“I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother, and cast the pieces in her papa’s way, wasn’t she? I daresay perfectly amiable when one came to know her.”
—Venetia on Medea.
Venetia is about soul mates. Two people who, despite completely dissimilar life experiences, recognize in each other a mind that works the same way, a shared appreciation of the absurd, fundamental decency toward others, and to some extent, a disregard for convention. The eponymous heroine is not quite so willing to flout convention as her new friend Lord Damerel, who has a reputation as a rake, but as she comes to know him, she becomes more willing.
Our heroine is a victim (though not a bitter one) of the selfish behavior of others. Owing to her father’s obstinate reclusiveness after the loss of her mother when Venetia was young, she has hardly gone out in society, except among her sparse neighbors near her Yorkshire home. Her father’s death a few years earlier, rather than setting her free, left her in a situation that is in some ways worse. She manages the estate for her army officer brother, whom everyone expects home at any moment (since the defeat of Napoleon three years before) but who hasn’t shown any remote interest in taking up his inheritance and merely writes that he is sure Venetia knows best what to do. Her younger brother, who is preparing for Cambridge, is a brilliant scholar with a deformed hip that causes him to retreat into the world of books as much as their father ever did—but they at least hold each other in affection.
Venetia makes the best of things. She suffers no illusions about the selfishness of the men who control her life, but she does not bear grudges. She remains amiable and cheerful, taking people at face value; and her naïveté is natural, without guile, while not preventing her from knowing her own mind or seeing people clearly. She resists the efforts of anyone to manage her life, beyond what she perceives as her duty to people she acknowledges have a right to control her. These include her father and brothers, possibly one uncle, and no one else. If she has a failing it is her inability to force those about her to take her seriously. It is not so much that she cannot stand up for herself as it is her unwillingness to force an issue when she knows it will lead to conflict and hurt. It is all the more remarkable because no one in her entire life has ever provided her with a model of self-immolation: indeed, the members of her family are almost without exception egoists who care only for their own comforts. But it is not in Venetia’s nature to repine or to hold their faults against them. Even when she acknowledges that there was no love lost between herself and her father, she is not resentful.
So when Lord Damerel rides into her life, and they discover an affinity of minds that neither has ever experienced before, she is grateful to have found a kindred spirit. “I always wished for a friend to laugh with,” she says to him.
For Austen fans, it isn’t difficult to find familiar character archetypes, though of course they are well developed, as Heyer’s characters always are.
Edward Yardley, Venetia’s worthy suitor, is similar to Mr. Collins in both his capacity for self-delusion and his supreme confidence in his own qualities even in the face of a firm refusal. Instead of acknowledging his object’s capacity to think for herself, he attributes her refusals to his proposals to various excuses that comport with his rigid notions of propriety and mistaken view of her character.
He also represents the option of the loveless but comfortable marriage that will give a gentlewoman her own home. Venetia seriously considers marrying him but knows how unfulfilling she would find life as his wife.
Lady Denny, a neighboring matron, fills a similar niche to Lady Russell, though Venetia has never allowed her judgment on an important matter to supersede her own. But she has Venetia’s interests at heart and tries to take care of her protégée, and Venetia generally values her counsel and her society.
There are others, of course, but no space to delineate them all. And the plot itself, beyond this introductory set-up, deserves no spoilers. Suffice to say that it is highly satisfactory to see everything work out in the end. Indeed, for many Georgette Heyer fans, the final scene is their favorite from her entire œuvre.
One final and remarkable aspect of Venetia is the sprinkling of quotations throughout the novel. Lovers of the Elizabethan poets will find their favorites, as well as references to classical mythology, and, perhaps most entertainingly, choice biblical bits from Venetia’s old nurse when she is strongly moved.
5 out of 5 Stars
Venetia, by Georgette Heyer
Trade paperback (384) pages
Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas. She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility: An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).
We are rather fond of Venetia and you can find two additional reviews of it here on Austenprose:
- Venetia, by Georgette Heyer, read by Richard Armitage (Naxos AudioBooks)
- Venetia, by Georgette Heyer – A Review
Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks © 2011; text Laura A. Wallace © 2011, Austenprose