Monday, 23 May 2011

Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy

If you asked me who is the most underrated writer of the twentieth century, I would say that without a doubt it's Georgette Heyer. Many good writers have started off underrated, PG Wodehouse for one, Terry Pratchett for another. But we are now allowed to admire Wodehouse , even to call him a Master of his craft (which he is). And Terry Pratchett's reputation has also jumped forward by leaps and bounds recently. Georgette Heyer, however, remains in the dustbin of 'popular, but not good.'

I'm not prepared to go along with this. I think Georgette Heyer is an amazing writer, and I've been reading her since I was a child - I'm not prepared to say that my taste in writing is as bad as that implies!

My first definite memory of her books is of reading The Convenient Marriage under cover of my desk in school one day when the Headmistress arrived to give us a pep talk about the Eleven plus, which we were entered for that year - so I must have been ten. We were all required to stand up when she came in, out of respect, and I remember the difficulty of keeping the book hidden while standing. I don't remember stopping my reading to listen to her talk, however, when we sat down again.

First things first, and no doubt I'd reached an unputdownable moment - most moments in her books are like that. I can also vaguely remember the other kids near me trying not to giggle as they watched me clutching at the slipping book.

(Why do we say 'kids,' by the way? Why not colts, or cubs, or lambs or calves? Baby goats are actually very sweet, but it seems an unlikely choice as a nickname for our children. American, I suppose?)

Of course, I'd been reading Heyer for some time before the Headmistress episode. Her books were one of the joys of my life. As a child my favourites were the more romantic Devil's Cub, These Old Shades, and The Masqueraders. I matured as a teenager into Arabella and Friday's Child - more realistic and a little funnier, possibly. Currently my favourite is The Grand Sophy, with Cotillion and The Foundling not far behind.

And why do I like her? Well, why do people still like Jane Austin? Wit, satire, a gripping and sometimes moving love story, a great plot full of twists and turns, depth of characterisation - will this do for a start? Heyer, like Austin, has a lightness of touch which never fails. You won't find squashy sentiment in any Heyer book, I'm prepared to swear. Her characters are real, funny, likeable (unless they aren't meant to be) and they are people whose lives we find we have jumped into and don't want to leave.

Years ago I read and reread Heyer until I knew every word that was coming and had to stop for about ten years. When I eventually picked one up again, I was thunderstruck by how very good these books were. I've been more cautious since - I reread, but not too often. I hope to go on rereading her for the rest of my life.

Take The Grand Sophy, for instance. The title is a pun - the Grand Sophy was an eastern potentate, something like the Caliph of Bagdad. I could quote you funny lines, such as Augustus Fawnhope's concern that Cecilia should never ride in Sophy's new phaeton, not because she might be thrown and injured if it overturned, but because, 'The very thought of so ungraceful a happening must offend! It blurs my vision of a porcelain nymph!'

Or Lord Bromford's comment, 'One is familiar with the phrase, "A man may be known by the company he keeps:" can it be that he may also be known by the dances he permits himself to indulge in?' Of course, to appreciate the full humour of both these quotations one must already know Augustus Fawnhope and Lord Bromford, for Heyer's skill is not just in one-liners but in character drawing which takes us to the heights of satirical portraiture.

Also, the main enjoyment of the book is in the absurdly comical situations which occur again and again. The ducklings running about in the last scenes, the episode of the bluebell wood where Fawnhope and Eustacia are locked in together, the escape of the monkey – comedy builds on comedy.

Heyer is not afraid to introduce a more serious note from time to time, but constantly pricks the bubble of extreme emotion with a witty comment.

But I suppose the main reason I keep coming back to this book is the character of Sophy herself. A second Flora Poste, a manager of people's lives, as the title suggests, Sophy is always eager to help, 'when the welfare of people one cares about is concerned.' Sophy is someone we can't help liking. We want her schemes to succeed, and only very occasionally enjoy it when Heyer for a moment puts her down. Sophy is the 'Dea ex Machina', except that far from arriving at the end to sort things out, she is very much up to her neck in everything that happens. Her interview with the moneylender is one of the most memorable scenes of high comedy in English Literature.

Haven't you ever read Georgette Heyer? Wow, how you're missing out! Don't waste another moment. Her books are popular enough still to be available in every bookshop, as the saying goes. Doesn't that tell you something?


  1. I have read all of Georgette Heyer's books and adore them.

  2. Me too, Lorraine! Good to know there's someone else out there with excellent taste in books!

  3. Gerry, Georgette Heyer has somehow avoided my reading clutches these past decades, so I am indebted to you for these insights into what I might be missing out on.

    And having checked on Kindle there are numerous GH titles available (albethey somewhat overpriced for backlist e-books).

    But where does the complete beginner to GH start?

    As you'll know from the My Girls post over at MWi, I simply adore strong child characters. Any author that respects children and childhood has my attention.

    Are there any GH novels that might fit that bill to get me started?

    1. If you like strong child characters, try Georgette Heyer's "Sylvester"!

    2. Absolutely, Anonymous! I take it you mean Edmund, Sylvester's nephew? A great character! But, all the same, a minor character in the whole novel. I think we're talking here about children who grow up during the course of the book and become major characters. Still, yes, Edmund is certainly memorable, especially in hid dealings with Sir Nugent and his tassels!

  4. Thanks, Mark! Hope you enjoy what you read.
    Heyer doesn't, in fact, go in for child characters, except as minor characters in some of the books. The nearest she comes to it is having a few (not many) very young heroines. Hero, in Friday's Child, is 16, nearly 17, at the start of the book. Leonie/Leon is 19 at the start of These Old Shades. Pen is 17 in The Corinthian. While I like all these books, I'd advise anyone to start with The Grand Sophy, just because it's my current favourite, but if you want a strong female character (not a child, she's twenty) you could hardly do better than Sophy. Deborah in Faro's Daughter is a strong female character too. In fact, most of Heyer's women are!
    Heyer is usually considered a women's writer, but like Jane Austin she has many male admirers, and going by your current blog (which I greatly enjoyed, by the way!) that won't put you off.

    1. Hi Gerry! My first Heyer book was The Grand Sophy too which I read aged about 8 (borrowed from my gran). I always thought Sophy's nickname was a literal translation of the French "La Grande Sophie" as opposed to la petite Sophie which you would normally say. This French nickname was bestowed on Sophy by friends in Brussels, or so I gathered! Since then I've bought and read every single Heyer Regency novel except Friday's Child and An Infamous Army which I want to order soon.
      Heyer writes in impeccable English, her characters are real and unforgettable human beings, her plots are brilliant and her books are full of dry humour. So I can't understand either why she isn't more widely read. I did find some passages about Léonie in These Old Shades a bit irritating, Léonie is one character who admittedly gets on my nerves to a considerable extent. I like the Devil's Cub much better and I adore Mary Challoner!
      I've just recommended Sylvester to Mark as there is a strong child character there: Edmund, Sylvester's naughty nephew who can be said to play a big role in the book.

    2. The Devil's Cub was one of my favourites as a teenager, Anon. But like you, I love all her books. Yes, Edmund is an interesting child character, unusual in Heyer., and very likeable and sympathetic. I've read Sylvester a lot of times, and as a writer myself, I love Phoebe's story!
      An Infamous Army is a bit more serious than most of Heyer's books, but still is one I really love. And Friday's Child is marvellous – do read it!
      Thanks for your interesting comments – great to connect with another Heyer fan!

  5. The Grand Sophy it is, then. On my Kindle now and awaiting an opportunity to engage.

    I've been dipping into Prue Batten's A Thousand Glass Flowers teasers over at Mesmered ( and that had got me in historical mood, so GH may be just the thing.