One Sunday morning, while I was drinking my coffee, getting ready to write, I glanced at Twitter. Romance folks were playing a game of “what Georgette Heyer character would you want to be and what character would she make you?” Normally, I would’ve cursed under my breath, shrugged, and ignored it. But this particular Sunday was the day before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and suddenly I had things to say about the woman who would’ve made me into a horrific antisemitic stereotype. Though unchallenged antisemitism appears in many of her works, the one that affects me most is The Grand Sophy.
The Grand Sophy is antisemitic. Full stop. Horrifically so. In the text. This is pretty common knowledge. I’m not the first to note it and will not be the last. I’m linking to the Smart Bitches Trashy Books review by Sarah Wendell here: https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/the-grand-sophy-by-georgette-heyer/. It quotes the relevant information (I can’t bear typing it myself; it’s too vile) and her analysis is spot on.
Read it? Okay. I can hear you saying, but Felicia, there are a lot of antisemitic books. What’s the big deal with this one? I’m glad you asked. The Grand Sophy, published in 1950, is hailed as the “foundational” work in the subgenre in which I write, historical romance, so this book is a big deal to me. It is heralded and venerated not just as a romance but for being particularly “historically accurate.”
I’m sure parts of it are—especially in the areas that interested her—food, dress, dresses, etc. But mixed in with her research is a lot of pure fiction done to fit her personal political views and frankly, hatred of people like me. Her villainous Jewish moneylender, Goldhanger, is every vile stereotype rolled into one. She did not “research” him. She combined her own hatred with most likely Nazi propaganda posters and dropped him in her book. A book she wrote after the Holocaust and the Nuremberg Trials—when she knew what that propaganda wrought.
Heyer deliberately created a false image designed to hurt people who had just been nearly annihilated. Millions of men, women, and children were murdered and Heyer’s response was to double-down on the hate in her book.
For example, Goldhanger is implied as having full, long peyos or “side curls.” But the vast majority of British Jews of the Regency era did not. Many “fudged” the concept with beards and mutton chops or wore their hair longer in a likely attempt to retain their identity but to be visually palatable to their Christian neighbors in the hopes of securing both safety and rights. This is clear from many portraits of real Regency era British Jews.
The likely basis Heyer’s description is not “meticulous research,” but more from exaggerated Nazi caricatures designed to maximize Jewish “otherness,” the opposite of what the British Jewish leadership was attempting in the Regency. Because it was never a fair fight between Sophy and Goldhanger, she always had all the power. But Heyer deliberately works to obscure this reality with her inaccurate text.
“It was written a long time ago, when people didn’t know,” is an argument that’s regularly used to justify all sorts of prejudice in books, including racism and homophobia, as well as antisemitism. But like many authors called out for bigotry, Heyer did know, specifically because of when she was writing. And like many authors who write hateful bigotry into their texts, she didn’t care.
The cousin of the “written a long time ago,” excuse is “there was tons of antisemitism during the Regency and she was just being historically accurate.” As we’ve discussed above, Heyer’s “attention to detail,” and “historical accuracy,” doesn’t extend to everything in her books, especially concerning her own bigotry.
Specifically, while there was antisemitism in England during the Regency, there were also many gentiles who knew it was wrong—people from every walk of life, from “radical” thinkers like William Godwin to the Duke of Sussex.
Thus, by writing antisemitic characters who are not challenged and are instead the heroes of the story, as well as the stereotype, Heyer not only excuses antisemitism but erases the real heroes of the era. This is especially problematic in romance.
Genre romance is defined as a story with a central romantic relationship and an optimistic ending in which the protagonists are “together” in some way. Many critics, including Jennifer Prokop have argued “optimistic,” rightly, I believe, requires the ending to be “just.” Which begs the question, how can a “just” ending involve bigots living together happily ever after?
I posit it can’t. I posit that romance, which promises the reader hope, cannot include happy endings for bigots. Romance writers give readers what the world can and should be at its best. How can that include rewarding people for hate?
And where does that leave The Grand Sophy? Is it a romance? I posit it isn’t. Her characters did not have to be antisemites to make her work accurate. And the work would be accurate if antisemitism was challenged on the page. The antisemitism isn’t even necessary to the plot. But she includes it and glorifies it.
And yet, the subgenre elevates this book over and over again as accurate and as a touchstone, when it is neither. Worse, when the problems are pointed out, the response is often defensiveness instead of rethinking how the book should be classified and discussed. That is wrong and causes damage.
It forces Jewish readers to be continually hurt by the text. It conveys to all readers false accuracy. And it works against every modern writer attempting to challenge Heyer’s fiction. Because that is what she wrote, antisemitic, white supremacist, heteronormative fiction that is neither accurate nor just.
So read her, don’t read her—that is your choice, but don’t call her work a foundational, accurate historical romance to me. That’s a misnomer. If you want accurate depictions of Jews, read romances written by Jews. And if you want to venerate a 1950s gentile British romance writer, try Mary Burchell aka Ida Cook who worked to save Jews during the Holocaust.
My mother likes to say that “class” isn’t about money or manners, it’s about how you treat people. And, in that vein, I’ll just remember that whatever Heyer and Sophy Stanton-Lacy would say about me and my characters, we have more class in our little pinky toes than they could ever hope to possess.
Felicia Grossman is a historical romance author, Sondheim super-fan and excellent parallel-parker. Born and raised in Delaware (first-stater-for-life), she now lives in Cleveland with her spouse, kids, puppy and perpetually disappointed elder-dog.
Edmund Blair Leighton painted "On the Threshold (of a Proposal)", now in Manchester Art Gallery.
It depicts a courtship in Regency England, similar to those described in Heyer's historical romances.