Jan 21, 11
Read in January, 2011
A Georgette Heyer romance is the best the romance genre can offer. Far before the days of idealized relationships starting off as drunken one night stands, or whirlwind affairs that prove that love is true after about a week, Georgette Heyer wrote romances of sensible people enjoying life and realizing that they enjoy it more with their exasperating friend. Even though a Heyer romance can be relied on to have a happy ending to the romance and some combination of her favorite adventuring subplots, the characters have unique personalities that not only keep Heyer's later romances from feeling like retreads of the earliest ones, but make some of them actually more compelling. The Grand Sophy is one of Heyer's best romances, as it is difficult not to be charmed by its heroine, Sophia Stanton-Lacy, or the affairs that she tangles.
Having been on the Continent as her father's hostess during the military campaign against Napoleon, confident Sophy Stanton-Lacy converses easily with officers and gentlemen, rides and drives with the best of sportsmen, handles her own finances, and is ready to solve any problem that comes her way. When we meet Sophy, she is visiting her aunt and cousins in London presumably to look for a husband in order to let her father remarry without household awkwardness. Sophy never really thinks about this presumed purpose, even as all of her family thinks of it for her. Instead, Sophy is very worried about her staid cousin, Charles, and his even more uptight fiancee, who together will make everyone in her aunt's family miserable. In fact, Charles has already been making everyone upset by his economizing to reduce his father's gaming debts, and by strongly encouraging his sister to marry a respectable gentleman. Sophy at once realizes that 1) Charles has no tact, 2) the respectable gentleman is worth getting into the family, and 3) the rest of Charles' family hasn't the sense to help Charles in his efforts, leading to 4) Charles will only become more authoritarian if he marries that fiancee. So Sophy plans a domestic campaign of sabotaging Charles' engagement and cementing his sister's interest in the respectable gentleman. With a score of supporting characters (some of whom I couldn't even keep track of) and roughly 7 sets of engaged and disengaged couples, plenty of things happen to make Sophy and Charles realize how much they understand and respect each other.
Georgette Heyer is frequently compared to Jane Austen because of the setting of parlors and ballrooms during the early nineteenth century and because talking and manners are more important to the characters than kissing. These reasons for the comparison are somewhat unfair to Heyer, however, because they suggest that Heyer is failing to live up to Austen's standard when her characters go chasing across the English or French countryside, or when they fire pistols, or when they take some liberties with proper behavior to ride on an sporting carriage or break an engagement. A more apt comparison is to Shakespeare, I think. Heyer's characterization, mistaken pairings and climactic scenes with half the cast meeting to resolve the confusion are all elements of Shakespearian comedies, and are arguably better done in The Grand Sophy than in many of those comedies. Heyer, like Shakespeare, sets her stories in an idealized historical time period, and mixes in enough researched material that you are utterly convinced that her world existed at some time. Just as it would be difficult to convince people that Julius Caesar might not have said, "Et tu, Brute?" it would be hard to imagine after reading a few Heyer novels that English gentry and nobles didn't exclaim, "Do stop making such a cake of yourself!"
The greatest skill Heyer demonstrates in her books, along with strong characterization, is a sense of flawless romantic pacing. Typically the first hundred or so pages are meant to establish independent characters for the hero and heroine as well as somewhat convoluted subplots (the pages also serve to get you used to Heyer's long chatty sentences before you need to focus on the minutiae of glances between the couple, and other such romantic things). Then there follows a series of encounters between the hero and the heroine, establishing how perfectly suited they are to each other (they usually agree that some younger lady is foolish and they are far more mature), as well as the solving of all of the subplot problems. Finally, every Heyer romance ends within a few pages (generally on the exact page) of the hero and heroine finally getting their relationship in order and sealing it with a happy kiss. As much as the characters usually fail to focus on their own romance, preferring to solve everyone else's gaming debts or unsuitable romances, Heyer knows that the climax is never the climax of the subplot. The climax is always appropriately that moment of romantic understanding.
As much as it's easy to brush off genre romances as fluffy silly books, rereading The Grand Sophy reminded me that it's only easy to do that when the book is poorly written. Georgette Heyer though, unlike all of her modern imitators, is always a devilish good read.