Review: The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer

Having read, now, two of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances (the other being The Reluctant Widow), and having begun making plans to dole them out to myself when I am having difficult days, I have been trying to decide what I like about them, and to remember why I refused to read them for so long.  The facts as I knew them were that a) my mum, who gave me half of my favorite books, liked her; and that b) Stephen Fry liked her; and that c) Sorcery and Cecelia, which I love, was essentially Georgette Heyer with magic.  Why would I not read her?  Was it just snobbery that prevented me from reading Heyer?  I should really remember that being a snob only makes me miss out on awesome stuff.

This was very sobering and cast a grim light on my otherwise sterling character.

Here is why I do, after all, like Georgette Heyer: The characters may not be fully realized, but they’re fun.  You want to spend time reading about them, with their dresses and propriety and Regency slang that sounds so right to me only because (I suspect) everyone else who has written a Regency-era book since Georgette Heyer has imitated her dialogue.  The main thing, though, of the two books I have read, is that affairs progress tidily from an unsatisfactory state of disorder to a highly pleasing and well-regulated state of tidiness.

The Grand Sophy is about a girl called Sophy, who has been raised by a single father in various countries all over the world, and who comes to stay with her aunt’s family.  Her unusual upbringing has instilled in her a strong mind and independence of spirit, and she immediately takes the whole family in hand, arranging (and disarranging) marriages, settling debts, and generally tidying everything up.  She is Flora Post, deciding what is best for everyone and taking care that they get what she thinks they should want.  It is high-handed, but that’s okay because she’s right.

The Cold Comfort Farm comparison is a good one, now that I am thinking about it.  The Grand Sophy is Cold Comfort Farm, except instead of Stella Gibbons spoofing Thomas Hardy, it’s Georgette Heyer playing Jane Austen straight.  Heyer is no Jane Austen, of course, but she uses many of the same plot elements: the setting, the need to get everyone married off, the phaetons and unexceptionable suitors and eccentric family members in manor houses.  I find myself wanting to go to balls (because nothing’s more fun to a Meyers-Briggs introvert than a confining dress and hot rooms crammed full of people for hours and hours) and use the word “famous” for “good” and “infamous” for “bad”. Why did we stop using “famous” that way?

As improbable as the plot of this book is, it charmed me.  Georgette Heyer writes unpleasant characters with such relish!  Sophy’s cousin’s ever-so-correct affianced bride is so deliciously catty, and another cousin’s equally unsuitable suitor never seems to take a break from composing sonnets to Cecelia’s features.  And Sophy herself was great.  She loves horses!  She doesn’t fear loan sharks!  She tricks everybody into behaving as she wants them to do!

This post is brought to you by the Classics Circuit, which is such fun that I cannot believe it was ever not part of our lives.  Many thanks to all its organizers. Without them, I might never have read Georgette Heyer.

Are there any books/authors/genres that you were initially embarrassed to read, only to find them delightful?

  • I’m afraid I’m still a bit of a snob about the romances, but then I’m not a huge Austen fan either. I’ll keep this post in my mind though, and eventually I’ll read one, and then probably be like you and wonder why I never read one before. However, I read a Heyer mystery last month, and her mysteries remind me of Agatha Christie. Fun to read, British countryside, typical mystery.

    • I want to read her mysteries too, as I have heard good things about them. I don’t think she’s going to convert me to romance as a genre, though. I read one or two bodice-rippers in high school and college, to see if they were as awful as I thought, and they really were. And I grew rapidly tired of reading about things throbbing.

  • Oh, yes! I find that while many covers will prevent me from reading a book (especially romance covers), I do love Georgette Heyer!

    • I’m just amazed it took me this long to read her, soppy covers or no, considering there were dozens (well, it seemed like dozens) of her books all over my parents’ house when I was growing up. Just goes to show the Power of Covers.

  • I used to be a Heyer snob too, until I was stranded at my grandmother’s house one weekend during a blizzard, unable to go to the library and unwilling to spend all of my time playing cards with relatives. Then, huddled under masses of quilts, I first read Arabella and fell love with the world Heyer had created. The Grand Sophy is my favourite Heyer novel and I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

    • What a great way to experience Heyer for the first time! Arabella is the one I’m planning on reading next. I hear it is charming.

  • What a lovely review! I really enjoyed The Grand Sophy. I’ll tell you why I like Heyer, and that’s because even though she writes romances set centuries ago, her heroines are delightfully full of vim and independence. And often, they are wrong and misguided, but it doesn’t matter. It’s better, in fact, if they’re not perfect. So yay for Heyer.

    • Excellent point! Heyer isn’t as bound by her times as Austen was, so although her books aren’t as good, they’re in some ways more satisfying to me as a modern reader. I mean Elizabeth Bennet was delightful, but she’d never have intimidated a loan shark at gunpoint like Sophy.

  • I love Heyer and The Grand Sophy is one of my favorites. I’m glad you enjoy her, too. I agree she’s perfect for a depressing day!

    • I was actually afraid that The Grand Sophy was going to be head and shoulders better than Heyer’s other books, and that any future ones would be a disappointment. But I already tried a second Heyer book, The Reluctant Widow, and found it nearly as much fun. Hurrah! I have a goodly supply of new Heyer books (to be borrowed from my mother) if ever I get a bit depressed.

  • So glad you enjoyed The Grandy Sophy. I did too. I think you hit upon why we read Heyer. It is not literature like Austen – but it is so much fun.

    • Yes, I was reading Pride and Prejudice the other day and was forcibly reminded how much higher Austen is in literary quality. But Heyer’s good for a dreary day. 🙂

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  • *kicks self for not joining this tour* And it wasn’t that I was reluctant to read her (Michael Dirda and Aarti convinced me to a few months ago), but that I thought I’d Be Good and focus on the tbr for once. But oh, this sounds so charming, and like something I very much want in my life.

    • That’s okay! You have this whole month to read reviews of her and decide which book you want to start with; and then later on in the year, when you get round to reading her, everyone will be gratified to see that the Classics Circuit managed to spread the Heyer joy around the blogosphere. 😉

  • Mumsy

    So glad you like the divine Georgette! *dances about* I find Heyer marvelously soothing when life gets a little too real for me. Which it frequently does.

    • They do have soppy covers however. I may not take them out to the dentist’s office or anywhere that other bored people might say “What are you reading?” and embarrass me.

      • parisreader

        The recent editions are much better though – more classic paintings and fewer heaving bosoms.

        Originally they were marketed as historicals, not romances, and for both men and women. The early Barbosa covers are quite elegant: http://www.georgette-heyer.net/img/civil_lrg.jpg

        If you are at all interested in cover art here’s a summary of the talk given at the Georgette Heyer symposium last year, http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2009/11/heyer-2009-sam-rayner-publishing-heyer.html

        Ahem. Yes. Yes, I did go to it.

        • I’d’ve gone to it too! Hell, I’d’ve gone to it even if I had never read any Heyer. I enjoy listening to people talk about books. So there is absolutely no judgment here. 😛

  • Schatzi

    I feel like I’ve read some Heyer in the long, long ago, but I have no idea what it was or when. Wasn’t it Heyer whose description of the Battle of Waterloo was used at Sandhurst for years and years?

    • Mumsy

      Can this be true? she actually did do a fantastic description of the battle – extremely detailed, yet completely readable – in An Infamous Army, one of my favorites.

      • Mumsy darling, what an encyclopedic knowledge of Heyer you do have. How good if her description was used!

  • Eva

    >>I should really remember that being a snob only makes me miss out on awesome stuff.

    LOL Can that be the motto for the book blogosphere?!

    Sounds like The Grand Sophy shall be my next Heyer!

    • Ha, it is definitely my book blogging motto, and I should add to it that being intimidated makes me miss out on awesome stuff too, like Salman Rushdie.

      I hope you enjoy The Grand Sophy!

  • I’ve only read one of Heyer’s romances, and I really liked it. I think the only authors I’m snobbish about are Jodi Picoult and Stephanie Meyer. I haven’t read any of their books, but have heard from many trusted friends that their writing is not something that I would probably like.

    • I will say for Jodi Picoult, she writes very well. Her books are silly and formulaic, but she’s a good writer, which sadly cannot be sad (in my opinion) for Stephenie Meyer. If those are the only two authors you’re snobby about, you’ve chosen well!

  • parisreader

    Oh hooray! I’m so glad you liked it!

    Georgette Heyer is one of my trusty standby comfort authors that I will read and re-read every couple of years, and The Grand Sophy is in my opinion one of the best (though interestingly, I find the ones I prefer change over the years).

    Beware – her mysteries tend not to be as good, although they are on the whole pretty enjoyable. Death In The Stocks makes me laugh a lot (and I just found this review which pretty much sums it up: http://booksidoneread.blogspot.com/2009/12/death-in-stocks-georgette-heyer.html).

    Yes, her description of Waterloo in An Infamous Army has indeed been used in military training, and her research seems to have been meticulous in pretty much all aspects.

    She also wrote some more ‘serious’ historical biographies set in much earlier centuries which I find nowhere near as good to read. But The Spanish Bride, based on the diaries of Harry Smith, a real soldier in the Peninsular War, is pretty cool.

    • I think my mum’s told me about The Spanish Bride. I think I sneered at it. When I guess I should have been admiring Heyer’s research skills. I am duly warned about her mysteries, and I shall read them first, and save the plummy Regency romances for last.

      • parisreader

        The Spanish Bride did take a bit of getting into, I think. But somehow knowing they were real people made it extra-special. I *think* – and I may be mistaken here – all the dialogue she uses comes from his diaries or other contemporary sources. How cool is that!

  • I’d never heard of Heyer until bloggers started going on about her, and never was too curious about her until now, when I find out you enjoyed reading her.

    I was always a snob about romance novels in general, until I had a baby and a friend started bringing me bags of free books from her mother, and they included some by J.D. Robb and I discovered I really like her Eve Dallas series and the paperbacks were the right size and amount of difficulty for holding up in front of my face while the baby was nursing.

    • I’m still a bit snobby about most romance novels. My first job was working for an online bookstore that sold romance novels almost exclusively, and I just got sooooo tired of looking at them. I think that liking Heyer has not so much made me want to read a lot of romance novels, as it has made me a bit more open to them.

  • I really want to read some Heyer, but I get so overwhelmed by the number of titles at the library. What if I don’t pick the right one?? What if I accidently pick up one of her off books and never want to try another one ever again?

    Looks like The Grand Sophy would be a good place to start!

    • Yes, go with The Grand Sophy. I had the same dilemma and asked my mother which one to choose, and she ran through about four before finally telling me to choose The Grand Sophy.

  • I love the way Heyer makes me turn the page, even though I know how it’s all going to turn out. I can’t figure out how she does that, but I admire it. As to being snobbish, I happened to be reading TGS on a MetroNorth train leaving Manhattan and I did feel a little uncomfortable when I noticed people eyeing the cover. Perhaps they were envious. But I kept reading!

    • They were probably just sad they hadn’t brought fun page-turners their own selves. Whenever I am on public transportation without a book, I occupy myself by trying to see what everyone else is reading.

  • heyer is my absolute fav. “These old shades” was my first and now i have ebooks of her whole collection.
    Wish i can find more authors like her

  • I didn’t LOVE my first Heyer, I think because I was expecting something like Jane Austen, and I found Heyer’s characters to be horribly superficial. I’ll have to try the GRAND SOPHY because it seems most people really like it!

    • Well, yeah, her characters are superficial. I think the resemblance between Heyer and Austen is fairly superficial itself, but I was expecting that going in. Austen is satirizing her own society, and Heyer’s books (the two I’ve read anyway) have an air of nostalgia for that time period, so that’s at least one major tonal difference.

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