Jewish stereotypes in Georgette Heyer’s novels

SB Sarah’s review of The Grand Sophy caused quite a stir last week. TGS is a much beloved book in the Heyer canon, but it is also notorious for a brief but memorable scene in which Sophy visits a villainous moneylender to bail out her cousin Hubert. The moneylender is named Goldhanger, and the portrayal is just as hackneyed and stereotypical as the choice of the character’s name. This aspect of the book, along with some others, led Sarah to give TGS an overall grade of D.

There were, predictably, howls of protest at the grade and Sarah’s explanation for it. The most common rebuttal argument was that Heyer, as a product of her time, should not be held to a 21st-century, “PC” standard. I was unsympathetic to this perspective, having recently written about my own revulsion at the characterization and my unwillingness to cut Heyer much slack given that the book was written in 1950, not 1930. Five years after the end of World War II, surely it was possible for a writer as good as Heyer to portray a Jewish character neutrally, assuming she had to make the moneylender Jewish at all?

I remembered that the heroine in April Lady had also visited a moneylender, “Jew” King, to obtain money for her lovable wastrel brother.  I commented at Sarah’s post that this portrayal reduced

A fascinating, complex man who was politically active and well connected politically and socially … to just a Jewish moneylender

Well, I was half right. The “Jew” King Heyer is referring to is actually the son of John King. He was also referred to by that nickname in the novel, but his treatment in April Lady is not the same as the depiction of Goldhanger. More on that in a moment.

Laura Vivanco reminded me that Heyer also had a Jewish character in one of her contemporary mysteries, A Blunt Instrument. I had completely forgotten about him, even though he’s a more important character in that book than Goldhanger is in TGS.

I dug out my copies of April Lady and A Blunt Instrument and made an interesting discovery. The latter was published in 1938, and presumably it was written in the months preceding its publication.  Here is how Budd is first described, by the butler:

A short, stout person in a suit which I should designate as on the loud side, and a bowler hat. I fancy he is of the Jewish persuasion.

For the most part, the portrayal is relatively nuanced. Mr. Budd is at the least a person of interest, and possibly a suspect. In addition, the entire depiction of Budd is done through other characters; at no point did I find the book’s narrator conveying information about him. It makes sense for characters like a butler or a police inspector to use stereotypical words and thoughts when describing a Jewish stockbroker in the 1930s. Here is Hannasyde’s first meeting with Budd:

Mr Budd, who rose from a swivel-chair behind his desk as Hannasyde was ushered in, and came eagerly forward to greet him, corresponded so exactly with Sergeant Hemingway’s description of him, that Hannasyde had to bite back a smile. He was a short, fat man, with a certain oiliness of skin, and an air of open affability that was almost oppressive.

I don’t appreciate being reminded of the prejudices of the time, but they’re not exactly a shock.

Contrast this approach with Heyer’s description of Goldhanger a dozen years later:

a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls and Semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer. He was dressed in a suit of rusty black, and nothing about him suggested sufficient affluence to lend as much as five hundred pence to anyone. His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance

Granted, The Grand Sophy is a comedy of manners with farcical elements rather than a mystery. But she could have taken the same route with Goldhanger that she did with Budd and show him to the reader through Sophy’s perspective. Heyer uses similar descriptors in the two novels, but the sentence I excerpted above doesn’t suggest that we are seeing him from Sophy’s POV. And as the scene continues, it explicitly incorporates Goldhanger’s POV:

Mr. Goldhanger was considerably taken aback, a thing that had not happened to him for a very long time. … Mr. Goldhanger had the oddest feeling that the world had begun to revolve in reverse. …

The Sourcebooks version changes Heyer’s original wording from

The instinct of his race made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity,

to

His instinct made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity,

But editors can’t do much about the name, and they keep the stereotypical descriptors, e.g., “greasy” and “ingratiating,” not to mention the “Semitic nose.”

Finally, April Lady features a real-life character, the “Jew” King. I confused this character with his more famous father, John King, who was the first of the family given this nickname. King père was a successful moneylender and was able to break into London’s polite society in the late 18th century; there is even a terrific scholarly article about him by the same historian to whom Laura Vivanco linked in a comment at Sarah’s review.

In the novel, Helen attempts to borrow money from King fils but is thwarted by her husband’s cousin, Felix Hethersett. King remains entirely off-page, and as in A Blunt Instrument, the reader sees him through the characters. There are no physical stereotypes invoked, and the depiction is neutral by Heyer’s previous standards:

“Jew King! Lord, cousin, do you know the fellow owns an ornamental villa on the river? Slap up to the nines–never saw such a place in your life!”

“No, and I don’t see what that has to say to anything!” retorted Nell crossly.

“Point is, where did he find the blunt to pay for it? From people like you, cousin! Take my word for it!”

April Lady was published in 1957, seven years after The Grand Sophy. The visit to the moneylender is still a key plot point, but the depiction is considerably toned down. The “ornamental villa” detail is taken directly from Gronow, by the way, who described it as

a villa upon the banks of the Thames which had been beautifully fitted up by Walsh Porter in the Oriental style and which I believe is now the seat of one of the most favoured votaries of the Muses Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton …

These examples show clearly that Heyer was fond of the moneylender character and introduced him in both historical and contemporary novels (and there are other examples in addition to these). They also show that she didn’t have a single, unreflective way of depicting Jewish characters. Therefore, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that when she created Goldhanger, she knew what she was doing.

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18 thoughts on “Jewish stereotypes in Georgette Heyer’s novels

  1. Thanks for this analysis Sunita. The SBTB discussion of The Grand Sophy reminded me of Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey Girl schoolgirl stories. These were written through the 1920′s and up until the late 1950′s. The two (maybe one) book(s) I am thinking about were 1930′s vintage and have a Jewish financier that Heyer could have written with the addition of an eye for fine young British girls. Classic 1930′s stereotypical, prejudiced and un-thinking writing on the author’s part. What is interesting to me is that there are fan-written novels that take on this character and seek almost to re-habilitate the author and stories, having the financier working as a friend in partnership with the Abbey Girls to house refugees in the war, etc.

    So we have the Heyer books which now have two readerships – the one’s who won’t because of the racial prejudice and the one’s who excuse it. Yet we have another dedicated readership faced by the same issues who ended up on a different path.

    If you are reading the EJO Abbey Girl books today, that means you not only own cheap 1950′s re-prints, have paid a fortune for hard to get 1920′s books ( I squeed like the fangrrl I am when I found ‘Patience Joan, Outsider’ for $150 :) ) and own many photocopied stapled versions, or have picked up the latest re-prints which now change hands for a premium price. Anyone I know here in Oz who has the EJO books has the fan written-books too. It seems to me that in order to continue reading the canon, an active re-imagining had to happen without which the other stories are tarnished and our relation to the stories is compromised and compromising.

    I hope I am not making it sound like there was a vote and a collective decision but there was I think a sigh of relief when we had another option for dealing with a very real problem because there comes a point when the rationale doesn’t hold. Even when I tell myself it was the way things were back then – there is always the memory of people at the time who chose not to be unthinkingly prejudiced and so ‘that is how things were’ doesn’t mitigate anything. EJO has other problems with class and gender (she is essentially an unreflexive upper-middle class English woman of her times) but her way with unlikeable heroines and her insistance that they grow as women, take strength from their friendships and build community keeps so many of us reading in the 21st century. In this case you could argue that the additional texts are consistent with EJO’s primary story arcs. They act as arc where characters move from unthinking prejudice to a recognition of their own attitudes and then beyond into connection.

  2. Interesting analysis. I doubt I will read any of the other books you mention, because after reading The Grand Sophy I have no desire for more Jewish characters from Heyer.and even the bits you quoted from A Blunt Instrument would be deeply upsetting to me if I stumbled across them in a work of fiction.

    I was really glad to learn of the Smart Bitches thread, though I didn’t have an opportunity to participate in that discussion due to being out of town and away from the internet when it was underway. I did read through much of the thread afterward, and I saw that some readers were quick to excuse Heyer on the basis that she was writing sixty years ago.

    I think that in some ways that excuses her less. She was living in Europe and in 1950, was far closer to the Holocaust than we are. I think of someone like my grandmother who lost her family to the Holocaust and who loved to read. In 1950 she would have been twenty-four or twenty-five. What would she have felt had she come across the Goldhanger scene while enjoying the book? I may be wrong, since I lack the context she would have had, but I think it could be even more upsetting to her than it is to me.

    The lack of consideration shown to Holocaust survivors, the assumption (or so it seems to me) on the author’s part that none of her readers are Jewish, are inexcusable to me and none of those who excuse it can’t persuade me otherwise.

  3. Here’s something to consider — how do we fold historical figures into our stories? The Beau is sometimes a walk-on, sometimes a character. Same w/Prinny and so many more (including a bevy of real-life historical mistresses — gawd forbid I even go there!!). So, what really interests me, for the purposes of this discussion, is King (pere and fils). Did I mention Joan Wolf included him in His Lordship’s Mistress? Bland and benign to the point of boringness (and lest we forget, I adore HLM and think the book is magnificent, on so many levels!). I much prefer the discussion Felix and Nell had. Here’s a couple paragraphs from HLM:

    She paid a visit to Clarges Street, where she arranged to borrow money at a depressingly high interest rate from Mr. King, a well-known moneylender…

    She transacted her business without difficulty. Mr. King was not happy to see his loan repaid so promptly. He would have liked to have gotten hands on Winchcombe, but the interest he had made was ample and he was quite pleasant to Jessica.”

    You’ve established that Heyer didn’t always make the choice to write about Jewish characters in an offensive anti-Semitic way — that being said, if you put TGS*, April Lady and His Lordship’s Mistress on a sliding scale, possibly the safest route for an author is to write about King like Wolf did — but pretty dull eh? I prefer to think of him living in his opulent water’s edge mansion.

    So, there you go … thanks for delving into the particulars. It does happen in historicals that “real” historical characters are often reduced to walk-ons while interacting with fictional characters. It was offensive in TGS but often even where not offensive, it might be construed as an inaccurate reduction of their historical worth. But whatcha gonna do: it’s fiction.

    * Waving a flag to say as someone who owns and frequently re-reads Heyer historicals, I got plenty sick of folks saying/inferring/painting with a broad stroke swath that TGS was a “favourite of many readers of Heyer”. Perhaps there’s a study that “proves” that but for me it was so beside the point. She wrote a lot of novels: some prefer one, some prefer others. TGS actually isn’t a fave of mine — there, got that off my bosom :D

  4. Interesting that Merrian raised the Abbey school series (which I’ve never read) because when I saw your first reference to this, I immediately thought of perennial children’s favourite Enid Blyton who has many objectionable references in her oeuvre to various races and classes

  5. Thanks so much for this example, Merrian! There is a lot of casual racism, classism, imperialism, and anti-Semitism in the literature of this period. These attitudes were not universally held, of course, but they were largely accepted in others. As a result, it’s hard to read fiction or non-fiction of the period without running across it.

    I don’t think anyone today should be making excuses for it. If you are able to read past it, that’s your right and prerogative. If you can’t or don’t want to, I find that completely understandable. For example, I am able to read colonial-era fiction that contains repellent stereotypes about South Asians, but it’s not because I don’t see it or don’t care. For whatever reason, it doesn’t viscerally upset me as much as it does other readers. But that’s just me; it’s not a virtue or a fault, just a trait. That said, please don’t insult my intelligence and my feelings by telling me that it’s not there, or it’s there but I have to accommodate it. Whether or not I accommodate it is my business and my choice.

    Janine, perhaps because of my ability to note and move on (as an Indian I’ve been doing it a long, long time, as you have had to do with anti-Semitism in literature), I didn’t fully appreciate how hurtful a characterization Goldhanger was for readers until you brought it up years ago. I’m really glad you did, because it’s important to note when discussing this book in company of newer readers. If nothing else, a lot of readers will at least include a caveat when recommending this and other books.

    Janet’s Joan Wolf example is so interesting to me, because in the interests of avoiding offense she takes an interesting character and makes him boring. What a shame!

    As for favorite Heyers, TGS isn’t mine either. But then I no longer put Frederica and Venetia in the top tier either, as so many readers do.

    • Followed the link here from Smart Bitches. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse but what seemed to keep getting lost in the discussion there, is the to my mind pertinent fact that Heyer’s father’s family were Jews from Russia. That changes the whole flavor of the Goldhanger scene for me: Heyer so absorbed the values of the English society into which her grandparents assimilated that she could write “The instinct of his race” without (as far as we know) blinking.

      The Goldhanger scene diminished my respect for Heyer as a writer, for reasons Smart Bitch Sarah expressed very well (“This was the best you could come up with?”). Knowing that some of Heyer’s heritage was Jewish, and she could still write that that scene, diminished my respect for her as a person.

      • I’m hoping that Kloester’s forthcoming biography will tell us more about Heyer’s Jewish heritage. In Hodge the grandfather is only described as a Russian fur trader who “may have been a fugitive from the pogroms.” He married an Englishwoman, as did Heyer’s father, so it seems likely that she suppressed her Jewish heritage, as many in that era did; she may not even have considered herself to be Jewish, since the maternal line was not Jewish in the previous two generations.

        This does not, of course, address your point. But I guess I feel more comfortable addressing Heyer’s authorial choices than psychologizing the possible personal reasons behind them. Without more information we just don’t know why she did what she did. I agree, though, that writing such characters endorsed and reiterated the type of British anti-Semitism her grandfather would have confronted in his own life.

        I also think it’s interesting that her husband was Russian, from Odessa. There is no mention of his religion in Hodge and I haven’t found any info elsewhere.

    • I think perhaps one of the reasons it was so hurtful to me was that I was enjoying the book so much, loving it to such a degree, when I stumbled on that scene. As I said on Twitter, the book was heading for A+ terrain before that.

      Coming across Goldhanger in the middle of such an otherwise great book was like being at a party, seeing a close friend chatting with someone, approaching my friend, and having her suddenly turn and deal a resounding slap to my face in full view of everyone. I think if the book (as well as its publication date) hadn’t engendered such warm feelings in me prior that scene, I would not have felt so stunned and… like my trust was betrayed.

      • Sorry, I meant to take out the publication date mention. My original sentence was “if the book (as well as its publication date) hadn’t led me to expect more of Heyer….” and then I edited that and forgot to delete that part.

  6. Although I have little interest in Heyer, but thanks for the warning about her negative anti-Jewish characterizations. (Bad enough that as a Jewish female I have to be concerned whether or not I might encounter them in literature or real life, but I don’t want to run into them in fiction…) Also, in 1950s, I don’t think most survivors were ready to talk or discuss Holocaust. (I might be wrong however…)

  7. In Noel Coward’s song “The Stately Homes of England”, the homes in question are said to be helped by “assistance by the jews”. The homes in question being in such disrepair they are in danger of falling down. I have never really paid attention to the line until the discussion on Smart bitches.

  8. Survivors may not have been able to talk about the Holocaust, for obvious reasons, but its reality would have been inescapable for an educated person. Newsreel footage, magazine articles, photographs everywhere, Alfred Hitchcock’s documentary on the camps, for example.

    And yes, once you start seeing and hearing the references, you see that they are everywhere.

  9. What bothered me about the depiction of Goldhanger was that his negative characteristics were described as because of his race, not as coincidental and separate from it (not to mention that Judaism is a religion, not a race).

    When I think of TGS I think of Emma Jensen’s “Miss Jacobson’s Journey” as a corrective — the heroine has two suitors, one Jewish, one a Christian aristocrat. The Christian berates the Jew because his father was a moneylender who brought misery to his customers due to the high rate of interest he charged on his loans. The Jew said he had to charge interest because so many of his aristocratic customers paid their gambling debts as a matter of honor but thought nothing of leaving their tailors and bankers and everyone else to beg for their money.

  10. I think the most interesting thing is that Heyer herself was part Jewish! Her grandfather [who may have been the model for 'the Old Gentleman' in The Masqueraders] was a Russian fur trader. Some accounts of her life seem to suggest that Heyer’s husband Ronald Rougier also had Jewish origins, though I think this might have been a misunderstanding.

    The description of Georgette Heyer herself in a novel by her friend Joanna Cannan seem to contain coded messages about Heyer’s ‘exotic’ features. The character – a novelist called “Cynthia Bechler” – ‘was dark .. strikingly dark…her nose was too large, aquliine yet lacking in delicacy, and she had too full a mouth, too heavy a chin. But her eyes were beautiful , almond -shaped’…

    Antisemitic sterotypes were common in popular novels when Heyer wqas starting to write her bestsellers in the 20s, but her early novels don’t deploy this sterotype very noticeably or venomously. That’s why it’s really odd to see the sterotype surfacing AFTER the Second World War. I still love The Grand Sophy for other things, particularly her loving mockery of the Romantic revolutionary poet Augustus Fawnhope. (In one of Heyer’s detective stories she is much more unforgiving, making her Socialist into a murderer.)

    I’m delighted to have found this blog, and can I please use it to ask if anyone has a reference for the first serious review I ever saw of a Heyer book? It was in Punch magazine and must have been in 1960 as it reviewed Pistols for Two, and included a neat parody as well as some clear praise. I was at school and so excited to see her writing being taken seriously.
    Amanda Sebestyen

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