Title: The Grand Sophy
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publication Info: Sourcebooks 1950 / 2009
This is a difficult book to review. On one hand, up until a specific point, I liked it. On the other hand, it turned offensive to the point of horror, demonstrating not only a repulsive prejudice but a use of lame stereotypical stock characters that detracted from the strengths of the novel. In the end, my enjoyment was dissolved by my own bitter disappointment.
Until that point of 0_o, I was loving this book.
Sophy is the only daughter of a diplomat, and has been following him around war-busy Europe. Now that her father has been assigned to South America, Sophy is to live with her aunt, Lady Ombersley, who will help Sophy find a husband. But Sophy’s father’s description of her is not at all the reality, and while most of Lady Ombersley’s family thinks Sophie is wonderful, her son, Charles Rivenhall, who has taken over management of the family’s finances and is as a result somewhat cranky in his responsibility, thinks Sophy is more trouble than she’s worth – and his fiancee dislikes Sophy, too.
Sophy strikes me as something of an original manic pixie dream girl, except for the diminutive tone of “pixie” because Sophy is very tall. She’s unconventionally attractive, memorable, energetic, irrepressible, and for God’s sake she comes with a small dog, a parrot, and a monkey. She’s got schemes. Plots! Plans! An almost diabolically ruthless intention to better the lives of everyone around her!
Of course, if you look up the book on TVTropes, Sophy’s listed as a “Chessmaster,” which she is, indubitably. She’s like a Manic Tall-Ass Chessmaster Dream Girl. She knows best, so stay out of her way.
(NB: If you follow the link to TV Tropes, I am not responsible for the approximate 4.5 hours of productive time you will lose. K?)
Sophy’s a bit like the movie version of Mary Poppins, with the vaguely sinister but well meaning and caring determination to making everyone all better, plus resolving every romantic pairing possible, including her father, who would be better off un-paired.
So what were the parts that I liked?
I loved the dialogue. I can’t even measure my giddy enjoyment of any scene in which Charles and Sophy debate, argue, attempt a civil discussion, and end up having a marvelously entertaining row.
I also loved the unintentional comedy from characters Sophy’s cousin Cecilia, and her aunt, Lady Ombersley. The idea that “no one can deny that nothing could be more ill-timed than Charlbury’s mumps” made me giggle for hours.
Sophy is a source of much consternation, with her determination to be literally and narratively in the driver’s seat. In one scene, Charles is discussing Sophy with his truly revolting fiancee, Eugenia Wraxton, after Sophy demonstrated to Charles’ horror that she is quite skilled at managing a team of horses. Miss Wraxton is most displeased for a multitude of reasons, from her desire for everyone to be miserable to her dislike of Sophy for taking Charles’ attention from where it ought to be (on Eugenia, of course):
“I am sure that it is not wonderful that she should have. To drive a gentleman’s horses without his leave shows a want of conduct that is above the line of pleasing. Why, even I have never even requested you to let me take the reins!”
He looked amused. “My dear Eugenia, I hope you never will, for I shall certainly refuse such a request! You could never hold my horses.”
But this is my favorite scene, because Sophy is so hilariously awful about the awful Miss Wraxton, and everyone can see (including the reader) how bad she really is, except for Charles, her fiance.
“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!”
“But, Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton! She cannot help it, and I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters!”
“I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!”
“Yes, indeed, but you have quote misunderstood the matter! I meant a particularly well-bred horse!”
“You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!”
“No, no! I am very fond of horses!” Sophy said earnestly.
Before he could stop himself he found that he was replying to this. “Selina, who repeated this remark to me, is not fond of horses, however and she -” He broke off, seeing how absurd it was to argue on such a head.
“I expect she will be, when she has lived in the same house with Miss Wraxton for a month or two,” said Sophy encouragingly.
The best parts of this book are the comedy, both in the dialogue and in the mad cap collective happy ever after-ness of the ending, which, much like a Shakespearean comedy, ties up every lose end so the reader is secure that every last person shall go on marvelously. Just don’t think about it all too hard or you’ll see holes. Big enough to ride a horse through.
The characters were mirrored in a way that I enjoyed as well. There’s an amazing similarity between Eugenia and Sophy. Both are interfering busybodies, and both overstep their social boundaries on a continual basis. But the reader is invited to cheer for Sophy and loathe Eugenia because Sophy wants people to have what they want, and to be happy. Eugenia, meanwhile, would prefer everyone were miserable and perhaps even without meaning to do so, makes everyone around her unhappy.
As Sophy says of Eugenia’s engagement to Charles: “She felt it a pity that so promising a young man should be cast away on one who would make it her business to encourage all the more disagreeable features of his character.”
So what didn’t I like? GEE CAN YOU GUESS?!
I wasn’t thrilled with the abrupt happy ending, the sudden turnabout for Charles and the lack of not-fighting scenes for Charles and Sophy. And as Sunita pointed out via Twitter, Sophy doesn’t change or grow or evolve. She gets her way, and everyone around her is probably better off for her involvement, and they’re all happy, but Sophy doesn’t develop. She achieves through her own machinations, which, while entertaining, was not as satisfying as having her develop or grow as a character.
But what really soured this book for me was the anti-Semitism.
HOLY GODDAM HELL WAS THERE EVER ANTI-SEMITISM.
I got a warning, when Hubert, Charles’ not-doing-so-well brother says, describing his financial predicament to Sophy, “Faced with large debts of honour, already in hot water with his formidable brother for far smaller debts, what could he do but jump into the river, or go to the Jews?”
Jewish moneylenders. Oh, boy. So then Sophy takes it upon herself to go confront said Jewish moneylender. And then the whole book went to hell.
…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.
GOLDHANGER? With a “semitic nose” and the “instinct of his RACE?” Really?! That’s the BEST HEYER could come up with?! A stock character embodying every possible negative stereotype of Jewish people? It was so badly done it was multiply offensive. Not only was I offended personally as, you know, a Jewish person, but I was more offended as a reader as well because IT WAS SO BADLY DONE.
Hamfisted, clumsy characterization, over-the-top villainy, AND EXTRA BONUS BIGOTRY on the side.
As Sunita wrote recently, knowing the depth of Heyer’s own anti-Semitism and bigotry makes it a bit more difficult to savor her books. I’m not sure I’ll be picking up a Heyer any time soon, even though I have yet to read Venetia and Cotillion, and both have been recommended most highly. (NB: Since writing this review, I read Venetia; review forthcoming!)
In the end, though, in order to move past my reaction, I started mentally substituting “Goldmember” for “Goldhanger” whenever I read his name, which made it much easier to take.
Otherwise, my final impression is one of disappointment. Deep, bitter, offensive disappointment.
And thus I’m struggling with how to assign the grade. Even as I fill in all the fields, and code everything, I’m still hopping from grade to grade in my mind. I liked some of the characters, I loved the dialogue, I enjoyed the fast-moving yet flimsy structure that pulled everyone together into a suitable finale and the plot manipulations (aka Sophy manipulations) that caused them all to arrive at their suitable ending.
I abhor the wooden, stereotypical villain, his nearly meaningless role and the unnecessary bigotry and anti-Semitism. It was pedantic and poorly done, and while I’m now unhappily acquainted with Heyer’s own anti-Semitism, I’m still baffled by the nearly elementary and frankly stupid use of the character. I very rarely presume to know what the author was thinking while writing, but in this case, the insertion of stock caricature is so disturbing, it’s as if Heyer said, “Hmm. I need a really evil guy for the heroine to vanquish with her charm and some stuff concealed in her muff! And to make him really, really evil, in case you missed the evil, nefarious, greasy, dishonest, cheating and greedy parts of his character, let me make sure you don’t miss it by making him JEWISH!”
(Also: no, not that muff. Sorry.)
So, frankly, I can’t praise this book any more than I already have. The parts of dialogue I so adored are not nearly enough for me to overcome what I found so repulsive. Without Goldmember, I’d have probably graded this book at about a C+/B-. The story was entertaining but I didn’t feel any real empathy for Sophy the way I would for a heroine who grows, learns and evolves in the story. I was initially wonderfully entertained, but with the major flaw highlighting all the other smaller flaws, I cannot recommend this book any more than I’d recommend buying fruit that was rotten inside.
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Comments are Closed
I have read this book a few times in my own language, since a young girl. And I have just simply enjoyed it every time, it is actually my favroute Heyer book. Of course, I never did stumble upon the anti-semitisme, and I am sorry if I offend you with that. I have read more historical romances / books where a Jew or Jewish family are in the banking world / money lenders. For instance Bertrice Small books, and the Kira family. Have you read those?
THANK YOU. I heard so many good things about The Grand Sophy and not one reviewer mentioned the nasty bigotry in the book. It came as a great shock, which made it even worse.
I then read Heyer’s These Old Shades, which has some terrible classism, and no reviewers mentioned THAT either. (I wrote a review for LibraryThing and made sure to mention it.)
I don’t care how “beloved” Heyer is; I’ve given up on her books. She might be funny, but I can’t abide the blatant prejudice.
Excellent review. I agree entirely. I love many of Heyer’s books but this one is unreadable for all the reasons you give. To make it even worse the book was first published in 1950, i.e. after the second world war.
This isn’t the problem. It’s historically accurate to have a Jewish person working as a money lender, for various political and historical reasons that are also based in anti-Semitism. The problem is that Heyer made the character an anti-Semitic stereotype. The standard anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish moneylender is that he is a) greasy, b) dirty, c) has a large hooked nose, d) has small dark eyes, e) has dark curly hair, and f) wants to get his filthy hands on nice, clean, Christian girls. This trope is so well known that you generally only need to put in a couple of identifiers and everybody knows what you’re talking about. The Merchant of Venice and Ivanhoe (complete with the Jewish guy’s virtuous, beautiful daughter) for famous examples of this stereotype.
I loved The Grand Sophy when I was young so recently I put it on my Nook. Like you, I was somewhat disappointed. I still loved the dialogue and the way the plot is put together like a jigsaw puzzle. However, “the jew” did bother me. I also, at the end of the book, found myself wondering what it would be like to have to live with Sophy for a prolonged period of time. She is “high-spirited.” Yes, but managing and without a hint of insight. Kind of like the ladies I knew at church who were convinced that they could run your life better than you ever could without realizing that it was your life. If that makes sense. So, yes, I was a little disappointed with the re-read though there are still Heyers I enjoy.
looking 73 – goddess, I hope not.
I’m not even going to attempt a defence of the anti-Semitism in the book. You’re right that it’s there and I completely get that for some readers that will overshadow any enjoyment they may have in the rest of the book.
But I do want to pick up on a couple of your other points. There are non-arguing scenes with Charles and Sophy – the lovely scene where Amabel is sick is the obvious one, but there are others too and they clearly show how much these two really do like each other, when Charles lets himself. Which meant that I didn’t think Charles’s turnabout was particularly abrupt. It was clear that he’d been looking for a way to get out of his engagement for a while, and that Sophy was the reason. Sunita’s right that Sophy’s character doesn’t develop a whole lot, but that didn’t worry me. I like her so much as she is.
There is an interesting contemporary take on The Grand Sophy in Katie Fforde’s Flora’s Lot (no Jewish moneylenders, I promise!)
I confess, I found it easier to tolerate the anti-semitic stereotype in The Grand Sophy when I was under the impression it was one of her earlier efforts. With a 1950 first publication date, it’s impossible to let it slide.
It is still, however, a good teaching tool for authors and readers wanting to know more about the Regency romance subgenre and the role Heyer played in creating it.
If you read in period, then you have to read with a period mindset. How do you feel about Dickens?
*sigh* Isn’t it the worse when you’re enjoying a book, and then out of nowhere you get the racism sucker punch? Thanks for the review, I was thinking of checking out some of the Heyer that’s on sale but I’d rather pay for books that don’t come with a dash of bigotry. Looking forward to reading the Venetia review, though.
@Anna—I’m fine with Dickens, Shakespeare, and Baroness Orczy, who wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1903. Each of them had anti-semitic stereotypes, and each could be judged as a product of its period.
A novel written in 1950, that I have less tolerance for. It was a different time than the early 20th C., and one would hope that the horrors of WWII would bring people to a new sensibility.
We know you didn’t mean that muff; only the hero gets vanquished by that muff.
I expected to find that this was one of her earlier books, but no, written in 1950, which makes the stero-type & anti-semetic slant tone offensive. I tend to lend a more tolerant ear to attitudes or verbage based on the time period they were written in, but post WWII surely we could expect a more modern take on racial or religious differences. Wasn’t the lesson about the horrors that can come from those prejudices still pretty fresh?
Gianisa wrote thusly:
Holy crap. Snape was a Jewish moneylender?
OK I love Georgette Heyer, I do. My absolutely favourite comfort read for all the witty dialogue and rakish heroes and confident heroines. Love her. Doesn’t mean I can stomach the casual anti-Semitism which I did pick up on even as a teenager but I thought it was published earlier and, just like Agatha Christie who is guilty of the same stereotypes, a product of the times in which she lived – not an excuse, a reason. The 1950 pub date does negate this but in all the 1930s (and earlier) Golden Era crime novels and school stories quite repulsive stereotypes against every race and country were commonplace.
So, Darlene, great minds think alike…..
It’s a book of its time. Heyer is also a snob – by our standards. But she created the Regency genre, and anyone who is interested in knowing where it all began, it’s all in Heyer.
A shame you marked it so low just because of Goldhanger’s bit, which doesn’t take up an awful lot of the book. You could just about skip that and read the rest.
I love “Sophy,” but I’ve known it most of my life, and I’ve learned to live with her idiosyncrasies. Since she died in the early 1970’s, her books are almost historic in their own right, and now the attitudes and assumptions have dated, too.
But I’m still a huge fan of her work.
I saw the grade and thought, are you fucking crazy? In general I glaze over racism etc. in older books (and remember, this book is 61 years old, came out before GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (the first major movie to tackle anti-semitism).
Then again, I adore Heyer so much that I simply ignore the appalling classism (the adopted son in THESE OLD SHADES—horrors!) etc. Either you adore Heyer or you don’t.
However, I am sorry that it was personally painful. I do think 1950 was long enough in the past to overlook the casual racism.
There’s some in your face anti-Semitism in Dorothy L. Sayers, too. I reread both Heyer and Dorothy L. every year or so and have to brace myself when I know the offending passages are approaching. Can you imagine how Heyer and Sayers would have treated characters of color?
Stereotypes are products of ignorance, and of the times, and let me disillusion people who think WWII magically changed the prejudices of hundreds of years. Anti-Semitism was alive, well and institutionalized up until the 1960s when the civil rights movement made discrimination of most kinds not only uncool but illegal.
I still think Sayers and Heyer were brilliant writers and if either or both ladies were still with us and still writing, I have to think the social evolution of the past 60 years would be reflected in their novels. I remind myself of that every time I pick up one of their books.
Ngaio Marsh wrote a book that astonished me with its casual racism. And it was published in 1968.
That sort of thing throws me out of a book, and I have to stop and remind myself that these people were raised in a different era, and actually didn’t think they were being offensive. Doesn’t stop me from being offended, but I still stop and remind myself.
@Jessica Thompson: Mary Roberts Rinehart, too, and the Nancy Drew books, although those were apparently sanitized in later re-issues. I’d like to think that Maya Angelou is right, that when we know better, we do better, but, honestly, it is such an uphill battle.
Since someone mentioned Snape, I’ll veer off topic and ask: Was anyone else bothered by the movie depiction of the goblins at Gringott’s? Perhaps it was the same as in the books and I just didn’t notice, but I was as uncomfortable with how the bankers were portrayed as I was Jar Jar Binks. I just don’t understand how either was OK.
I hate that scene as much as you, Sarah, and it always pulls me out of the story. The MPDGishness of Sophy though, I always thought was Heyer’s homage to Flora Poste, the heroine of COLD, COMFORT FARM. Her manipulating and managing her relatives while remaining virtually unchanged is part of the humor of the novel and Heyer even gave her hero the same name as the love interest in COLD COMFORT. Although, those who’ve read COLD COMFORT would know that Flora would never own a parrot or monkey as ‘nature mustn’t be allowed to make things untidy’.
Thank you for the honest review, Sarah. I bought The Grand Sophy when it was on Kindle sale some months ago but hadn’t read it yet. I probably won’t read it now, and I certainly won’t buy any more of Heyer’s books, not even on sale because I won’t support racism with my shekels. The problem as I see it is that the affection for Heyer gives tacit approval for her attitudes and suggests that other authors of a more enlightened (??) time could choose to continue those stereotypes with the excuse, “Well, Heyer did it so it must be period appropriate.” Eventually, someone has to call a halt to it.
poor24—there go poor 24 Heyer books I won’t buy (I already own 3 of the Regencies)
Thank you, Sarah. I read one of Heyer’s novels a few years ago and while the antisemitism in that one was not as glaring as the excerpts I’ve seen from The Grand Sophy, it was nevertheless very disturbing. I have not read another of her books since. I won’t rule out trying to read her again in the future, if only because of her influence on the genre – but I will probably be very careful in choosing what to read (and how much, if at all, to spend on it).
As others have noted, it is one thing to overlook/accept antisemitism as a product of the times in older books; however, for a novel published a mere five years after the end of WW2 to contain that kind of characterization is inexcusable. I don’t know who was editing Heyer at the time, or how much control she had over the editorial process, but surely someone should have realized that it was in extreme poor taste?
The persecution of the Jews in WWII did not effect a miraculous transformation in the way people thought. It took time, as these things always do. For instance, it wasn’t until after WWI that women were enfranchised in most countries of the world. And racial prejudice was alive and kicking – even more so in the US, but it was rampant in the UK, too.
My family on my mother’s side are Romany gypsies. Prejudice is still there now. It doesn’t die all at once. Think of the song from “South Pacific,” “You have to be carefully taught.” It’s education that’s the answer, and that takes time.
It’s difficult and brave to go against the general thinking of a time and the vast majority of people don’t do it.
It does seem ridiculous to condemn a wonderful author like Heyer for an attitude that was common at the time. It’s not as if she can go back and change it!
Dickens, Fielding, Shakespeare – refuse to have anything to do with them as well?
In her biography of Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge stated that Heyer was descended from Russian Jews. I often make disparaging remarks about the Irish—but I figure it’s ok. After all, we’re the Irish, and if we can’t make fun of us. . .
When I read Sophy close to 40 years ago, I thought the Goldhanger scene was a riff on Shylock. Of course, at the age of 13, I knew precisely two Jewish people, my dentist and my piano teacher. Both lovely people, highly skilled in their fields. So I guess the antisemitism sailed past my teenaged head.
But I will admit, I always thought Sophy was one of her early efforts, as well.
Sadly, a lot of things are only seen as ‘in poor taste’ if they are about the author, the editor, or someone they care about. And in retrospect, of course. It’s easy to see now. But never underestimate the pig headed ignorance of the past.
Looking back on my childhood in the 70’s, I could never figure out why my father hated the show Banacek. The hero was Polish. We were Polish. The mysteries were twisty and fun. I loved it.
The whole premise of the show was “He’s a Pollack. But he’s smart!”
And thanks for that, NBC. I guess, in 1972, no one had explained to me what a backhanded compliment that was.
This is a really tough question. I oppose taking offensive language or stereotypes out of books, because I think it whitewashes the author’s bias.
For instance, many people find Mark Twain’s works offensive and want to “sanitize” his works to comply with modern sensibilities. However, some other people think characters like Jim were revolutionary for the time period. While I’m mixed on Jim, I think taking-out the n-word or other such nonsense merely puts a band-aid on racial prejudice. Racism in America is part of history and needs to be preserved in order to remind the horrors of the past and the need to strive towards a better tomorrow. Books like Huckleberry Finn serve as a teaching moment, but it is routinely on the annual list of books people try to ban from libraries.
As far as the antisemitism, I think it is a bit of a cop-out to claim that Heyer was simply a product of her time. Not everyone was anti-semitic in 1950, and sensitivity towards Jews and Judaism was more prevalent post WWII. Therefore, we have to say that Heyer was antisemitic and not just blame it on the era in which she was raised. We are all responsible for our actions and beliefs, whether or not they are widely accepted.
Basically, while I don’t agree with Heyer’s sentiment, it should be preserved, if only as a reminder to the prevalent antisemitism post WWII. However, this doesn’t always make for an enjoyable book.
BTW, I am a librarian at a theology library, and we have many antisemitic and anti-Islamic texts in our extensive reformation collection. We have copies of the Qur’an and the Masoretic Text with horrific opinions and interpretations. We need to preserve this history as well as the foundations of protestantism. But, I wouldn’t read any of these works for fun.
I like Heyer, but her novels are often a little mean-spirited, bigotry aside. Don’t get me wrong, they’re usually mean in a funny way, but there’s a lack of emotional generosity that keeps me from getting deeply involved with the characters.
@Anna Lawrence: Reading with the publication date in mind doesn’t work for me, given that it’s a mere five years after WWII and the Holocaust. Could there be a worse time to write something like that?
You know, I was researching origins of anti-Semitic stereotypes in fiction while I was writing this review, and the portrayal of the goblins was brought up as exactly as you referenced it – so stereotypical it was like Jar-Jar Binks, only with banking.
As for those who challenge my tolerance for other writers and for the grade I gave: I want to reiterate the points I made in the review: it wasn’t merely the caricature that ticked me off. It was the awkward, shabby and unskilled way in which the character was used, and that it highlighted everything else that was flawed in my opinion. Really, my reaction after the Goldfinger scene was, out loud, “Oh, come on. Is that really the best you could come up with?” It was lame when compared with her skill in other narrative aspects.
And this is, after all, my opinion. One of the new features hereabouts is “Classic Romance: Which One First” and for Heyer, I can’t recommend this one. I’d suggest “Devil’s Cub”, or “Venetia,” or “Cotillion” or the Armitage-read (and alas abridged) “Sylvester” in a hot minute. This book was spoiled for me due to the reasons I articulated. I adored “Devil’s Cub,” and liked “Venetia,” so it’s not a wholesale rejection of Heyer. I’m not saying I’ll never read her again, oh noes. But this one I cannot recommend, so I don’t.
Sarah, I really hope this doesn’t put you off reading more of her other books. I don’t personally like Venetia that much but Cotillion is an absolute joy.
I get uneasy when I am reading a book and bigoted name calling is used or the stereotype is described in detail to make sure you as the reader are clear on how awful said character is and represents their whole race/ethnic group.
Yes there are many authors out there that are misogynist, racist, or have questionable political views be it in their works or personally and we all have the choice if we want to read them or pass. It is very easy to dismiss these views as “of the times” and I believe that is what a lot of us do. This way we can be comfortable with why we continue to read said authors.
Personally, when I read romance, I am not looking for racism, abuse, or hard core topics. There are other authors I can turn to for that.
One more thing!
I want to make it clear, although I would hope this would be clear already, that just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean I think less of anyone who thinks this book is awesome and isn’t as bothered by the scenes as I am. This book didn’t work for me. But I don’t think less of people who hold it as one of their favorites. It’s not like I’m huffing on my tuffet over here thinking that anyone who likes this book likes anti-Semitism or anything like that. You’re welcome to argue with me if you’d like and tell me why you adore this book.
But then, I generally don’t think less of people who like things that I dislike. One of the best compliments I’ve received about this site was from someone who adored everything I hated, and hated all the books I liked.
Now, if I could have a tuffet it would be awesome. I imagine they are very comfortable.
Also: at the suggestion of some folks in the Heyer sale thread, I’m going to hold a chat on Heyer this week, probably Thursday night, so I hope you’ll come join us if you can!
Very helpful review! I’ve been debating whether to try a Heyer book and which to pick if I do. It won’t be this one! Bigotry is a bit of a pet peeve for me.
I am so annoyed with Sarah B. I live in L. A. anti-semitism is something I deal with often. Have you read The Help? Racism abound. What about the misogyny in so many romance novels, not mention date rape. The Grand Sophy is a wonderful book that should not be judged by a small incident with a very nasty man. My family left Europe in the 19th century and settled in London. Coin and gem dealers who were undoubtable a bit dodgy.
Georgette Heyer is an easy target, She’s dead.
I will continue to spend my shekels on her books along with Mr. William Shakespeare and Dorothy L. Sayers among others. Use you intellect!
I love Heyer. She WAS bigoted. She was class bigoted as well. And I confess that as a non-Jew I was not struck as harshly with Goldfinger; I thought it was inappropriate but it wasn’t a book killer for me. But I can see how it would be for others.
As for bigotry/racism not instantly going away and influences thereof, let me tell you of my grandmother. Born in 1894 (almost 30 years after the Civil War) in Henderson KY. Brought up as a wealthy shop owner’s daughter. Lost a love in WWI and ended up marrying a man over 20 years her senior. Didn’t know how to cook an egg when she first married and ended up an incredible cook. Smart, energetic, lovely woman. Traveled the world in later years, including moving to Korea for a year when in her 70s to teach English; just because she wanted to. Obviously quite well educated. An avid reader. Accomplished, worldly. I loved her like crazy.
She was convinced, all her life, of the indisputable fact (to her) that African Americans had smaller brains than white people and therefore must be taken care of and not trusted with highly technical jobs. It was what she was born into, it was how she was raised, and to think differently would not only be very uncomfortable for her, but an insult to her parents and family who also believed these things. Is it horrible that she thought that way? Of course. But to me it demonstrated the depth of inculcation that happens in families which forms our societal mores very early on and shapes our viewpoints forever. Some deeply rooted ideas take generations to yank out.
Was Heyer wrong? Of course she was. Was she also a product of her times and upbringing? Yep. And I still love her and am buying several books this week. I’ve not yet read Regency Buck OR Venetia!
@jody @darlynne I agree about Sayers who I also love. That upper class casual bigotry is really prevalent in so much 1920/1930 UK ficition whether it’s honest Cockneys/funny Chinese accents/Arab stereotypes. Painful BUT obviously part of society then just as so many 1960s/70s “comedy” shows are racist/sexist and I find that much more offensive as society should have evolved more then – and I 100% agree about the Gringot’s goblins, they make me very uncomfortable. But I still read and enjoy early 19th C books even whilst acknowledging the flaws.
A debate on Heyer sounds great by the way.
SB Sarah—I make tuffets for all my friends. You want one?
products51—yeah, i probably have about 51 products in my art shows, including tuffets
And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Bitchery is my favorite blog.
You go on with your classy self, Sarah!
@Linda – wait, tuffets are REAL?!
And thank you, Jody. I worried for a minute there that my strong negative reaction was going to prevent people from disagreeing with me!
I love The Grand Sophy, and (but?) I love this review, too. I admire Sarah for being able to articulate what she liked and found good about a book that deeply offended her. The review made me think about why and how I am able to “overlook” or “read around” the Goldhanger scene. It’s partly because the anti-Semitism doesn’t touch me personally, but I also realized that I focus on Sophy and what the scene is meant to show about her so as not to think too hard about the weak, stereotyped characterization of Goldhanger.
Though I love Heyer’s books, but I do not think the comparisons to Shakespeare and Dickens are apt. Both Shylock and Fagin (or even Riah, a more sympathetic but lesser-known Dickens character) are characterized in deeply anti-Semitic ways, but they are also much more nuanced and human characters than Goldhanger (granted, they are major, not minor, characters. But they are not just caricatures).
So I don’t think the fact that anti-Semitism was still common in the 50s is an excuse for this weak characterization. And while it helps explain Heyer’s anti-Semitism, and to accept it in a way we would not (I hope) in our contemporaries, that doesn’t mean we should shrug off its appearance in her fiction as “just how things were back then.” When I teach 19th century literature, I don’t ignore the sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. in it. We talk about it. I can still love books with those elements, as I love Sophy. But I shouldn’t pretend they aren’t there, and that’s why I thank Sarah for this review.
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