Venetia, by Georgette Heyer, read by Richard Armitage (Naxos AudioBooks): A Review & Giveaway

Did you know that Georgette Heyer is British author and literary critic Margaret Drabble’s favorite historical novelist? I know! High praise from an author who has written eighteen novels, introductions to all of Jane Austen’s major and minor works, been awarded a Doctorate in Letters from Cambridge University and the CBE and DBE by the Queen of England. Drabble is a living national treasure, as Heyer should have been if her novels had been taken more seriously during her life-time. However, she has always been highly esteemed by her faithful readers for close to ninety years and out of her thirty-eight Regency romance novels Venetia is one of the most beloved.

Set in the countryside of the North Riding of Yorkshire three years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Venetia Lanyon is not your conventional Heyer heroine. 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. 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 and not 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 praise worthy.) Damerel is as brazen and unprincipled as his reputation proceeded 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 intensions. 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. He 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 if 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.

This new Naxos AudioBook abridged recording of Heyer’s classic Regency romance read by renown British stage and screen actor Richard Armitage is a perfect pairing of witty humor and smoldering syntax. His reputation for bad boy roles such as Sir Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood and John Thornton in North and South transition smoothly into his characterizations in Venetia. Classical trained, his velvety voice resonates all the dash and splash that a great rake like Lord Damerel should display in the most seductive and sultry tones. His characterization of upbeat Venetia Lanyon accentuates her intelligence, casual frankness and sarcastic humor beautifully. After listening to this recording of Venetia his legion of fans will be clamoring for another libertine with a “well-informed mind and a great deal of kindness.” A tall order to fill, unless you’re on to the next Georgette Heyer Regency romance.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Venetia, by Georgette Heyer, read by Richard Armitage
Naxos AudioBooks, USA (2010)
Abridged, 4 CD’s, 4h 49m
ISBN: 978-1843793793

Giveaway Contest

Enter a chance to win one copy of Venetia, audio CD or digital download by leaving a comment stating what intrigues you about reading a Georgette Heyer novel or who your favorite Georgette Heyer hero is and what actor you would like to see in the movie role by midnight PT, Monday, April 12th, 2010. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010. Digital download internationally, CD shipment to continental US addresses. Good luck!

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Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (Naxos AudioBooks) – A Review and Giveaway

Northanger Abbey is the exuberant lesser known child of Jane Austen’s oeuvre. Even though it was her first novel to be completed and sold in 1803, much to Austen’s bemusement it was never published and languished with Crosby & Co for thirteen years until she bought it back for the ten pounds that the publisher had originally paid. It was finally published posthumously together with Persuasion in late 1817. If its precarious publishing history suggests it lacks merit, I remind readers that in the early 1800’s many viewed novels as lowbrow fare and unworthy of serious consideration. In “defence of the novel” Austen offered Northanger Abbey as both a parody of overly sensational Gothic fiction so popular in the late eighteenth-century and a testament against those opposed to novel reading. Ironically, Austen pokes fun at the critics who psha novel writing by cleverly writing a novel defending novel writing. Phew! In a more expanded view it is so much more than I should attempt to describe in this limited space but will reveal that it can be read on many different levels of enjoyment for its charming coming of age story, astute social observation, allusions to Gothic novels and literature, beautiful language and satisfying love story. I always enjoy reading it for the shear joy of its naïve young heroine Catherine Morland, charmingly witty hero Henry Tilney and the comedy and social satire of the supporting characters. 

It is believed that Jane Austen wrote many of her first works for the entertainment of her family and would read them aloud for their opinion and enjoyment. It is not hard to imagine that Northanger Abbey was presented to her family in this manner. The language and phrasing lends itself so freely to the spoken word, almost like a stage play, that I was quite certain that an audio book would be a great enhancement to the text. Add to that the talent of a creative narrator and you have a great combination for several hours of entertainment ahead of you. I adore audio books and listen to them in the car during my commute to work. This Naxos AudioBooks recording is read by the acclaimed British stage and screen actress Juliet Stevenson whose performance as the acerbic Mrs. Elton in the 1996 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma was amazingly as outrageously funny as Austen’s insufferable character. Stevenson’s reading did not disappoint and far exceeded my expectations. She added just the right amount of irony and humor to the reading that I was never in doubt that it is a burlesque of campy Gothic fiction or other overly sentimental novels popular in Jane Austen’s day. Her choice of characterizations was imaginative and captivating. Hearing her interpretation of the emptiness of Mrs. Allen and her frivolous distinction for fashion, Isabella Thorpe and her shallow endearments, and Henry Tilney with his knack for reading and adapting to different personalities with wit and charm, I have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the novel and recommend it highly. 

“And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.” Ch 5

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, read by Juliet Stevenson
Naxos AudioBooks USA (2006)
Unabridged (7) CD’s 8h 17m
ISBN: 978–9626344279

GIVEAWAY CONTEST

Enter a chance to win one copy of a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey by leaving a comment by midnight PST February 23, 2010 stating who is your favorite character in the novel or movie adaptation of  Northanger Abbey. Winners will be announced on February 24th, 2010. Shipping to continental US addresses only. Good luck!

UPDATE 02/24/10: The giveaway has concluded. The winner was announced. Follow this link to learn if it was YOU!

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