Whenever a reader asks: Which of the Georgette Heyer books ranks among your favorites? Venetia invariably springs from my lips. Mind you, I had not read this book for decades, but I savored its memory. In recent years I began to question my younger self, for while I loved rereading The Grand Sophy last year, I didn’t find it quite as splendid as the 24-year-old Vic had. As I grew older, other GH books made their first appearance on my favorites list, such as The Quiet Gentleman and The Reluctant Widow.
When Sourcebooks sent me a review copy of Venetia I did not choose it for my first critique, for I did not want to spoil my youthful impression. Once I began reading the book, I discovered that the 25-year-old heroine of Undershaw in Yorkshire captivated me all over again.
Amongst the pick of the debutantes at Almack’s she must have attracted attention; in the more restricted society in which she dwelt she was a nonpareil. It was not only the size and brilliance of her eyes which excited admiration, or the glory of her shining guinea-gold hair, or even the enchanting arch of her pretty mouth: there was something very taking in her face which owed nothing to the excellence of her features: an expression of sweetness, a sparkle of irrepressible fun, an unusually open look, quite devoid of self-consciousness.”
Venetia Lanyon is no ordinary heroine. Like Jane Austen’s Emma, she has largely led a protected life, thanks to her reclusive father, and allowed to go only to the dance assemblies in York and as far as the seaside town of Scarborough. Although she might not have been given a Season in London, Venetia is smart, lively, and resourceful. After her father’s death and in her elder brother’s absence, she runs the estate and makes all the important decisions overseeing the house, servants, herself and her young brother, Aubrey.
Waiting for her brother Conway’s return (he is a soldier), Venetia fends off two local suitors, the priggish Edward Yardley, who is as dull as a post, and ardent Oswald Denny, who, too dazzled by Venetia’s unselfconscious beauty and overly influenced by Lord Byron’s romanticism, is unable to recognize that he is much too young for her. Venetia lives a sedate life in her back country neighborhood, whose denizens are all respectable and predictable, except for one – Lord Damerel, a rake and ne’er-do-well, and a blight upon Undershaw’s spotless reputation.
“His family was an old and a distinguished one, but the present holder of the title was considered by the respectable to be the neighborhood’s only blot. It was almost a social solecism to mention his name in polite company.”
Venetia’s uneventful life unexpectedly changes when she encounters Damerel as she picks blackberries on his lands while wearing an old and rumpled gown.
“He was a stranger, but his voice and his habit proclaimed his condition, and it did not take her more than a very few moments to guess that she must be confronting the Wicked Baron. She regarded him with candid interest, unconsciously affording him an excellent view of her enchanting countenance.”
Mistaking her for a trespassing servant maid, he kisses her. And so the fun begins, for we are still at the very start of the novel.
Which brings me to the hero. As a young woman, I preferred dark brooding heroes like Damerel – men whose vices, dissipations and disappointments turn them into cynics; men whose good qualities are awakened by spectacular women like Venetia, men who on the surface are all wrong for the heroine. And so in Damerel I found my perfect unforgettable hero. Now, in my more advanced age (ahem), I find that I am still enamored of him.
Several qualities make Venetia stand head and shoulders above most of GH’s other novels. The plot is intelligent and complex and gets better and better with each page, continually taking us in unexpected directions. In fact, there were three twists that threw me for a loop and that kept this love story fresh and alive until the last page.
Several minor characters stand out from the ordinary. I could read an entire book about Aubrey, Venetia’s physically disabled but fiercely independent and brilliant brother who likes books more than people. Then there’s Mrs. Scorrier, an unforgettable vulgar character in the mode of a Mrs. Elton. Presumptuous, overbearing, and encroaching, she promises to overset Venetia’s and Aubrey’s well ordered lives (and those of the servants). Then there’s the matter of a little mystery, for as the book progressed I kept asking myself, when will we meet Venetia’s brother Conway? So much of the plot revolves around his absence and his anticipated return, that I was keen to meet him.
I am one of the GH readers who luxuriates in her use of Regency cant, and Venetia offers this language in spades:
She made the shocking discovery that he was a member of the dandy-set – indeed the pinkest of Pinks, a swell of the first stare! Not having the least guess that the old lady holds every Bond Street beau in the utmost abhorrence, the silly pigeon rigged himself out as fine as fivepence, and trotted round to Grosvenor Square looking precise to a pin: Inexpressibles of the most delicate shade of primrose, coat by Stulz, Hessians by Hoby, hat – the Bang-up – by Baxter, neckcloth – the Oriental, which is remarkable for its height – by himself.”
There are readers, I found to my surprise, who are put off by Ms. Heyer’s cant (Ten reasons why I can’t read Georgette Heyer) and who could care less about her historical accuracy. This novel is not for them, for it is filled with colorful antiquated language and wonderful tidbits about the Regency era that I found fascinating but that will turn them away.
I rate Venetia five out of five teacups
Did I like Venetia? No, I loved it, and I hope you will too. I give it five out of five Regency tea cups.
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