Heyer, Georgette. The Grand Sophy.

NY: Putnam, 1950.

Forty-five years ago, when I was beginning my library career, my first assignment was in the Popular Fiction section of the Main Library, where I couldn’t do too much damage. As part of my continuing education, my supervisor had me read a wide variety of novels that were not previously to my taste, everything from Grace Livingston Hill and Max Brand to Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart. You can’t recommend to patrons what you’re not familiar with yourself. Among the works I found on my plate were the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer (a genre she invented), which I quickly discovered were exceptional in their lucidity of style, their high humor, and their delightful character portraits.

They’re also reasonably accurate in their background historical detail and language. I read a number of Heyer’s books over the next couple of decades and I find myself beginning to reread them now — and I still believe this one is her best.

It’s 1816 and Miss Sophia Stanton-Lacy, the twenty-year-old daughter of a diplomat who is also a widower, has accompanied her father to Vienna and Paris and Brussels and Spain and Lisbon in the wake of Napoleon’s last stand. But now papa has to go off to Brazil for a year and “little Sophy” is to be deposited in London with her aunt and a houseful of cousins, who are expecting a shy, petite, motherless child — and are brought up short by a tall, well-spoken, beautifully dressed young woman, not-beautiful-but-striking, who is on first name terms with much of the government and the military, who rides better than most men, carries a pistol, travels with a monkey and a parrot, is frequently outrageous but always likeable, and who fears absolutely nothing. Moreover, she can’t bear to see people in difficulty without trying to fix things. The eldest son of the Rivenhall household is Charles, who essentially runs things since his dissolute father is incapable of it; he’s betrothed to Eugenia Wraxton, who is prim, moralizing, self-righteous, and entirely lacking in genuine feeling. Charles can be rather a cake (one of Heyer’s favorite period words) and Cousin Sophy’s blithely self-confident and interfering ways drive him crazy. Charles’s younger sister is Cecilia, who has rebelled at being told whom to marry and has obstinately become infatuated with a strikingly handsome young poet who possesses not a lick of common sense. It’s not long before the charismatic Sophy’s meddling hand begins its work — and she’s so adept at it. Sophy is a born manager. There’s a certain Jane Austen flavor to Heyer’s prose and plots, though the humor is a lot more evident and the underlying sensibilities are more modern. By the end of the second chapter, you can see how the story has to end, how the various muddles and plots have to resolve themselves, but it’s the journey itself that makes the book so worth reading. Don’t think this is “just a women’s novel,” either. Such a hugely enjoyable book should interest any discerning reader.

Published in: on 24 July 2011 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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