Book Review

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer


Title: The Grand Sophy
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publication Info: Sourcebooks 1950 / 2009
ISBN: 9781402218941
Genre: Regency

Book CoverThis 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.


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!)

Dancing GoldmemberIn 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.

This book is available from Amazon | Kindle | BN & nook | WORD Brooklyn  | AllRomance | BookDepository

Comments are Closed

  1. Sunita says:

    Oops, I forgot to specify that the population figure is for 1800.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Sunita!  (And to others for their kind words.)  I’ve been wasting a little time googling the topic, and one more footnote might be in order: The London Stock Exchange was first regulated in 1801, but opened in 1761 with a club of 150 “dealers” in stocks.  So assuming that it had expanded slightly by 1800, 200 brokers is a reasonable round number, which would make the 12 Jew Brokers approximately 0.06% of the stock exchange.  The population figure quoted by Sunita, and measured against the total population of the 1801 census, at just over 8 million people, would make Jews only about 0.003% of the general population.  So Jews were disproportionately over-represented in the financial industry compared to Christians (although by no stretch of the imagination could one say that “most” Jews were involved in financial services).  On the other hand since the general figures involve fractions of tenths of one percent, the idea of the “Jewish moneylender” probably owes more to stereotype than reality.

  3. Pensnest says:

    Just a quick note on Rebecca’s last comment: according to your figures, Jews represented 6%, not 0.06%, of the money brokers, and 0.3% of the general population – so quite considerably over-represented.  However, it certainly still leaves the vast majority of the financial industry being run by Christians.

  4. GrowlyCub says:


    very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to type all that up.

    One point though, I didn’t think the discussion was whether all Jews were money-lenders, but rather whether all money-lenders during that time frame in Britain were Jewish or not. Or in other words, if Heyer needed a money-lender villain for her story did he have to be Jewish (and I’m not addressing the way Goldhanger is described in detail here at all, just whether or not there were any money-lender that weren’t Jewish).  I’ve tried to do some research and have come up woefully empty with the resources at hand.

  5. Rebecca says:

    @Pensnest; Oops, lost a few decimal points there.  My face is red.

    @GrowlyCub: I think part of the problem is the conflation of stockbrokers, banks, and moneylenders.  Over 90% of what we would now call the financial services industry might have been controlled by Christians, but I simply have no idea about small moneylenders, pawnbrokers, etc. who operated on the margins of society (and of course on a much more slender profit margin than the great houses).  So it’s pretty easy to trace the history of the great merchant banks, like Barings and Hope & Co. (Christians) or Rothschild (Jews), but your average money-lender is pretty invisible.  It’s the difference in modern New York between the Wall Street firms and multi-nationals like JP Morgan/Chase and the local check-cashing place in poorer neighborhoods where people live from paycheck to paycheck.  JP Morgan’s owners are easily found on the public record.  Who owns the check cashing place down the block?  I have no idea.  But I’ll take a bet that you’ll find more modern check cashing places or pawnbrokers owned by ethnic minorities (who live in the neighborhoods they serve) than you will find minority managers of the great Wall Street banks.  That might have held true in early 19th century London as well.  The kind of banker one met in a social setting, and who had the genteel corner office in the City might well have had a very different background from the moneylender in a dubious neighborhood.  (The rich man in the corner office, then as now, was much MORE likely to be playing fast and loose with the law than the “dodgy” character in the cubicle, but that’s a connection very few people make.)

  6. I went off to do a bit of searching and came up with a couple of items that seemed relevant. In Todd M. Endelman’s The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society it says that:

    The hoary association of Jews with moneylending – a source of social disharmony for centuries – also persisted in the Georgian period, although it appears to have been limited largely to lending to members of the aristocracy who lived beyond their means. Charles James Fox, a compulsive gambler and a consistent loser who was capable of losing £10,000 in a night, made good his losses by borrowing sums at high rates from Jewish moneylenders. George Walpole, the third Earl of Orford, was in debt to Jewish moneylenders. […] According to [his uncle, Horace] Walpole, it was common for “youths of brilliant genius” who ran up large debts at cardplaying to borrow from Jews “at vast usury.” The two eldest sons of the first Lord Foley contracted gambling debts of of close to £220,000 before the death of their father and only met their obligations by borrowing from Jewish moneylenders. (212-213)

    As for the persistence of antisemitism after 1945, since Heyer wrote detective fiction as well as historical fiction/romances, Malcolm J. Turnbull’s Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction seems relevant. He states that “Occasional evocations of the Jew as moneylender/usurer continue to surface for more than a decade after 1945” (129). He does include some quotes from Heyer’s detective fiction but unfortunately those pages aren’t available via Google Books.

  7. Asperity says:

    For anybody who wants Regencies featuring Jewish spies as a palate-cleanser, I recommend Nita Abrams’ Couriers series. And apparently they were suggested in a HABO from a few years back that might be useful.

  8. JanetW says:

    Sunita shared—

    Consider the example of the “Jew” (John) King, who was a famous Georgian moneylender and to whom Heyer refers in at least one book (April Lady?). He was a fascinating, complex man who was politically active and well connected politically and socially. Heyer reduces him to just a Jewish moneylender, and she emphasizes his dishonesty but does not put it in the larger context of cheating, gambling aristocrats who did whatever they could to avoid paying their debts. Not exactly the honorable aristocratic behavior that she preferred to showcase.

    I didn’t remember the specifics of April Lady’s abortive trip to the moneylender (didn’t Felix stop it in time?) but the name King twigged something in my memory. Ah ha, Jessica visited a Mr. King in His Lordship’s Mistress—a bland and bankerly money lender who had no personality of any kind. Yes, he would have preferred Jessica defaulted but he was happy with the interest he made. And that’s all Joan Wolf wrote. He was needed for the plot I suppose? I do remember Jessica wanting to see a gambling den—since she worked so devilishly hard herself she wanted to see young men throw away everything on the roll of the dice.

  9. Arianne says:

    I don’t think the use of an Jewish moneylender in Grand Sophy automatically gives the book a D. It is a trope heavily used in literature before World War II and a product of society during the period. I think that it’s important to understand that a lot of the prejudice is due to the way people were raised as children. It may be wrong today but it was acceptable then and to apply modern standards seems unjust. If you ‘fail’ Georgette Heyer based on her use of this trope, then you’d have to fail Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, G.K. Chesterton and his Father Brown shorts, all the Golden Age of Mystery authors (who all wrote well into the 60s), and a lot of great writers of the 19th and 20th century. Even the interpretation the stereotype in The Merchant of Venice is relatively new to this century. Readers in the past certainly took it as a straight up criticism on “Jewish Moneylenders.” Anti-semiticism is a horrible thing, but to demonise people who may have had that sentiment is unfair as well. I think Faellie, Ann Somerville, and FairyKat say it best for me. Perhaps the focus should be on contemporary writers who discriminate against religions today as it is something that can be remedied. No case would I ever agree to editing/bowdlerising out books to remove traces of uncomfortable ideas. I think we should expect readers in the present and future to be more enlightened about them.

    To be honest, I try to separate novels from their authors (I tend to hate knowing what they were like or how they supposedly intended the story to mean, I like to figure it out for myself) and this article and not the use of a bad trope has come close to ruining the book for me. Sometimes I hate how the need to be PC can kill the pure enjoyment of something.

  10. ghn says:

    I have not read this book, though I am quite fond of Heyer. I do find her books rather old-fashioned, and sometimes incorporating points of view or other things that I don’t care for.
    I also don’t like bigotry when I encounter it in books. Any bigotry – not only this particular flavor. I find I can disregard it if the book is good enough otherwise, but there are certain authors whose books I because of the bigotry and just plain wrong-headed attitudes they put into their books.
    The Grand Sophy is an older book. It was written after WWII, yes, but the author was just about middle-aged when she wrote it, and I don’t think she would have changed her attitude overnight. It sounds like she needed a villain, and she took the easy way out and plugged in an easily identifiable stereotype for that particular character. That smacks of lazy writing to me, really, but the author might simply have been concentrating on those aspects of the book that she considered more important – or simply more fun to write.
    Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t really know if this character is one that would have had me throwing the book across the room.
    I might – but then again, I might have found that I enjoyed the other parts of the book too much.

  11. kkw says:

    Thanks so much to all of you who replied with details and book recommendations.  Exactly what I was looking for.  @Rebecca – I actually live in Williamsburg and I surely owe you a drink.

  12. ellid says:

    I tried reading this book on the recommendation of several people, and I couldn’t stand it.  Glad to know that others aren’t completely enamored of Heyer – I’ve tried more than one of her books, and find her very overrrated.

  13. Jess B. says:

    Wow, am I late in reacting to this thread, and I’m no where through reading all the comments, but I just needed to take a moment to call out authors Lynne Connolly and Anne Stuart.  Nice casual dismissal of racism guys!

    I’m not going to do the classic internet flounce and swear upon my mother’s grave (God forbid something happen to her) that I’ll never support you or your publishers again, but seriously?  “Oh it was the 50s!” is a weak defense at best, and it’s disappointing to see it deployed by authors I respect.

    Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll go finish reading the rest of the discussion.

  14. Lily B says:

    I disagree entirely about the meddling and the anti-Semitism.

    I love this book because Sophy is a fixer. Although Charles does regain the upper hand at the end (which of course Heyer believes in), for most of the story, Sophy affects events, and very positively. I love seeing a young woman of shrewd understanding work to help make people happier.

    As for the anti-Semitism, Heyer’s personal situation has been ably discussed above. Sophy is behaving in character, seeing the world in character, too. She tells the moneylender he’s a faker, and criticizes his filthy office, as I recall. She’s onto his “I’m the grasping Jew who has you in my clutches” routine, and she scoffs at it. That’s the whole point of the scene. She knows he’s not a very nice person but that he also exaggerates who he is and plays on his bogeyman reputation as “the other”—which she sees through. Greasy curls or not, he’s still a villain willing to capitalize on a young man’s folly and threaten a young lady’s physical safety.   

    Any Jew reading this book has a right to take offense at it, of course, but most Jews I know (and I am married to one, so I know quite a few) do not waste a lot of angst over decades-old stereotyping. They’re more concerned about racism that still exists TODAY.

    Similarly, I take offense at numerous books and movies WRITTEN TODAY that demean women. The Grand Sophy is a book that empowers women. To give it a D is to miss the most important aspect of the story.

  15. They’re more concerned about racism that still exists TODAY.

    Similarly, I take offense at numerous books and movies WRITTEN TODAY that demean women.

    Lily, dear, you do realise that Derailing for Dummies is snark, not a real instruction manual, right?

    And that you aren’t actually Jewish, or indeed know the feelings of every Jew, so you really shouldn’t be trying to lay any guilt down over what Jews feel about heinous stereotyping, no matter how old (and it’s still being used. Wake up and smell the anti-semitism.) YOu have a number of Jewish women explaining great detail here why they’re rightfully offended (as well as a number of Nice White Women explaining just as you have why they have no right to their experiences – really, it’s been a repulsive display of privilege.) Why not listen to them and not ust your tiny circle of friends – it’s improbable, I know, but you might learn something.

    You say you take offense at books which demean women today. Well, Lily, I take offense at people who give nasty anti-Semetic stereotyping a pass because of a supposed pro-feminist viewpoint by the author. LIberal displays on one axis aren’t like Cilit Bam, you know. They don’t wash away the grime and smell of all the other horrible shit in a book.

    You can admire this book for its good points, and still recognise the bad. It’s not all or nothing.

  16. Ridley says:

    “Some of my best friends are Jewish,” she said with a straight face.

  17. Jess B. says:

    LIberal displays on one axis aren’t like Cilit Bam, you know.

    I read Cilit Bam as Clit Barn…. somethings wrong with me…

  18. Rebecca says:

    @Ann – Ok, I just read “Derailing for Dummies” and am now seriously unsure whether to be laughing maniacally or crying.  That is some deep brilliance there.  Though deeply disturbing.

    @LilyB – I like to think that any empathy (NOT of the derailing for dummies type, I hope!) I have for those who are marginalized today comes from my feelings about past stereotypes about Jews.  (Let’s be honest, in New York in the 21st century, I can’t really claim to be part of a marginalized group.)  I absolutely respect your lived experience.  But I wonder if you would feel comfortable reading the scene aloud to your husband?  Or to your mother-in-law or sisters-in-law?

  19. Aurora says:

    Even if you graduate from a university, it looks like one’s education or exposure isn’t over. I majored in history, (primarily Jewish history during different periods, but not regency…) and it saddens me that people continue marginalize emotions others are feeling. I am honestly saddened that Jewish people were seen that way throughout history, and due to these circumstances and more are continuing to be stereotyped against.  (Especially Jewish women characters…)

    Out of curiosity, Lily B, if you were a Jewish male and you picked up this book and saw this scene, what would your reaction be I wonder?

    If you watched a movie or read a book that portrayed women shallowly (let’s say for example Louise de la Valliere,) you will be upset because Louise absolutely does NOTHING and she’s nothing but a helpless woman who lets herself be controlled by King Louis. (At least in Dumas’ portrayal…)

    Being part of a heritage that’s been persecuted for two thousand if not more years, it isn’t pleasant to run into scenes where we are portrayed negatively because it feels like an attack on person as well as beliefs, and that is not a pleasant sensation.

    I’m not trying to pick a fight or anything, but I’m simply stating my opinion. If you are positive your husband will not be offended, or anyone else, read them that scene and see their reactions. Even if they might not be offended, they might get sad because of the scene.

    (My apologies if anything I said was offensive…)

    Word: Normal82
    I do not feel normal today, not at all…

  20. Lee Rowan says:

    @Robinjn… I have a friend who breeds Shelties; I know that close attention to genetic risks can produce eminently healthy dogs. BUT:  I also know people who love Collies who were disgusted with the narrow-skulled, needle-nosed specimens that were in fashion for awhile, and I’d also contend that English Bulldogs, many of whom are too weak in the hindquarters to breed unassisted and too narrow for many females to birth their own puppies without Cesarean, are proof that humans did those animals an injustice breeding them to look the way they do.  And I won’t get into the eye-socket difficulties of Pugs or hip dysplasia in larger breeds.  I’ve seen enough of the dog-show world, secondhand, to convince me that it’s as much politics as love of any breed—how is it that the same coterie of ‘important’ breeders and celebrity owners always manage to slide through the narrow registration window for Westminster?  I’ll stick with mutts.

    @ LilyB..  I find Sophy a bit tiresome because of the assumption of superiority inherent in her ‘fixer’ attitude—she knows better than anyone else how they should be living their lives, but she also assumes the rules don’t apply to her—she’ll gallop in Hyde Park if she chooses.  And when she borrowed Charles’ young, untrained horse solely to tick him off, she was risking not only her own life, but the horse’s – and anyone who might have been injured if he’d got away from her.  Yeah, she was fun for the most part, but at times I could have slapped her.

    @ almost everyone in re: Shylock… I’ve always seen that character as Shakespeare’s version of Jim in Huck Finn… “Do we not bleed?”  The way the part is played can make a big difference, but to me it seemed to exaggerate the stereotype in order to refute it.  And didn’t Sophy point out to Goldbanger that if he’d had a daughter, she would have tidied the place up?  Are we to bemoan the stereotype of men as slobs when left to their own devices?  (Unfair, I know; there is too much evidence to support that case.)

    And, historians, correct me if I’m wrong, but a Jewish guy I once dated told me that many Jews got into finance and the learned professions because they were, in England, forbidden to own property.

    I do think that we’re getting into touchy territory when we start seeing the suggestion that anything controversial should be avoided because it might “make someone sad.”  Not suggesting that anyone write without considering the effect on her readers, but I’m sure that self-righteous young church-ladies are upset at the portrayal of Eugenia. 

    And I don’t think extortionate moneylenders are any less admirable than wealthy aristos who fret about their ‘debts of honor’ created by stupid overindulgence but think nothing of defrauding tradespeople who were trying to make a living.  Heyer’s characters who wallow in self-pity because their own bad habits have run them into trouble irritate the hell out of me, as does Heyer’s kid-glove treatment of some of them.  I wouldn’t have blamed Kit Fancot if he’d locked his lying, self-indulgent mother in the attic until he at least got her bills paid off.

  21. LilyB says:

    Sophy acknowledges to her opponent in this scene that if the situation were different, she would be in a caring child-to-parent relationship him. That is acknowledging his humanity, not discriminating against him as a non-human or someone whose race she despises. She despises his behavior, and rightly so. This book does not deserve a D rating based on this scene.

    For years I avoided reading any Jack London because he was reputed to be a racist. When I finally read Call of the Wild, I realized how foolish it was to count someone out based on other people’s hindsight criticism of him. None of us will look perfect to the people of a century in the future.

    It would be a shame if someone missed this book by Heyer, or indeed, decided to give all her works a pass, based on this one scene. On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that the scene has been held up to debate; people who feel especially sensitive to the portrayal of this moneylender certainly don’t need to be blindsided by it.

    I don’t know the particulars of your bitter life experiences, but then neither do you know the particulars of mine. Please don’t assume a life of privilege or a history of inclusion in Western European society just because I am not a birth member of your specific marginalized group. There are plenty of marginalized groups to go around, and I’m in some of them. Let’s leave it at that.

  22. Please don’t assume a life of privilege or a history of inclusion in Western European society just because I am not a birth member of your specific marginalized group.

    I don’t care if you’re a black one-legged Muslim – you airily dismissed the concerns of a disprivileged group to which you don’t belong. You actually tried to belittle their concerns, and then hid behind the classic ‘Some of my best friends are X’, which immediately marks out your argument as specious.

    You’re not offended by the portrayal of a Jewish character in this book. Whoopdedoo. What makes your opinion superior or relevant beyond those with lived experiences of anti-Semitism?

    Every person (I think) commenting on this post is female – so we’re all automatically members of a disprivileged group. If you think that gives you or us any pass on bigoted, ignorant comments, or means we don’t have to give a shit about racism, anti-Semitism or any other ism, then you are wrong.

    Let’s leave it at that.

    You don’t get to control the responses to your comments or the parameters of the discussion either. I don’t want your life history, nor do I consider myself entitled to it, but if you’re going to throw it out there without further details as a defence to stupidity, don’t be surprised if that defence is mocked. Even if you *were* Jewish, you don’t get to invalidate the opinions of other Jews, just as the rampant anti-feminism of right-wing female politicians, doesn’t invalidate the views of women who are feminists.

  23. As a woman, a reader and a Jew, I find Goldhanger irredeemably offensive. I am quite aware of the prejudices of 19th century writers, but even those writers raised in a culture of bigotry could sometimes find their way out. For example, Mark Twain, raised in a slave state, wrote one of the finest American novels, Huckleberry Finn, about a white boy who decides to help free a black slave. Yes, he’s called “Nigger Jim”, and yes, it was a perjorative even then. But it works as a brilliant device to continually reinforce to the reader that the time and place and culture of that book accepted that appellation as normative, descriptive and right. It reinforces the theme of entrenched racism, a racism so bone-deep even in Huck that he never questions whether the institution itself is flawed. Rather, he takes the whole matter on personal terms, and despite being a product of a culture that tells him that helping a slave escape will condemn them both to hell, decides to forfeit his soul anyway. Despite his inculcation in the values of the white owner class, he rejects them based on instinct and love, making a personal connection to Jim that goes beyond their predefined, stereotypical roles as white and black. It’s a masterwork of subtlety and characterization, that takes the notion of a stereotypical “nigger” and turns him into the emotional heart of a story.

    Comes Georgette Heyer, also raised in an atmosphere of prejudice and misunderstanding, with an institutionalized perception of Jews as Other. Does she rise above the stereotypes fed her? Does she strive for any authenticity of voice, of character, of delineation? As noted, Heyer could take a two-sentence intrusion of a groom into a story and make it memorable and unique, could write a character in only a few strokes that took it above the mundane. So why, in this instance, did she repeat flat and clumsy stereotypes? Why did she abandon her normal propensity for writing acute, memorable, and DIFFERENT characters, characters that did NOT mirror the works of others? We will never know.

    I will not presume to analyze a woman long dead, and I am always suspicious of efforts to tie a writer’s personality to any specific work. Writers can write about murder without being murderers, they can write about racism without being racists. My quarrel with Heyer is not that she wrote an anti-semitic passage, it is that she confused characterization with caricature. It was just plain bad writing. Even Shakespeare, steeped in the mindless anti-semitism of his time, owed enough to his art to make Shylock memorable for what was NOT part of the stereotype.

    As for Dorothy Sayers, yes, she wrote some anti-semitic passages, and yes, Lord Peter is at times rather casually racist. But I always remember that one of Lord Peter’s enduring friends in the books is Freddy Arbuthnot, the very quintessence of the John Bull minor aristocrat. Freddy marries a Jewish woman and not only remains Lord Peter’s good friend, but plays a significant part in a couple of mysteries. His is a portrait of a sympathetic man allied to the Jewish community, a man who still moves in the same circles as Lord Peter, who is obviously happily married to his Other-ish wife. It’s not an ideal, but it is an honestly drawn, honestly portrayed character. I would expect nothing less from Sayers. And it throws into high relief the real problem with Goldhanger: not that he’s a stereotype, but that Heyers, in this instance, was not writing honestly.

  24. Michele says:

    My post on an Austen discussion board about Heyer started a discussion about disturbing passages/characters in general, and I just loved this response from another member:

    “Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”

    He was talking about the banning of “communist” books, but I think it applies to book in general. Reading offensive bits – racist, sexist or whatever – even by a favorite author reminds us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and that ALL people, even writers, great and small, are human and capable of human frailty.

    That said, sounding all noble and all, there are plenty of books and authors I hate with a resounding passion over some passage, plot, character or other that offends my sensibilities, and which I wouldn’t read or recommend. I guess Eisenhower had a wise point there at the end – if it offends YOUR sense of decency, don’t read it. That’s the only acceptable form of censorship.

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