Review: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

My favorite pop-culture blog, Tor.com, is a sci-fi/fantasy nerd’s dream site.  Tor puts out an incredible variety of content.  There are smart, detailed book reviews, thoughtful feminist and queer analysis, and delightful non-book stuff like reviews of superhero movies and a re-watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Various bloggers on the site are also leading detailed, engaging re-reads of books by Patrick Rothfuss, George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, and Georgette Heyer.

Wait … what?

What on earth is Regency romance author Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) doing on the same blog as A Song of Ice and Fire and the new Spider-Man movie?  Blogger Mari Ness explains.

The Regency world Heyer presents … is in no way historical, however accurate its details of clothing, gloves and cant; it is instead a secondary world as carefully crafted as any fantasy series – and more than many of them. …

Perhaps because of the strength of that world-building, Heyer’s Regency England was also a world with a surprisingly strong influence on contemporary fantasy writing. Several contemporary fantastists have mentioned a love of Heyer or her dialogue, and others have gone so far as to create worlds of their own filled with magic (that is, magicians) that claim to be based on Jane Austen, but contain more than a touch of Heyer.

I knew Heyer had been an influence on one of my favorite science fiction writers, Lois McMaster Bujold, who dedicated her novella A Civil Campaign to Heyer.  I’d also seen Jo Walton, one of my favorite Tor.com bloggers, mentioning her affection for Heyer.  But despite my love for Jane Austen, historical fiction, and anything Bujold- or Walton-related, I had never picked up one of Heyer’s books.  I decided that had to change.  I started with one that a good friend and devoted Heyer fan recommended: The Grand Sophy.

I have to admit I got off to a bit of a rocky start.  The book opens with a diplomat, Sir Horace, approaching his sister Lady Ombersley to ask if she will take charge of his daughter Sophy while he goes to Brazil.  He’d like to see his daughter married off, if possible, and he promises that his “little Sophy” is a sweet and quiet creature who will give them no trouble at all.  We then spend more time than is probably necessary establishing that Lady Ombersley’s daughter Cecilia is in love with an unsuitably impoverished poet and that her son Charles runs the family’s finances with an iron fist.  I put the book down for the night thinking “I hope this gets more interesting when Sophy finally arrives.”

Boy, does it ever.  Sophy brings the book to life.  Think of a cross between Jane Austen’s meddling Emma Woodhouse and energetic, hyper-competent Leslie Knope from TV’s “Parks & Recreation.”  She drives carriages at breakneck speeds, says exactly what she thinks at all times, and seems to know just how to deal with any crisis.  At times I thought that Heyer pushed Sophy’s eccentricity and domineering personality a bit too far, but the character’s charisma and energy are undeniable.  I couldn’t help grinning in awe as Sophy bent those around her to her will and launched one scheme after another to fix the mess everyone had made.  The book’s final chapters in particular are a delightfully written, perfectly timed screwball comedy of manners.

If a light Regency-esque novel with a galvanic protagonist sounds like something you’d enjoy, The Grand Sophy is your book.  Prepare to smile.

Rating: Library Loan

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2 comments on “Review: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

  1. M says:

    I may have to give Heyer another try. The only book of hers I’ve read is *Cousin Kate*, and I despised it. I picked it up back when I was immersed in Austen, around age 17, because a friend had told me Heyer had a similar style… but *Cousin Kate* was dark and strange, not what I was expecting at all.

    • M, many of Heyer’s books have an Austen-era Regency setting and end with a couple getting together, but I’d argue that the similarities end there. Heyer’s books tend to be London-centered and feature characters who are much more aristocratic than Austen’s (Heyer is very fond of marquises, earls, etc.). Heyer’s comedy is much more of the screwball variety than Austen’s. Heyer also has her characters employ a lot of Regency slang or “cant,” which is very different from how Austen’s characters talk. Finally, Heyer isn’t afraid to bend historical plausibility a bit in service of her plots.

      None of that is meant to steer you clear of Heyer! But if you go in expecting Jane Austen you’re bound to be disappointed. I might start with Cotillion, which is the most Austen-like of the ones I’ve read and will also give you a good idea of how Heyer differs from Austen.

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