A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Like most innovators, Georgette Heyer suffers by association with her imitators, descendants and plagiarists. But to dismiss her as all bonnets and heaving bosoms is like dismissing Wodehouse because he writes about toffs and pigs: both are peerless at what they do, and millions of readers have encountered these worlds, and settled down for good. Her historical accuracy is not in doubt: for years her account of the battle of Waterloo, in An Infamous Army, was prescribed to cadets at Sandhurst as the best there is. Heyer’s world is a narrow one – with some exceptions her best fiction is set among the nobility and gentry between 1810 and 1830 – and highly selective. But what it’s not is sentimental or soft-centred. Yes, the central question of her novels is always whether a woman and a man can find their way to real love either before, or occasionally after, their marriage in church. But what makes Heyer’s work still sell by the palletload – these days in a very elegant new look – over thirty years after her death, is that these partnerships are no simple matter of love-at-first-sight, or a heroine succumbing to an alpha male. A ‘man’s woman’ all her life, and happily married for nearly fifty years, Heyer knew that it’s marrying minds, as well as hearts and bodies, that matters. Her superbly stylish prose and masterly craftsmanship are put at the service of that marriage.
In The Grand Sophy Sophy is grand indeed. But she is inconveniently tall, not beautiful, and highly unconventional. Left with her aunt in London by her widowed diplomat father, she finds the family ‘in a sad tangle’. In the teeth of her disapproving cousin Charles she sets out to disentangle beautiful, helpless Cecilia from a wonderfully brainless would-be poet, rescue Hubert from the clutches of a rascally moneylender, prevent her father’s fiancée from falling for a notorious libertine and, by stealth, open Charles’s own eyes to the true nature of his own fiancée, a ghastly society prude. The Grand Sophy is golden comedy throughout, and in a climax which is, to quote Heyer’s biographer Jane Aiken Hodge, ‘so tightly plotted as to be unquotable’, Sophy’s stratagems lead to a grand change of partners and happiness for all, in a series of encounters as satisfying as a perfectly choreographed ballet
Venetia is for some an even more satisfying combination of comedy and the vein of deeper feeling which counterbalances Heyer’s clear-eyed realism and satirical pen. Venetia is one of Heyer’s most liberated heroines: she is a great realist about men, and about her own situation as a rich but isolated young woman, nearly too old for marriage, destined to marry a dull farmer or dwindle to aunt-hood, deep in the Yorkshire dales. When bad Lord Damerel returns to his neglected estates, the scene is set for an encounter of true minds. Yes, sexual attraction runs like a thread of fire between him and Venetia, but sense of humour and shared interests are more important in the meeting of soul-mates. Love changes everything, and the heartbreak is as real, because the hearts are real, as any you could read, just as the ending has all the satisfaction for the reader, as well as for the characters, of being truly earned.
The Grand Sophy, (1950) new ed. Arrow, 2004, 328pp, paperback, ISBN 978-0099465638
Venetia, (1958) new ed. Arrow, 2003, 332pp, paperback, ISBN 978-0099465652