Joanna Maitland writes a love letter…
Why do I love this book? Because it makes me laugh. And makes me marvel.
I didn’t discover Georgette Heyer in my teens, as many readers do. For me, it was much later and so, perhaps, an even greater joy. I was working in London and was soon trawling bookshops in my lunch hour, looking for more Heyers. Eventually, I had them all and they’re with me still, much read and rather battered.
The Grand Sophy centres around the Ombersley family, ruled by an autocratic eldest son, Charles, who is trying to exact much-needed economies from his gambler father and weak-willed mother. Lady Ombersley is persuaded to take in her motherless niece, Sophy, while her diplomat brother travels to Brazil. As a kindness, she agrees to try to find a husband for the poor little thing…
The little thing turns out to be a maypole who stands five feet nine inches in her stockinged feet and has accompanied her father all over Europe, during the Napoleonic Wars and after. She is friendly with everyone who matters and many who do not: from the Duke of Wellington and the Patronesses of Almacks to the rakes and rattles of the British army. She descends on the Ombersley household like a whirlwind, bringing a monkey in a scarlet coat, an unfortunate talking parrot, an Italian greyhound, a wardrobe of delectable and expensive Paris gowns, a magnificent Spanish-trained black horse called Salamanca, and an instant determination to do something about the sad tangle of a household she has joined. Sophy declares she would not permit her own father to become as dictatorial as Charles, though “it is a thing the best of men will do, if the females of their families are so foolish as to encourage them!”
She discovers there is much to do. And it is a large family. Cecilia, the second daughter, has declared she will marry a beautiful but penniless poet, after her first (conventional) suitor disgraced himself by coming down with mumps. Second son Hubert, home from university, has an undisclosed trouble nagging at him, though no one but Sophy seems to have noticed. Charles, the heir, is betrothed to Miss Wraxton, an elegant but humourless young woman whose baleful influence is upsetting the younger children and their governess, as well as Lady Ombersley herself.
Psychology wasn’t invented, but Sophie understands people and uses her insights to find the most unexpected solutions – “like Whinyates’s rockets: no one knows what you will do next”.
- Steal a curricle? At the drop of a glove.
- Turn a quiet party for 20 into a ball for 400? Of course. Simply despatch the invitations so that no one can recall them.
- Buy and drive a dangerous high-perch phaeton? Easily done if perhaps a little fast. Then make matters worse by driving a mortified Miss Wraxton past the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s where no lady of quality would ever be seen. When Charles upbraids Sophy for doing something so improper, she responds that she would “never have dared to do it without the protection of Miss Wraxton’s presence! … She assured me that even though I did something outrageous in her company, her credit was good enough to carry me off!” Miss Wraxton has certainly met her match.
- Venture into the dangerous back streets of London to resolve Hubert’s pressing financial difficulty? Without hesitation. Sophy confesses that she hasn’t the least sensibility, though she admits it’s a trait which her father condemns as quite shocking and most unfeminine. But why would she be afraid, when she takes the precaution of carrying her loaded pistol?
The dénouement is a delight (almost equal to the climax of The Unknown Ajax for its number of twists and turns). Without giving too much away, I can say that it involves, in no particular order, an elopement, a brood of straying ducklings, a shooting, a mustard foot bath, a marquesa in a sacking apron, and a poet with a broken pencil.
Read The Grand Sophy and marvel at Heyer’s astonishing storytelling ability while you chuckle at her wit and the comic situations she conjures up. Read the ending out loud – it is pure theatre, to keep an audience spellbound.
A masterclass in plotting that makes the reader laugh. What more could any reader ask?