Georgette Heyer has been on my mind – and my bedside table – an awful lot recently, partly because her delicious novels are always the perfect antidote to depressing headlines, and partly because Jilly Cooper chose Devil’s Cub as one of her Books That Built Me. Devil’s Cub is the sequel to These Old Shades, the novel that made Heyer’s reputation as a historical novelist, in which the deeply attractive, irredeemably badly behaved Marquis of Vidal, every bit as rakeish,  reckless and shockingly loose in the haft as his father, plans to run off to France with one girl, but finds he has absconded with her sister instead. Vidal is a marvellous literary badboy, and meets his match in the fearless, sharp-witted Mary Challoner in a novel where screwball comedy meets satisfying historical romance.

Vidal spoke softly: “Come here.”

“I have something to say to you first, my lord,” returned Miss Challoner calmly.

“Good God, girl, do you suppose it was to hear you talk that I brought you to France?” Vidal said derisively. “I’ll swear you know better than that!”

“Perhaps,” admitted Miss Challoner. “Nevertheless, sir, I beg you will listen to me. You won’t pretend, I hope, that you are fallen in love with me.”

“Love?” he said scornfully. “No, madam. I feel no more love for you than I felt for your pretty sister. But you’ve thrown yourself at my head, and by God I’ll take you!” His eyes ran over her. “You’ve a mighty trim figure, my dear, and from what I can discover, more brain than Sophia. You lack her beauty, but I’m not repining.”

She looked gravely up at him. “My lord, if you take me, it will be for revenge, I think. Have I deserved so bitter a punishment?”

“You’re not very complimentary, are you?” he mocked.

She rose, holding her pistol behind her. “Let me go now,” she said. “You do not want me, and indeed I think you have punished me enough.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it?” he said. “Are you piqued that I liked Sophia better? Never heed it, my dear; I’ve forgotten the wench already.”

“My lord,” she said desperately, “indeed I am not what you think me!”

He burst into one of his wild laughs, and she realized that in this mood she could make no impression upon him.

He was advancing towards her. She brought her right hand from behind her, and levelled the pistol. “Stand where you are!” she said. “If you come one step nearer I shall shoot you down.”

He stopped short. “Where did you get that thing?” he demanded.

“Out of your coach,” she answered.

“Is it loaded?”

“I don’t know,” said Miss Challoner, incurably truthful.

He began to laugh again, and walked forward. “Shoot then,” he invited, “and we shall know. For I’m coming several steps nearer, my lady.”

Miss Challoner saw that he meant it, shut her eyes, and resolutely pulled the trigger. There was a deafening report and the Marquis went staggering back. He recovered in a moment. “It was loaded,” he said coolly.

I asked Jilly Cooper why she had chosen Devil’s Cub –

I went to a boarding school. I was so miserable. The only men we ever saw were lorry drivers and very ancient gardeners. Desperately frustrated we were, and Georgette Heyer wrote these marvellous novels and they had the kind of amazingly glamorous heroes we dreamt about. It’s a heavenly read – she writes very, very well and characterises very well and the loveliest thing, the Devil’s Cub’s father appears in a previous book [These Old Shades] where he marries a girl and twenty four year’s later in this one, he’s still married to her and still desperately in love. We like love. [Vidal] is horrible, not a nice man at all, but he’s very good looking and he’s terribly nice to [Mary Challenor] later when she’s sick on the boat…I think people can be reformed by love, in fiction anyway.”

Heyer’s model of the literary badboy – aristocratic, arrogant, maverick and privileged, a great horseman and incorrigible hell-raiser, an inveterate womaniser, broad of shoulder and long of leg, effortlessly beautifully dressed and capricious yet noble, loyal, and, deep-down, kind-hearted – has powerful echoes in Cooper’s great fictional hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. It’s interesting to see with what great skill both authors construct a hero who is at once extraordinarily badly behaved, and yet also utterly irresistible.

Heyer has a huge cult following – and has been chosen by several Books That Built Me guests: Sarah Churchwell, India Knight and Sasha Wilkins amongst others- I recently recorded a podcast with author Sarrah Manning to talk about our shared passion – you can listen here on soundcloud, or subscribe to the Books That Built Me podcasts on iTunes.

I’m also a huge fan of the Backlisted podcasts – the latest is a very enjoyable and erudite look at Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in the company of Cathy Rentzenbrink and Una McCormack. Very much worth a listen.


Podcast: Sarah Churchwell on The Ambassadors: Henry James


The Ambassadors is arguably the greatest of Henry James’ late works, and his own favourite of his novels. In it, Lambert Strether is sent by his wealthy fiancée to Paris to rescue her son from what is presumed to be the clutches of a gold-digging temptress. When he arrives, he discovers Chad needs very little rescuing, and far from being a den of iniquity, Paris – and the people he meets – is sophisticated, cultured and charming.
I met with Sarah Churchwell to talk about Henry James,her introduction to the new Everymans Library edition of the novel, Americans in Paris, and why reading Henry James is infinitely less daunting than one might suppose.

The Ambassadors, Henry James. With an introduction by Sarah Churchwell. Everymans Library


Authors’ Best Loved Books

August 9th is National Book Lover’s Day – to celebrate, I had a look at the books most frequently chosen by authors at The Books That Built me so that I could compile a list of authors’ favourite authors – the top five are below

  1. Nancy Mitford
  2. Leo Tolstoy
  3. Virginia Woolf
  4. George Eliot
  5. Evelyn Waugh




Wigs on the Green. Nancy Mitford

NPG x26631; Nancy Mitford by Bassano
Nancy Mitford by Bassano, 3 August 1935

First published in 1935, Nancy Mitford’s third novel,Wigs on the Green, was never reprinted in her lifetime. Although its plot – like all of Mitford’s novels – is essentially an exploration of love and marriage, and has all the trademark Mitford wit, brio, and strong autobiographical detail, it’s also a satire on British fascism.

Mitford wasn’t the only novelist to poke fun at the British Union of Fascists – I’ve always loved Wodehouse’s parody of Mosley, as Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters (1938), which makes him as ridiculous as one could possibly wish.

“The trouble with you, Spode, [says Wooster] is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

Whilst the satire is rather gentler in Wigs on the Green, Wodehouse didn’t have sisters who were infamously and intimately involved with the Fascist cause, and its publication went particularly hard with Diana, who was married in all but name to Oswald Mosley, for whom she’d left her husband in 1932. Although Mitford removed the three chapters that most obviously lampooned Mosley as Captain Jack, the leader of the Union Jackshirts, Wigs on the Green caused a rift between her and Diana that lasted almost until the end of the war. “But I also know your point of view,” wrote Nancy to Diana shortly before its publication, in an attempt to mollify her, “That Fascism is something too serious to be dealt with in a funny book at all.” In fact, Nancy later took her sister’s commitment to fascism extremely seriously, warning MI5 that she was “far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband” (Diana had married Mosley in a secret ceremony in Berlin in 1936).

Yet it’s not Diana who is caricatured in Wigs on the Green, it’s Unity, who at twenty-one was already under the spell of National Socialism, albeit some years from becoming the Hitler obsessive who shot herself in the head the day war broke out between England and Germany, with a pistol given to her by the Führer himself . In Wigs on the Green, Unity is Eugenia Malmain, ardent supporter of Captain Jack and his Union Jackshirts, and one of the richest girls in Britain, a perfect target for the attentions of the fortune-hunting Noel Foster and his disreputable pal, Jasper Aspect. It’s the adolescent aspects of the Jackshirt movement that seem to appeal to Eugenia most– the dressing up, belonging to a gang and rampaging around on her spirited horse, Vivien Jackson, with the faithful Reichshund at her side. The politics are full of fabulous rhetoric, bombast and nonsense – I’m particularly taken with Eugenia’s definition of Aryan:

Well, it’s quite easy. A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.”

“How about Siamese cats?” said Jasper.

Every joke – even a clever if light-hearted satire – has its moment: by the time Mitford’s publisher asked for permission to reissue the novel, in 1951, the world had changed. As she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, “Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as…anything but the worst of taste”.

And so it remained out of print for nearly seventy five 2010, Penguin reissued Wigs on the Green, alongside new editions of Mitford’s finest novels – The Pursuit of Love, – the most frequently chosen novel at The Books That Built Me – Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. It doesn’t have quite the same marvellousness of the post-war novels, which are so captivating one can’t help but read them again and again and again until the spines fall apart with love and delight– my first ever copy of The Pursuit of Love is now more sellotape than novel, really – but it is only the third she wrote and she is still finding her voice. However, it’s still a tremendous read. Wigs on the Green has sufficient Mitford hallmarks to have you roaring with laughter, but with the added fascination of having elements of a roman à clef.
Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford. Published by Penguin £8.99

Whilst having a little scoot around the internet to look for the latest Penguin covers, I came across this horror (right) from the late 1960’s (so it hasn’t been completely out of print, after all). There was a vogue in the late 60’s/early 70’s to make all novels by women resemble Mills & Boon, as if we are only capable of writing romance. Wigs on the Green is only a romance in the same way as The Code of The Woosters is. I’m making a small collection of misrepresentative book jackets – I recently found a real shocker for My Cousin Rachel…

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford


This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” 

The opening of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is up there with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” as one of the most memorable first lines in fiction. It’s also one of the most misleading; you assume it’s a statement of fact – but you’re no further than the end of the first chapter before you begin to question its trustworthiness. Dowell, the book’s narrator, is not simply telling the story, he is the story – so from whom has he ‘heard’ it? From that moment, the reader begins to suspect that Dowell is acompromised narrator, and at the least, unreliable, albeit in a sense that he doesn’t always ‘know how to put this thing down.’ 

On the surface, the story seems not to be complicated: two well-born couples, one English, the Ashburnhams, one American – John Dowell and his wife Florence, meet at a German spa town, where they become ‘a four-square coterie‘ and spend a companionable ‘nine years of uninterrupted tranquility‘ together until it’s discovered that Florence Dowell has been having an affair with Captain Ashburnham, the ‘Good Soldier’ of the story. But Ford’s great skill lies not in exploring the nuances of a conventional love-triangle (love quadrangle?), but in unpicking, and gradually revealing and concealing and revealing again in Dowell’s uncertain, bumbling impressions, confessions and revelations, the empty, desolate heart of both marriages. It’s a story in which there are neither heroes nor villains, only delusions, self-deceptions and tragic, shameful concealed truths. The Ashburnhams – ‘quite good people’ – haven’t said a word to each other in private for years, yet appear to be a model couple – Florence Dowell’s ill-health for which her husband has worked to create a ‘shock-proof world’ is nothing more than an elaborate charade to conceal an illicit relationship pre-marriage. Yet their spouses aren’t deceived innocents, but utterly complicit. It is the saddest story.

 So where are we with the ‘ever heard’? In as much as Florence has deceived Dowell, he has conspired with the deception. Leonora Ashburnham goes out of her way to constantly uncover her husband’s philanderings and debts whilst rigorously maintaining the front of being ‘quite good people’ and behaving as quite good people might be expected to. Dowell is different – he refuses to believe the evidence in front of him, he is immune to his wife’s aunt’s dark warnings and seems almost able to ignore the truth of Florence’s past when a perfect stranger blurts it out to him. So he has had to be told, he has had to listen to his own story, and that distancing ‘that I have ever heard‘ underscores the tragedy, it is something he has heard, it is hearsay, it may not be true?

Julian Barnes calls Madox Ford ‘a proper reader’s writer‘ – I love him because I enjoy his ingenious manipulation of the reader – he’s not considered a modernist, and yet, on the evidence of The Good Soldier, I challenge anyone not to garland him with as many laurels for technical brilliance as Woolf or Joyce. Susan Hill with whom I’ll discuss the book tomorrow at her Books That Built Me calls it ‘the perfect novel form’.  I keep coming back to The Good Soldier and every time I’m blown away by Ford’s extraordinary control over his novel – it is perfection, and I always wonder, ‘just how does he do it’.

Susan Hill, who chose it as one of her books that built me, says that ‘this is very much a book that comes high on my list of how to learn to be a writer by reading other people who are doing it better than you ever will….I learn from this all the time and I would die happy if I could write a book as great as To The Lighthouse, but ifonly I could crack the way Ford Madox Ford makes this [The Good Soldier] work in terms of shape and structure and narrative as well as a superb book about love and betrayal and death and lying and deceit  – it’s so clever – this is a book taht you don’t read too young; every time I read it it is like a lesson, and it never can go back to being just a novel for me.”

[Susan Hill, speaking at The Books That Built Me, December 2015]

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

I first read Brideshead Revisited when quite a young teenager, in love with Waugh’s floppy haired bright young things, up at Oxford seemingly for nothing more arduous than to be sick through each other’s windows, or recite The Waste Land from balconies,  or carry around bears called Aloysius. The television programme was on ITV but I was away at school so was only ever allowed to stay up for half of each programme, so had to read the book to find out what was going on.

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Anyway, my Pollyanna-ish teenage self, combined with watching half of the dramatisation gave me quite the wrong impression of Waugh’s novel.

 I’ve read it several times since, and each time I read it it’s a different book: it wasn’t until I read it at around the same age Charles Ryder is at the beginning of the novel that its melancholy genius really hit me.

Anyway, Brideshead Revisited was only thirty seven years old when I first read it. This year it celebrates its seventieth birthday, and I think it truly is Waugh’s triumph. Don’t be distracted by the dreaming spires and the decadent beautiful aristos, it’s an innocence and experience novel; it’s about lost innocence and loss, disappointment and not fulfilling one’s potential. Forget all that stuff I always write about the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, I think Brideshead is alluringly tragic. But I’ve just been mending my copy with sellotape (I’m a terrible breaker of spines and once the glue goes brittle, pages fly out like moths when you open them) ready to start re-reading it in preparation for Alex Preston’s Books That Built Me on 2nd June, and perhaps I’ll discover it has transformed itself yet again into quite a different book from the one I think it is.

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell


Fortunately for me, I’m neither down nor out in London, and nor was I earlier this month when in Paris on business. And one can hardly call reading a book over coffee in The Wolseley slumming it. I’m counting my blessings and frantically swotting for next week’s The Books That Built Me with marvellous Lissa Evans, author of Crooked HeartI don’t think it will spoil anything to tell you one of the books she’s chosen is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. 

Poverty is what I’m writing about,’ says Orwell, describing the people he meets in Paris, ‘the slum, with its dirt and queer lives, was first an object lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences… For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others.  You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact it annihilates the future.’

Down and Out in Paris and London is an object lesson in poverty and it’s full of vivid, Rabelasian characters – there’s an extraordinary Russian called Boris for whom ‘war and soldiering were his passion‘ so much so that he favours a particular cafe simply because there’s a statue of Marshal Ney outside, and he prefers to get out of the Métro at Cambronne – ‘though Commerce was nearer, he liked the association with General Cambronne, who was called upon to surrender at Waterloo, and answered simply, ‘Merde!’

Orwell’s first book is a memoir rather than autobiography, ‘faction’ rather than roman à clef in that it’s a much tidied up, novelistic account of his time in Paris – working as a plongeur at Hotel X and down but probably not out – and in London living as a tramp. Orwell’s experiences help develop his political focus and give him a keen appreciation of the precariousness of life on and below the bread-line

‘At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.’

Rejected first by Jonathan Cape and then by T.S Eliot at Faber, it was published by Victor Gollancz who gave Orwell an advance of £40. Critical reactions were slightly mixed – Cyril Connolly’s ‘I don’t think Down and Out in London and Paris is more than agreeable journalism’ is particularly sniffy, and it may not be Orwell in his pomp, but it’s a brilliant, radical, and by turns painful and funny account that takes the lid off the life of people who are usually without a voice, those at the outer fringes of society, dispossessed by poverty. It should be required reading for anyone who uses the expression ‘hard-working families’ to perpetrate the pernicious myth that the poor is divided into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.

 Down and Out in Paris and London was one of the Books That Built Lissa Evans, 28th April 2015