Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Feminist Moments in Georgette Heyer's VENETIA

This past weekend, I attended the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America's annual conference. Meeting fellow writers, attending workshops about craft, and collecting money and paying bills (I'm the NEC Treasurer) proved both intellectually invigorating and physically exhausting. When I landed back home on Sunday afternoon, all this introvert wanted to do was to grab a tall glass of water and curl up in bed with a familiar favorite book. My choice: a Regency romance by the founder of the genre, Georgette Heyer.

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.

Though only twenty-five years old, Venetia Lanyon has all the earmarks of the older, wiser Heyer heroine. The oldest of her three siblings, she's long served as lady of the manor in the absence of her mother, who died when she was ten. And since the death of her father three years earlier, she's been in charge of managing the Lanyon estate for brother/soldier Conway, who has been taking his own sweet time returning from the continent after the final defeat of Napoleon. Though naturally of an equanimous temperament, Venetia has a playful wit and habit of saying what she thinks, refusing to indulge in the white lies other women of her class deploy to hide the gaps between social ideals and prosaic realities. For example, she scandalizes her more conventional neighbor Lady Denny by asserting of her departed but not sorely missed papa: "In fact... we go on very much better without him." Financially independent, Venetia plans to set up her own establishment if and when Conway should return with a wife, unwilling to cede her authority within the home to another, only to fade slowly into the background as maiden aunt to a passel of Conway's children. But in the meantime, she takes pleasure in  making decisions about the estate, looking after self-absorbed but intelligent Aubrey, and politely but determinedly fending off two equally unsuitable neighborhood beaux, nineteen-year-old Byronic wannabe Oswald Denny, and authoritarian "worthy" Edward Yardley.

The relationship that develops between Venetia and newly arrived neighborhood pariah Lord Damerel, a reputed rake of the first order, is striking not for the sexual sparks that fly, but the "enjoyment of the absurd" both share. "I have always wished for a friend to laugh with," Venetia tells Damerel the second time they meet. "To share a sense of the ridiculous prohibits dislike—yes, that's true. And rare! My God, how rare!" Damerel acknowledges (65). Venetia may be beautiful, but it is her wit, and the sense that they share a "tug of sympathy between them," that keeps Damerel lingering in the neighborhood far longer than he'd planned. And it is the friendship that develops between them, a friendship not blind to his faults, that allows Venetia to develop a mature love for Damerel. "You have fallen in love for the first time in your life, Venetia, and in your eyes Damerel is some sort of hero out of a fairy-tale!" Uncle Hendred accuses (367). Venetia simply laughs, as does the reader, for far earlier in their relationship, Venetia has shown she has Damerel's number: "I allow you all the vices you choose to claim—indeed, I know you for a gamester, and a shocking rake, and a man of sadly unsteady character—but I'm not so green that I don't recognise in you one virtue at least, and one quality." When Damerel exclaims "What is that all? How disappointing? What are they?" Venetia demonstrates her ability to see beyond black and white, beyond the flat fairy-tale villain: "A well-informed mind, and a great deal of kindness"(104).

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.

Reading Venetia this time through, I was struck by a thread that many might point to as distinctly anti-feminist, and certainly against the conventions of the romance novel. Early in their relationship, Venetia worries not that Damerel has had many loves before her, but that "perhaps he had many friends, too, with minds more closely attuned to his than she believed her own to be" (69). Friends are more of a threat than loves, she believes, because "Men—witness all the histories!—were subject to sudden lusts and violences, affairs that seemed strangely divorced from heart or head, and often more strangely still from what were surely their true characters. For them chastity was not a prime virtue" (69). Venetia then remembers that even kindly Sir John Denny had not always been faithful to his lady, and then recalls Lady Denny's words on the occasion:

"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)

The narrative piles layer upon layer of conventional wisdom here—from "histories," to Lady Denny, to unnamed conventional wisdom, to Lady Denny's mother—to support the idea that men are by nature more sexual creatures than are women, and thus expecting chastity from them would not only be unwise, but unnatural. On the one hand, this abundance of expert wisdom adds authority to an assertion with which contemporary readers are likely to take issue, particularly given romance novels' insistence on the "one true love" faithful for all eternity model. But on the other, the extreme lengths to which it must be supported can be read as a shoring up of a belief that is questionable at best. And it simultaneously works to distance the belief from Venetia herself; it is not Venetia, but history, Lady Denny, Lady Denny's mother, who asserts this belief as truth. For women like Lady Denny must believe such things in order for their husband's behavior not to "blight her marriage" (69).

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
Lady Denny would rather ignore:

"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


  1. Wonderful post. I love the part, that you didn't mention, about rose petals. I think Heyer has a great many feminist heroines. Venetia is one of my favorites, but there are many more. I Tweeted.

    1. Thanks, Ella. Venetia is definitely one of mine, too!

  2. An excellent post and a pleasure to read. Venetia is one of my favourites - such an intelligent and warmly witty book! You make so many great observations about it and reminded me of what a consummate writer Heyer was. She believed strongly in the right of a woman to make her own choices and this comes through in Black Sheep and Lady of Quality in particular. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I've read here and there that Heyer did not consider herself a feminist -- have been meaning to pick up a copy of your bio to see if you write about her views on the topic...

    2. Yes, the biography does mention Heyer's views on the topic: "Georgette gradually became completely conservative - even reactionary - in her views, and ambivalent about the role and place of women in society. She consistently criticised the feminist stance" (134).

  3. One of my favorites, if not tops! Excellent post, I tweeted!

  4. Great post. I've only just started reading Georgette Heyer and have finished two of her later books Bath Tangle and my favourite so far Fredericka.

    I've just picked up an earlier title Beauvallet and I have noticed exactly as you've said. Very young heroines - a little silly.

    I have to wonder how much of the style changed, not only as Georgette grew older but also in keeping with the world which changed. Not just the rise of the feminist movement but also WWII.

    To me its the difference between 30s screwball comedies with ditzy broads and the more sophisticated Hepburn/Tracy comedies of the late 40s.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. I, too, didn't start reading Heyer until quite recently -- such a pleasure to discover an author who writes with such wit and verve and who has so many books to her credit. FREDERICKA is definitely on my favorite list, as is VENETIA and THE GRAND SOPHY, for their great heroines.

  5. My favorite Heyer is actually Cotillion :).

    I really dislike the "reformed rake" type of romantic hero because it reinforces this trope: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LoveRedeems
    To quote the article,"In Real Life, this attitude often leads people to the Jerry Springer show; "But he really loves me! Those bruises will heal!"

    1. Vicky:

      Yes, I have a soft spot in my heart for COTILLION, too, despite it's rather innocent heroine, because the hero is so different from the typical romance hero.

      I agree that the reformed rake trope can all too often lead to a false belief in the redemptive power of love, love's ability to change poor behavior in another. Especially if a heroine is drawn to the rake BECAUSE of his rakish air and/or behavior. But VENETIA works for me because it isn't a traditional reformed rake story. Venetia isn't drawn to Damerel because he's "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," but because they share a sense of humor. Instead of being drawn to his rakishness, she actually often pokes fun of it. And the text itself makes fun of men who wish to embody the romantic Byronic rake ideal through its comic depiction of one of Venetia's other suitors, a adolescent rake wanna-be.

  6. I love "Venetia" and particularly appreciated Heyer's treatment of Aubrey. He, Venetia and Lord Dameral are all three much more complex than most characters in romance novels.

    When I read Heyer's "False Colours," it was difficult at first to get into, but in the end it took its place as one of my favorites. I have read all of her Regency romances and both her histories on the Peninsular war and Waterloo.

    "False Colours," a multifaceted look at love and marriage during the Regency period, is insightful while still being filled with belly laughs. Within the novel, Heyer explores numerous permutations of marriage—the prevailing concept among the ton of marriage for connections, a non-marriage that is reminiscent of the courtly sensibilities of an earlier century, practical marriage between two compatible personalities and finally a marriage that rejects all the wildness of a man’s youthful lifestyle in favor of a young lady who was raised as a paragon of proper behavior. All the explorations despite their drastic differences include generous dollops of romance and humor.

    The reason "False Colours" is not as inviting in the beginning is that the relationship that is explored first is not a romantic one. It is between a majorly flawed but endearing and often ingenious widow (Lady Denville) and her very practical and dutiful second son (Kit Fancot). There was a Gracie Allen quality (much more astute than her words sound) that drew me right in to her world. In the end, it was Lady Denville and the character she was paired with in this novel that captured my total devotion. It might be because I am of a certain age or because I have lived long enough to see beyond standard romantic notions. Or it might be because I read "False Colours" at a time in my life when food and the nature of its necessity, pleasures and problems were ever on my mind. Whatever, the reason, Sir Bonamy Ripple made me fall in love with him. He is just what an older man as a contender for second bridegroom should be—indulgent, loyal and devoted in words if not action, not to mention frightfully rich and willing to pay his intended’s astronomical debts. All she has to do is promise not to put him on a diet.

    Penelope Creed in "The Corinthian" is definitely one of her sillier young characters. Still, her cross dressing fleeing from an arranged marriage captured my feminist funny bone. Beyond that, it inspired me to write my own gender bender road trip to happiness for an Elizabeth Bennet (forced by her father to marry Mr Collins) and Fitzwilliam Darcy--"Mr Darcy Likes It Wild." Heyer's sexually ambiguous final scene where Pen still dressed as a boy, kisses Sir Richard and they both decide they care less that they might be observed impelled me to take Heyer's delightful scene a tad further.

  7. Thanks, enrage_femme, for stopping by. I haven't read FALSE COLOURS in some time, but your comments about Bonamy Rippe remind me of Sir Lambton in VENETIA, another jolly, rotund second husband.

    Ah, cross-dressing -- will definitely have to write a future post on its deployment as a feminist trope in romance...