Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Personal Touch

Some people think a person's handwriting can be very revealing. I'd like to think that's true but true or not I confess to being fascinated by the myriad ways people form the letters and words by which they communicate. Handwriting may be a dying art these days (I hope not) but for many centuries it has been considered an essential skill. Today we know a lot about the lives and personalities of many famous people because they wrote letters - by hand. Georgette Heyer was a compulsive letter writer and below are some of her signatures - each one a tiny window into the personality of an intensely private woman.

Georgette's nine-year-old signature

One of my treasured books is a copy of At the Back of the North Wind which once belonged to Georgette Heyer. It is the 1911 edition and I expect she received it as a gift for her ninth birthday. It was given to me from the remnant of Georgette's library during one of my visits to her son's home and I love looking at the carefully formed letters and thinking about Georgette as a nine-year-old and of the stories she might have been making up at that age.

Georgette's family nickname

This inscription to her mother is on the flyleaf of the first edition of Georgette's third detective novel, The Unfinished Clue. Her mother regularly read of Georgette's books in manuscript form and would offer frank critiques of her daughter's latest work.

'Dordette' was the family's pet-name for Georgette and probably came from Boris her younger brother who as a little boy (he was five years younger than his sister) might have found it difficult to say her name correctly. The signature has sometimes been incorrectly translated as 'Dordatta' because Georgette's idiosyncratic 'e's look like 'a's.

'with George's love'

From the flyleaf of the very first edition of Royal Escape, this time inscribed to Georgette's husband Ronald: 'This, the first copy out of the press, is for Ronald, with George's love.
Very few people were allowed to call Georgette 'George' as it was a nickname reserved for only her closest friends and family.

Her 1962 signature

I love how much her signature has changed over the course of her life. By 1962 it is much tighter and more angled. She has also learned the popular authorial trick of crossing out the printed name when signing your own.

In keeping with her policy of never giving interviews, Georgette never did public book signings either. She signed copies for family and a few friends though and would sometimes send signed copies to fans. Unlike many of today's well-known authors there are relatively few signed copies of Georgette Heyer's novels.


Spending the day with my mother is always a treat but yesterday brought an unexpected pleasure.
Among the books handed down through the family was this treasure. A memento of Japan in the 1890s - with thirty hand-tinted illustrations (prints? photos?) of scenes from Tokyo (spelled 'Tokio'), Yokohama, Nikko and the area around Mt Fuji. The cover of the book is a like a lacquer box printed with trees and birds and very beautiful. Each page is separated by a sheet of tissue paper encouraging a delicate turning of the pages to see the next scene..

I found the pictures intriguing with their views of everyday life in Japan more than a hundred years ago. I love this one of the Japanese lantern sellers in their traditional garb and their beautiful paper parasols open behind them. The rest of the pictures are as evocative and beautiful as this one. The book was a gift from a Scotsman, Mr Archibald, to my great-great grandmother in 1895.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Old friends

Recently I was looking for a book - it was a particular title and I knew it was in one of the bookshelves in one of the rooms in our house. I didn't find the book, but I did find several old friends. In every room there were books I hadn't thought of for years but that, in the moment of seeing them again, brought back a rush of welcome memories. I remembered The Good Master by Kate Seredy, which I read when I was six and loved for its naughty heroine, Kate, the city cousin who arrives at her uncle's farm on the Hungarian plains and climbs up into the rafters and eats his favourite sausages. And Pippi Longstocking whose hero was another little girl - only one with superhuman strength and a massive streak of independence. Emil and the Detectives, Lottie and Lisa and The Flying Classroom, all by Erich Kastner were books that enchanted and enthralled me. Because they were about ordinary children who did things that, though extraordinary, were possible. While I loved Enid Blyton's Famous Five, Secret Seven and Five Findouters I knew that their sorts of adventures weren't very likely to come my way, whereas the characters in Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons series or those in Paul Berna's A Hundred Million Francs seemed real with real, possible adventures. I've never forgotten that moment in Paul Berna's book when Marion gathers all of the dogs she's fed and loved and takes them to confront the villains. The words she speaks in that moment still ring in my head: 'Go on! Pull 'em down! Rotten swine who pinch kids toys in the rue des Petits-Pauvres!' Such great drama and so intensely satisfying!

There are so many voices that remind me of those days when I could spend a whole Saturday reading or nights pretending to be asleep and reading instead. There's Jean calling, 'Come away now Geordie' in Geordie; Miss Flisty whisking Jan off to the beach in Karalta; Tock telling Milo he 'must help himself' in The Phantom Tollbooth, poor (unfairly maligned) Pollyanna explaining 'the Glad Game' and Anne of Green Gables telling Marilla 'how much you miss!' after her benefactress tells her she never imagines things different to what they are. And those other voices - the ones that rang strong and true no matter what the cost: Dick Fauconbois in the Black Riders who looks Jasper the Terrible in the face and says him 'nay', Elnora Comstock in A Girl of the Limberlost who refuses to accept defeat and Hilary in Schoolgirl Honour standing firm despite the consequences.

They shaped my life and wove themselves into my flesh these books and their bright, clear voices continue to reach across the years and succor me in ways that only best friends can.

Like old friends rarely seen but always welcome.