The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Mar 9, 2013

This was my first taste of Georgette Heyer, and it delighted me in every way. Luckily, she wrote over fifty books during her lifetime, so I think I'm set for a good long while.

When the novel begins, things are a little bit strained in the Rivenhall household: Lord Ombersley has squandered all his money (and he has seven children, so, you know, he should probably feel his duty a little bit more than he does); his eldest son, Charles, is grimly trying to reconcile all of his father's accounts and fill the role of "responsible adult." Cecilia Rivenhall is in love with a ridiculous poet even though a very respectable marriage has been arranged for her with Lord Charlbury. Charles himself is also engaged, and his fiancée, Miss Eugenia Wraxton, is insufferably proper and arrogant. In the midst of all this, Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, arrives unexpectedly and asks if his daughter, Sophy, can stay with the family while he is away in Brazil. Lady Ombersley is expecting a shy young woman in need of motherly guidance and love. What she gets instead is "the grand Sophy," a strong-willed, independent female who quickly takes their situation in hand and does her best to remedy it.

Sophy caught me by surprise, almost as much as she does the Rivenhalls in the novel. I think I was expecting her to be more like Jane Austen's Emma. And while she does have some similarities (an unquenchable desire to fix everyone's problems being one of them), she is much more spunky, high-spirited, and at times even a little bit vulgar. (She drives wild and dangerous horses, she settles matters with unscrupulous debtors, and she pretends to compromise herself with a man in order to bring lovers together. She even carries around a pearl-handled pistol and uses it quite freely.) There was a part of me that loved Sophy fiercely and another part of me that was pretty certain she would drive me crazy in real life. I could totally relate to Charles' feelings of exasperation but then also couldn't help but laugh at some of her ridiculous and well-meaning antics. As she said so well when she was explaining one of her plans to Lord Charlbury: "Pray don't be afraid of me! I never do people any harm--indeed I don't!"

There were two scenes that I especially loved: first, when Charles discovers that instead of a small, intimate party of no more than 20 guests, Sophy has organized a grand-scale event involving upwards of 400 people; and second, when Sophy is being threatened by the disgusting Mr. Goldhanger but instead of backing down, Sophy pulls out her pistol and threatens him. Even though this novel has all the elements of a regency romance, it has quite a bit of "action" too, which kept me very entertained. The ending was another favorite: the whole scene was absolutely comical, from the little ducklings trying to escape their box to the Marquesa butchering chickens in the kitchen to Lord Bromford's pathetic cold. It just made me laugh.

I thought Miss Wraxton and Sophy posed a striking contrast to each other. Both of them are somewhat meddlesome, always sticking their noses in other people's affairs. But they go about it in such vastly different ways. Miss Wraxton pretends she isn't prying but when confronted with the evidence, she claims she is only doing it for the good of others and using her own spotless reputation and good standing to pull others (namely Sophy) away from their unseemly associations. Sophy, on the other hand, approaches each new problem with candor and good humor and gladly sacrifices herself to help others. I just found it so interesting that although you could use some of the same adjectives to describe these women, they were as different as night and day.

Hubert was another character I found highly intriguing. He was the third child in the Rivenhall family, younger than Charles but older than Cecilia (and Sophy). For at least the first half of the book, I was picturing him as being several years younger than Sophy, maybe 16 or 17, but then it becomes obvious that he is actually older than she is, putting him somewhere in his early 20's. Besides the whole episode where he confesses that he is in a great amount of debt, I found much of his behavior incredibly immature, which is why I thought he was so much younger than he really was. Again, it was just another interesting contrast, 1) because Charles is so well-grounded and you would think his younger brother would have similar traits and 2) because even though Sophy is full of so much levity, you feel like she is clear-minded and wise whereas Hubert is just interested in having a good time. The reality though is that siblings do not all come in the same package, and it is very likely that the oldest child would feel the full weight of duty while a younger child might be perfectly happy to do whatever he pleases.

As far as the various romances, I loved the fact that Cecilia fell head over heels for a poet only to realize that he was nothing like what she really wanted and that what she really wanted was what she easily could have had from the very beginning. I thought this passage summed it up beautifully: "Lord Charlbury might be constitutionally incapable of addressing her as Nymph, or of comparing bluebells unfavourably with her eyes, but Lord Charlbury would infallibly provide a cloak for her if the weather were inclement, lift her over obstacles she could well climb without assistance, and in every way convince her that in his eyes she was a precious being whom it was impossible to guard too carefully." I think so often it is the penniless, star-struck lovers that are encouraged and applauded because for some reason, we seem to believe you can only be in love if you're starving. It was a nice change to be cheering for the sensible man instead of the one whispering sweet nothings.

I will just add one word of caution: contrary to what you may suppose, this book actually had quite a bit of offensive language--not in the way of swearing (although there are a few mild words), but many instances of taking the name of God in vain (in a proper, British sort of way). This probably wouldn't bother some readers at all, but I didn't appreciate it.

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, I don't think you could help but love this book. It is witty and cheeky. It has action and romance. And they wear pretty dresses and ride in carriages. Need I say more?


  1. I've never even heard of this author, but she sounds great! I have to admit that I've clung to Jane Austen and never really stepped outside of the box to find other Brit lit writers. I'm really interested in picking up one of Elizabeth Gaskell's books, since I loved watching "North and South," but I have yet to do it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Once again as I read one of your reviews I find myself thinking "Why couldn't I have said it like that?" Great review, I agree 100 percent.

  3. I really, really love Georgette Heyer and I've read all her books several times. Many of her books make me laugh out loud. This one, is not my favorite even though I have to say I enjoyed (most) of the characters and the plot. I think Sophie is a great character but Heyer's depiction of Mr. Goldhanger is completely offensive! Heyer was not writing in the 19th Century, so I don't buy the excuses that some have made for her. This was a book written after WWII, which makes it even worse. Yes, 19th British characters may have been anti-semitic but Heyer's representation of the Jewish moneylender (I'll never forget the line in which she describes Mr. G as having "the instinct of his race" -- seriously?) was completely gratuitous and deeply disappointing to me.

    1. Erica - You make such a good point. I have to admit I didn't even pay attention to Goldhanger's description, I was so consumed with his weaseling ways...if you had asked me what he looked like, I couldn't have even told you! But thank you for pointing a finger at it...that is really disappointing.

      Since you've read all of her novels several times (so impressed!), which one should I read next?

    2. It's impossible to choose a favorite (!) but I loved Frederica and Friday's Child. The first one I read was Regency Buck, which has a fun mystery element to it, as does The Talisman Ring and The Reluctant Widow. If you get a chance, her contemporary mysteries are fun, too.


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