The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer Bookclub 17

(70 Posts)
thewhistler Fri 01-Feb-13 19:12:56

This is quoted by so many people as one of their favourites that I have been wondering why. It is one of mine, I should add, but what is it that charms us most?
is it
The sour hero transformed,
The fairy tale princess taking second place with her almost Dickensian named swain, the nearest I can find to Dickens naming, in Fawnhope,
The humour, often about Sophy's pistol ( useful feminist discussion point here), in the cost with Charles and the turnup with the turnip, Goldhanger, ( with a bit of anti semitism that I don't enjoy)
The pantomime villainess of Eugenia Wraxton
The touching scene of childhood illness
The much better rescuing of a credible young man,Hubert is so much more realistic than Nicky or Bertram,
Wanting to be Sophy in so many ways

Or, and I think it is this overall for me, the consummate artistry of the last chapter. Not since the scene between Avon and Leonie has the suspense been plotted so well and this time with humour

This is a short intro because I am willing to bet we all know it well enough to quote from, and because I am on a phone.

So why do we love it so much?

Or is there anyone who doesn't, who finds Sophy tedious and egotistical, and sympathies with Miss Wraxton?

thewhistler Fri 01-Feb-13 19:13:44

Sorry about spelling etc, contest not cost.

deleted203 Fri 01-Feb-13 19:47:38

This is one of my favourites to, and probably for many of the reasons you have listed above! I LOVE Sophie, she's warm and 'managing' and utterly engaging. I love the way she has the confidence to be an individual at a time when this was frowned upon generally by the ton. She is lovely with Hubert and I love the discussion of Lord Charlbury having had the poor sense to catch chicken pox, thus making him 'unromantic'. (Although I have to confess I thought she could have done better than her sour hero!). Mainly I think it is the utter humour and lightness of touch I enjoyed particularly in this one.

CaseyShraeger Fri 01-Feb-13 23:23:04

This is my joint top favourite (with The Unknown Ajax ). I think it's largely down to the character of Sophy -- she manages to be a proto-feminist of sorts without veering too wildly out of period, and I like her and Charles together. In fact, I like the character of Charles particularly -- he's more complex than some of her other heroes and I think she paints an effective picture of a not naturally stern man weighed down by financial responsibility (and Miss Wraxton) who finds himself restored by the intrusion of Sophy into his life.

How do we feel about the anti-Semitism issue and the depiction of Mr Goldhanger?

the door was slowly opened to reveal a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer [...] His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance. [...] Mr Goldhanger had the oddest feeling that the world had begun to revolve in reverse. For years he had taken care never to get into any situation he was unable to command, and his visitors were more in the habit of pleasing with him than of locking the door and ordering him to dust the furniture [...] The instinct of his race made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity, so he now smiled, and bowed, and said that my lady was welcome to do what she pleased in his humble abode

Was it necessary to make Goldhanger such a totally stereotyped pantomime villain? How much can Heyer be partially excused as a product of her time (TGS was published in 1950, after all, well after the end of the Second World War, although anti-Semitism was still not uncommon) or as writing about a period in which racism was rife?

There were, interestingly, editions in which the Goldhanger episode was toned down slightly, so it's clearly been something to which publishers have been sensitive over the intervening period.

I suffer from cognitive dissonance on this one myself -- I enjoy all of the rest of the book so much that I just sort of disregard this passage. Not sure how defensible that is.

Will come back with more on the meat of the book later...

CaseyShraeger Fri 01-Feb-13 23:27:31

I have seen people online complain that Sophy as a character doesn't develop, mature or learn anything over the course of the book -- she is just the same at the end as she is at the beginning. Also that while we can clearly trace the moments over which Charles comes to be aware that he is in love with Sophy, we don't have the same insight into Sophy's feelings.

In fact, that's an interesting point for discussion -- at what point do we think that Sophy's motivation changes from a disinterested intent to deetach Charles from Miss Wraxton for his own good and the good of the rest of his family to having an interest in him for herself?

deleted203 Sat 02-Feb-13 11:45:41

Casey I love 'The Unknown Ajax' too - but I think my favourite is probably 'The Toll Gate'. I love the character of John as the hero and particularly the strange collection of characters such as the highwayman, the Bow St Runner, Nell and her grandfather and the 'baddies'. Such an exciting and amusing story.

I think I'd only read this once before; it didn't stick in my mind particularly.

I don't particularly like Sophy herself. I think if I knew her in real life I'd be a bit eye-rolly. She certainly has more male friends than female and that isn't surprising in the world she inhabits (literally and socially). She is quite like the eponymous Emma and her oh-so-surprising borderline incestuous final marriage isn't terribly different from that novel either. Obviously it isn't a copy but there are other parallels.

And as Casey pointed out, we never see inside her head. Every other heroine we hear her voice in the narration; but we only hear what is happening to Sophy, not what she thinks. Obviously we can sometimes guess, but Heyer keeps her an enigma. Is this because she's actually improbable and Heyer couldn't keep it all straight? I begin to wonder.

We don't hear much of the inside of Charles' head either, except when he is arguing dealing with Miss Wraxton and we hear that she has unwittingly goaded him into the opposite of his usual opinion. The ineffectual father, from whom one cannot wrest the reins but would dearly love to, is a common theme but most clearly described in this novel. Charles is stuck between a rock and a hard place - if he holds the pursestrings tight he will be resented by all his family; if he does not they will be ruined. Of course he spends money when it's worth it, but only because he knows what there is and how it works. He frequently goes to Ombersley or his own estate, so he is a close manager, but one wonders whether he wouldn't rather just go riding (we're told he lives in riding gear whenever possible) and sod it.

He is lovely to the littler children though. There's a nice bit where they are rather awe-struck at his dress for the ball, and he's so touched (because he knows he will be outshone) that he gets the servant to take ices up to the schoolroom later. A nice little touch, very realistic and very loving.

I find the crippling debt, entail and convenient legacy all a bit contrived, particularly after Arabella where there is a similar legacy but fictional. It's as though Heyer filed it away for future re-use. Charles obviously needs to be personally wealthy for various reasons not the least of which is to qualify to marry Sophy. I don't think we ever meet a hero who is poorer than his heroine - is that Heyer's prejudice/preference, or a realistic portrayal of Regency life? We often find young men who are "hanging out for an heiress" and that's not frowned upon ... Actually, what on earth am I talking about. ADAM DEVERIL. But by the end of the novel he's also independently wealthy, and the value of the land is never quite mentioned, so that's perhaps not quite the same.

I adore Sir Horace. He is quite like the young blades we've enjoyed in other novels (actually, he reminds me of Pelham or Sherry). Here's a typical moment from him:

"I don't expect to be away for very long, but I can't take my little Sophy, and I can't leave her with Tilly because Tilly's dead. Died in Vienna, couple of years ago. A devilish inconvenient thing to do, but I daresay she didn't mean it."

That's the kind of inside-out and self-centred nonsense we get from Heyer's young heroes, and we usually love it. Sir Horace must have something about him to be employed as he is, but we absolutely don't see it. I love that. He must be like those scientific geniuses who leave their keys on the bus and don't remember to have dinner.

Charlburys' mumps are vastly amusing. He keeps getting the blame for catching them - given what we know about their potentially sterilising effect on adult men, are they deliberate? Couldn't it have been scarlet fever or smallpox (disfiguring) or something? Did they know it did that? Did Heyer?

Thinking about social expectations again, there is quite a telling scene between Lady Ombersley and Cecilia in which Lady O begins:

"In short, Cecilia - and I should not be obliged to say this to you - persons of our order do not marry only to please themselves."

Cecilia was silenced, and could only hang down her head, dabbing her eyes with an already damp handkerchief. [...] Cecilia might read novels, but she knew that the spirited behaviour of her favourite heroines was not for her to imitate.

Later Miss Wraxton makes a similar speech to Charles, which appals him even though it's true. She is an idiot to spell out that she is marrying him for social and filial reasons, but we are left in no doubt as to the crushing obligations of the time.

I love the exchange between Charles and Sophy about Miss Wraxton's looks:

"Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton's name, I shall be much obliged to you, Cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!"
"[...]Yes, indeed, but you have quite misunderstood the matter. I meant a particularly well-bred horse. [...] I am very fond of horses!" Sophy said earnestly.
"[...]Selina, who repeated the remark to me, is not fond of horses, however, and she-"
"I expect she will be, when she has lived in the same house with Miss Wraxton for a month or two," said Sophy encouragingly.

Honestly, how dare she! What a cow!

The Goldhanger scene is uncomfortable, definitely. I think that's because there's just no need. We get told about "the Jews" in many if not most of the novels, and it is certainly not the first or last time we will encounter a moneylender, but I agree there's no need to be quite so indulgently racist. He can be an unpleasant man without being a caricature.

Poorly Amabel is a very good bit. We need it to see that Sophy is capable of putting her own thoughts aside for others' needs because frankly she isn't always brilliant at that, and it gives certain of the others, notably Charlbury, a chance to shine. But also it does remind us how precarious life was at the time and how terrifying parenthood must have been as a result.

In The Grand Sophy we get definitely the best marriage proposal of any of the novels - there are other funny ones elsewhere, but He took Sophy's throat between his hands, pushing up her chin. "Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are?" has got to be up there. Frankly I don't know what he sees in her but there you go.

We talked in Arabella or possibly earlier about Regency euphemisms for pregnancy. Here there is a funny one, re Lady Ombersley: "[T]he dutiful presentation to her erratic and far from grateful spouse of eight pledges of her affection had long since destroyed any pretensions to beauty in her." Now quite apart from the delicacy of "pledges of her affection" we are reminded of the duty and the danger and physical toll of motherhood, all in one short and witty line. Heyer is a GENIUS I tells ya.

And finally, dealing with Miss Wraxton's primness, Sophy's vigour, and Heyer's wit all at once, I ADORED the following exchange:

"Eugenia never wears modish gowns. She says there are more important things to think of than one's dresses."

"What a stupid thing to say!" remarked Sophy. "Naturally there are; but not, I hold, when one is dressing for dinner."

It made me think of all those people on MN who quote "first world problems" when someone's worrying about own clothes day at primary school...

HumphreyCobbler Sat 02-Feb-13 21:13:42

I find Charles very fanciable. It is all that talk of his sporting prowess, and how his friends all regard him so positively.

It is lovely to read a novel with an active heroine. I also wholeheartedly agree with the above analysis of the plotting of the final chapter. Very adroitly managed. As is the earlier episode in the visit to the Spanish lady (can't remember her name, sorry) where Hubert locks Fawnhope and Eugenia in the wood.

Sancia - yes, locking them in the wood is inspired.

thewhistler Sat 02-Feb-13 21:43:01

Lotion of the Ladies of Denmark is one of my favourite bits.

Great to wake up saying it.

Horatia, I agree that Sophy is unlikely to have many close female friends. One suspects she will turn into the sort of Lady Jersey type, if less chatty.

I think she is likable, however, because she has such good taste in men, excluding Charles. Her riding companions, Francis etc, are delightful, and she knows exactly how far to trust Sir Vincent. She also doesn't mind when Charles tells her she has got her father wrong. And she is lovely, as is Charles, to Amabel, in the scene with the cup decorated with roses.

But I think one would need to be very strong minded to be a close friend.

I also like the dress descriptions. I love Cecilia's ball dress. Sophy's are obviously very dashing.

Frawli Sun 03-Feb-13 20:42:50

Aww I love this one. Sophy is great fun as a heroine and I really feel sorry for Charles, especially in the period when he realises what misery his marriage is going to bring him. I wonder how everybody feels about her directing their lives though, I would steer well clear of her in real life!

My little girl's middle name is Sophia, not directly after Sophy, but I've read this book lots of times and the name grew on me smile

MooncupGoddess Mon 04-Feb-13 17:53:42

Top analysis, Horatia - though I've always suspected that Sir Horace's dim exterior hid a razor-sharp mind. There's a bit at the end when Charles is in a tearing rage with Sophy when Sir Horace clearly works out what's going on and is both amused and interested.

This was one of my absolute favourites as a child thanks to the fantastic plotting, convincing family atmosphere and lashings of humour, but as an adult I do feel rather shortchanged by Charles and Sophy's relationship. Cecilia and Charlbury are actually a much more convincing pairing, and GH depicts Cecilia's growing up and falling out of love with the drippy poet Augustus very nicely.

In fact, the narrative viewpoint is almost that of the Ombersley household... we see Sophy with a mix of affection and slight awe/trepidation, but always from outside rather than inside. There is no sense at all of her being a sexual/romantic being.

In terms of minor characters The Grand Sophy (a reference to the Ottoman sultan, I believe) bears the palm. The indolent Marquesa, charming yet strategic Sir Vincent, weak gambler Lord Ombersley, ghastly Wraxton siblings, earnest hypochondriac Lord Bromsgrove (?)... splendid stuff. And lots of great animals including Heyer's only monkey and a walk-on part for a box of newly hatched chickens.

addle Tue 05-Feb-13 12:30:29

Isn't this one of the books that reminds you that Heyer did not like SE London (perhaps because she came from Wimbledon)? I think the bore here is Bromley and in ?Lady of Quality it's Beckenham. Loving these threads.

CaseyShraeger Tue 05-Feb-13 13:12:10

It's Bromford, which is somewhere in the West Midlands, I think.

addle Tue 05-Feb-13 14:46:58

dammit. you're right. end of a theory. will have another look at character's names/geography

CaseyShraeger Tue 05-Feb-13 15:00:06

Good working theory, though. We need an interactive map of Heyer placenames...

I love that they end up at the stately home near where I grew up - Polesden Lacey - actually nearer Leatherhead than Ashtead - and it makes me feel part of the story.

<adds nothing of use to the thread>

LadyIsabellaWrotham Belgium Fri 08-Feb-13 09:03:28

I love Charles in this - he's great with the younger children, struggling bravely with his appalling father, and I think the moment when he realises that he's in love with Sophy is fantastic, it's like nothing else in Heyer, it reminds me most of the quiet scene where Harriet falls for Peter in Gaudy Night.

So we have two siblings engaged to the wrong people but unable to extricate themselves without Sophy's help, but we only really feel it in Charles' case. I love Charlbury, and the whole Augustus subplot, but I don't really believe that Cecilia loves him.

The chicks are fantastic in the final scene, it's classic Heyer to introduce a bit of random lunacy into the denouement, and this is my favourite example.

Goldhanger is unforgivable though. Just as Sayers was noticeably less anti-Semitic than her peers, Heyer was more so. It's so bad that if age were a living writer I'd boycott her and only buy her books second hand. It doesn't destroy the book for me (though of course it does for many more sensitive and/or Jewish readers) but it is fatal to my opinion of GH as a person.

VenetiaLanyon Fri 08-Feb-13 09:28:08

Absolutely love this one; it's classic comfort reading, in that there's a not a scene out of place or superfluous moment (if you are able to ignore the unpleasant Goldhanger stero-typing).

It appeals to me in the same way that programmes about doing up your house or Jack Reacher novels appeal; things that are messy, untidy or just plain wrong are righted in soothing or spectacular fashion; Sophy is really one, big, beautifully-dressed deus-ex-machina.

And Heyer's over-riding affection for humanity, warts and all, really comes across here; she loves her silly young men, such as Hubert and Augustus, and even finds a match for Eugenia and Lord Bromley - they are annoying but still worthy of finding love, and she doesn't leave them out in the cold.
And I have read this book many times over 30 years now, and it grows with me; as a teen I didn't appreciate the scene where the marquesa and Charles's mother decide to have a nap together, but now that's one of my favourite moments. Also that Lord Charlbury is the kind of man who can get a cab in the rain; that now really resonates...

I don't think that she expects us to think that Sophy is perfect; we can well understand how Charles finds her thoroughly annoying, but I would quite fancy being in her skin; that much confidence and lack of introspective reflection would be lovely.

LeonieDeSainteVire Fri 08-Feb-13 13:33:32

No, this is definitely not one of my favourites. I think it's the character of Sophy that doesn't work for me, I just don't warm to her, she isn't like a real person just a character in a book!

The other characters are great and funny, GH does pompous and selfish very well and there is a lot of that.

The theme of competence in a man being supremely attractive is an excellent one too, GH's heroes are competent, it's what marks them out usually unless like Gilly or Freddy they have to learn it, but this is the only time I think it's spelt out. I wonder if GH, having been financially responsible for so many male family members throughout her life, picked on this characteristic as being the one that she saw as missing from many RL men.

As for the Goldhanger scene I think it's such a shame that she had to include the anti Semitic elements because without them it would be a marvellously drawn and very funny scene about how to deal with bullies. I do think however that it serves a useful purpose to remind us of how views, in this case towards Jews but it could be any form of racism, have changed so much over the past 100 years. Not everyone felt the way GH did but no one thought it was so extreme it should be edited from the text. If we don't read these types of opinion it can be hard to understand just how radically the 'accepted view' of things have changed. An aside but I was born in the early seventies, I grew up hearing the 'n' word for black people used widely (not in our house however where it was not acceptable) and where a friend's little sister who had Down's Syndrome was always referred to as a 'mongol' and a boy in the next village with cerebral palsy was a 'spaz', I don't think my children would even know those words in that context and would certainly never use them. The past really is a foreign country and the Goldhanger scene is useful to remind us of that.

LeonieDeSainteVire Fri 08-Feb-13 13:37:07

Just in case it's not clear I should add I find GH's anti Jewish opinions abhorrent and I find the views I refer to from my childhood equally so. I think them interesting only insofar as it shows us an insight into social history and views that were prevalent at the time.

thewhistler Fri 08-Feb-13 15:00:28

I agree, Leonie, yet it is still odd that she or her long suffering publishers had not been Holocaust sentsitised, as someone points out above.

Growing up a little before you, with my grandmother only a little younger than GH, the opinions were probably the same deep down but my granny would not have expressed them. That granny, anyway, the other was a eugenicist etc. The nice granny in any case was plugged into the arts so had a wide sphere of friends, many of whom would have been hauled off by the Nazis for a variety of reasons.

Have to admit I now read that passage putting scrooge into goldhanger's place in my mind. Kind of works, like eating a coconut chocolate pretending it is almond.

MooncupGoddess Fri 08-Feb-13 15:30:16

It is weird. Dickens was mortified after being criticised (rightly of course!) for his anti-Semitic depiction of Fagin... so he created a lovely Jewish money-lender in Our Mutual Friend as a sort of apology/recompense. So it's not like these issues weren't discussed at all pre 1950.

deleted203 Sat 09-Feb-13 14:41:01

Interesting to see the different viewpoints on Heyer's novels/characters. Leonie I note that you don't like Sophie as a character - and I'm assuming that you loved 'These Old Shades'? That is one of the few Heyer novels that I don't like, mainly because of the characters of Leonie and the Duke of Avon, neither of whom I found likeable or particularly believable.

LadyIsabella and Leonie, some very good thoughts I have been pondering.

Capable men are very attractive, yes. Heyer is intolerant of any incompetence though: managing females who are derided in other literature are lauded by Heyer. Sophy is of course the prime example.

Sophy is definitely "just a character in a book", I agree.

But I do believe Cecilia and Charlbury. It reminds me of Marianne and Brandon/Willoughby and the respective attractions of practicality and romance.

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