THE GRAND SOPHY
Updated: Feb 27
The year is 1816: five years into the nine-year Regency. Lord Byron is about to flee England to escape scandal and debt. The Duke of Wellington (an acquaintance of Sophy's) defeated Napoleon a year ago, ending the long years of war with France.
THE SET UP
Twenty-year-old Sophia Stanton-Lacy, known to her friends as Sophy, has led a colourful and unconventional life abroad with her diplomat father. Deposited at very short notice with her aunt, Lady Ombersley, Sophy is ready to be launched into London high society to find an eligible husband. Lady Ombersley has been assured that she will find Sophy a 'good little thing' and no trouble at all and looks forward to her niece being a sweet companion to her own daughter the gentle debutante Cecelia. But 'little Sophy' is not so little at 'five foot nine in her stockinged feet' and neither is she the trouble-free thing that her aunt had been promised. It's not long before the whole household is turned upside down and the ton taken by storm.
'You are like poor Whinyate's rockets: no one knows what you will do next!'
Sophy makes her charismatic arrival at the Ombersley mansion along with a parrot, Italian greyhound, a head-turning horse, and a monkey in a red coat. Like the entourage of exotic animals she brings she is eccentric, fearless, and independent. 'Hoyden' is how Miss Wraxton, the fiancée of Sophy's cousin Charles, describes her. But Miss Wraxton has every reason to feel unkindly because Sophy quickly sets herself up as Miss Wraxton's rival as the newest influence over the Ombersley family. Moreover, Sophy has a way of bringing out the worst in Miss Wraxton, showing up a spiteful, busybody side to her which makes Charles begin to regret his choice of future wife.
'Charles,' said Lady Ombersley, 'does not care for very lively girls...'
Charles Stanhope, eldest son and heir to the Ombersleys, has a financially irresponsible father and a passive mother who frequently takes to her boudoir with spasms. A perspicacious great-uncle bypassed Lord Ombersley to leave his fortune to Charles who has used it to redeem the family from the brink of ruin and dutifully take care of his mother and six younger siblings. Charles has borne a heavy mantle of family responsibility upon his shoulders and seems much older than his twenty-six years. Fortunately, being a Corinthian-type (in danger of being called a 'Yahoo', so one of his friends tells him) his shoulders are strong and athletic due to his love of boxing, skilled horsemanship, and shooting skills. He's no dandy and he's no charmer; he is 'stern' and 'autocratic' with a 'saturnine grin' and rules the house with an iron grip. But he shows his better side in his kindness to children and animals. In Sophy, Charles has truly met his match. She is the only person unafraid of him, and the only person he cannot control. His grip on his family begins to slip alarmingly as she sweeps in to 'wrench' him 'from the paths of convention'.
THE ROMANCE FACTOR
The romance is subtle, slow-burning, and mostly subtextual. Sophy declares she was born with 'almost no sensibility', and Charles is certainly no romantic. But they are both passionate and strongly physical personalities. Charles has repressed this side of his nature on entering an emotionless marriage pact with the chilly Miss Wraxton; until he meets Sophy he seems content to offload his sexual energies in the boxing ring. Post-marriage, I think Charles and Sophy will be as well-matched in the bedroom as they are in handling horses and guns, and I think there will be good camaraderie between them but plenty of battles – which Sophy will always win.
FAVOURITE SECONDARY CHARACTER
'Well, well, he is plainly a paragon.'
Lord Charlbury, the faithful, long-suffering lover of Cecelia narrowly takes the title of Favourite Secondary Character (Augustus Fawnhope, the would-be-poet, comes a very close runner-up).
Charlbury's charm is in his willingness and courage to enter into Sophy's outlandish schemes to win Cecelia from her infatuation with Fawnhope. Charlbury consents to pose as Sophy's would-be-lover, is prepared, if necessary, to be kidnapped, shot, killed in a duel or at least 'planted a facer' by the pugilistic Charles, all in the pursuit of True Love. Why he should be so enamoured of Cecelia I'm not entirely sure, for while she is very sweet, described as 'a dream-princess' and a 'fairy', she is perhaps too much like her enervated mama to be worthy of such noble heroism; but Charlbury thinks otherwise and is prepared to endure all for his lady.
FAVOURITE SLANG EXPRESSIONS
Hagged = looking lean, ugly, like a hag
Bacon-brained = doesn't need explaining
A poltroon = a coward
A great gaby = a simpleton
Draw his claret = give a bloody nose in a bout of fisticuffs
HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE HEROINE GURGLE AND TWINKLE?
Sophy gurgles with laughter four times, but twinkles only once.
Sophy's gown for her spectacular coming-out party is a suitably 'striking ensemble' for her personality. She wears a dress in 'her favourite pomona-green crape, which she wore over a slip of white satin. It had tiny puff-sleeves of lace and seed pearls, and was lavishly trimmed with lace. Particularly fine diamond drops hung from her ears; her pearl necklace was clasped round her throat; and an opera-comb was set behind the elaborate knot of hair on the crown of her head. Jane had brushed and pomaded her side-curls until they glowed richly chestnut in the candlelight. Green-striped satin slippers, long gloves, and a fan of frosted crape on ivory sticks completed her toilet'.
(Pomona green is an emerald / apple green colour, named after the goddess of apple orchards. Crape is a thin, semi-transparent fabric made from silk.)
ANYTHING I DIDN'T LIKE?
1. Cousins-in-Love – socially acceptable and common in 19th-century England, but more unusual now when first cousins are typically brought up as siblings.
2. The Shylock/Fagin-type character of the Jewish moneylender. Considering Heyer wrote The Grand Sophyonly four years after the end of WWII, this stereotype was uncomfortable.
Every scene with Sophy is a riot, but the final scene is particularly madcap. All the entangled couples are brought together in an old, dilapidated Elizabethan manor on a rainy night. There are smoking chimneys, a Spanish Marquesa cooking dinner noisily in the kitchen, while Fawnhope the poet wanders around interrupting scenes of passion in his quest for ink. Included in the chaos is a brood of escaping ducklings, and an excited Italian greyhound. Dramatic break-ups and declarations of love abound all over the house, some of them taking even Sophy by surprise, in a farcical and satisfying conclusion of all Sophy's grand schemes.