Thursday, May 21, 2015
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
That was why for years I regarded Georgette Heyer as a trashy romance novelist, until at last another friend prevailed on me to borrow one of her Heyer novels (Regency Buck, I think). I confess I was a little disappointed on two counts. First, the romance was by no means as trashy as I had had a sneaking hope it would be! But second, I felt that the novel was an attempt at a Jane Austen imitation, and a pale and shabby one at that.
By some means, however, I eventually dipped my nose into another Georgette Heyer novel, and then another, and since then she has become, with (the admittedly superior) Mary Stewart, one of my go-to guilty-pleasure reads--someone I read not above two or three times a year, but revel in when I do. I've come to appreciate her for herself, as a splendid writer of wit and comedy (a friend once confessed that the only reason she knows how to write as well as she does, is because she was a voracious consumer of Heyer as a girl), and I've also heard a glowing recommendation of her book A Civil Contract. But it wasn't till recently that I had the chance of reading one of her acknowledged classics, The Grand Sophy.
Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, diplomat to war-torn Europe, flits through London on his way to Brazil, pausing only long enough to arrange for his daughter to stay with his sister Lady Ombersley and her family. When the vivacious and harebrained Sophy arrives, she finds the Ombersley home in no end of trouble--cousin Cecilia is determined to refuse an offer of marriage from the eligible Lord Charlbury and marry a feckless poet instead, cousin Hubert looms in the background brooding over a secret woe, and to cap it off, not only has cousin Charles engaged himself to a lady even more prim and dictatorial than himself, but having got control of the family finances, he is running the home with a rod of iron to the despair of his parents and siblings.
The Ombersley home is, in fact, beset with troubles. And if there's one thing Sophy likes better than anything else, it's straightening out other people's troubles...
...though if you ask cousin Charles, you might be pardoned for thinking that no trouble could ever compare with Sophy herself!
OK, I'll deal with the good first. This was a charming book, a book so charming and harebrained, much like its heroine, that I would have to be a real curmudgeon to pick apart its faults. Sophy, a volatile mixture of Pollyanna, Emma Woodhouse, and Bobbie Wickham, whizzes through the book with effortless poise and sweetness, disrupting everyone's lives and somehow making beautiful harmony out of the wreckage. This is pure farce, and not meant to be taken seriously; and yet...and yet...
And yet, this book made me dashed uncomfortable.
Take PG Wodehouse's Bobbie Wickham, the closest thing the canon of English literature has to Heyer's Sophy. Bobbie is a similarly vivacious and adorable female with a similar talent for attempting to fix things through hilariously ridiculous schemes. But, and here is the important part, Bobbie does not always succeed. In fact, her schemes, more often or not, go wrong. Additionally, she is invariably depicted from the perspective of the luckless fellows who get swept up into them and bear the brunt of the suffering. They admire her. They like her. They cannot deny her charm. But they find her too hot to handle. When Bobbie heaves into sight across the horizon, they pack their bags and head to Ultima Thule.
Is it fun to read Georgette Heyer's take on a cross between Bobbie Wickham and Emma Woodhouse? You bet. Is it even more charming that this character's schemes inevitably go gloriously right? For sure. Am I particularly impressed by the way Heyer handles this character? Nope. It would have been nice if once, just once, Sophy had messed up. I didn't believe her in the slightest. For heaven's sake, at one point she shoots an acquaintance for the flimsiest of reasons, and after a moment's gruffness, he comes around to her way of seeing things and agrees that no, she's a complete hoot...
I didn't believe a word of her. That was a shame, because the hero is actually a thoroughly realistic and flawed character. But Sophy was so crackers I couldn't see how she would win his love, and I further didn't believe that he had demonstrated an ability to deal with her, as does the young man who marries Bobbie Wickham in Wodehouse.
As a result, I can only recommend this book to readers who know the difference between outrageous make-believe, and actual reality. Life doesn't work this way. The charming Sophy Stanton-Lacy to the contrary, well-intentioned women who meddle in affairs beyond their authority are a plague on the earth. If you are after a delightful romantic farce, read Jeeves in the Offing or something instead.
Or, if you've already read Jeeves in the Offing, then I suppose you can go ahead and find The Grand Sophy on Amazon or the Book Depository.