Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer and I have a long history, but in this case, it's not because I discovered and devoured her books as a teenager. Quite the contrary, in fact. While most of my friends read her all through their teen years and have since grown out of her, realising that she is the literary equivalent of chocolate and thereby not a brilliant dietary staple, I came from quite a different angle. My mother and I were both reading Jane Austen in my mid-teens when she began reminiscing about the Georgette Heyer books she read in her own youth. "Not a patch on Jane Austen," she said. "I liked them because of the romance, but they weren't half so realistic."

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.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Mabinogion

Recently, in compiling a Tour Guide to Arthurian Literature for Hanna at Book Geeks Anonymous, I found myself wishing to revisit all the books I was writing about--especially the Welsh Mabinogion. Here's what I wrote: 
The Welsh have always had a special claim on the Arthur legends, being the descendants of the Celtic peoples of whom he is said to be the champion. And he features prominently in their national cycle of legends, The Mabinogion. Compiled somewhere between the late 1300s and the early 1400s, the Mabinogion is a collection of stories ranging from the dreamlike Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed to the more chivalric-romance-style Peredur, Son of Efrawg. Again, in a good translation, the Mabinogion is highly accessible. In addition, reading this book feels very like getting in touch with the very earliest Arthurian traditions, possibly still with some shreds of paganism clinging to them.
So, I forgot about all the other books I had waiting to be read for the first time, and I went back and read this old favourite, in the Everyman translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.

The first four stories are the Mabinogi properly so-called. The scholarly introduction by Jones maior and Jones minor informs us that the literary form known as mabinogi was probably a series of tales revolving around the conception, youthful exploits, captivity, and death of a heroic central figure. In the Four Branches of the Mabinogion, however, the central figure--most likely the hero Pryderi--has been largely pushed to the side so that the stories can focus on related characters.

Rhiannon, by Alan Lee
In Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, the First Branch, we are given the tale of a prince who changes place with the King of Annwn (an otherworld in Welsh myth), and later, by a series of exploits, wins the uncanny beauty Rhiannon to be his wife. When their son is born, he is stolen away by magic and Rhiannon is accused of murdering him. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, the marriage between a British princess and the King of Ireland results in a war in which the Irish are aided by the magic cauldron which brings the dead back to life. In Manawydan, Son of Llyr--my favourite of the Four Branches--the heroes Manawydan and Pryderi, together with their wives, are astonished one day when all the people vanish from their lands. When Pryderi and his mother Rhiannon also disappear, Manawydan must employ all his wit and cunning to discover the enemy and bring back the vanished people. Finally, in Math, Son of Mathonwy, we have a tale of multigenerational sordidity culminating in the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes surviving both his birth-mother's malice and his wife's assassination attempts.

What is most unforgettable about this cycle of stories is the surreal fairy-tale-like imagery: the silver basin suspended by an endless chain running into the sky in Manawydan, the ride of Rhiannon in Pwyll. Characters such as Bendigeidfran in Branwen, as well as Rhiannon herself, were originally pagan Welsh deities, but in The Mabinogion they have, after the coming of Christianity, descended to a mortal level--more or less:
Messengers went to Branwen. "Lady," said they, "what thinkest thou that is?" "Though lady I am not," said she, "I know what that is: the men of the Island of the Mighty on their way over, having heard of my woes and my humiliation." "What is the forest that was seen upon the sea?" they asked. "The masts of ships and their yards," said she. "Alas," said they, "what was the mountain that could be seen alongside the ships?" "Bendigeidfran, my brother, that was," she said, "coming by wading. There was never a ship in which he might be contained." "What was the lofty ridge, and the lake on each side of the ridge?" "He," said she, "looking towards this island; he is angered. The two lakes on each side of the ridge are his two eyes, one on each side of his nose."
After the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, we have the "Four Independent Native Tales"--including The Dream of Macsen Wledig, telling how the Emperor of Rome travelled to Britain to find the bride he dreamed of; Lludd and Llefelys, telling how two brothers rid Britain of a series of plagues. The next story, Culhwch and Olwen, is the first of the tales that actually speaks of King Arthur. It is a fascinating cultural relic, possibly one of the earliest surviving tales of Arthur. The French chivalric tradition has not yet transformed the legend of Arthur into a series of chivalric romances. Instead, we find Arthur, his wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and his trusted warriors Cei (Kay), Bedwyr (Bedevere), and Gwalchmai (Gawain) in a more tribal setting, with war-bands rather than knights. Culhwch, a nephew of Arthur's, travels to his court to ask the king's aid in winning Olwen, the daughter of Yspaddaden Chief Giant. Yspaddaden, who will according to prophecy die at his daughter's marriage, sets Culhwch a long list of impossible tasks to fulfill, which Arthur and his warriors help him accomplish. Finally, in The Dream of Rhonabwy, a man long after the days of Arthur has a vision of the legendary king in a combined game of gwyddbwyll and oneupmanship with his nephew Owein (Ywain).

These stories, especially Culhwch and Olwen, give as a fascinating glimpse of just how the Arthur legends began as just one element of a well-known body of legends. Culhwch in fact comes with a dazzlingly huge supporting cast; were there stories and origins for all these oddly-named people that have since been lost?

The final segment of The Mabinogion are the "Three Romances". In The Lady of the Fountain, the knight Owein sets out on the adventure which he hears will come if he goes to a certain place and throws a bowlful of water on a stone slab. Peredur, Son of Efrawg is an early version of the tale of Sir Perceval, in which elements of the Grail legend appear in a disjointed form, and which culminates with Peredur conquering a castle of warrior-witches. Finally, Gereint, the Son of Erbin, tells the tale of the courtship and early marital difficulties endured by the knight Gereint and his long-suffering bride Enid.

Composed at a later date, showing some influence from the French chivalric tradition, these three romances are notable in that the French author Chretien de Troyes dealt with the same three stories in his own Arthurian romances. The Mabinogion's Lady of the Fountain, Peredur Son of Efrawg, and Gereint Son of Erbin correspond to de Troyes's Ywain, the Knight of the Lion, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and Erec and Enid. The fascinating thing? No one knows anymore whether the Mabinogion drew on de Troyes, or whether de Troyes drew on The Mabinogion, or if the stories came about independently.

In any case The Mabinogion is good reading. Even in the later stories, which show more of a French influence, the tales retain a strong ethnic Welsh flavour which I've always found particularly charming. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to some medieval Arthurian literature, or if you've read some of the standard Arthurian works and would like to investigate further, I would happily recommend The Mabinogion.

Find The Mabinogion on Amazon, The Book Depository, Librivox or Project Gutenberg.

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