One of Georgette Heyer’s most beloved novels, Venetia is set in the countryside of the North Riding of Yorkshire three years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Its eponymous heroine Venetia Lanyon is not your conventional Heyer Regency Miss. Unmarried at age twenty-five she has never been in love, is close to being on the shelf, and has resigned herself to the narrow fate of spinsterhood.
Raised by her reclusive father since her mother’s death fifteen years prior, Venetia has seen little of life beyond the family estate of Undershaw Manor or an occasional country dance at Harrogate. Since her father’s death shortly after the Battle of Waterloo she has been overseeing the household of her younger brothers: twenty-two-year-old Sir Conway, a soldier overseas with the Army of Occupation in Cambray, France, and sixteen-year-old Aubrey, a brilliant scholar studying for Cambridge who abhors his physical limitations from a pronounced and ugly limp. Also within her small sphere are two improbable suitors who would like to win her hand: Edward Yardley, a dull, pompous, egoist who thinks NO is a YES, and Oswald Denny, a bumbling teenage wanna-be rake who idolizes Lord Byron the mad, bad and dangerous to know poet. Life as a maiden aunt in her brother’s household seems a far preferable fate until a chance encounter with an estranged neighbor, the “Wicked Baron” of Elliston Priory, leaves a surprisingly favorable impression.
Others tell her the Baron, Lord Jasper Damerel is scoundrel, a rake, and a libertine. Not at all a suitable association for any young lady who does not want her reputation ruined. Their first encounter, while she walks alone near his estate, is one of Heyer’s most famous scenes. (I will not reveal spoilers – but it is very praiseworthy.) Damerel is as brazen and unprincipled as his reputation precedes him, but, instead of swooning or running from his advances Venetia firmly holds her ground and pelts him with literary retorts, challenging his intelligence and temporarily belaying his dishonorable intentions. Their verbal sparring snaps and sparkles like dry kindling to a hungry fire confirming Heyer’s brilliance with characterization and dialogue. Venetia does not hesitate to say what she thinks and that makes him laugh, a refreshing change for this world-weary social outcast. Tall, dark and disreputable, everything about rakish Damerel tells her to check herself, but Venetia does the exact opposite, she befriends him.
Lord Damerel is intrigued and continues to seduce her until the green girl before him earns his true respect and deep affection. He is in love and wants her for his wife. Venetia secretly feels the same and awaits his proposal until Damerel suddenly becomes chivalrous and will not sully her reputation by marrying her. Meanwhile, her brother Conway’s young bride arrives unannounced from France with her surly mother to take possession of Undershaw displacing Venetia who quickly accepts an invitation to stay with her aunt and uncle Hendred in London. Her family hopes that the change of scenery will help her forget the unsuitable Lord Damerel, but she only fears she may never see him again. However, Venetia is a realist who knows how the world works and a newly discovered family secret spurs her into action. She will need all her wit and guile to challenge propriety and to prove to Damerel that their social standing has nothing to do with keeping them apart.
Venetia Lanyon is one of Heyer’s most liberated heroines and Lord Damerel one of her darkest rogues. They seem a most unlikely pair, but Heyer’s skill at devising impossible obstacles for her hero and heroine is like syllabub and sunshine, we just can’t get enough of it. Upon their first meeting, Damerel quotes Shakespeare, ‘How full of briars is this workaday world!’ which is an important theme throughout the novel. Both Venetia and Damerel face the challenges of social stricture – the briars of the workaday world – and overcome them in their own way. The plot is simple and secondary to the romantic tension, scintillating dialogue and playful sparing which is so much sexier than any modern bodice ripper could hope to generate. Cleverly, Heyer’s Venetia does not reform a rake, she discovers that a knight errant is what she needs. (Don’t we all?)
Venetia, by Georgette Heyer
Trade paperback (368)