Book Review

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

B-

Title: Venetia
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publication Info: Sourcebooks 1958 / 2011
ISBN: 978-1402238840
Genre: Regency

Book CoverI decided to read this to cleanse the palate, in a roundabout way, after my feelings of repulsion at The Grand Sophy. I think after this I will be taking a long break from Heyer, but I’m glad I read it. Nothing wrong with a bit of reformed rake historical romance.

Venetia is an uncommon country girl heroine, living in Yorkshire with her younger brother, Aubrey, who is brilliant intellectually though troubled physically by a pronounced limp. Their eldest brother, Conway, is in the military, and the burden of running their estate and managing all the family details has fallen to Venetia, who doesn’t seem to mind, as she’s about as smart as Aubrey, as well as very beautiful. She has two suitors after her, both annoying and insipid in different but equally bothersome ways, and is pretty much content to continue in the status quo. When her neighbor, Damerel, returns to his estate, Venetia learns the full details of his terrible, and I mean deeply terrible reputation, and yet finds in him an instant friend, almost a soul mate.

I mean, it’s not as if Damerel’s heart started beating, he could suddenly see in color after years of black and white, or that he had a twin and Venetia knew which was which. It’s not as pat and predictable as that. The two of them are a mental match for one another. They were instantly on very good terms, and slowly but surely fell completely for one another.

But there’s the trouble of Damerel’s reputation, Venetia’s almost-spinsterhood, Aubrey’s dependence upon her or upon someone else until school terms begin, various other annoying interruptions and surprises, and most of all, the I-am-not-kidding ho-damn bad reputation of Damerel’s that assures him and everyone else save Venetia that should he marry her, they’ll be ostracized and miserable.

The best part of this book was any scene with Damerel in it, but particularly Damerel and Venetia. This is a courtship that is shown through their dialogue. Venetia spends a few moments of time ruminating on Damerel, but most of her interactions with him reveal more than her mental lectures. Despite an awful introduction – Damerel is a total asshat in his conduct to Venetia when they meet – their scenes together are total fun.

This scene I could see in my head as if it were illustrated:

It was several minutes before it occurred to her that she had turned to him as to a friend of many years’ standing. Then, a little wonderingly, she thought over that protracted dinner, Damerel leaning back in his carved chair, a glass of port held between his long fingers, she with her elbows on the table and a half-eaten apple in one hand: and the dusk creeping into the room unheeded, until Imber brought in candles, in tall, tarnished chandeliers, and set them on the table, furnishing a pool of light in which they sat while the shadows darkened beyond it. Trying to recall what they had talked of during that comfortable hour, it seemed to Venetia that they had talked of everything, or perhaps of night; She did not know which, but only that she had found a friend.

Venetia’s society has been so terribly limited that of course Damerel is exciting – and Venetia’s curious and headstrong, with few around to tell her she shouldn’t be doing what she wants to be doing, so of course she’s fascinated by him. But when they spend time together, they learn that the fascination isn’t exclusive to Venetia, and that it’s not only due to their new acquaintance.

There’s a sort of magical isolation to their time together in the beginning of the novel, particularly when Damerel rescues Aubrey after a bad fall from a horse, and brings Aubrey to his home to recuperate. Damerel and Venetia are alone together a LOT, particularly as they wander over his property or hers, or take the extra long way between their homes going from one to the other. There are many delicious scenes wherein they’re alone for far longer than I would expect them to be, and the times where there are so few people to interrupt them are wonderful.

The problem is that there are so many odious characters in their way, or interfering in their lives in one way or another, and MY GOD THOSE CHARACTERS ARE WORDY. And uninteresting. AND THEY TALK A LOT.

Damerel is fun to read about as he interacts with these idiots. More than once he hoists them by their own petards – which is no small feat considering the idiot’s petards have their heads firmly embedded in them.

Damerel himself is similarly hoisted – he all but admits his goal is to get close to Venetia through Aubrey, and that plan fails miserably when he realizes how very highly he values her, and how little he has to offer her.

His declaration was worth reading twice and savoring, too – but I’m whiting it out so if you don’t want to read it you don’t have to. Highlight to read:

 

O God, I love you to the edge of madness, Venetia, but I’m not mad yet – not so mad that I don’t know how disastrous it might be to you – to us both!

 

I liked very much how intelligent Damerel, Venetia, and Aubrey were, and how interesting their conversations were. But the rest of the characters were tiresome, and were more a functional role to play in the plot than fully-fleshed individuals.

I found myself flipping ahead, not missing much as these other parties droned on for a few paragraphs or six or ten or GOOD GOD SHUT UP ALREADY. Once they were off the scene, they were forgettable, and when they were in a scene, I wanted them off as soon as possible in favor of more scenes with Venetia and Damerel. For that reason, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed the main characters themselves.


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  1. 1
    Honeychurch says:

    Awww, Venetia was the first Heyer novel I ever wrote and it remains one of my favourites. What I particularly like about the book is that Venetia harbours no illusions about Damerel – she knows exactly how bad he is and that her love won’t be a magical cure for all his ills. And the banter is so, so good!

  2. 2
    Honeychurch says:

    Ughr, not wrote .. READ!

    Also, I adore how many silly dogs you get in Heyer’s books. I have been – ahem – accused of reading Heyer solely for the silly, charming dogs. Filthy lies, of course.

  3. 3
    Isabel C. says:

    I love this book!

    Especially because, as Honeychurch says, the rake doesn’t *really* reform at the end—and the heroine knows he’s not going to, and is cool with that. It’s realistic and refreshing.

  4. 4
    AgTigress says:

    Venetia is just about my favourite Heyer (I would give it an A++).  I find all the secondary characters, however garrulous, immensely entertaining, colourful and memorable.  There are some truly moving and emotional moments;  it is not just frothy comedy, however exaggerated some of the characters are, and there is some very palpable sexual tension in it, subtly conveyed.
    And yes, the dogs:  from the fluff-brained Flurry (‘Oh, have you no discrimination, you idiotic animal?’), to Aubrey’s bitch, Bess, who was ‘in the same interesting condition’ as poor, silly Charlotte!
    I think it’s a lovely book, pure pleasure to read and re-read.  I delight in both the hero and heroine, and it is so easy to imagine them together, striking sparks off each other all their lives.  And of course Damerel doesn’t really need to reform;  ‘you shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!’  He and Venetia are on the same wavelength from start to finish.

  5. 5
    Vicki says:

    I, too, love Venetia, for the interaction between Venetia and Dameral, for their knowledge of literature, and for some of the secondary characters. There is a bit of contrivance in the way the HEA is managed but, in general, one of my favorite Heyers.

  6. 6
    Svenja says:

    A wonderful book (I totally agree with Honeychurch and Isabel C.) … and even better, there is an audio book version out, unfortunately abridged, but it’s read by Richard Armitage!!!

  7. 7
    MissFiFi says:

    I think the only way I would want to read Heyer is not by doing it myself, but by having the stunning baritone of Armitage lull me as I lie in bed. Le sigh.

    capcha: action38 Ha! so many dirty thoughts, so little time.

  8. 8
    JudyPatooty says:

    The ONLY Heyer books I have “read” have been the three audiobooks read by Richard Armitage – Sylvester, Venetia, A Convenient Marriage.  I don’t care that they are abridged.  That voice makes it all okay. 

    capcha:  man43 I can think of 43 things I’d like to do to that man.

  9. 9
    Merry says:

    I know I am the lone voice of dissension, but I alas do

    love Richard Armitage’s reading of Sylvester. He’s got a voice like chocolate fudge over ice cream*, but he really doesn’t do a good job with the women’s voices.

    *I was thinking rich and melting, but I suppose very high in tasty calories might work as well.

  10. 10
    Merry says:

    ? Oh HTML, what are you thinking? Geez, even the website doesn’t want me to type that I do NOT love RA’s reading of Heyer.

  11. 11
    Pamelia says:

    Love this one.  It’s the most overtly sexy-times Heyer I’ve read thus far.  I also appreciated that Damerel doesn’t pull a 180 cured by love move at the end.  I think you’re right about the secondary characters; sometimes I felt like they were just in there so that Venetia or Aubrey or Damerel could drop a stinging set-down about them or (in Aubrey’s case) to their face.

  12. 12

    Ah, sigh I hate when an otherwise good book is padded with what I feel is filler. Glad it was otherwise good, though I guess that makes the unneeded parts that much more annoying.

  13. 13
    Ros says:

    I adore Venetia.  I think it is the most romantic of all Heyer’s books.  You’re quite right that the heart of the book is the interaction between Damerel and Venetia, of which there is plenty.  But I don’t mind the cast of secondary characters and I find them more interesting and sympathetic than you seem to have done.  I always wished we got to meet Conway but I loved the hints we get about him from Charlotte and the abominable Mrs Scorrier. 

    The other thing I really love about this book is the way that Venetia is allowed to fight for her love.  She is the one who makes things happen, rather than letting them happen to her.  I love her little manipulation to force Damerel’s hand – she knows him well enough to know that she’ll need it, and loves him more than enough to go through with it.

  14. 14
    Ros says:

    Oh, I meant to end the italics tag.

  15. 15
    Ros says:

    But apparently, I didn’t.  Trying again.

  16. 16
    cleo says:

    Venetia was my first Heyer, so I have a soft spot for it.  I love the scenes of them getting to know each other and fall in love.  I got a bit impatient with the ending, especially dealing with her mother.  But a very sweet book.  Thanks for giving Heyer another try Sarah.

  17. 17
    Jane A says:

    Not that anyone needs permission not to read anything at all, but you’ve done as much Heyer as even the most devout can ask, Sarah. 

    Even in novels without sad Antisemitic stereotypes, she does a number of things over and over, if not in every book.  If one likes or can get used to them, then one can love the books, but if not, then NOT. 

    One is the slow opening, which struck you in Grand Sophy, but I think is in most of her novels.  The two main leads in Devil’s Cub don’t have a conversation until p.77 of my 251-page edition.  In The Nonesuch, the couple don’t meet until p. 67.  The Quiet Gentleman begins with the hero’s family waiting for him to arrive and it STILL takes 12 pages for him to appear.  I won’t give any other examples, but it’s a feature of her writing I had to work to get used to.  The endings, too, tend to be very abrupt.  Oh, we’re in love!  “Marry me,” he says masterfully.  “Oh, yes!” she breathes.  The End.

    And the secondary characters ALWAYS talk.  And talk.  And talk some more.  I can’t think of one of her novels (which I do like) that I didn’t skip bits of when I first read them.  Now I don’t so much (except for The Moneylender of Awful, which I believe I have not read through since the first time), because many of the secondary characters are garrulous in a funny way.  And THEN I had a hard time with several more recent writers because the secondary characters seem so sparse and so silent, after Heyer.

    Actually I think the things I’ve noticed are all about writing comedies of manners that are marketed as romance.  Heyer does not really seem all that interested in romantic dialog or proposal scenes, and certainly not sexytimes.

  18. 18
    Ros says:

    Jane, you’re right.  Heyer’s books weren’t originally marketed as romances and I think that if you come to them expecting them to conform to the standards of the genre today, you will be disappointed or at least frustrated.  Some of her books are comedies of manners, others are action-adventures, others are historicals, and others more like ‘true’ romances.

    Personally, Heyers were the first romances I read, so I tend to judge all others by her standards!  I like the long set-ups, the large casts of secondary characters with their own voices and personalities.  I like that there are plots which go alongside the romance and I really like that there are no sex scenes, and especially that there are no wildly anachronistic, implausible sex scenes which so many contemporary regencies seem to go in for.

  19. 19
    Michele says:

    I would give Venetia a slightly higher grade (maybe remove the minus sign), but I agree completely with the following:

    The problem is that there are so many odious characters in their way, or interfering in their lives in one way or another, and MY GOD THOSE CHARACTERS ARE WORDY. And uninteresting. AND THEY TALK A LOT.

    That’s why I like but don’t love it. Venetia, Damerel, Aubrey, all tons of fun and very rounded. Edward and Oswald are believable. The rest? Plot devices.

  20. 20
    Michele says:

    Before you give up on Heyer, though, try Faro’s Daughter. That’s my favorite. :-)

  21. 21
    Kelly Bishop says:

    Well, I guess I’ll be the lone dissenter here but Venetia was one of GH’s that I did NOT like. One damn sentence just ruined the whole story for me.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve read it but as I recall, late in the story, one of the other characters asks her if she thinks he’ll be faithful to her if they marry. She just replies, she thinks he’ll always love her.

    In other words, no, even before she marries him(!!!!), she thinks he’ll end up cheating on her but it’s ok because he’ll still love her.

    That’s just not my idea of love.

  22. 22
    Fran says:

    I was hoping maybe for some lightening reviews of Heyer’s work?  It seems everybody has their favorite, and I know she’s written tons of books, but I think i’d be helpful for a Heyer novice like myself.  They seem to vary a lot (Devil’s Cub got an A, while The Grand Sophy got a D, and Venetia’s gotten a B-) and I’d love some sort of comprehensive comparison.

  23. 23

    I loved Venetia because the romance was at the centre and because, as loads of people pointed out, Damarel didn’t reform. For once, Heyer’s kissing was sexy rather than an afterthought, and you really got the impression that Damarel and Venetia were marrying because they fancied the pants off each other – loved her thinking about whether he would like to see her in a frilly nighty, and loved that she wanted him to strew rose petals only for her.

    I second Michele though, Faro’s Daughter was my favourite too – another hero and heroine who don’t conform. Oh yes, and Bath Tangle. I read my mum’s Heyer’s when I was about 13 and she read her mum’s and we both still go back to them every now and then.

    Looking forward to the Heyer chat.

  24. 24
    AgTigress says:

    Like Ros, I like the slow lead-ins.  Love them, in fact.  One of the things that infuriates and alienates me about a lot of modern novels (including those by really excellent writers, like Crusie), is that they seem to regard it as praiseworthy, even essential, to plunge into a swirling maelstrom of action within the first couple of pages.  I like the slow raising of the curtain, the time to absorb the atmosphere and the setting and the characters before things start to happen.  I like prologues, too (and also epilogues).  Okay, I’m weird, but I doubt whether I am unique.  :-)
    I also delight in the secondary characters, even when they are pretty standard types, as they often are, and Heyer’s dialogue is always so deliciously entertaining that I am happy for them to talk as much as they want.  For example, someone said that the scenes with Venetia’s mother were boring:  for me, they are a total delight, adding a whole new layer to one’s understanding of the characters of Conway, Aubrey and Venetia herself.  A more ill-suited couple than their parents can hardly be imagined.  And Venetia’s immediate rapport with her raffish step-father is both entertaining and touching.  If I were editing the book, I would not excise one word…
    The absence of overt sexual action was, of course, a legal requirement until around 1960, so for the first 35+ years of her writing career, Heyer could not have included anything more graphic than a kiss even if she had wished to. 
    (The strict ban on ‘obscenity’ broke down in the UK following the Lady Chatterley case [1960, following the passing of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, when Penguin books used Lawrence’s classic, first published in France in 1928, to test the new defence of ‘literary merit’, and won, opening the door to Sex In Novels], and I think it was probably on roughly the same timescale in the USA).
    The discipline of conveying powerful sexual attraction without being able to show the protagonists thrashing around in bed can be highly effective, and I think Venetia and Damerel are the very best examples in Heyer’s oeuvre. 
    @Kelly Bishop:  I don’t read the point about fidelity in the same way as you do at all:  I have no doubt that Damerel will be faithful to Venetia, and that she knows it, and that the reader is expected to know it.  Venetia is simply articulating the fact that love is more important than sex.  But this is another of these hot-button issues that people perceive differently anyway.  To many, physical infidelity is a total deal-breaker in a relationship, but that view is not universal.

  25. 25
    Isabel C. says:

    See, that acceptance is part of what makes me like it so much: it seems like a pretty worldly and realistic view for a woman of that particular time and place, for one, and for another…enh, I know plenty of very loving couples who have “arrangements” RL, whether those include one person looking the other way or not. It was nice for me to see a (pre-1960s, yet!) romance novel acknowledging that physical fidelity just doesn’t matter to some people, or at least one that I could read that way.

  26. 26
    Philippa says:

    I would have given it at least an A, I love Damarel soooo much!  He is the quinessential rake character, unreformed, and Venetia doesn’t care as long as he loves her.  The description at the end of the rose petal throwing Paphians (and his comment is something like ‘my dear! at this time of year?’) has me in stitches every time.

    and as Isobel C said, I actually liked the acknowledgement that physical fidelity is not the most important thing to them.  They understand each others eccentricities, fancy each other like crazy and are great friends.  He might be faithful in the end, or he might not, but she can live with that as long as he loves her.  And I’m not left doubting for one second that he does love her.

    And so many romance writers tried to copy him and got it wrong – their rakes were rude, unintelligent brutes who lacked Damarel’s wit and light touch.  I’ve never come across another hero like him, although I have never given up hope that I might some day.

  27. 27
    Philippa says:

    sorry can’t spell tonight Isabel!  and of course it is Damerel.

    Also wanted to say I adore the worthy Edward and the desperate Oswald.  Who wouldn’t want refuge from two suitors like that.  I did a thesis on Byron and I get fits of giggles every time I read about Oswald wanting to be a Byronic hero, yet failing so miserably.

    And the complete self-interested narcissism of the Lanyon brothers is every entertaining to read (although no doubt infuriating to live with).

  28. 28
    Rebecca says:

    The grade and comments here have made me realize that a large part of why I love Venetia (I’m another who would put it in the A range) is BECAUSE of the secondary characters.  I’ve KNOWN Mrs. Scorriers, and wow are they awful.  Venetia’s suffering is all too real, and I absolutely am rooting for Aubrey during all of those scenes.  Being a high school teacher, I’ve also met a few Oswald look-alikes.  (My students would call Oswald an “emo” and they would be absolutely right!)

    Another thing I really like about the book is that it actually equates “book smarts” (that is, being literate) with intelligence (“street smarts” if you will).  A lot of books have the heroine loving to read as a kind of short-hand for being independent minded (“see!  She reads!  She’s modern and not fluffy!”), but Venetia actually makes male reading sexy.  Damerel’s reading has made him able to appreciate his travels and “tell things worth telling,” and Aubrey’s reading makes him more mature and clear sighted (as opposed to the cliched reverse that Oswald assumes), and has actually saved him from being as horribly self absorbed as his brother and father.  (“I’d a deal rather be conceited than a hypocrite,” he says, and I cheer him on every time.  He’s actually far kinder to his sister than anyone else in the book.)

    I’m not troubled by worry about whether Damerel will be faithful.  I think that’s Venetia trying to sound less “green” and putting on sophistication, just as she tells Damerel to not get rid of his assets or make a settlement on her.  She’s trying hard to not change him, which is very sweet.  But as he tells her, he’s changed on his own.  I guess I like the comedy of manners thing.

  29. 29
    Katherine says:

    My favorite part of Heyer is definitely the dialog. I love the witty banter, the delicious flirting, the smashing set-downs, and the authentic (she did a LOT of research) slang and “cant” of the times. The slow openings don’t bother me (though that might be because I read them for the first time nearly 40 years ago and now I know what to anticipate). Yes, there are occasionally elements that are jarring to our modern sensibilities which is regrettable; they were written quite a long time ago. I personally enjoyed The Grand Sophy a lot, but I can understand it has elements to it that could be problematic.

    She was my first exposure to romance, and remains one of the few authors in this genre that has a place on my keeper shelf (I do enjoy romance, but I find most books to be one-shot at best). I go back and re-read her when I need something familiar and comforting.

    I have read several of her mysteries (which were contemporary at the time she wrote them) and oddly did not enjoy them all that much, even though it’s also a genre I read now & then.

  30. 30
    Tessa says:

    I loved Venetia, mostly for the banter and what felt like a realistic portrayal of a smart, loving relationship. 

    For me, romances written more recently are paced for the “modern” turbocharged attention span of blockbuster movies.  Heyer is more like a BBC series; the Ehle/Firth Pride & Prejudice, and Horatio Hornblower come to mind. 

    Long shots of the English countryside/waterways, fabulously talented actors bringing secondary characters to life with a quirk of the eyebrow, screech of voice or tug of realistically frizzy-haired head (What?  Not every character is Hollywood A-list perfect? They didn’t all have Aveda hair products in the slums of Portsmouth in 1805?).

    I love casting the secondary characters, the Oswards and Scorriers, and I don’t mind them having a few pages to shine.  Of course, it works well to build my anticipation of having Venetia and Damerel back, but I view that as a deliberate authorial action. 

    And because I won’t make it to the Heyer discussion (spoilerish alert): I need to voice my shock and dismay with her decision to kill off characters I loved (is that vague enough?) in the Dukes of Avon series.  Having enjoyed These Old Shades and LOVED Devil’s Cub, I was hurt and furious when I read An Infamous Army and found my favorite characters unceremoniously dispatched. 

    It made me give up Heyer (after finishing An Infamous Army) for years, and to seriously consider my expectations for romances/“light” literature.  It wasn’t until I had another “betrayal” moment in Dorothy Dunnet’s Nicolo series that I was able to return to Heyer with something like acceptance of her authorial perogatives to write what interested her rather than play to reader desires for universally HEAs. 

    (And, I too like the prologues and epilogues; I appreciate that they stand outside of the main story, but augment my understanding of it.)

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