Sorcery and Cecelia* by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

This was such a fun book!

I think I first heard it described as “Jane Austen meets Harry Potter”. Well, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was also described that way, and I found it turgid to the point of unreadability. Sorcery and Cecelia was anything but. It’s a series of letters between Kate, in London, and her cousin Cecelia, in Essex. In both locations, Evil Doings are Afoot, involving a stolen chocolate pot, a beautiful neighbour, a missing brother, a charm bag … and two dashingly handsome (if frustratingly enigmatic) young men.

Coincidentally, just after I finished it, I discovered it was the Galaxy Bookshop Fave Rave in their April 2005 Nexus. Stephanie, who wrote the review, said it was “Jane Austen with magic”, and even considered whether or not you have to be familiar with Austen to appreciate it (which you don’t). I can only assume that Stephanie has never come across Georgette Heyer, since anyone who has will recognise her influence on the writing. I can’t really see any significant Austen connection beyond the time period (and it’s much more Heyer’s Regency than Austen’s), and maybe the epistolary format (which Heyer never used – the only published Austen that uses it is Lady Susan, but the first drafts of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were apparently written in this style).

The book is actually dedicated to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and J. R. R. Tolkein. I would say that while Austen and Tolkein have given the authors much joy and general influence, the most direct connection is with Heyer. It’s not as good as Heyer – it’s a sort of “Heyer-lite” (with magic). It’s actually being marketed as a Young Adult title, and I think this is the right call, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why it feels YA in a way that Heyer doesn’t.

I have a nasty feeling Heyer wouldn’t have approved of this book. In The Private World of Georgette Heyer (Jane Aiken Hodge, 1984) there is an extract from a letter to her publisher about an imitator:

I feel compelled to protest against the injustice done me by the author in omitting my name from her list of the works to which she declares herself to be indebted. It might well take the place of Jane Austen’s, for while no one would suspect [the author] of owing anything to Jane Austen it must be obvious to many besides my unknown informant that she owes to me plot, incidents, character, several surnames, and such examples of Regency slang as she has used.” (p. 145)

Sorcery and Cecelia does owe a couple of names and a great deal of Regency slang – plus a general Regency world view – to Heyer. On the other hand, the authors do acknowledge her (though I gather this wasn’t the case with the first edition of the book). Also, of course, the magic component means that it’s not actually a Regency Romance.

Another factor is that it wasn’t originally intended for publication. The two authors were simply playing the “letter game” – writing to each other in character, and making up the plots (without consultation) as they went along. It was only after it was finished that they realised it might be publishable. This makes the Heyer pastiche aspects of it more understandable – and it’s such a key part of the writing style, that I honestly don’t see how it could have been excised when they were preparing it for publication.

So maybe Heyer wouldn’t have objected to it. I’d like to think so, anyway.

Having read this book from the library, I have now ordered my own copy of the book, and of its sequel, The Grand Tour, which I’m really looking forward to reading.

* Actually, the full title is Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country

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