The heroines of Heyer's romances tend to fall into one of two categories. In many of her earlier books, the heroines are young and silly; as readers, we're invited to laugh at them as their combination of high spirits and woeful ignorance of the world leads them into one scrape after another. In contrast, her later books tend to feature older, more intelligent heroines; rather than laughing at them, we laugh with them as they match wits with equally intelligent heroes. Needless to say, the majority of my favorite Heyer books fall in the latter category, including yesterday's comfort read: the 1958 novel Venetia.
Damerel, like many a rake whose abandoned ways serve mainly as a cover for a wounded heart, sacrifices himself at the urging of Venetia's friends and uncle, pretending that the love he feels for her is only a passing fancy. Distraught, Venetia agrees to accompany her uncle to London, to put much-needed distance between herself and Damerel. But when she discovers Damerel's lie from her loquacious, indiscreet aunt, she actively works to ensure that it is she, not her brothers nor her uncle nor even her potential lover who decides what is best for her. It is not passive self-sacrifice, but cunning, wit, and above all, humor, that win the day.
"Men, my love, are different from us... even the best of them! I tell you this because I hold it to be very wrong to rear girls in the belief that the face men show to the females they respect is their only one.... One ought rather to be thankful that any affairs they may have amongst what they call the muslin company don't change their true affection in the least. Indeed, I fancy affection plays no part in such adventures. So odd!—for we, you know, could scarcely indulge in them with no more effect on our lives than if we had been choosing a new hat. But so it is with men! Which is why it has been most truly said that while your husband continues to show you tenderness you hav no cause for complaint, and would be a zany to fall into despair only because of what to him was a mere peccadillo. 'Never seek to pry into what does not concern you, but rather look in the opposite direction!' was what my dear mother told me, and very good advice I have found it." (69-70)
But does Venetia share this belief? Toward the end of the novel, an unexpected voice from Venetia's past, one who's very identity calls into question the same assertion held up as absolute truth earlier in the story, puts the question to her bluntly: "You and Damerel!... Do you imagine he would be faithful to you?" Venetia's reply is bluntly honest, a touch wistful, perhaps, but above all, imbued with trust in Damerel's feelings for her: "I don't know. I think he will always love me. You see, we are such dear friends" (330). For Venetia, it would seem, love and friendship matter more in a husband than a promise of sexual fidelity.
But she is well aware that if she does not find a way back to Yorkshire, Damerel's rakish habits are all too likely to lead him to solace his loss in arms of other women, something she obviously wishes to prevent. And Venetia isn't one to just "look in the opposite direction," as Lady Denny and her mother advise. Her uncle's euphemistic warnings during the novel's climactic scene—"Damerel may have the intention of reforming his way of life, but habits of long standing—the trend of a man's character—are not so easily altered!"—allow Venetia, through irony and humor, to bring out into the open the issue
"You mean to warn me that he may continue to have mistresses, and orgies, and—and so-on, don't you, sir?"
"Particularly so-on!" interpolated Damerel.
"Well, how should I know all the shocking things you do? The thing is, uncle, that I don't think I ever should know."
"You'd know about my orgies!" objected Damerel.
"Yes, but I shouldn't care about them, once in a while. After all, it would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits, and I can always retire to bed, can't I?"
"Oh, won't you preside over them?" he said, much disappointed.
"Yes, love, if you wish me to," she replied, smiling at him. "Should I enjoy them?"
He stretched out his hand, and when she laid her own on it, held it very tightly. "You shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!" (367-68).
Haranguing Damerel over his immoral behavior, or extracting from him a promise to be faithful, are not the methods Venetia chooses to let Damerel know her feelings on the issue of marital fidelity. Instead, she teases him, laughs at him, shows him the absurdity of engaging in such behavior when a friend who has "retired to bed" awaits. That Damerel immediately takes up her joke and builds upon it demonstrates the effectiveness of speaking openly, and of expecting the same honesty from one's spouse. Rather than taking pleasure in the respectable face a spouse shows to genteel women, and ignoring the other roles a husband shows to the world, Venetia expects her future husband to show her all his faces, and to show him hers in return.
Which Heyer novels do you think contain the most feminist moments?
Georgette Heyer, Venetia.
Reprinted by Sourcebooks.
Next time on RNFF
Wicked Women in Romance