The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer

I am probably pinching one of WG’s future Monday Musings here but my subject today is What do we do about racial stereotypes in old novels? Theresa Smith who reviews extensively in the area of Australian women’s fiction, recently challenged my liking for Georgette Heyer romances and said that the consensus was that Heyer was a right-wing anti-semite, citing The Grand Sophy as a particular example.

Any excuse to slack off and read another Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy wasn’t on my shelves so I dropped in at (daughter) Gee’s, waved and smiled through the door at my waving and smiling six month old grandson whom, due to Covid and over-cautious governments, I have seen only twice before, and borrowed her battered 1952 2nd edition hardback.

And then I began searching on ‘Georgette Heyer anti-semitism’. The most prominent results were blogs like Smart Bitches Trashy Books (which looks like a fun site) –

So then Sophy takes it upon herself to go confront said Jewish moneylender [Mr Goldhanger]. And then the whole book went to hell.

“…the door was slowly opened to reveal a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer…. His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance.”

GOLDHANGER? With a “semitic nose” and the “instinct of his RACE?” Really?! That’s the BEST HEYER could come up with?! A stock character embodying every possible negative stereotype of Jewish people? It was so badly done it was multiply offensive. Not only was I offended personally as, you know, a Jewish person, but I was more offended as a reader as well because IT WAS SO BADLY DONE.

SB Sarah of SBTB, Aug 15, 2011

Biographer Brenda Niall in her review in the SMH of GEORGETTE HEYER: BIOGRAPHY OF A BESTSELLER, by Jennifer Kloester says the same thing, though more temperately –

No one faulted Heyer’s research on Regency manners and idiom, snuffboxes, staging posts, pantaloons and Hessian boots. Although, as Kloester concedes, her characters are essentially 20th-century people in costume, their world of illusion is wittily sustained.

Heyer is not an easy subject for biography, nor an endearing one. She was ferocious about maintaining her privacy and because so much of her life was consumed in her work, there is not a great deal to say. Kloester’s use of family papers reveals a loyal daughter and a generous sister, wife and mother.

The papers also reveal Heyer’s snobbishness about people ”not out of quite one’s own drawer”, and her racism and anti-Semitism.

SMH January 7, 2012

I meant to start this discussion at another place, so let’s go there now. As a radical socialist (syndicalist) I am totally anti-Zionist. Zionism as presently practiced by the government of Israel is Apartheid by another name, a fig leaf to justify the illegal occupation and subjugation of Palestine. Zionists of course conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is dishonest and a nonsense, but then so are most arguments on the Right.

The problem which I am willing to own is that I am going to argue that money lending and being Jewish were so often regarded as synonymous in the past that their conflation must be unremarkable. Which is not to say that Heyer (1902-1974) is that far in the past, and her depiction of Goldhanger in 1950 – so after the War and after the Holocaust – was probably almost as offensive then as it is now, though far less likely of course to have been contested.

Because Jewishness and Moneylending are so often paired in literature, I looked into it a little and it seems that from the beginning of the Christian Era educated Jews had the advantage of a world-wide (the “world” being you know, Persia say to Gibraltar) system of enforceable law which made banking and trade both profitable and relatively safe (more here). Which is not to say that come the Middle Ages the Church in particular did not also engage in moneylending and perhaps for the same reasons.

But of course the Middle Ages were also famous for the murder and eviction of Jews to enable Christians to avoid paying their debts. And even now, as we too often see, it is always useful to have an Other to blame and vilify for our own mistakes and weaknesses.

A quick read and a quick review: The eponymous ‘Grand Sophy’ is a fine heroine, tall, independent after years travelling Europe with her diplomat father, following Wellington through the Spanish campaign and on to Waterloo. Still only 19, she is foisted onto her aunt while her father goes on a diplomatic mission to Brazil. And there with unfettered access to her father’s money she wreaks havoc amongst her half a dozen cousins.

Heyer’s plots are too complicated to simplify down to a few words, but they always begin with the heroine running into a guy whom she could not possibly like and end with the heroine and the guy heading off to the altar, and so it is here. The incident at the top of this post takes up only a few pages about half-way through as Sophy rescues the second son of the family, actually slightly older than she, from the trap he has fallen into by borrowing to cover gambling debts and being unable to face his father, himself a serious gambler, or his straight-laced older brother.

Heyer was attempting to paint a villain, engaged in fencing stolen goods and lending illegally to minors. By resorting to a stereotype 100 years out of date she was probably giving voice to her own prejudices. But I’m afraid it wasn’t enough for me to find the book unenjoyable. I would have been far more annoyed to encounter caricatures of Black people. Why? I wonder. Perhaps because the Jewish battle, in Australia anyway, seems to me to be just about won.

A wider debate than I have space for here would consider the cases of TS Elliott, and of say Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind. I guess my short answer to the question I asked at the beginning is be aware of the author’s prejudices, but if they are not central to the story, keep going. Reading doesn’t make the author’s prejudices yours. Though not recognising them might.

.

Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, first pub. 1950.

24 thoughts on “The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer

  1. Thanks for the link Bill. I like it when these discussions continue – like a sort of progressive blog dinner!

    However, here’s what I think about what Heyer has done, because that’s an awful descrption of the character. My view is that it’s one thing to accept unpalatable attitudes written at the time (if that were the prevailing attitudes) but I think that a writer of historical fiction needs to use more nuance in presenting such attitudes. They can’t necessarily avoid such attitudes because they existed at the time, but they can find ways to work around them (by for example choosing a non-Jewish villain) or to subtly show they are wrong (which classy historical fiction writers can do).

    As for your questioning yourself (good on you for doing so!) regarding why you are less bothered about it than about caricatures of Indigenous or black people, I think your justification that it’s because the Jewish battle in Australia is nearly won can’t be supported. We should care about the principle that any oppressed people should be treated with respect by us regardless of where on the historical trajectory they are! (Not just because the principle is right, but because I think it’s very clear that many of these battles may look “nearly” won but that they are usually on the precipice, are more a thin veneer, than we think. Just look at the continued pressure in the US to overturn Roe v Wade, and underlying pressure here too that regularly pops up about abortion. These battles, I think, I never won?

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    • Another thing to consider about a battle not being won: antisemitism isn’t measurable. Consider in the U.S. how we focus on Black Lives Matter and Native Americans and immigrant rights. However, as soon as Trump failed to condone terrorist organizations in the U.S., we see a proliferation of swastikas. We see a bold new attitude that feels entitled to hate non-white groups. It was always there; people didn’t decide to become antisemitic after Trump. It’s like when Paula Deen said the n-word and people were surprised. She’s a Southern lady with dreams of plantations. Of course she used racial slurs, she just did it off camera.

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      • Probably because it’s so hard to believe. I mean….it’s just wild. Have you read about the group that were going to kidnap Michigan’s governor and take over the state house? What did they think they were going to do if they got it??? And when you look at their mug shots, all of them (I believe there are 13) look the same.

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      • Yes, all of that is what I meant Melanie. We have such a thin veneer of civilisation (with civilisation including for me equality and respect for all) as what’s happening now in the US in particular is showing.

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      • I do think though that right wing terrorism is confined to the fringe and there isn’t the anti Semitic sentiment amongst the middle classes of Australia and the US that there might still be in Europe. That therefore these proud boys and so on are not expressing sentiments held by the ordinary community as happened in 1930s Germany.

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      • Hmmmm, I have no idea. Thanks to social media, these terrorist groups are able to respond immediately — of course we’re not terrorists! — that sort of thing. Or they hear Trump reference them and immediately put merchandise into production quoting the president. This is a very stupid thing to say, but I hate living when we’re making history. Of course, we’re always making history, but not always the kind that ends up in public school history books.

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      • Melanie, I hear you about making history. I just hope this is as low as it goes and from here on the west goes back to doing what people want, which is decent public services, a civil society, and the end of huge imbalances in wealth.

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      • The longer I work in the library, the more I realize there are people who truly do NOT want anything to change, especially if their circumstances suit them. Irvine Welsh Tweeted back in 2016 that if you’re not doing well, vote in your own interest. If you’re doing well, vote in the interest of others. That does not seem to be something people agree on. I’m not sure it stems from selfishness, either. The way things have been so unreliable, especially compared to my grandparents’ time, can make people want to cling to every last thing that benefits them or feels like it won’t change anything.

        This is an interesting conversation, Bill. Nick and I were talking about it over coffee this morning!

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      • I’m glad Sue’s talking to you Melanie, I still have days of work ahead of me. I follow the US minute by minute. Getting Trump out is going to be dicey, and God knows what he’ll do in the period up to Jan 20. The while world will be holding its breath. Glad to give you guys something substantive to talk about. With me and Milly it’s mostly … what do we talk about I wonder?

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      • I love that Irvine Welsh quote, Melanie. I’m going to remember that, because it’s perfect. We had a funny thing in our last election where they said that the tenants voted for their landlords (ie for policies good for the well-off) while the landlords voted for the tenants (ie, I read that to mean people doing well voted for others!) The trouble is that there are more tenants. I don’t know whether this is exactly what happened but I think there’s some truth to it. And, it seems that there are too many poorer people supporting Trump. What gives?

        And yes, I fear greatly what Trump will do between the election and inauguration, particularly if he loses.

        And yes, Bill, I wonder what Mr Gums and I talk about over coffee. Often not much of import, though perhaps occasionally!!

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    • It’s half a century since I’ve been to a progressive supper – ah, pavlova! Thank you for your considered answer. I guess I must agree that Heyer crosses the line between referencing historical attitudes to Jews and endorsing them.

      And I agree that since the 1970s we have seen a lot of the progress we (liberals) have made, and thought was solid, reversed by wreckers on the right.

      But. In more or less the same timeframe anti Catholicism has disappeared and we have more or less seamlessly absorbed large communities from Italy, Greece, eastern Europe, Viet Nam and China. That I can’t, since 9/11 include Lebanon in this list indicates that yes, things can go backwards. (have to work …)

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      • Thanks Bill, glad you agree with that point.

        And yes, I agree progress has been made, something reading history and historical fiction does show, but as you,Melanie and I’ve now said, unfortunately we can never rest on our laurels trusting past gains are irrevocably locked in.

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  2. “Reading doesn’t make the author’s prejudices yours. Though not recognising them might.”

    What a great way to close your post. You pose such interesting questions here. Has Ibram X. Kendi’s writing made its way to the corner of the world you inhabit? He’s an American writer, so relatively well-known up here in Canada as well (as well known as anyone writing about issues that the majority of people choose not to read about can be said to be well-known). I’ve found his reframing of the way we think about this kind of dilemma (whether to continue to read a writer whose work reveals their prejudices) suits me well. The way that he openly discusses his own racism, while working to dismantle systemic racism, reminds me that we are all capable of grappling with these contradictions, and that it’s an ongoing and complex process. (Also, I love the edition you have/borrowed of this one.)

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    • The cover above is the original. My daughter’s copy had lost its dust jacket. Mum, my daughter and I have a good collection of Heyers, many from the 1950s, but no first editions that I’m aware of.
      I don’t know Kendo but I like the idea of approaching this problem from the position of admitting my prejudice (s). The Australia I grew up in was 100% white bread, the remains of the Indigenous population (in Victoria) hidden away in one reservation, Lake Tyers. Adding to that the casual prejudices of my father’s generation meant I came to adulthood with an inbuilt suspicion of people who didn’t look like me, and which I have spent the rest of my life trying to overcome.

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  3. I second what BIP said above. Heck, there’s not much I can add to this discourse as you, Melanie, and Whispering Gums have covered the gamut. But this is a good thing to consider and address– What do we do with these stereotypes and the overt racism of old books? One thing I fear is that I’m accidentally learning more stereotypes and becoming racist because I don’t know any better. Sometimes, as with the quote above, it can be quite obvious that a description is harmful. But it isn’t always… I fear my own ignorance here.

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    • That’s the point isn’t it. I and probably you, live in such white societies that it is easy to be unaware of causing harm. I know intellectually what I must do but it is hard to make that intuitive. And that is one of the reasons I greatly prefer literature by Indigenous writers and POC generally rather than writing about them, because it gives me a view of the harm that thoughtless as well as deliberate racism causes. You write sometimes about your own religion, and one day you might say, in the context of this debate, if it gives you a different perspective.

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