Venetia Lanyon, beautiful, intelligent and independent, lives in comfortable seclusion in rural Yorkshire with her precocious brother Aubrey. Her future seems safe and predictable: Either marriage to the respectable but dull Edward Yardley, or a life of peaceful spinsterhood. But when she meets the dashing, dangerous rake Lord Damerel, her well-ordered life is turned upside down, and she embarks upon a relationship with him that scandalizes and horrifies the whole community. Has she found her soul mate, or is she playing with fire?
Rating: Narration A; Content: A
Venetia is, without question, my favourite of all Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances, and I’ve been looking forward to this new, unabridged audio version for some time. Much of the story takes place in the Autumn, and I’ve always felt that the book has a corresponding maturity about it, an almost elegiac feel in terms of the beauty of the prose and in the depth of the characterisation. Damerel is certainly one of Ms Heyer’s most strongly drawn – and sexiest – heroes, and the eponymous heroine is an absolute gem; intelligent, loving, practical and totally devoid of artifice.
Ms Heyer more or less invented the Regency Romance, and authors continue to be inspired to emulate her tales of young bucks and lovely ladies as they navigate their way through the conventions of society and the glittering ballrooms of the ton. Venetia is pretty much the blueprint for the tale of the jaded rake who is reformed by his love for a refreshingly open-hearted young woman, and even though it’s more than half a century old (it was originally published in 1958) it’s still one of the best of its kind.
Venetia Lanyon is twenty-five and lives in Yorkshire with her younger brother, Aubrey, who, at seventeen is already a prodigiously talented scholar. Their older brother is away in the army and assumed his father’s baronetcy upon the latter’s death a short time before the book begins. The children lost their mother shortly after Aubrey’s birth, and their reclusive father selfishly isolated his children as well as himself, so that neither Venetia nor Aubrey has much experience of society, and Venetia was never presented at court as was her due as the daughter of a member of the nobility.
When walking out one day, she is accosted and “ruthlessly kissed” by a man she has never met, who turns out to be her neighbour, the rakish and disreputable Lord Damerel. Their initial meeting is one of the many delights to be found in this book. Venetia is not missish or prudish; she doesn’t faint, run away, slap him or scold him, instead she stands her ground, flings as many quotations back at him as he throws at her and ends up laughing with him:
“Did you indeed? Well, if that is the way you mean to conduct yourself amongst the village maidens you won’t win much liking here!”
“No, no, the danger is that I might win too much!” he retorted. “Who are you? Or should I first present myself to you? I’m Damerel, you know.”
“Yes, so I supposed, at the outset of our delightful acquaintance. Later, of course, I was sure of it.”
‘Oh, oh—! My reputation, Iago, my reputation!” he exclaimed, laughing again. “Fair Fatality, you are the most unusual female I have encountered in all my thirty-eight years!”
“Yon can’t think how deeply flattered I am!” she assured him. “I daresay my head would be quite turned if I didn’t suspect that amongst so many a dozen or so may have slipped from your memory.”
Their conversation continues in a like manner, and even at this early stage of the book, it’s clear that theirs has been a true meeting of minds and spirits. Both are more than a little smitten, and when they are thrown into each other’s company following an accident, they are able to spend time together which leads to the blossoming of a tender and deeply affectionate friendship.
If ever there was a couple in a romance that deserved to be called “soul mates”, it is Venetia and Damerel. He is charmed by her complete lack of affectation, her vivacity and wonderful sense of humour. He may be a rake, but he is also clever, intuitive, funny and kind, opening up a whole new world for Venetia by filling a need she’d never before realised:
“It does seem a pity,” she agreed. “I have been thinking so myself, for I always wished for a friend to laugh with.”
“To laugh with,” he repeated slowly.
“Perhaps you have friends already who laugh when you do,” she said diffidently. “I haven’t, and it’s important, I think—more important than sympathy in affliction, which you might easily find in someone you positively disliked.”
“But to share a sense of the ridiculous prohibits dislike—yes, that’s true. And rare! My God, how rare! Do they stare at you, our worthy neighbours, when you laugh?”
“Yes! or ask me what I mean when I’m joking!”
But Damerel has seen much more of the world than Venetia has, and knows the damage her association with him could cause to her reputation. So when he realises that he’s in over his head as far as she is concerned and that what he had originally intended as no more than a pleasant diversion has turned into something much more, he tries to distance himself from her in a scene that, even though I’ve read it several times, continues to bring a lump to my throat. Fortunately for both of them, Venetia is not going to let love slip away so easily.
Damerel often refers to Venetia as his “dear delight”, and that’s often how I think of this book – a dear delight. It abounds with literary allusion; the writing sparkles and the interplay between the leads has rarely – if ever – been bettered, either by Ms Heyer or any other author since. The romance is simply beautiful and although the book is squeaky clean, it possesses a sensuality not often found in the author’s work.
This new audio version of Venetia is also a complete delight. Phyllida Nash has already recorded a number of Ms Heyer’s works, so I was pleased when I learned that she was to narrate this, as I knew my favourite story would be in safe hands. She has a deep, mellifluous speaking voice which allows her to voice the male roles comfortably, and her narrative is well paced and beautifully nuanced. Ms Nash has a deft touch with the humour in the story, and is a narrator who “acts” – by which I mean if the text says that a character yawns, they yawn, or if they say something “with a laugh”, then the laugh is present in a naturalistic manner. All the characters are well differentiated by use of a variety of tone and accent so that there is never any confusion as to who is speaking. The two principals are just as expertly portrayed, with Damerel being particularly well characterised and sounding exactly as he should – authoritative, knowledgeable and rather sexy.
I’ve been waiting for an unabridged audio version of Venetia to come along for years, and while the wait has been frustrating, it has also undoubtedly been worth it. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of this particular story, a Heyer fan in general, or if you’ve never read or listened to one of her books before, this is an audio experience that’s sure to enchant.