Sunday, July 26, 2009
The Grand Sophy: Merchant of Venice meets Oliver Twist meets Gone With the Wind
Posted by JaneGS
I jumped on the Georgette Heyer bandwagon that is sweeping the blogosphere and read The Grand Sophy during a quickie weekend trip to Cleveland to visit the great and glorious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I was happily rolling along, laughing at Sophy's antics as she dealt with cousin Cecelia and her gormless poet, Augustus Fawnhope, cousin Charles and his humorless fiancée, Eugenia Wraxton, and her various other relatives, suitors, and lovers. Then, Sophy decided to help cousin Hubert and that involved a trip to Goldhangar, the moneylender. I was appalled that Heyer included such a blatantly anti-semitic character in this romp in Regencyland. Goldhangar was Fagin and Shylock and every other Jewish moneylender that has disgraced literature for centuries. I can forgive Shakespeare because there is sufficient ambiguity in his words to allow actors over the ages to portray Shylock in a completely sympathetic way without changing a word of the play. Dickens, one can argue, still lived in the dark ages but I don't like him enough to try to excuse his prejudices. Heyer,however, should've be taught better or know better, especially since The Grand Sophy was written in 1950 (aka post-WWII).
At one point, Sophy brags that her father says that she was "born without any nerves at all...and almost no sensibility." It seems to me that her creator demonstrates almost no sensitivity in her portrayal of Goldhangar. I sort of feel the way I did when I studied the Civil War after reading Gone With the Wind a bazillion times. Like Margaret Mitchell, Heyer can tell a good story, but is it an honest story? This reminds me of a conversation I had with my kids when we recently went to see a stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird - the point I was trying to make is that being fiction doesn't mean a story isn't true, and all great literature should be true.
To Kill a Mockingbird is much more true than The Grand Sophy--I don't think anyone's going to argue that point--nor is anyone going to argue whether or not The Grand Sophy is great literature. In GWTW, Mammy tells Scarlett that Rhett is no good, even though he has lots of money--"he come of good stock and he all slicked up lak a race hawse, but he a mule in hawse harness."
It seems to me that GWTW and The Grand Sophy are mighty appealing, they're all slicked up like race horses, but they're lies...just mules in horse harnesses. Lots of people are reading and enjoying Heyer these days, but the poison in a portrayal of a stock character that should have left our culture centuries ago is that it doesn't taste like the poison it is. And that's what makes it dangerous. It is poison, and we shouldn't just swallow it just because it tastes good.
Is this the only instance of Heyer being racist? I haven't read enough of her to know. Maybe I'll read a bio of her next to know whereof she comes before I read more of her novels.