Jewish stereotypes in Georgette Heyer’s novels

by Sunita

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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