I’ve been guilty of judging Georgette Heyer by her book covers for years – my childhood hatred for romantic plot-lines blossomed into an automatic self-censorship – if I think that the heroine is at any point likely to turn around and realise that ‘love was there all along’, I skate on by to the other end of the bookshelf. However, enough fellow bloggers have raved about how much fun they have had with books by Georgette Heyer that I started to think that I just might be missing out on something here and so I decided to do some research of my own and … it turns out that I most certainly was. The Grand Sophy was truly the most delightful surprise.
The titular Grand Sophy is Sophia Stanton Lacy, only daughter of Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, long-time international diplomat. Following the Napoleonic Wars, he finds himself sent off on a posting to South America and decides, if it isn’t too much trouble, it would be easiest to drop ‘little Sophy’ off with his sister’s family rather than take her along with him as he usually would and if they can find the time, it would also be helpful if they could find the young girl a husband while they’re about it. Sophy’s aunt is expecting a timid young waif but instead, along comes a confident young woman who is five foot nine and well used to getting her own way, having grown up with no mother, governess and having spent most of her life on the Continent to boot.
Sophy’s cousin Charles is particularly appalled by the new arrival. He has wrest control of the family from his financially imprudent father, thanks to a recent inheritance and has no intention of letting Sophy get things out of order again. Given that the dreaded cousin brings with her a dog and a monkey, his fears are quickly realised. Bringing out Charles’ worst side is his ghastly fiance Eugenia, a pedantic bluestocking who would be his wife already if she had not been forced to go into morning. In the background, Charles’ sister Cecilia is working herself into hysterics because her family refuse to give her permission to marry the feather-brained poet she so admires and insist that she wed the wealthy young lord who is so decidedly unromantic that he has actually fallen victim to the mumps.
In terms of the dynamics of the novel, I was pleasantly reminded of Cold Comfort Farm – Flora Poste would surely have approved of Sophy’s brisk analysis of the situation and calm determination to set things right. I would say that Sophy had a lesser disdain for her relatives, thinking less of ‘The Higher Common Sense’ and more of what would actually make them happy. Indeed, with Charles and Sophy set against each other from a very early stage, it is very clear that this is more of a romantic comedy than Cold Comfort Farm ever was. Still, I enjoyed Sophy’s cool consideration of who would best suit her cousin Cecilia as a husband based on life’s practicalities – who would get the best table in a restaurant or be able to source an umbrella promptly in the case of rain. To be honest, these may seem the small things, but Sophy appears to recognise that life itself is made up of such moments.
Another cousin-in-trouble was young Hubert, who was sweet with the children but foolish with his own resources and had managed to fall prey to a money-lender. As with the rest of his family, Sophy set about righting his situation, but when I read up on the novel, thanks to my new-found admiration for Georgette Heyer, I was unsettled to discover that in the original draft, the passage describing Sophy’s confrontation with the money-lender included a rather vitriolic anti-Semitic passage which has been excised from newer editions. Sophy herself never appeared to have prejudices – when Cecilia remarks how strange it is to see her kiss her maid, the woman who has raised her since infancy, the Grand Sophy responds tartly in her own defence. Similarly, when Eugenia – oh-so-sweetly – implies to Sophy that her manner may lead others to suppose that she is fast, our heroine is once again speedy to take action. She has little truck with the demands of etiquette and prefers sincerity and generousity. I had no issue with the idea of Sophy taking steps to defend the foolish Hubert, but imagining her to dislike the money-lender on the basis of his race or faith rather than due to his professional dealings felt very out of step with the rest of the novel and deeply unsavoury.
I know it was a different time, but I still believe that people had consciences and given that the novel was written post-World War Two, I still think that these views are inexcusable. I don’t know – there are racist passages within Gone With The Wind, but while these do catch the modern reader off guard, it is also an interesting book in terms of how Mitchell implicitly demonstrates the ugliness within plantation life, how the slave-owners foundered once their slaves went free and indeed the general complexity of the whole situation. It’s not perfect, but I think that Mitchell addresses the climate more, while with The Grand Sophy, I was ready to write an enthusiastic review about how fun the book had been, but was suddenly thrown to realise that so much offence had been caused. I guess though the question of how we respond to racism in fiction would be the topic for a discussion post all on its own.
What should be clear here is that Georgette Heyer is a witty and engaging writer. I came to the book very unsure about whether or not I would like it and was ready not to finish, but instead I came bounding to the end, rather miffed that there was not more left. There were a good deal more high-jinks and general shenanigans than one would ever get in an Austen novel but yet still, The Grand Sophy appealed to the same part of me that enjoys all the general bonnet- related antics of Aunt Jane. There may be slightly less of the truths of the human heart, but there are all of the aesthetics. I think that Sophy would have very kindly taken several of Austen’s heroines in hand (although Miss Bingley would probably have come to a slightly sticky end and I dread to think what might have befallen Mrs Elton’s basket with the pink ribbon) and generally attempted to smooth their paths – although her rule-breaking may be slightly anachronistic, I still couldn’t help but warm to her. While she may lack the delicacy of Eugenia, Sophy has more of manners in the truest meaning of the term and for all those who raise their eyebrows at her behaviour, her heart is pure and she is quite determined to see things turn out right for all. I was so disappointed to discover that this is the last of Sophy’s adventures, particularly since I doubt that she would let matrimony (spoiler alert!) slow her down. Still, it was fascinating to discover a writer who was entirely different to what I had supposed. The most exciting news is that apparently there’s a film in the works …
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Published by Random House on February 28th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Romance, Historical, General
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