Culture

The Grand Sophy

This charming woman in her fashionable Regency dress and her basket of flowers looks a little like a flower herself. Perhaps her muscular dog with its studded collar hints there may be more to the girl, and to the author, Georgette Heyer, than meets the eye.

The issue in Heyer’s mind, and in her many romantic novels, is the relationship between strong women and strong men when the former were restrained by society and the latter were not. Such rules led to surprises. This young lady, for example, rides a “splendid black horse,” Salamanca, and carries a “small, but eminently serviceable pistol.”

Georgette Heyer (16 August 1902 – 4 July 1974) was a bit of a pistol herself. She wrote her first Georgian romance at the age of 17 in 1919, The Black Moth, which, when it was published in 1921, was immediately a hit. It was also the first shot in what went on to be a library of more than 50 works, romance and detective fiction, and historical non-fiction.

Her later romances were set in the Regency period (1811-1820), as were Jane Austen’s six books, and the comparison between the two makes one think Jane needed to get out more. Heyer’s characters speak in broad accents, refined language, boxing slang, underworld cant and in complex period construction that drags the reader back two hundred years at the turn of a page. Some reviewers criticize Heyer for too much research and too much accuracy; a hilarious criticism if ever there was one, like declaring a woman too beautiful or a photograph too realistic.

Other critics say her works are formulaic. Her biographer, Jane Aiken Hodge, said The Black Moth contained many of the elements that would become standard for Heyer’s novels, the “saturnine male lead, the marriage in danger, the extravagant wife, and the group of idle, entertaining young men”. Well, true enough, but that isn’t the point. Heyer played the same characters against each other, over and over, rewinding the interplay of power and brains, in order to fine tune her ideas on male/female relationships.

Indeed, I’ll make the point her Georgian and Regency romances aren’t about that era at all, but of any era, any period in which the assumptions of men and women collide in shouts and tears, in misunderstandings and reconciliations, indeed, in the basic biological interplay we all know only too well from our own experience. That she draped these struggles in the attractive clothes of aristocratic men and women of another era was simply a device. The issue, then and now is of the difference between male and female thinking.

19th Century pocket pistol

Which brings me to The Grand Sophy, or as she can more properly be called Sophia Stanton-Lacy, who at 20 has been traveling around the continent from Portugal, to Vienna to Paris in the wake of her diplomatic father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, running his household in lieu of her dead mother, meeting all manner of senior army and government officers, learning to shoot, and becoming a talented ‘whip’ with even spirited horses. In short, she has been raised as a boy and treated as a hostess, making her a very talented young lady.

I’m going to let you read this book, and the others, because such enjoyment is best tasted undiluted, but I think I understand where Heyer is going in her thinking. She believes women need to have extraordinary skills—dancing, shooting, horsemanship, language in Sophy’s case—but that they don’t need to compete with men in a kind of battle of the sexes. She thinks of them as reserve skills, ready to be utilized when and if needed, but not flaunted or featured.

These skills show the man in the case what she is capable of, what she can do if put to it, which makes the bemused individual realize the attractive flower he is pursuing, has strength of character, bravery, and skill. If more women sharpened their abilities, and played to the front when needed, more men would give them the respect they deserve. Instead they try to put men down, with predictable results.

One final point; I agree with Heyer, not just on her general thesis, that being a wife and mother is the ultimate skill, but specifically, that women should be armed whenever they wish, because a pistol makes plain despite their weakness, women are equal to men. Male/female relations would be a good deal more polite if the average Sophy today was like this beauty so many years ago.

Addendum

After writing what you’ve just read, I happened to be re-reading another Georgette Heyer book, Frederica, and I ran across what she thought of as a weakness of even a strong minded woman; bringing up boys. Here Frederica is asked by Lord Buxted if she had not considered whether “a husband might not be an advantage to you.”

You have three brothers―for although I am aware that Harry is of age, I do not think him grown, as yet, beyond the need of guidance―and you have, with that nobility and courage which commands my admiration, assumed the charge of them.

But is any female, however devoted, however elevated her mind, able to succeed in such a task? I don’t think it possible. Indeed, I will venture a guess that you must frequently have felt the want of male support.”

A little later on Lord Buxted explains he’s speaking from experience

“Boys who are―as you put it―full of pluck, stand in need of a guiding hand, you know. . . My mother has always been a firm parent, but she has been content to leave the management of George to me, realizing that a man knows best how and when to deliver a reproof, and is in general better heeded.”

You can say, certainly most will say, this is just a character in a story; but I think not. I think Georgette Heyer uses her characters to say what she would not think of saying plainly herself. Indeed, the whole point of writing a novel is to put opinions in the mouths of others. It is a way of distancing one’s thoughts from one’s self.

As I read her books I hear her speaking, through one character, and another, both male and female. She is as clearly outlined in her own words as if in a photograph, and what a charming, intelligent, kind, thoughtful person she was.

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