Unlike many of Georgette Heyer’s heroines, twenty-five year old Venetia Lanyon has never dreamed of having a London season and dancing at Almack’s. She has never even left Yorkshire, although she has attended some of the balls and other social events at Harrogate and York, and is mostly content with us. Partly because, also unlike most of Heyer’s heroines, Venetia has a job, one, moreover, that she’s very good at: she is the estate manager for her easy-going older brother, currently overseas with the Army.
The job involves everything from worrying about chickens to supervising servants and tenants, discussing winter sowing with the bailiff, doing the estate’s accounts, with occasional excursions to gather blackberries. Her life is, admittedly, somewhat lonely and dull despite the ongoing attentions of the worthy Edward Yardley and the romantic Oswald Denny. The neighborhood apparently has no girls of her age, leaving her with only two people to talk to freely: the older Lady Denny, mother of children not that much younger than Venetia; and her younger brother, Aubrey, who walks with a limp, and is more interested in books than in people.
Until a Byronic hero, or, if you prefer, a Beast, stalks into her life.
Lord Damerel owns the crumbling estate next to the Lanyon lands. As always in Heyer novels, “crumbling estate” means “moral degeneracy” which more or less defines Damerel. After running away at a young age with a very married woman who then abandoned him in Venice, Damerel has spent his time happily indulging in various vices: massive spending, extravagant travels, gambling, mistresses, and even a—gasp—drunken orgy in his house which provided neighborhood gossip for years. (And yet, not a single detail of the possible sex because, well, Heyer.) On this visit (free of drunken visitors), he encounters Venetia, kissing her before she has the chance to say anything. It’s pretty classic sexual assault, and Venetia is not strong enough to fight him off. She does, however, have an overly friendly dog who manages to interrupt things anyway (mostly because the dog, being a dog, wants the YAY STRANGER to scratch her chin). One sentence from her, and he (er, Damerel, not the dog) realizes that Venetia is a girl of quality, not a mere village girl. Since he doesn’t seduce that sort of girl (good to know you have standards, Damerel), they instead exchange a few insults. A few days later, Aubrey is injured on Damerel’s lands, and taken to the baron’s house for treatment. Venetia arrives in distress, and a few hours later, she and Damerel have fallen in love.
It’s an unpromising beginning, made more difficult by the fact that Venetia at first believes this is just friendship, not love (despite Damerel’s very obvious physical attraction to her), and Damerel’s growing realization that Venetia is far, far too good for him—and that any relationship he has with her is doomed to lead her into social ruin. Venetia, having never had social success, is not too worried about this—it’s difficult to worry about losing something you’ve never had—but Damerel believes, with some justification, that marrying her, when she has never experienced anything else, would be a terrible thing.
They might still be discussing it, except that both fortunately (for the plot) and unfortunately (for the comfort of the characters), Venetia’s new sister-in-law Charlotte arrives without a hint of warning, accompanied by her overbearing mother, Mrs. Scorrier. Eager to defend her daughter’s rights, Mrs. Scorrier is soon fighting with everyone. It’s a fairly subtle portrait: absolutely no one seems to like Mrs. Scorrier, for excellent reasons: she grates upon characters and readers alike. At the same time, Heyer quietly notes that Mrs. Scorrier’s personality flaws stem from sheer terror. It’s another example in a book filled with such examples of what happens to women denied the right to make their own choices. Not that this makes Mrs. Scorrier any less unpleasant, and Venetia realizes that she cannot remain in her own home, and the estate she has been running for years. Fortunately, her uncle arrives with an invitation to join him in London, and after a terrible breakup with Damerel (one of the most emotionally poignant scenes Heyer ever wrote) and a final rough kiss (like, NOT HELPING, DAMEREL) heads to London, and a few further surprises.
Despite these surprises, Venetia is mostly a character driven book, thin on plot. Venetia and Damerel’s romance is considerably more emotional, and adult, than most of Heyer’s romances. But for all that, it never quite loses its fairy tale elements. We’ve talked before about Heyer’s subtle use of fairy tale tropes, particularly from Cinderella, in previous books, and it’s certainly on display here. But although the book’s characters frequently reference Sleeping Beauty—with Venetia as the beauty waiting to be awakened—the real underlying fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. Venetia, after all, like many of Heyer’s other later heroines, is content to remain unmarried: she has a small fortune, and if the life she envisions horrifies Damerel with its dullness, it is a life, and not a completely uncomfortable one. It is Damerel—again, like many of Heyer’s later heroes—who is miserable without a partner. He is also portrayed as a Beast: living in a crumbling estate, physically unattractive if capable of charm, and dangerous—especially to a young innocent maiden. Unless, of course, he can fall in love with her—and convince her to fall in love with him. And, like the Beast, Damerel does send Venetia away, despite the agony that this causes him, and needs Venetia to return to save him. (Although unlike the Beast in the Madame de Villaneuve and Andrew Lang versions, he at least doesn’t say, “If you cared about me, you’d never leave!”)
It’s a bit of a shock, therefore, when the book does not end with Damerel’s transformation. Venetia openly admits that Damerel will not change, and that she, instead, will be the one to embrace his lifestyle. The Beast remains a Beast.
This also involves, for Heyer, a rather startling openness about sex. Admittedly, we don’t get any details about the orgies. But otherwise, not only do Venetia and Damerel discuss his previous romances, but in those last few pages she agrees to allow Damerel to continue to have other women, and even orgies in her house. Exactly how well she’ll follow through with this idea is another question entirely, but for Heyer, even raising the question is quite something—even as it offers another illustration of Heyer’s basic belief that sex is really not the main thing in marriage.
Venetia and Damerel, however, are not merely fairy tale tropes, but basically variations on characters Heyer had created before. Aubrey is something quite new: a fiercely intellectual teenager with a sharp, biting wit, more focused on books and Classical history than people. He also walks with a limp, something he would prefer that people ignore. Very few of them do, something that never fails to infuriate him or lead him to say something fairly reprehensible. Not surprisingly, he has turned into a fairly selfish person—he suggests that Venetia and Damerel go on a honeymoon to Greece so that he—Aubrey—will have a chance to tour Greek ruins— but one who notices more than people realize, and who, when asked to try to restrain his biting wit for the sake of his sister, manages to do so. Also not surprisingly, he has no problem bonding with Damerel.
It’s all very satisfying, even if this cannot be said to be a perfect book, and even if I find myself wondering how on earth Venetia ended up able to have any concern about anyone else, surrounded as she has always been by thoroughly selfish people. Two other plot bits really stretch credibility: one, that this the first time Venetia and Damerel have met, since they have been neighbors ever since she was born, and she has rarely left her home. True, Damerel has spent most of the past eighteen years travelling extensively—going all the way to the Middle East, rather unusual for Heyer’s characters, and Venetia’s father didn’t encourage any contact with any neighbors. But given that both of them also seem to spend significant time tramping around the countryside, that Venetia knows and is on excellent terms with his baliff, and Venetia does visit and know all of her other neighbors, right down to the tenant farmers, and also given that her household servants are well aware of the domestic arrangements at Damerel’s estate, right down to the chickens, cockerels, and pullets, it seems odd. It only gets odder when Mrs. Philip Hendred, who like Venetia grew up at Undershaw, which borders Damerel’s land, and seems to be only a few years old than Damerel, also has apparently never met him, even though by all accounts Damerel’s family spent time in Yorkshire when he was a kid—about when Mrs. Hendred would have been in Yorkshire—fleeing to London only after Damerel joined the diplomatic service, presumably at the age of 20 or so. It’s not at all surprising, then, that no one in the neighborhood knows Damerel well—his visits in the last 18 years have been few and far between—but he shouldn’t be a complete stranger, either. Especially since he seems to know his former neighbor Lady Aurelia Steeple quite well.
Which brings me to the even less plausible part of the plot: that no one told Venetia that her mother was still alive. I can absolutely believe that while her father was alive, no one dared mention his wife’s name. I can also readily believe Edward Yardley’s explanation that by the time Venetia came out of mourning for her father and began occasionally visiting Harrowgate and York with the Dennys, that the gossip about her mother had completely quieted down. I can also readily understand why Damerel decides that he’s not the best person to tell Venetia the truth. That all makes sense.
What does not make sense is that nobody, and by nobody I am specifically referring to Lady Denny, Mr. Hendred, Mrs. Gurnard, Ribble (the butler), Edward Yardley and Conway, bothers to take Venetia aside after her father’s death to say, er, you know, your mother isn’t dead. Especially since Conway, criticized by all for his lack of communication skills and laziness, does make the effort to tell Aubrey—and of course, someone had to tell Conway. It makes even less sense that Mr. Hendred, Mrs. Gurnard, and Ribble choose to say nothing when Venetia goes off to London. Lady Steeple, after all, may spend most of her time abroad, but she has previously chosen to flaunt herself all over town, and it is not impossible that someone will mention her to Venetia—or that Venetia will recognize her. As it happens, Venetia does, although that recognition is considerably helped by her aunt’s dramatic reaction to Lady Steeple’s appearance. I suppose we could argue that Mrs. Gurnard and Ribble are by now accustomed to silence, and that Mr. Hendred is following the dictates of his brother-in-law, but bluntly, in a book about gossip, where people are still chatting about the way a footman always followed Lady Harriet Cavendish whenever that great letter writer left the household, Venetia is bound to find out, and has every right to be furious to find that this was kept from her.
In fact, arguably that anger is one factor that drives her back to Damerel. Certainly, Venetia is very much in love; without Damerel, she is deeply depressed, and misses him terribly. As soon as she learns from Mrs. Hendred that Damerel, too, was in love, she immediately makes plans to get back together with him. She is so in love that her main reaction to finding out that her scandalous mother is still alive that her chief reaction is not “yay! my mother is alive!”, or even understandable fury, but joy that the scandal will allow her to marry Damerel. To be fair, she does not seem to have ever been close to her mother, and her entire family is not exactly a poster group for Happy Families, but still, some bit of YAY MOM might have been expected.
But even being in love does not cause her to jump on a coach back to Yorkshire until she finds out that her mother is alive and that her entire family and all of her supposed friends have lied to her about this, while urging her to trust their judgment about Damerel. Venetia has reason to hurry—she’s intelligent enough to realize that Damerel will soon leave Yorkshire and can easily entertain himself with someone else—but she does not hurry until this moment. Nor does she write Damerel (although, to be fair, Miss Austen assures us that an unmarried woman writing an unmarried man who is not a relative is equally shocking.) Instead, she takes off.
I am also somewhat impatient—as is Venetia, for that matter—with the ongoing statements from several well-meaning persons that Venetia is completely ignorant of the world. It is true that Venetia has never left Yorkshire. But as the text shows, she regularly reads magazines and newspapers from London and other cities; corresponds with a wealthy aunt and uncle in the city and receives regular political reports; vaguely remembers her mother heading to parties at Castle Howard; has been managing an estate, which is more than we’ve seen most characters do, and stays in regular touch and gossip with her neighbors. She is, in fact, so well educated and in touch that she has no problems holding both intellectual and purely gossipy conversations with her new London acquaintances, and she can converse easily with Damerel on the subject of his foreign travels and his past affairs. She may not know that much about London, but she knows enough about the world to make shrewd and correct judgments not only about Damerel, but also about her new sister-in-law and Mrs. Scorrier. And yet, the only characters who do respect her judgment are those in lesser social positions: her servants, her younger brother, and her disgraced, scandalous mother and stepfather.
It is infuriating to see other characters, constantly dismiss her judgment, if highly satisfying to see her wealthy, well travelled stepfather recognize her good qualities in an instant, still more satisfying to see her worldly, experienced mother trust her judgment about men, and greatly satisfying to see Venetia decide to make her own choices.
One other note may make readers uncomfortable: the threat of rape. Venetia is almost raped twice: first by Damerel, who appears to think that it’s just fine to sexually assault lower class women, and later by Oswald Denny before Damerel rescues her. Her stepfather later insists on accompanying her for her own protection. Heyer had certainly acknowledged the threat of rape before—nearly all of her young women are escorted by men, older relatives, or servants for a reason, especially in London. She had also featured two relationships that started with the threat of sexual assault (Devil’s Cub) or actual sexual assault (Regency Buck). But these had all been single incidents: in this novel, the threat lingers.
Venetia lacks the high humor of many of Heyer’s other novels. It is, at its heart, a book about choices and gossip, about the anger that can arise when a woman is judged competent enough to run a house and an estate, supervising a large number of tenants and servants, but not competent enough to choose her own husband—or, for that matter, be trusted with the knowledge that her mother is still alive. For all its seeming placidity, and self-assured heroine, it is a book brimming with quiet anger, and despite its major plot holes, a satisfying read.
Mari Ness has decided that she could handle most of the aspects of estate management except the chickens. She lives in central Florida.