First Class Compartment: Listening to The Grand Sophy

On Monday, wondering how to spend my Audible credit, I discovered that an unabridged version of Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy is finally available. I promptly downloaded it. Heyer is some of my favorite comfort reading, and I have listened to many of her books over and over. But. I wondered what it would be like to listen to the infamous anti-Semitic portrayal of Goldhanger, the money-lender. (Back when SmartBitch Sarah’s D review generated a lot of discussion about this scene, I did a post on whether the anti-Semitism is in the character’s or narrative’s point of view, and what difference that makes to me). In the end, listening made me enjoy the novel all the more in some ways, but it also made me think about the problems with the way I am a fan of this problematic book.

The Grand Sophy has always worked better for me as a comedy of manners where everyone ends up suitably partnered than as a romance. It’s pretty low on feelings. Listening made me see this a bit differently: for instance, I heard just how many times people said Charles would call someone out over Sophy, and realized that people around them were aware of their feelings for each other long before they were. Or at least before they acknowledged those feelings, even to themselves; Sophy (whose point of view we are closest to) is not at all introspective. A lot of the romance is unspoken and left for the reader to fill in based on a few very subtle clues. In audio, those clues were more salient to me and some scenes felt more emotional as a result.

So far, so good. But what about that Goldhanger scene? Listening did make me aware of every ugly word. I didn’t find it harder to hear them, though, probably because I know the book so well (and I recognize that it’s a privilege not to feel hurt by them; the words aren’t aimed at me, and if they were, I’d feel very differently).

On the other hand, being self-conscious about my reaction to this scene made me consider how I manage to read and love the book despite it, with interesting results. Basically, I compartmentalize. It’s just one scene, I tell myself. It’s an abscess, a swollen pocket of nasty infection, but it hasn’t become systemic and sickened the whole body of the novel. (Appropriately revolting metaphor brought to you by last summer’s veterinary disaster).

Except really, I have to recognize, that’s not true. This scene is of a piece with the whole novel in thematic terms: Sophy always comes up with an outrageous scheme to arrange her cousins’ affairs with the intent and effect of making them happier. Her courage and stop-at-nothing style are on display as she faces down the villainous moneylender with a pistol to redeem Hubert’s bond and ring. And the contrast between her meddling and that of Miss Wraxton, Charles’ betrothed, is elaborated here: Sophy does not spy, or betray Hubert’s confidence; she doesn’t criticize or judge him; she wants to repair his relationship with Charles rather than turning Charles against him. These are all things I like about the Goldhanger episode, but I don’t think they can truly be compartmentalized from the anti-Semitism, because his Jewishness is part of what makes Goldhanger a threatening villain in Heyer’s eyes and makes Sophy appear so intrepid and admirable.

Moreover, I think Sophy’s judgment of Goldhanger (she tells him exactly what she thinks of his character) is of a piece with the other character judgments she makes in the novel, and the narrative asks us to accede to her judgments–something I do willingly in the other cases. We’re meant to think she is right about people. And her judgments about the right partners for her cousins are partly about who is “the right sort” in a class-based sense. It’s hard to articulate this (and maybe, really, it’s nonsense to see this as at least akin to judging people based on their class), because all the novel’s candidates for marriage are from aristocratic families, but they don’t all share the right aristocratic values and the right type of “good breeding.” Miss Wraxton may be “very English,” as the Marquesa says, but she is also Not Our Kind in some ways.

I think the race-based judgments made in the Goldhanger scene infect the whole novel because race and class categories are understood in similar ways in Heyer’s novel, as they were in the nineteenth century. As Sunita explained in a recent comment,

Given the lack of social-class mobility for all but a very few, class (especially the working class category) was close to an ascriptive category and generated a strong identity relationship, so it’s not surprising that it shared attributes with racial categories. For example, the emphasis on “breeding” and judgments based on facial features, e.g., low foreheads=backwardness, were in much the same vein as (invidious) race/color distinctions being made at that time. If you look at either the writings of the period or the sociology and history (at the time and restrospectively), you’ll see a lot of parallels.

The distinctions made between aristocratic young people in The Grand Sophy are far more subtle than the kind Sunita describes, but I see them as being of the same type.

“Breeding” is a complicated and multi-layered concept, both in period use and in Heyer’s. It combines both nature–who are your parents? and grandparents? and so on–and nurture. Miss Wraxton, for instance, attributes what she sees as Sophy’s unladylike, fast behavior to her lack of a mother and her upbringing on the Continent, where girls, she believes, are not so strictly guarded as in England.

Breeding in the nature sense comes up explicitly in the novel: when Charles charges Sophy with describing Miss Wraxton as “horse-faced,” she protests that she meant “a very well-bred horse.” And in some ways, Miss Wraxton’s breeding and manners are irreproachable. But she is also, in the novel’s terms, often at fault, because she sticks more to the letter than the spirit of aristocratic good breeding. She breaks confidences made to her, for instance; she lets her jealousy of Sophy lead her into spitefulness; she is puritanical in her rejection of fun and frivolity. Lord Bromford is boring, perhaps the worst sin of underbreeding in Heyer’s world. Augustus is a bad poet (I think he’d be doomed even if a good poet), and he can’t procure a hackney in the rain or a good table at a restaurant, or show a lady he can cherish her like the fragile ornament she is (even if she’s not).

Possibly the problem with these characters is not that they aren’t aristocratic enough, but that they aren’t man enough–another category treated as ascriptive (both then and now). Sophy, on the other hand, is man enough: she shoots, rides, drives, and manages things. She’s not delicate enough to be troubled when men do things like box and swear. She doesn’t betray confidences or tell tales behind people’s backs. She’s what, in a later age, John Buchan characters would call “a white man.” Perhaps it’s because I associate some of the values in Heyer novels with those of that even more guilty pleasure, Buchan, that I think of Sophy’s judgments as being ascriptively racist or classist.

In any case, while I will go on enjoying The Grand Sophy very much, and I will probably continue to do so by compartmentalizing that Goldhanger scene, I now recognize that in doing so, in saying “I’ll just set aside this one problematic thing that’s separate from the unproblematic rest,” I’m overlooking a lot of other problematic elements in the novel. And while that’s OK by me, I want to know I’m doing that.

I want to know because the past is not a separate compartment from the present. We can’t put Heyer’s anti-Semitism or classism in a box labelled “that’s how things were back then” and pat ourselves on the back for knowing better. In some ways, many of us do know better. But we are also the inheritors of that past. Its rhetoric marks our own and our discourse and thinking about social and political issues. If it didn’t, things like Slate’s “If It Happened There” series wouldn’t be possible. We may not talk much about “good breeding” today, but the idea has not entirely vanished. And perhaps it’s when we’re reading just for fun, compartmentalizing the problems we’re aware of, that the things we don’t see slip their poison into our systems.

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43 Responses to First Class Compartment: Listening to The Grand Sophy

  1. Suzanne says:

    Enjoyed your thoughtful review. I have eagerly awaited this unabridged version of The Grand Sophy, and will definitely listen to it in light of your thoughts.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I hope you enjoy it! Despite all the second thoughts on display here, I had a grand time listening, and almost went right back to Ch 1 when I hit the end.

      • Sunita says:

        I’ve had a mixed experience with the Heyers. I really like Richard Armitage’s narration and I very much enjoyed The Convenient Marriage despite the abridgements, but I was frustrated by his abridged Venetia. I realized that with Venetia I had (on rereading) paid more attention to certain passages, and when they were excised in the audiobook I really felt their loss. So I gave up on abridgements (they’re the only ones I’ve ever tried, mostly for Armitage’s narration) and started listening to An Infamous Army, but I didn’t like the narrator at all. Ah well.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I think my favorite narrations, of the ones I have tried, are Black Sheep and The Nonesuch. But I find taste in narrators is very, very personal, so it’s even harder than recommending a print book. There are beloved narrators whose voices/style I can’t stand and I know other people hate some of my favorites. And there are narrators who work well for me in one genre, and not so well in others. (E.g. I don’t like Roslyn Landor’s historical romance narration at all, but I enjoyed a Sophie Kinsella book she narrated–she was less . . . plummy? with a contemporary).

          I often don’t sample books before buying but I DO sample audio because even the best book can be ruined by a narrator you dislike.

      • willaful says:

        Replying to later message… I also dislike Landor’s plummy-ness but find her fine when she’s doing another kind of accent. I listened to something set in Ireland and that was delightful. A Maeve Binchy book, IIRC.

  2. meoskop says:

    That was an excellent comment by Sunita and I’m still considering parts of it. I am fascinated by audio book lovers because I can’t go more than ten minutes with an audio book without tuning out and losing track of it completely. It’s an experience I have never been able to settle down for.

    • Miss Bates says:

      I hear you regarding audio books; I’ve been trying to listen to one for a year and have had to re-start sundry times. The mind wanders within minutes of launching the Audible app.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Quite often I listen to old favorites on audio (like this one) so if I zone out for a while it doesn’t matter. Or books that don’t take much concentration. So I get this. I have to pick and choose times for books that require more attention, and I don’t really try to listen to literary fiction where there is not always a strong plot line to carry me along, or any books where paying close attention to the style would really matter to me. But I’ve ended up really enjoying non-fiction on audio. I do miss things, but honestly so often I’m tired when reading print that I zone out then, too. And I have ended up really loving non-fiction books I would not have had the time and patience to read, and beguiling many hours of chores or commuting and sleepless nights.

        • Miss Bates says:

          I never thought of listening to non-fiction. I’ve just been trying to listen to Outlander b/c I got it on sale & have failed miserably, even though I’m enjoying when I do listen. Without making this onerous, if you’ve got the time, might you suggest two non-fiction titles that were good to listen to? I’m keen on cultural studies, material history, or anything to do with religious studies.

      • pamela1740 says:

        Like MissB, I am not on the audio books bandwagon. But have read Outlander and all the other Gabaldons. I am always shocked by how many people do choose to listen to these – the narrative structure is so choppy (uneven) and the characters so numerous, I think it would be impossible unless, as Liz says, it’s a “re-read.” Very curious to know what MissB would make of that novel, however, should she ever make it through!

        • Miss Bates says:

          Oh boy, I think MissB has restarted so many time that it looks like it might be one of the to do for retirement goals. I do like what I’ve heard so far, tho, Claire is an awfully likeable character, the hubby not so much, and the set-up a nice combo of the ordinary/fantastical. Mind you, she has yet to “time travel” so it’s very early days.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I tried to listen to Game of Thrones and realized I would NEVER keep track of everyone. I need to see names written down. Sometimes that’s a problem with me for non-fiction too–“wait, who was that again?” I know many people adore Outlander but I’ve never been tempted by it.

      • willaful says:

        Listening to books is a skill and requires learning just as reading does. I also eased into audiobooks with nonfiction and old favorites. Emma, in point of fact! Perhaps you should try that — it really is an interesting experience and highlighted passages I was not that aware of as well as bringing out the humor.

        • Miss Bates says:

          Excellent advice … I think my frustration w/ Outlander is that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew … is that a mixed metaphor? I do have Pride and Prejudice on audio. I’ll listen to that before tackling the opus that is Outlander. I really liked what you said about listening is a skill and requires learning. I’ve been too impatient with the experience, taking it for granted that I’m really good at it. As a schoolmarm, I should know better, but I’m usually the one people listen to!

    • Ros says:

      I mostly listen to them while driving. Occasionally I miss bits if I have to concentrate on something on the road, but mostly I find that it helps keep me alert for the driving and that I can listen pretty well.

  3. merriank says:

    I read this article last week which suggests that an analysis of Oxbridge attendees indicates that “English social mobility is not much better than it was in medieval times – and that social status is even more inheritable than height” http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/are-you-of-the-pemberley-darcys-same-elite-surnames-have-been-at-oxbridge-since-the-norman-conquest-8913260.html

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think for Americans (and maybe Australians?) the British class system is hard to understand. We certainly have inheritance of inequality in North America, but we also *believe* we live in a meritocracy with a lot of social mobility. It’s hard for me to imagine the world my British-immigrant mother in law described where you can pin people’s origins (geographical and class) to a very fine degree by the way they speak, and then that’s pretty much who you are. Of course, there’s much much more of this in North America than we like to pretend. . . .

  4. Miss Bates says:

    I find your comments most interesting because they echo my thoughts, better articulated here, when I read Oliver Twist for the first time. I enjoyed the novel very much (it’s quite a page turner) but also felt similar doubt and discomfort vis-à-vis its portrayal of Fagin.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oliver Twist is really interesting, because Fagin is absolutely constructed from anti-Semitic stereotypes, and is a villain, but in the end, in the depiction of his night in the condemned cell, he becomes somewhat sympathetic, something that isn’t true of the other villains of the novel, Sykes and Monk. (I think? It’s been many many years since I read this, but that’s how I remember it–certainly his horror in the cell). And then there’s Riah in Our Mutual Friend, who is also a stereotype in some ways but much more sympathetic–and has often been read as an “apology” for Fagin.

      • Miss Bates says:

        Yes, I’d forgotten the cell scene. There is a transcendence there, but I too am guilty of having read it about ten years ago. The mind is willing, the memory is weak. And I haven’t read Our Mutual Friend, but it is in the classics TBR before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Maybe even more than Fagin, Shakespeare’s Shylock too is created along those stereotypes, but he achieves a grandeur or nobility. With great writers like these, maybe they can’t help but rise above stereotypes, even while being products of their time (which is a phrase I hate, but there I’ve gone and used it).
        On the other hand, there is Eliot’s sympathetic Daniel Deronda …

      • pamela1740 says:

        I took my daughters to a stage production of Oliver last year in Boston where Fagin was played by a female actor. In the musical, the cell scene becomes the song, “Reviewing the Situation.” It was the first time I’d ever seen this as a sympathetic moment; the production emphasized Fagin’s vulnerability, in a way, relative to Sykes, who was played by a large guy doing the brutish thing very effectively. It made me think about how Fagin was lord of the thieves when it came to the pickpockets (children), but socially and in every other way, vulnerable and subject to Sykes’ superior strength, and status (Sykes of course being another stereotype of working class Cockney criminal, I guess). But it all did make me wonder whether if I looked back at Dickens, would I read Fagin as more or less vulnerable. With characters you’ve seen portrayed numerous times on screen/stage, it’s easy to lose sight of the original.

  5. Sunita says:

    Thanks for the shout out! The argument that there are a lot of parallels in the way class and race are used as markers and as ways of establishing hierarchy and inferiority/superiority is a pretty accepted one in social science, at least in the part I was trained in (historical sociology, race and ethnicity, etc.). Sometimes they’re analogous, but sometimes it’s exactly the same language and the same markers are being used. You really only see the class-as-ascriptive stuff break down substantially in the UK during and after Thatcher. One of the ways I used to try and explain it was that working class people did not want to be aristocrats the way poor people might like to be rich (or at least less poor). They’re thought of as two distinct attributes. When I first started reading “European historicals,” which of course were mostly written by American authors for American readers, I found the class depictions quite jarring, especially coming from the “clogs and shawls” historicals written by UK writers.

    I wrote a couple of posts about Heyer’s anti-Semitic passages over at VM back when that review of TGS ran and there was all the hoopla. I was surprised that people were so defensive. There are several books with these kinds of depictions, and as your analysis shows so well, Heyer was judgmental about all sorts of class and ethnic categories. I read her and Angela Thirkell comprehensively at more or less the same time, and to me they’re quite similar. Neither is a full member of the society they elevate as “better,” and they’re very hard on other marginal or socially inferior groups and individuals.

    As someone who would definitely have been in the “Not Our Kind” category, I don’t think I failed to see them so much as they weren’t surprising to me. If you’re not white and a member of the middle class and you’re a big fiction reader, you wind up reading a lot of books that make pejorative assumptions about you and yours, whether the authors intend to be quite so dismissive and stereotypical or not.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Some of my dissertation work was on the way the Victorians used colonialist discourse/racial language in describing the metropolis. The metaphor of “darkest London,” parallel to “darkest Africa,” the poor as heathen savages, etc. It’s everywhere, including from progressive thinkers like Engels, who writes about “the Irishman” as if “he” were an unchanging monolith, just the way people viewed “the African.” It’s there in the way people survey and order the landscape of the Victorian city. So I read a little early anthropology/sociology, and a lot about this kind of thinking.

      It can be really easy to forget that things like that lurk in the background when you’re enjoying a book that doesn’t make YOU the other–or easy for me. But when I put it down I find myself thinking “just what did I go along with here?” (It’s worse when I read Buchan and find myself celebrating someone’s “white man-ness.”)

    • Ros says:

      “You really only see the class-as-ascriptive stuff break down substantially in the UK during and after Thatcher. One of the ways I used to try and explain it was that working class people did not want to be aristocrats the way poor people might like to be rich (or at least less poor). They’re thought of as two distinct attributes.”

      Yes, absolutely. To the extent that I find it very odd when the two are more or less equated in, for instance, US society. And even in post-Thatcher Britain, class-markers such as accent, name, dress and so on, are still there and still matter, though less so. Kids these days are most likely to aspire to celebrity, and wealthy celebrities will still hold onto their working-class roots with pride.

      But also, while social mobility may not have been the norm, it was always possible. Something I’ve been very struck by in watching ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ in which celebrities trace their family trees, is just how often class can undergo dramatic shifts in the space of two or three generations. In both directions, obviously.

  6. Just seconding Sunita here on the parallels between the treatment of class and race. In my essay about Heyer at JPRS I wrote that:

    Helen Hughes, in her study of “historical romances written between 1890 and 1990” (8), observes that one of the “themes which remain[ed] the same throughout the century […] is the portrayal of class. In the texts […] upper-class characters are seen as belonging to what amounts to a different species from lower-class ones” (136-37). In Heyer’s oeuvre the clearest example of this portrayal is perhaps to be found in These Old Shades (1926). Here the cross-dressing heroine’s “gentle birth,” which “One can tell […] from his speech, and his delicate hands and face” (12), is more readily discerned than her sex while the true parentage of the peasant-born boy who has taken her place is betrayed by the fact that he is “A boorish cub […] with the soul of a farmer” (51) who has it as his “ambition to have a farm under his own management” (37). The young man’s supposed paternal uncle does not suspect the deception, but he is nonetheless certain that the youth cannot be the product of pure aristocratic bloodlines: “there must be bad blood in Marie! My beautiful nephew did not get his boorishness from us. Well, I never thought that Marie was of the real nobility” (51). The effects of descent from “good […] yeoman-stock” (47) are noted in A Civil Contract (1961): Jenny Chawleigh tells Lady Nassington that “my mother was a farmer’s daughter” (115), is told in reply that “you have the look of it” (116), and her subsequent enjoyment of country living reveals that she “owed more to her mother’s ancestry than […] she herself had known” (241). The idea that particular personality traits could be ascribed to entire social groups also underpins Heyer’s depiction of “Mr Goldhanger, […] a literary caricature of an avaricious moneylender whose antecedents were undoubtedly Dickens’ Fagin and Shakespeare’s Shylock” (Kloester, Biography 368).

  7. willaful says:

    “We’re meant to think she is right about people. ”

    A very pertinent point, and I think a large part of that depressive episode I talked about on twitter, when I felt like my favorite book characters would hate me. I was a big Heyer fan at that time, though I think it was Josephine Tey who really got to me. It was enlightening to read Robert Barnard on classism in Tey, mentioning for example, the very sympathetic character who casually refers to a servant as “our current moron” or words to that effect.

    The way you talk about Sophie here also makes me think of “Miss Bianca,” described not only a perfect lady but a perfect gentleman. Margery Sharp — another much loved English author from those days.

  8. Pingback: Weekend Miscellany: Ethical Criticism, Long-Awaited Reads, Literary Lines, and #AcWriMo » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  9. Marijana says:

    What I find interesting is why reader offence at certain stereotypes vary. Some stereotypes are accepted as being a result of the period in time the author wrote in. Others, not so much. Why the difference? Are we happy to accept stereotypes that still exist in society? Ones that have not been broken down and drawn attention to as wrong? Ones that are still perpetuated?

    I found Elizabeth Peters characterisation of Egyptians offensive. However, many readers love these books and say that her writing is a product of her time. I’m not sure I’ve come across one review that has touched on the stereotypes she has in her books, and I’m interested why? Is it because there are not enough vocal Egyptian readers out there crying out offence?

    This may not be relevant in terms of reading and books but I found an interesting article via Twitter that brings attention to the way words are used to create ‘the other’. In this case, ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/2011/expats-and-migrants

    • Sunita says:

      Thanks for that link! I wish she hadn’t used taxi drivers as her primary sources of cultural information (shades of Tom “Airmiles” Friedman), but the overall point is important. Not everyone uses “expat” in a complimentary way, though; I’ve been in contexts where expat basically translates as “white people who think they’re better than us and can’t be bothered to learn anything about the place they’re stuck in until they’re transferred again.”

      I also think that a reader can accept that a stereotype is rooted in a particular time and place and still be offended by it. There are definitely books I continue to read or reread that I think are offensive, but that I consider to have redeeming literary value that makes them worthwhile to me in other ways. I DNF mediocre books that are offensive but I’ll finish and hang on to good ones. Maybe that’s hypocritical, but I think everyone has to draw their own lines, to some extent. Otherwise we’d have very little art to read, watch, or listen to.

      I don’t have an answer for why Egypt-set books so often get a pass, though. Maybe it’s what you say, that there aren’t a lot of readers who are part of the offensively rendered group and even fewer voice their concerns? Or maybe the romance of ancient Egypt is so much a part of the romance of exploration and history for Europeans and North Americans that the pleasure outweighs the problems?

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I meant to respond to this. I think Sunita is right about some of the reasons Peters/Egypt-set books get a pass. There is a ton of prejudice about Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern cultures, peoples, and countries in Anglophone countries. Part of it is the “romance” of the setting. Many (US/British) books with this setting I’m aware of are historical fiction/historical romance/historical adventure or a blend like Peters–I’d say that the depiction of Egyptians in her books is meant to reflect not her time so much as Amelia’s.

        Why do I personally give it a pass, or not so much that but put up with it? Partly some of the reasons above–I love the setting, and I’ve read some of the Victorian adventure books she’s parodying/paying homage to, which are much more overtly racist. I’ve enjoyed them, though not without noting the racism. I first read Peters many years ago when I was less sensitive to these issues. I also think that there is more than one attitude to Egypt/Egyptians in the book, and Amelia’s ethnocentrism/jingoism is partly mocked by the narrative, because it’s so blatant, and partly challenged by other characters who have differing views. She changes over the course of the series, too. So I see it is multi-layered, though I’d agree there’s a lot of stereotyping and not really just from Amelia. That is part of the problem of creating a pastiche of earlier styles of book; you can import some of their prejudices as well as the fun.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I wanted to respond to this too, and forgot to. There is a lot of racism against Arabs in this country, and most people here haven’t ever met any in person. That lack of exposure makes it all the easier to ignore their humanity and turn them into villains or into caricatures.

        I admit to mixed feelings about books with Middle Eastern settings. Too often they don’t feel authentic to me, and the flat portrayals of Arab characters are part of the problem. Also the climate, the foods, and other aspects of both setting and culture aren’t very often included with enough authenticity for me.

        At the same time, though, I have a fondness for books set in the Middle East because I spent my childhood in Israel. When they do capture some of the things I miss, I appreciate that in them a great deal. This is the reason I continue to read them.

  10. Your post has provided me with the perfect vehicle to describe and explain just why I found this novel so painful to read (about a hundred times more so than The Merchant of Venice) and why I’m so ambivalent about it.

    I’ll start with one of your first points.

    The Grand Sophy has always worked better for me as a comedy of manners where everyone ends up suitably partnered than as a romance. It’s pretty low on feelings.

    Here we differ. Of all the Heyers I’ve read, I’ve found The Grand Sophy is the one that worked best for me as a romance. It is an excellent comedy of manners as well, but my God, is it romantic, very sexy and deeply romantic. Without the Anti-Semitism it might have been the kind of book I would close with a sigh of deep satisfaction and place on my shelf to read, debate and adore all over again in the future.

    I’ve read several Heyers — not as many as most Heyer fans have read (if someone had steered me away from this novel, there might have been more), but they include many reader favorites such as These Old Shade’s, Devil’s Cub, Faro’s Daughter, Frederica, The Nonesuch, Arabella and probably one or two more. Frederica was wonderful, in a different way, and I found it and the others romantic to varying degrees, but none came close to The Grand Sophy for sheer chemistry between the main characters.

    Listening made me see this a bit differently: for instance, I heard just how many times people said Charles would call someone out over Sophy, and realized that people around them were aware of their feelings for each other long before they were. Or at least before they acknowledged those feelings, even to themselves; Sophy (whose point of view we are closest to) is not at all introspective. A lot of the romance is unspoken and left for the reader to fill in based on a few very subtle clues. In audio, those clues were more salient to me and some scenes felt more emotional as a result.

    I find it so interesting that the romance being unspoken and unacknowledged was the reason you didn’t find it that romantic (unless I’m misinterpreting you here), because for me that was a big part of what made it so romantic. Charles did not acknowledge his feelings for Sophy because he was fighting them since he thought Sophy was out of control and control was important to him, and also out of honor and duty toward Miss Wraxton. Sophy wasn’t easily going to concede the upper hand in any situation, so she wouldn’t have admitted to feelings for Charles easily. But the feelings were certainly there, in all the sparks that flew every time they bickered, and the more *they* suppressed them, the more *I* felt them.

    (There is something so romantic [and also hot] in unacknowledged feelings that are nevertheless there, made manifest by the author’s very subtlety, and I worry sometimes that there is so little subtlety in the genre, and the art of writing unacknowledged feelings is being lost.)

    So as I was reading this book, before the Goldhanger scene, not knowing that it was to come, I was feeling that high of having fallen for the book, of loving and adoring it. And then I got there.

    It’s just one scene, I tell myself. It’s an abscess, a swollen pocket of nasty infection, but it hasn’t become systemic and sickened the whole body of the novel. (Appropriately revolting metaphor brought to you by last summer’s veterinary disaster).

    Except really, I have to recognize, that’s not true. This scene is of a piece with the whole novel in thematic terms: Sophy always comes up with an outrageous scheme to arrange her cousins’ affairs with the intent and effect of making them happier. Her courage and stop-at-nothing style are on display as she faces down the villainous moneylender with a pistol to redeem Hubert’s bond and ring. And the contrast between her meddling and that of Miss Wraxton, Charles’ betrothed, is elaborated here: Sophy does not spy, or betray Hubert’s confidence; she doesn’t criticize or judge him; she wants to repair his relationship with Charles rather than turning Charles against him. These are all things I like about the Goldhanger episode, but I don’t think they can truly be compartmentalized from the anti-Semitism, because his Jewishness is part of what makes Goldhanger a threatening villain in Heyer’s eyes and makes Sophy appear so intrepid and admirable.

    Yes! Exactly. And since a lot of what I loved about the romance was that Charles was falling for that courage, loyalty and panache of Sophy’s, against his better judgment, so as soon as that courage, loyalty and panache was linked to hating people like me, I couldn’t not feel hurt, nor could I enjoy these qualities of Sophy’s the way I had before.

    I tried to talk myself into seeing it as just one scene, but no matter how I thought about it or tried to view it, I could not divorce it from the greater themes of the novel. What was so romantic about the book — that Charles was attracted to, even turned on by, Sophy’s boldness, lost much of its appeal when this same boldness of Sophy’s cowed that creeping beetle of a villain, that vile loan shark, the Semitic nosed, curly haired and greasy Goldhanger. That scene horrified me too much for any realization to overcome.

    (Possibly because I’d also previously read 1930s Nazi propaganda kid lit that pounded similar stereotypes into children’s heads. And because this book was published in 1950. 1950, for God’s sake.)

    Moreover, I think Sophy’s judgment of Goldhanger (she tells him exactly what she thinks of his character) is of a piece with the other character judgments she makes in the novel, and the narrative asks us to accede to her judgments–something I do willingly in the other cases. We’re meant to think she is right about people

    Yes. This too. I was on board with her until then too. And suddenly it’s like, her judgment is right about everyone, so it must be right about dirty Jews? It’s okay to write this in 1950 with footage from the liberation of the camps relatively fresh on everyone’s minds? With millions of people gassed to death due to such bigotry? I couldn’t view Sophy’s judgment the same way after that, anymore than I could view her cleverness and fearlessness the same way, or her shooting ability, or Charles’ love for these characteristics, the latter of which I’d up until then viewed as feminist.

    I still finished the book, because it was just so romantic that I wanted it back — the book I’d been reading before the introduction of Goldhanger. That is quite a statement in favor of Heyer’s abilities because with most books, I would have stopped right there.

    It remains a book I find impossible to grade. So much was excellent about it — and so much was awful.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you for this wonderful comment and for sharing your own experience of reading the book.

      I think it is pretty romantic when you look at Charles–like you, I do enjoy unspoken feelings and moments when characters feel they can’t speak. I think there are two reasons that doesn’t work as well for me here as it sometimes does:

      1. The feelings are never spoken. I mean, at the end she says “you can’t love me” and he says “I don’t, I dislike you excessively” (or something like that). And of course Sophy knows how to take it–that he does love her–but I kind of picture them digging at each other forever and feel tired. I think not speaking about their feelings is true to these characters, actually (they’d see it as mawkish), so this is partly a matter of my taste, not a failing of the book.

      2. And more important. Sophy doesn’t change of grow in my opinion. Love makes no difference in here. Over on your Dear Author post you commented that

      I think that the hero and heroine’s willingness to grow and change in order to function better in a relationship (for the other’s sake, yes, but also for their own sake) is part of what makes those characters’ heroic. That growth may mean dealing with past baggage, not just events within the relationship, but if that growth has no impact whatsoever on the romantic relationship, makes no difference to the loved one, then why should I care?

      And that is more or less how I feel about Sophy in this book. This goes back to how we accede to her judgments, as well. She’s no Austenian Emma, who learns that her judgments can be mistaken (although there’s a book that reaffirms classism!). So that, to me, is a flaw.

    • LOL. “That scene horrified me too much for any realization to overcome” was supposed to be “That scene horrified me too much for any RATIONALIZATION to overcome.”

  11. Re. 1) I picture them bickering forever, but being hot for each other as they do it, because to me that’s where a lot of the sexual tension was. It’s not the kind of relationship I would want, but some people would want it, and Heyer convinced me that this is what would make these two people happy.

    Re. 2) You’re right, Sophy doesn’t grow. I think she is supposed to be a rather magical creature the way she is, and though IRL someone like her would be overbearing, she has enough charm and is comedic enough in the book that I could buy into the magic of her, aside from the Goldhanger scene. I think the arc of the novel is about Charles changing — Charles battling his feelings for Sophy and finally giving in because he loves her — which is a pretty big sacrifice to make for love, given how bossy Sophy is.

    There are lots and lots of romances where only one of the protagonists grows and changes significantly. Almost every rake/virgin story for example (one thing I find annoying about some of them — I sometimes want the virgin to change as well and not just the rake). It’s the more rare book where they both grow for the sake of the other, and while I agree those books, when well-executed, can be the most satisfying of all, it’s not a requirement for my enjoyment that they both grow, as long as one of them does.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with everything you say here. So . . . I guess it’s just me, that somehow I don’t find this book very romantic. By which I simply mean that it doesn’t give me that “flutter in the stomach” feeling, or I don’t have a strong emotional response. Intellectually I agree.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Have you read Loretta Chase’s Last Night’s Scandal? It has problematic elements of its own (the hero is an English seeker of Egyptian antiquities) but the dynamic between Peregrine and Olivia has always struck me as reminiscent of the one between Charles and Sophy, and I’m curious whether you found it any more romantic.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          What I remember about that is really enjoying the letters at the beginning and then finding it a let-down. It was my least favorite of that series. So . . . probably I didn’t find it that romantic? I don’t remember it all that well.

  12. Suzanne says:

    While It is true that Sophy’s character does not fundamentally change over the course of the novel, I have always thought that she was undergoing a ‘life change’ by immersing herself in the lives of a settled family. For all her gaiety, enthusiasm, and hosts of friends, she has not experienced much sustained human intimacy. She is motherless, has led an itinerant life, and her father, fully preoccupied with his own challenging pursuits, treats her more like a self-sufficient buddy and social hostess. Despite her many loyal friends, she is not part of a family, seems to have had little childhood, and is essentially psychologically alone. Her gaiety has always struck me as a defense against the enormity of that realization. So, she is emotionally ready to use her intelligence, energies, and courage to make a leap into the next stage of her life, a life for which she has no models. Whenever I read this book, I am struck by the belief that she is drawn to Charles’ steadiness and loyalty to family (even if she wants him to lighten up) because she understands that he could be the anchor she needs and provide her the opportunity to experience the depth and richness of true family life. This is change, and the door to a lifetime of change and growth.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, that’s a really interesting perspective! Thanks for this comment. Yes, she becomes part of a family–I don’t get the sense she really cared deeply for anyone before (except perhaps her father), so that is a real change for her.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      I felt this way too.

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