Cross-posted on my blog.
The Grand Sophy was published in 1950, between Arabella and The Quiet Gentleman. It is set in 1816, in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
In spite of one glaringly problematic aspect, which will be further discussed below,The Grand Sophy is my absolute favorite Heyer of all that I have read because I adore Sophy. She is a simply wonderful heroine – outspoken, self-confident, and well-liked in spite of her occasionally unconventional behavior. She is basically the Annie Oakley of regency England right down to the pistol.
Her verbal sparring with the ultimate hero, Charles Rivenhall, is laugh out loud funny:
‘I’ll take care of that!’ he retorted. ‘Let me tell you, my dear cousin, that I should be better pleased if you would refrain from meddling in the affairs of my family!’
‘Now, that,’ said Sophy, ‘I am very glad to know, because if ever I should desire to please you I shall know just how to set about it. I daresay I shan’t, but one likes to be prepared for any event, however unlikely.’
Charles is obviously confounded by Sophy, when she shows up at his house with a dog, a monkey and an attitude. He likes her, at times a great deal, but is befuddled by her lack of fainting spells, her out-spokenness, and her meddling nature as she starts to set things right with his family. Charles is engaged to the antithesis of Sophy, Eugenia Wraxton, who is well-bred, humorless, and smug. One of the funniest aspects of this book is watching Charles struggle with the priggish Miss Wraxton because he is completely loyal to his family, and while he is perfectly comfortable criticizing them, woe betide the person who has the audacity to be critical of them in his presence. Eugenia makes this unfortunate mistake on more than one occasion.
There are two events in the book that really establish the worth of both Sophy and Charles Rivenhall, though. The innocent young man stumbling into debt through gambling is often a feature of Heyer’s stories, and this one is no exception – Charles’ younger brother, Hubert, has found himself deep in debt from gambling and tries to recover his fortunes by taking out a loan from a usurer and betting on a horse race. This – of course – goes badly, and Hubert is deeply ashamed as well as completely demoralized. Sophy is able to extract the truth from him with some skilful and sympathetic questioning, and offers to loan him the money to repay the lender, which he refuses. When Hubert is too ashamed to come clean with Charles, Sophy, naturally, takes matters into her own hands and visits the moneylender.
This could be a successful and funny device to show Sophy’s intrepid nature because she handles the whole thing with aplomb and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, Heyer endows the blackmailer with many of the most pernicious stereotyped character traits of a Jewish moneylender, which makes the entire interaction uncomfortable for the modern day reader. Whether or not Heyer was actually anti-Semitic I will let scholars who have studied her critically address. All I can say about this part of the book is that it detracts from the story in the same way that the unfortunate caricaturing of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s detracted from that fine movie. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, although I can see how it could for other readers. It is doubly unfortunate because there was simply no need for it, so the only conclusion I can draw is that Heyer did it on purpose for effect. Her narrative goals could have been served by any character that was greasy, unpleasant, and criminal. There are – were – plenty of character types from which she could have drawn without bigotry.
Leaving aside that blight on the book, Charles, as well, shows to advantage as a result of this episode. Far from reproaching his younger brother, he takes Hubert into his confidence and explains that the gaming of their father has left the family essentially destitute, and accepts responsibility for the rift that made it impossible for Hubert to confide in him.
‘Well, I had better make a clean breast of the whole! I went to a rascally moneylender, and I borrowed five hundred from him, for six months. I thought I should have won every penny back, and more beside, at Newmarket. But the damnable screw was unplaced!’ He saw his brother’s expression, and said: ‘You need not look like that! I swear I shall never do so again as long as I live! Of course I ought to have come rather to you, but –’
‘You should have come to me, and that you did not must have been far more my fault than yours!’
The second event relates to the youngest sibling, Amabel, who becomes extremely ill during the course of the book. Charles returns home to find the house in disarray, his mother taken to her bed, and his sister, Cecilia, and Sophy, in charge of nursing the ill child.
Oh, yes, tell about the time you were lost in the Pyrenees!’ begged Amabel drowsily. Sophy did so, her voice sinking as the little girl’s eyelids began to droop. Mr Rivenhall sat still and silent on the other side of the bed, watching his sister. Presently Amabel’s deeper breathing betrayed that she slept. Sophy’s voice ceased; she looked up, and met Mr Rivenhall’s eyes. He was staring at her, as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Her gaze remained steady, a little questioning. He rose abruptly, half-stretched out his hand, but let it fall again, and, turning, went quickly out of the room.
Am I crazy, because I'm seeing this:
Swoon. No, seriously. I just died.
For the ending, Heyer brings together all of the disparate and mostly unwitting participants in Sophy’s plans, and shuffles the partners until everyone ends up with their proper match. It is a consummate game of romantic chance, deftly managed, with an eye toward perfect propriety, and only the clever Sophy could have pulled it off. There are a few important side stories that are worth mentioning, most particularly Cecilia’s romance with Fawnhope and Charling, and the indolent Sancia, Sophy’s putative and unwilling step-mama. This is, to my mind, Heyer’s most enjoyable novel to date – witty, sparkling, and genuinely funny.
What about you? Are there any other Heyer fans out there? Which is your personal favorite?