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For some reason, I've been thinking about the summers of my youth this week, possibly because spring is so early that it sets me apart from time. Anyway, I was remembering the utter joy of wandering to the bookstore at the end of the street, babysitting money jingling in my pocket, to find that they'd gotten in a Georgette Heyer paperback I'd never read. So I decided that this month's Book Review Club entry would be one of those blissful, now dog-eared early paperbacks.
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The Grand Sophy
By Georgette Heyer
For a long time, many of us who were Georgette Heyer fans kept quiet about it. Her books are, after all, romance novels, even though they rival David McCullough for historical accuracy.
For whatever reason, we’re coming out of the closet in droves these days. Reprints abound, most of them with classy-looking art on the covers that’s a far cry from the cheesy bodice-ripper covers of my youth.
Georgette Heyer wrote more than 50 novels between 1921 and her death in 1974. Some of them were mysteries or historical novels about other eras—her accounts of the battles of Hastings and Waterloo are universally respected. But it was her Regency England novels that won the hearts of generations.
Like Jane Austen’s books about the same era, the plots acknowledge one central truth: In the early 1800s, upper- class women (and men, for that matter) had little choice but to marry well. Sometimes Heyer’s heroines are forthright about their goals, setting out for the London season determined to find a husband who can mend the fortunes of an impecunious family. Sometimes other concerns are paramount: saving a sister’s honor or solving a mystery. But the need for a good match is always at least an undercurrent, and the happy ending always unites man, woman, and bank balance, with a title thrown in sometimes just for kicks.
Some Heyer heroines have beauty on their side, but many don’t. What they all have is intelligence, wit, and heart, and it’s those qualities that win the day for them.
THE GRAND SOPHY was written in 1950, and was my first Heyer novel. (That’s its raggedy self in the photo at right.) I think I bought my paperback edition in high school through the Scholastic book club. Since it was the 1960s, the cover copy describes Sophy as “beautiful, gay, impulsive, [and] shockingly direct,” which is at least one-third horse-pucky. Here’s how Heyer describes her: Sophy would never be a beauty. She was by far too tall: nose and mouth were both too large; and a pair of expressive gray eyes could hardly be held to atone entirely for these defects.
Sophy Stanton-Lacy is an anomaly: Her mother is dead and her father, a British diplomat in the Napoleonic era, has hauled her around Europe all her life, sometimes in the thick of war. She’s been his hostess for years, so she knows her way around a glittering dinner table, but she also rides like a trooper, drives to an inch, and carries a tiny but serviceable pistol in her reticule.
Her father is off to South America, and it’s time for Sophy to make a good match. So she lands at her aunt's house in stuffy London with a Paris wardrobe, a stunning horse, a parrot, a monkey, a wicked sense of humor, and a ruthless talent for meddling in other people’s lives. Watching her set her unwitting relatives’ affairs to rights—while coming to identify the desires of her own heart—is a pleasure unmatched in English literature.
Like Austen, Heyer finds her humor chiefly in secondary characters, a roster of pompous society idiots whom Anne Elliot would recognize in a heartbeat. In THE GRAND SOPHY, there’s a high-bred society prude, a handsome but vapid poet, and a hypochondriacal mama’s boy who drones on and on about his one adventure, a trip to Jamaica.
“Another interesting tree to be found in Jamaica,” said his lordship, “is the balata. We have also the rosewood, the ebony, the lignum vitae—“
“The northern parts of Spain,” said Sophy defiantly, “are more remarkable for the many variety of shrubs which grow there, including what we call the jarales, and the ladanum bush, and—and— Oh, there is Lord Francis! I shall have to put you down, Lord Bromford!” [She’s driving him in the park.]
Heading up the plus side of the ledger are Sophy’s dashing but ill-tempered cousin, Charles, who’s engaged to the prude; his gorgeous and good-hearted sister, Cecelia, who’s engaged to the poet; and the quiet, intelligent gentleman whose marriage offer Cecelia had been ordered to accept before she met the poet.
You pretty much know how all the matches are going to work out well in advance, but you can’t for the life of you imagine how Heyer’s going to make that happen. Never fear: She’d been writing these things for a quarter of a century at this point, and probably came up with intricate plot solutions in her sleep.
Whether it’s for escapism or the thrill of watching a pro at work, try this Georgette Heyer or any of them. Quick, while we’re out of the closet.