The Grand Sophy, the latest Georgette Heyer release by SourceBooks, is a page turner that will keep the reader guessing and wondering when and how the heroine will top her previous outrageous acts. Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, a rich widower who has recently returned from the Continent, convinces his sister, Lady Ombersley, that his sweet, motherless daughter ought to stay with her while he returns abroad. Several weeks after their discussion, Miss Sophy Stanton-Lacy makes a grand entrance:
Lady Ombersley, meanwhile, standing as though rooted to her own doorstep, was realizing with strong indignation, that the light in which a gentleman of great height and large proportions regarded his daughter had been misleading. Sir Horace’s little Sophy stood five feet nine inches in her stockinged feet, and was built on generous lines, a long-legged, deep-bosomed creature, with a merry face, and a quantity of glossy brown ringlets under one of the most dashing hats her cousins had ever seen.
Sophy could not exactly be called a beauty, but no one who had met her could ever quite forget her. Not ten minutes after her dramatic arrival, Lady Ombersley wonders: “What kind of niece was this, who set up her stable, made her own arrangements, and called her father Sir Horace?” The entire family, nay all of London, would soon find out.
Georgette Heyer wrote about two types of heroines. The Mark II heroine, who was a biddable and quiet young girl, and the Mark I heroine whose independent habits and dominant character invariably clashed with the hero’s personality. Sophy is the quintessential Mark I Heyer heroine: a tall, bossy, outrageously rich and independent, problem-solving, smart and capable young lady who will let nothing, not even Mr. Charles Rivenhall’s censure and outrage stand in her way. Arriving at the Ombersley’s house wearing a sable stole and carrying a sable muff, she alights from a coach and four with an entourage that includes several liveried footmen, a doyenne, an Italian greyhound, a monkey named Jacko, and a parrot in a birdcage. Even as Lady Ombersley struggles to hide her dismay, Sophy’s cousins are delighted, except for Charles. Everything about Sophy sets him on edge, especially when she won’t give way to even his slightest wishes.
As heroes go, Charles is a bit of a prig. He cannot help himself, for his father, Lord Ombersley is an inveterate gambler. Charles unexpectedly came into an inheritance from a rich relative who had made his fortune in India and he uses his wealth to pay off his father’s debts. In doing so, Charles becomes the de facto head of the family. A sensible man, he proposes to a patronizing young lady of impeccable character, Miss Eugenia Wraxton, and leads a bland existence … until Sophy turns his well-ordered life upside down. The reader learns one thing about Charles that others don’t seem to appreciate – children, dogs, monkeys, and parrots turn instinctively to him, and although he might seem harsh on the surface, he has a soft heart and is an easy touch. However, his dictatorial ways intimidate two of his siblings, Cecilia and Hubert, to the point where Sophy feels she needs to help out. This causes Charles to gnash his teeth at her presumption. At the core of this book are the crackling scenes between Sophy and Charles, and thankfully they are numerous.
The Grand Sophy is one of Georgette Heyer’s “larger than life” books. Everything – from the characters to Sophy’s antics to the settings – is bigger and grander than in most of her other novels, and the side characters are unforgettable. Augustus Fawnhope is a beautiful but a gloriously silly poet whom Cecilia loves. Cecilia, Charles’s lovestruck sister, is a sweet Mark II heroine with backbone and pluck, who sees the error of her ways, but can do little to rectify the situation. Enter Sophy to the rescue. Sancia, Sir Horace’s Spanish fiancee, is singularly lazy and unforgettable in her ability to drop off to sleep in front of guests, but Sophy knows she can solicit her support whenever it is needed. Lord Bromford, a terminally boring hypochondriac and Mamma’s boy, woos Sophy with the tenacity of a bulldog, much to the glee of her younger cousins, who watch with awe as their older cousin deftly skirts his advances.
Charles’s fiancee, the horse-faced and prudish Eugenia Wraxton, is Sophy’s perfect foil. On the outside, Miss Wraxton is all that is proper, but on the inside she is small and mean of spirit. Sophy sees right through her and is determined to open Charles’s eyes before he is leg-shackled to her through marriage. Where Miss Wraxton merely pays lip service to being a lady, Sophy is warmhearted and generous to a fault. Her rarified social status allows her to behave outrageously with impunity, a fact that the jealous Miss Wraxton never quite realizes. Miss Wraxton constantly lectures Sophy or, worse, tattles on her, as the following scene between Sophy and Charles suggests. In it they are discussing her purchase of her high perch phaeton, to which Charles has strenuously objected:
“I have no control over your actions, cousin,” he said coldly. No doubt if it seems good to you to make a spectacle of yourself in the Park, you will do so. But you will not, if you please, take any of my sisters up beside you!”
“But it does please me,” she said. “I have already taken Cecilia for a turn round the Drive. You have very antiquated notions, have you not? I saw several excessively smart sporting carriages being driven by ladies of the highest ton!”
“I have no particular objection to a phaeton and pair,” he said, still more coldly, “though a perch model is quite unsuited to a lady. You will forgive me if I tell you that there is something more than a little fast in such a style of carriage.”
“Now, who in the world can have been spiteful enough to have put that idea into your head?” wondered Sophy.
He flushed, but did not answer.
Although this book provides us with a fun romp through Regency London, it does possess one flawed scene. The scene is pivotal and demonstrates Sophy’s fearlessness in helping Charles’s brother Hubert out of an impossible situation, but Georgette Heyer is a product of her snobbish upbringing and time. Her description of a stereotypical Jewish lender, the villainous Mr. Goldhanger, is old-fashioned and ruffles our modern sensibilities. For many readers, this scene is a deal-breaker (see comments in link). Some stop reading the book at this point, others feel that the book loses some of its lustre, and others like myself manage to move on, realizing that authors cannot help but be influenced by the age in which they live. A friend of mine observed that Huckleberry Finn is full of racial slurs, but these statements did not prevent it from becoming a classic. Having said that, Georgette’s description of the Jewish lender did give me pause, but after a few pages, I was once again absorbed by Sophy’s antics and rooting for the characters I had come to love. When I turned the last page, I could only wish them all the happiest of ever afters.
I give The Grand Sophy three out of three regency fans. Order the book at this link.
Read this blog’s other Georgette Heyer reviews here.
Gentle readers: The Grand Sophy will be released today. A reissue from SourceBooks, this 1950 novel was one of Georgette Heyer’s best. Look for a month-long kick off of this highly entertaining book on Jane Austen Today, Austenprose and this blog.