Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Grand Sophy: Merchant of Venice meets Oliver Twist meets Gone With the Wind

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.


  1. It is the only instance in which a scene so distasteful to modern sensibilities is included in Heyer's works. I think Heyer is true to her time and station. Would she have written such a scene had she been alive today? No.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Vic. I'm relieved to hear this as so many people I REALLY like, like Heyer.

  3. I haven't seen this in any other Heyers but I also don't think I remember there being any other characters of ethnicity in any of the books. I've read three mysteries, two historical fictions and two Regency romances so far.

    It's amazing how intolerable things like this are to me now in life. GWTW was my favorite book when I was a teen. I read it half a dozen times. I'm now used to the language and the characterizations but I wonder how I would feel if I was reading it for the first time at this point.

    I recently read a book that I thought was unexcusably racist toward the Japanese -- written for tweens a couple of years ago by an American woman. This person should definitely have known better and it worries me that her editor and publisher said nothing either.

  4. >GWTW was my favorite book when I was a teen. I read it half a dozen times. I'm now used to the language and the characterizations but I wonder how I would feel if I was reading it for the first time at this point.

    I've wondered that myself! GWTW was certainly a major book in my life.

  5. Good points! I can't speak to Heyer's work, because quite frankly, after reading one book, I found her kind of uninteresting.

    GWTW is a book I can not abide. The film more or less gets a pass from me - I don't own it, I don't watch it, but I have seen it once or twice.

    The book is soemthing entirely different to me. I had a friend once who absolutely loved the book and just did not get why I found it so hurtful. We're not friends anymore..