I recently read two biographies of two women who, on the face of it, would seem to have very little to do with each other. Vera Atkins (A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm) was an intelligence officer in the SOE’s F(rench) section. Georgette Heyer (Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester) was a beloved, best-selling, and genre-defining historical romance author. They were born in roughly the same era, but their lives took very different paths.
At the same time, I was a bit astounded at points of similarity between Atkins and Heyer. First, and perhaps most importantly, they were both extremely private. Heyer famously Did Not Do Interviews, with a few rare exceptions. Atkins deliberately destroyed many of her papers, concealing what remained in a maze of clues for her biographer to find. Heyer seems to have been simply an incredibly private person, reminiscent perhaps of Austen herself (I was interested to see that this point never came up in the biography). Atkins, on the other hand, had real secrets that she needed to keep hidden.
But both were also reserved personalities, who could be charming and kind to those they valued, but who could also be seen as cold and formidable. Moreover, they could both cut off people they had previously opened up to without an explanation. Again, in Heyer’s case this seems to have been a facet of her personality, while in Atkins it was at least partly a protective mechanism.
Second, both were forceful, independent women in a time when this independence sat uneasily in the rules of society. This uneasiness carried over into their personal lives; Heyer certainly disliked modern feminism and resist its changes, even as she was the main financial support of her family for a number of years. Moreover, both were the mainstays of their respective families, both financially and in other ways, after their father died, a duty which was a source of tension for both women.
Perhaps most fascinating, both women were not-quite-English, more so for Atkins then for Heyer. Heyer was the granddaughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant, but by her birth her family was firmly in the educated English middle class. However, she always used and valued the markers of class in her books in a way which she herself did not always fully participate. Much of her struggle was for acceptance by the literary elite, something which always seemed to elude her. For Atkins, born into an upper class Jewish family in Romania, Englishness was a fraught and similarly elusive proposition. She tried to elide both her ethnic heritage and her foreignness, particularly as her role in the SOE was incredibly high-stakes.
Of course, there are important differences as well–Heyer endured WWII, experiencing it entirely as a civilian, though she had a few personal losses including her brother-in-law. Atkins, on the other hand, seemed to almost assume that she would take an active role during the war. Atkins had secrets which she had to work to actively keep, while Heyer did not. And of course, the realms in which they worked as well as many details of their personal lives are quite different.
On a technical note, I found Kloester’s biography more cohesive than Helm’s, partly because Helm raised a lot of questions–what was Atkins’ involvement, if any, with the Soviets? With the Germans? What about her romantic life? Although these are real questions which came up during her lifetime, because the real facts seem to be lost, the general effect for me was of slight sensationalism–and so ultimately a frustrating reading experience. Kloester gives us the picture of a life which, despite all kinds of financial upsets and personal difficulties, seems quite normal, a view which I found refreshing.
Book source: public library for both