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LESS THAN GOLD
- Re-reading The Grand Sophy

Most of us have had the disconcerting experience of discovering indefensible prejudice in favourite books by much-loved writers. Last week I was re-reading (for the twentieth time perhaps) The Grand Sophy, a novel by Georgette Heyer. Heyer was (for those who have never read her) a romantic novelist most famous for some two dozen novels set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and her characters generally belong to the aristocratic, dandified world of Regency England. Her romances, though they observe the conventions of the genre, are not to be confused with the pulp fiction mass-produced by factories like Mills & Boon and Silhouette; Heyer produced a wonderfully realized period world and her romances were accomplished historical novels. To have read Heyer is to have lived the mannered, slightly absurd social world presided over by the Prince Regent, later George IV.

Sophia Stanton-Lacy is the heroine of The Grand Sophy. She's had an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing on account of her father being a diplomat, and when the novel opens we find her father arranging to have her stay with his sister, Lady Ombersley, in London, because he's being sent on a mission to Brazil.

Sophia, known to her friends as the Grand Sophy, is a tall, unusually confident young woman, with a propensity for setting other people's affairs to rights. The novel's plot turns have mostly to do with the way in which she sorts out her cousins' lives and the novel ends with her marrying the oldest of her cousins, Lady Ombersley's older son, Charles Rivenhall. Midway through the novel, Sophy takes an interest in cousin Hubert's affairs. Hubert, Charles's younger brother, has fallen into debt and borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark by pledging an emerald ring that happens to be an heirloom. Sophy takes it upon herself to redeem the emerald and Hubert's bond. One morning, she slips out of the house and hires a hackney to take her to the squalid street where the money-lender lives.

The moneylender's name is Goldhanger and this is where the modern reader's troubles begin. That he is Jewish is not in itself a problem, because this is, after all, a period novel, and Jewish moneylenders abounded in Regency London. No, the problem is that well before the reader actually meets Goldhanger, he has been given to understand that Goldhanger is a particularly depraved sort of usurer. Respectable moneylenders (with proper Gentile names like Howard & Gibbs) would never lend to minors like Hubert who is still a student at Oxford.

Goldhanger lives off a filthy, smelly lane and when he opens the door to Sophy, this is what she sees: '...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.'

In what follows, Goldhanger is wholly the villain, ingratiating at first, 'wiping his hands together', because 'the instinct of his race made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity'.When Sophy insists on redeeming the emerald and the bond without paying the usurious interest, Goldhanger turns sinister and threatens her with violence and worse. Sophy checkmates him by producing a pistol and forces him to do her bidding. Just before leaving, she says, '...I see that you are a very evil man, and I cannot help wondering if a really courageous person would not shoot now, and so rid the world of someone who has done a great deal of harm in it.'

No one reading this passage in the novel can mistake its systematically anti-semitic tone. And yet, I had read it more than a dozen times over thirty years, admired Sophy's intrepidity, laughed at Goldhanger's discomfiture without once stopping to consider the prejudice that animates the narrative. Why, then, did it suddenly seem appalling' More to the point, why hadn't I been appalled before'

I can try to guess. Part of the explanation might lie in the way in which Goldhanger figured in my mind as a stock villain from some period repertory; perhaps I just assimilated him to the string of out-and-out filmi villains I had been raised on, starting with Pran, on through to Sadashiv Amrapurkar, or it might have been that Goldhanger seemed no worse than the grasping bania preying on innocents, a stereotype most Indians know and take for granted. I'm not sure.

But I know why I abruptly woke up to the vileness of this passage. Some twenty of Heyer's novels had been published in a handsome new paperback edition by Arrow and I had bought the whole lot on impulse. Heyer died in 1974 and since I had so many of her novels at hand, I spent a while turning to the copyright page of each one, just to date them, to see when she had written the good ones. The Grand Sophy, without doubt one of her best, had been first published by William Heinemann in 1950.

The date stayed in my mind and when I revisited The Grand Sophy and read my way through the Goldhanger scene it occurred to me that it had been written at the end of the decade of Hitler and the Holocaust. Heyer had invented her greasy, servile, hook-nosed, hooded-eyed, sinister, blood-sucking Jew inside a few years of Hitler killing six million men, women and children for being hook-nosed, hooded-eyed, sinister, blood-sucking Jews.

I didn't gag and retch and toss the book away. I got to the end and even experienced some of the old pleasure at the comically contrived union of Charles Rivenhall and Sophia Stanton-Lacy. But I can say, truthfully, and without reaching for effect, that reading Georgette Heyer will never quite be the same again.

It's difficult to understand a world where such a passage could have been written and respectably published within years of the Holocaust. Heyer was a popular, much reviewed, critically respected writer. A.S. Byatt has written an appreciation of her work and Anthony Burgess admired her fiction. Reading The Grand Sophy it struck me that for her to have written the Goldhanger scene when she did, she had to be able to assume that her readership shared her prejudices. I also realized that it was a little bit deluded for an Indian to try to insert himself into this communion between Georgette Heyer and the readers she wrote for, because in that view of the world, an Indian is much more like Mr Goldhanger than Miss Stanton-Lacy!

I don't think anything comparable happened here. I could be wrong, but I can't think of any mainstream Indian writer publishing villainous caricatures of sinister Muslims or Hindus inside five years of the pogroms and killings of Partition. If anything the problem was the reverse: with the exception of Manto, post-Partition fiction was almost tiresomely politically correct. Still, better politically correct than bigoted.

I was depressed for a while after the Goldhanger revelation. It's hard to get used to the idea that a writer you've loved most of your life is more or less a cloven-hoofed alien. But a week afterwards, reading Bernard Lewis cheered me up. This was his famous passage about the immemorial clash of civilizations between the Islamic world on the one hand and the Judaeo-Christian world on the other. Judaeo-Christian' He couldn't have read The Grand Sophy.

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