come across as warm and witty and humble
  • pretend I’m all at sea and it’ll take a miracle or my huge talent to resolve this situation
  • make sure interviewers give my credentials not me
  • read Fay’s book.

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