Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Sophy

The Grand Sophy
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Rivenhall family of Berkeley Square has fallen on hard times. Lord Ombersley, the father of the household, is a man of weak character, whose debts have all but bankrupted them. Lady Ombersley is a nervous wreck. Their oldest son Charles has inherited a fortune from his uncle, putting him in position to save the family's fortune, if he really works at it; but as a side effect, he has become so tyrannical, the whole family is afraid of him. Also, he is engaged to a moralizing bore named Miss Wraxton, who disapproves of everything. Add to these characters a younger brother at Oxford, who is also struggling with debts; a sister named Cecilia, who has fallen in love with a completely useless fellow, breaking the heart of a man far more worthy of her hand; and several younger siblings, who haven't enjoyed themselves in ever so long; and you have a household just crying out for a visit from a fearless, forceful, frequently interfering female named Sophy.

Sophy is the daughter of Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy. An important diplomat, Sir Horace has raised his daughter abroad, during a most dangerous and exciting time for English folks to be abroad. Now it is up to Lady Ombersley to look out for a prospective husband for this strong-willed, rough-around-the-edges young woman - if Charles can refrain from strangling her first. The two cousins butt heads frequently, as Sophy tries the boundaries of what is considered proper for young ladies to do, and interferes in everyone else's affairs. Luckily for her, she is also highly intelligent, nervelessly brave, and driven by the purest motives - otherwise, someone would certainly strangle her, sooner or later.

At first, it seems Sophy is going to get into the same kind of romantic-comedy scrapes as Jane Austen's Emma. But then, her escapades begin to top anything in Austen, and each successive one tops the last, until you find her in the middle of a scheme of un-looked-for quirkiness and daring. There is no chance of getting bored with this heroine or her hijinks; they build to a climax more exciting and hilarious than one generally expects from a Regency romance, or at least one unadulterated by zombies or Steampunk paraphernalia. Some readers, I imagine, pick up a book like this as though digging in for a night-long struggle to wring the least drop of enjoyment out of a book full of old-fashioned manners. But Georgette Heyer brings the fun right to the reader, and then draws him or her into it.

Published in the 1950, this book is only as old as my parents. Nevertheless, it fizzes with energy, as if in the prime of its life, while at the same time guiding you through a captivating mental time-warp to London, circa 1815. It's a perfectly charming piece of light entertainment that, on the one hand, rollicks along in a romantic-comedy rumble full of perils, surprises, and laughs; it is also, on the other hand, a finely crafted work of literary art, written in a style that conjures an immersive, if not addictive, imaginary world around you, then otherwise stays out of the way of its striking characters or their convoluted concerns.

Georgette Heyer, who wrote approximately 50 novels in a more than 50-year career (1920s to 1970s), more or less invented the Regency romance sub-genre of period fiction, which is still bowling along almost a century later. Her passion for scenic and fashion details, her study of the way people talked and behaved at that period in English history, lend her writing a convincing realism and sensuous vividness that transcend the predictable formulas of romantic fiction. But what gives her writing zip is, most of all, her understanding of character, her knack for inventing marvelous people like the Grand Sophy, her cousin Charles, and others, and playing them off each other to sparkling effect. Also, perhaps, the fact that she is looking back on the Regency period allows her to pull stunts Jane Austen never would have dared, and that's all right with me. I look forward to reading at least a few more of Heyer's books, which I picked up with this one at a Half-Price Books store in the Twin Cities during a recent, long-overdue vacation. Their titles include Friday's Child and Frederica.

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