Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

I love this book! I think The Grand Sophy only improved with a second reading, firmly establishing Sophy Stanton-Lacy in my mind as Heyer's most admirable female character. While Heyer created many intelligent heroines, Sophy quite casts them all in the shade, being endowed with a degree of understanding usually reserved for the heroes of these books, and then only the most exceptional. Having spent most of her life on the continent in diplomatic circles, Sophy enters her aunt's household in Berkeley Square while her father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, attends a mission in the Americas. In little or no time this remarkably self-possessed young lady has not only all her cousin's dancing on her strings, but a large swath of the London Ton as well. The most remarkable aspect of her maneuvers is that she never makes a misstep, quite in the style of the Duke of Avon (read all about him in my review of These Old Shades), but with completely benevolent intentions, even if her methods are the most audacious imaginable.

Now a terribly clever lady would not be so very charming if she failed to possess a devilishly biting wit, and Sophy uses her's to infuriate when the ends justify the means. I love this early encounter with her cousin, Charles Rivenhall, who has long acted as the patriarch of the family (his father having failed in this light), and, as result, has developed rather tyrannical habits which Sophy is determined to correct:
"I must buy a carriage, and don't know whether to choose a curricle or a high-perch phaeton. Which do you recommend, cousin?"

"Neither," he replied, steadying his horses round a bend in the street.

"Oh?" said Sophy, rather surprised. "What, then?"

He glanced down at her. "You are not serious, are you?"

"Not serious? Of course I am serious!"

"If you wish to drive, I will take you in the Park one day," he said. "I expect I can find a horse - or even a pair - in the stables quiet enough for a lady to drive."

"Oh, I fear that would never do!" said Sophy, shaking her head.

"Indeed? Why not?"

"I might excite the horse," said Sophy dulcetly.

He was momentarily taken aback. Then he laughed, and said: "I beg your pardon: I had no intention of offending you! But you cannot need a carriage in London. You will no doubt drive out with my mother, and if you should wish to go on some particular errand you may always order one of the carriages to be sent round to the house for your use."

"That," said Sophy," is very obliging of you, but will not suit me quite so well. Where does one buy carriages in London?"

"You will scarcely drive yourself about the town in a curricle!" he said. "Nor do I consider a high-perch phaeton at all a suitable vehicle for a lady to drive. I should not care to see any of my sisters making the attempt."

"You must remember to tell them so," said Sophy affably. "Do they mind what you say to them? I never had a brother myself, so I can't know."

There was a slight pause, while Mr Rivenhall, unaccustomed to sudden attacks, recovered his presence of mind. It did not take him very long. "It might have been better for you if you had, cousin!" he said grimly.

"I don't think so," said Sophy, quite unruffled. "The little I have seen of brothers makes me glad that Sir Horace never burdened me with any."

"Thank you! I know how I may take that, I suppose!"

"Well, I imagine you might, for although you have a great many antiquated notions I don't think you stupid, precisely."

"Much obliged! Have you any other criticisms you would care to make?"

"Yes, never fly into a miff when you are driving a high-couraged pair! You took that last corner much too fast."
Needless to say, Sophy gets her high-perch phaeton and pair and proves herself quite the whip. Many people in this book try to curb Sophy's behavior and provide direction she is entirely without need of, in particular Mr. Rivenhall's prim and sour fiancee, Miss Eugenia Wraxton. As I often seem to be unable to resist quoting large swaths of Heyer (her dialogue is just too funny!), allow me to cite the first of many moments in which Sophy puts Miss Wraxton firmly in her place:
"I am persuaded that you must find our London ways strange at first."

"Why, I imagine that cannot differ greatly from those of Paris, or Vienna, or even Lisbon!" said Sophy.

"I have never visted those cities, but I believe - indeed I am sure! - that the tone of London is vastly superior," said Miss Wraxton.

Her air of calm certainty struck Sophy as being so funny that she went into a peal of laughter. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" she gasped. "But it is so ridiculous, you know!"

"I expect it must seem so to you," agreed Miss Wraxton, her calm quite unimpaired. "I understand that a great deal of licence is permitted on the Continent to females. Here it is not so. Quite the recerse! To be thought bad ton, dear Miss Stanton-Lacy, would be very dreadful. I know that you will not take it amiss if I give you a hint. You will of course wish to attend the Assemblies at Almack's, for instance. I assure you, the veriest breath of criticism to reach the ears of the patronesses, and you may say farewell to any hope of obtaining a voucher from them. Tickets may not be purchased, you know. It is most exclusive! The riles, too, are very strict, and must not be contravened by a hairsbreadth."

"You terrify me," said Sophy. "Do you think I shall be blackballed?"

Miss Wraxton smiled. "Hardly, since you will make your debut under Lady Ombersley's aegis! She will no doubt tell you just how you should conduct yourself, if her health permits her to take you there. It is unfortunate that circumstances have prevented me from occupying that position which would have enabled me to have relieved her of such duties."

"Forgive me!" interrupted Sophy, whose attention had been wandering, "but I think Madam de Lievan is waving to me, and it would be very uncivil not to notice her!"

She rode off as she spoke, to where a smart barouche was drawn up beside the track, and leaned down from her saddle to shake the languid hand held up to her.

"Sophie!" pronounced the Countess. "Sir Horace told me I should meet you here. You were galloping ventre a terre; never do so again! Ah, Mrs Burrell, permit me to present to you Miss Stanton-Lacy!"

The lady seated beside the Ambassador's wife bowed slightly, and allowed her lips to relax into an infinitesimal smile. This expanded a little when she observed Miss Wraxton, following in Sophy's wake, and she inclined her head, a great mark of condescension.

Countess Lieven nodded to Miss Wraxton, but went on talking to Sophy. "You are staying with Lady Ombersley. I am a little acquainted with her, and I shall call. She will spare you to me perhaps one evening. You have not seen Princess Esterhazy yet, or Lady Jersey? I shall tell them I have met you, and they will want to hear how Sir Horace does. What did I promise Sir Horace I would do? Ah, but of course! Almack's! I will send you a voucher ma chere Sophie, but do not gallop in Hyde Park." She then told her coachman to drive on, included the whole of Sophy's party in her light, valedictory smile, and turned to continue her interrupted conversation with Mrs Drummond Burrell.

"I was not aware that you were acquianted with the Countess Lieven," said Miss Wraxton.

"Do you dislike her?" Sophy asked, aware of the coldness in Miss Wraxton's voice. "Many people do, I know. Sir Horace calls her the greatest intriguante, but she is clever, and can be very amusing. She has a tendre for him, as I daresay you have guessed. I like Princess Esterhazy better myself, I own, and Lady Jersey better than either of them, because she is so much more sincere, in spite of that restless manner of hers."

"Dreadful woman!" said Charles. "She never stops talking! She is known as Silence, in London."

"Is she? Well, I am sure, if she knows it, she does not care a bit, for she dearly loves a joke."

"You are fortunate in knowing so many of the Patronesses of Almack's," observed Miss Wraxton.

Sophy gave her irrepressible chuckle. "To be honest, I think my good fortune lies in having an accomplished flirt for a father!"
If any of you, dear readers, happen to be so uninitiated as to be quite in the dark regarding who the illustrious historical figures mentioned in the passage above are, let me urge you to both read this article on RomanceWiki and look at the wonderful images supplied of the exclusive club's most memorable patronesses at The Romantic Query Letter and The Happy-Ever-After blog posthaste.

I am afraid I cannot complete a review of this book without touching on a sensitive topic. As many readers of this blog have probably deciphered, I am Jewish, and there is a scene in this novel where Sophy visits about the most disreputable member of those money-lenders referred to at the time as "the Jews" imaginable. I did not think much of it, or take the slightest offense, when I first read the book - no more than I did upon reading The Merchant of Venice or Oliver Twist - but shortly afterward I read a very interesting review of the book by a fellow blogger, for whom I have the utmost respect, in which she expressed extreme and legitimate discomfort with Heyer's portrayal. We engaged in a bit of healthy debate over the issue, which I do not believe resulted in either of us changing our mind's on the subject, but in light of the recent controversy raging over Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and I feel the need to reiterate my perspective on this subject. Political correctness is a very modern notion, and while it does indeed help to foster a more civil discourse, I feel it often inhibits our ability to discuss the very real racism that continues to flourish in our society and to understand both the present and historical consequences of such intolerance. I urge readers to not allow this episode of The Grand Sophy to undermine their enjoyment of this otherwise delightful novel, but to use it as a means of understanding a very real aspect of 19th century society. The reason Jews historically functioned as money-lenders was because of ancient religious prohibitions against Christians acting in this capacity. Money-lending allowed a marginalized sect to carve a useful place for themselves inside a hostile society, and, as in any profession, there were those who abused their position. Heyer depicts the very worst of these, and I admit to thinking that her feelings on Jews were probably not what most of us would deem acceptable, but it does not change the fact that she was a marvelous and extremely historically accurate writer, and by expressing her own, relatively modern prejudices (this book was first published in 1950), she has inadvertently provided us with an opportunity to understand hatred and intolerance. Not reading this book because of this scene is like removing a very offensive word from a masterpiece of American literature because we are too timid to confront the reality it highlights, and on that note, I will bring an end to both my rant and to this post. Enjoy the remains of the weekend everyone!


  1. Alexa - You just keep picking some of my favorite Heyer books. I want to be Sophie when I grow up!

    Take Care

  2. Thanks KellyKoz!

    Hi Jj - I still speak about what I'll be when I grow up too. At what age does that phraseology expire? I think it's safe to say never!

  3. This is one I haven't read yet. Tho' I have read several others and I'm having a horrible time figuring out which is my favorite.

  4. Hi suzan. Understandable dilemma! The Grand Sophy is a favorite of many, but mine is a toss up between Friday's Child or Cotillion.