Well, I’ve finally done it. Georgette Heyer has been praised so often and so enthusiastically by so many of the book bloggers whose recommendations I have come to look forward to as decidedly reliable that I have taken the plunge.
I don’t really “do” romance novels as such, though of course most of the books I read incorporate some sort of romance, whether it be traditional male and female or some other sort of love affair (and by this I mean any sort of relationship – platonic friendships are love affairs, as are parent-child relationships, and all of the individuals emotionally invested in some way, whether it be with an idea, an occupation, a house, a garden, a country, a way of life… it’s all about passion and feelings and, yes, “romance” of some sort, isn’t it?)
(And did I just digress? Yes, I think I did!)
Anyway, bodice rippers in the good old Harlequin tradition aren’t really my thing, and the undoubted fact that Georgette Heyer has been republished by Harlequin – I have here on my desk a just-purchased (but as yet unread) copy of The Quiet Gentleman, Harlequin, 2006, with a publisher’s list of other Heyers in the back – was not a point in favor. I’d also read several of Heyer’s mystery stories – she famously wrote one romance novel and one mystery novel each year during a period of financial necessity – and found them no more than mildly diverting. But then there were all those Jane Austen comparisons, and the chatter about her being a seriously underrated writer, and all those comments about her undoubted mastery of her chosen literary period – England’s Regency era, the first few decades of the 19th Century – and all of the lavish praise in the blogosphere…
So I made the decision to give Heyer one more try. Pulling up her name on the library catalogue, I was impressed to see that there was a reasonably large selection of titles, arguing a current popularity (my present public library is very quick to cull and has very few older books in the stacks), some of which I remembered as having received glowing reviews from my blogging peers. Home came Sylvester and The Grand Sophy, as well as a third which appealed because of the plot description on the back, but which I haven’t yet read, Black Sheep. I’m a bit Heyer-saturated at the moment, after reading the first two almost back-to-back, but will definitely be reading the third book well within my alloted three weeks before it needs to be turned back in.
In other words, I liked these. A lot.
My rating: 9/10.
This story is an absolute hoot. It has everything. Misunderstood heroine – check. Highly intelligent and of an unconventional attractiveness, of course – check. Wicked stepmother – check. Fabulously handsome, wealthy and aristocratic love interest – check. Initial misunderstanding by chief couple and instant dislike of each other – check. Endless complications before true love finds its way – check.
It’s basically Pride and Prejudice with the added bonus of a botched kidnapping (literally), a surreal trip to France, and horses.
You know what? I’m going to stop right here and refer you over to this absolutely excellent blog post by Claire at Captive Reader. It’s the one that convinced me to give this author a go, and the post says absolutely everything I would like to. Anything I could come up with this morning would be a pale shadow of what Claire has said so well. (I am horribly pressed for writing time these days, but cannot let this book pass without a mention. It was so much fun!)
Sylvester more than met my own expectations. The point it lost was right at the very end; I thought the final romantic scene wasn’t quite up to the standard of the rest of the story. But endings are notoriously difficult, and it wasn’t terribly bad or anything. Just not quite… something…
But all in all, a very enjoyable read. Great introduction to this author; I’m won over.
My rating: 9/10.
Gosh, where to start? Let’s see how good my condensation skills are this morning!
Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, world-roaming diplomat, drops in on his aristocratic sister Lady Ombersley for a brief visit while en route from Lisbon to Brazil. After racing through the polite preliminaries (Sir Horace is excessively focussed on getting right to the point with the least amount of fuss and trouble to his self-indulged self) the object of his detour becomes apparent.
Could he possibly leave his (motherless) twenty-year-old daughter Sophy with her dear aunt? Brazil, in the early 1800s, is rather rough in places, and even careless Sir Horace has qualms about its suitability for an upper-class English girl’s place of residence, even under the auspices of her important Papa. Sophy – “Dear little soul: not an ounce of vice in her!” exclaims said Papa – is as good as “out”, though the formalities of a Court presentation have been unavoidably omitted, what with living on the Continent and all – and will be a lovely companion for her cousin Cecilia. And while she’s here, dear sister, Sir Horace goes on to say, how about fixing her up with a suitable husband? I’m sure you can manage to arrange that for me…
Lady Ombersley is shocked into agreement, and Sir Horace disappears as quickly as he came, leaving with a promise that Sophy shall be welcomed into the bosom of her extended family. The family, as far as I can remember – there’s a lot of characters in this hectic novel – consists of Lord and Lady Ombersley, their eldest son Charles Rivenhall – who is by way of being head of the family, financially speaking, as he is his recently deceased wealthy grandfather’s heir as Lord Ombersley is an incorrigible gambler who has virtually impoverished his own estate – sober Charles is busy doing damage control while his father continues his dissipated lifestyle on a much more modest scale – the beautiful aforementioned Cecilia, a younger brother, Hubert, at Oxford, another, Theodore, at Eton, and young sisters Amabel and Gertrude.
Sophy shows up quite soon, and far from being the meek and gentle niece and cousin the family was expecting, turns out to be positively Amazonian, a self-assured and shockingly outspoken young lady, looking on her English sojourn as something of an amusing lark, though she’s agreeable to being introduced to some interesting and suitable young men on matrimonial approval, as it were. She throws the household into a turmoil it has never known before, and soon it becomes apparent that Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and that in her staid cousins she has found much scope for her personal hobby.
Charles is engaged to the most prim and proper Eugenia Wraxton, who is looking forward to her upcoming marriage and increase in social status with smug self-satisfaction; it soon becomes apparent that cousin Sophy does not meet with her approval, and Eugenia’s true nature as a sly, prying, manipulative scold is thereby revealed, though Charles appears blind to this, at least initially.
Cecilia has been presented with a suitable young nobleman, Lord Charlbury, as a potential spouse, but has instead become infatuated with Adonis-like Augustus Fawnhope, an aspiring poet. (He instantly reminded me of none other than P.G. Wodehouse’s Madeleine Basset, of “the stars are God’s daisy-chain” fame; subsequent events merely strengthened that comparison.) Hubert has gotten himself embroiled in gambling debts – shades of the paternal situation – and is too terrified to confess to his older brother, and has instead gotten into the clutches of an evil moneylender.
The younger children, luckily, are not much in need of sorting out, so Sophy busies herself with rearranging Charles’, Cecilia’s and Hubert’s lives for them.
Charles is immediately resistant to his lively cousin’s attempts to “manage” his family; he cleaves to the unpleasant Eugenia with commendable loyalty, but cracks soon appear in his iron-hard facade. Eugenia is quickly driven to open criticism of Sophy’s lack of propriety; Sophy seems to delight in shocking and annoying Eugenia; Sophy is marvelously clever at pushing all of Charles’ buttons, and seems to come out ahead in each of their encounters; her and Charles’ continued verbal sparring (and shared love of horses) gives the alert reader the key to the eventual outcome of that particular triangle of personalities!
Cecilia and her poet are all over each other, while Lord Charlbury mopes in the his lonely corner (he’s recovering from the indignity of having had the mumps at a crucial time in the progression of his courtship of Cecilia.) Sophy takes those three in hand as well, giving Lord Charlbury instruction on how best to woo his reluctant prospective spouse, and eventually exposing Augustus Fawnhope’s deep ineffectualness to the no-longer-quite-so-besotted Cecilia.
Hubert’s moneylender is confronted with aplomb, in a scene which received some negative press in the blog world for its deeply stereotypical depiction of a Shylock-like Jewish character. (See here for a fascinating and extended discussion of racial stereotyping in literature, centered on The Grand Sophy, and widening to Heyer in general, then bringing in Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers as well; the many comments following this post are thought-provoking; the whole exchange is well worth reading.)
This workaday plot summary leaves out the sparkling dialogue and the deep humour which infuses every page of this lively historical romance; it’s a grand read for a dull day; perfect escape literature, and not to be taken too, too seriously, I think. An amusing romp, with the bonus of being meticulously researched and full of era-correct dialogue, descriptions of food, dress, and the social world of upper classes of post-Waterloo England. If you appreciate Jane Austen and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, you’ll find much to admire in Georgette Heyer’s detailed and very funny take-offs of the time.
As with Sylvester, The Grand Sophy was a whole lot of fun. More so, really – it is almost antic in its multitude of plot twists, turns and tangles, where Sylvester maintained a certain dignity even in its most absurd moments. But Sophy lost its point in the same place, right at the end. It was a good ending, a proper ending, with loads of predictability and a few (small) surprises, but there was something just a tiny bit rushed over how everything tied itself up so quickly, as if the author, with finish line in view, had pushed herself into one last full-speed-ahead dash of writing. But, as with Sylvester, not a big issue, and easy to forgive.
And I did forgive the author her moneylender; I mulled this over quite a bit, and have held back this review to consider how deeply I wanted to address this issue. I have come down on the side of letting it go in the interests of era-correctness. Yes, the book was published post-World War II, when the horrors of the Holocaust were well-known and fresh in memory, but the treatment of the character in question was completely in line with the 19th Century world it depicted. And The Grand Sophy is something of a parody in its treatment of all of its characters; I don’t believe we are meant to take any of them all that seriously. If one wants to be offended, there’s a lot of scope for that in more than the Jewish moneylender episode. I choose not to be offended, though I see where the offense lies, and will leave it at that. (At least for now. This is a topic which is never really dormant, whether reading vintage or contemporary fiction.)
At the end of the day, I must say that I enjoyed these books, and I’m looking forward to encountering more of Heyer’s delicious romances, but I suspect that they are best taken one at a time, as a sort of self-indulgent literary “rich dessert”; nice as an occasional treat but not really suitable for daily fare!