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.