Georgette Heyer’s Venetia was first published in 1958 and it is one of the books I turn to when things are difficult. It was one of Georgette Heyer’s own favourites, she called it (and The Unknown Ajax) ‘the best of my later works’. Lord Damerel’s journey from a cynical rake, gambler, drinker and profligate to a man who is worthy of the heroine, Venetia, is a long, thorny path with many twists and turns. He had had a difficult childhood with cold, censorious, unloving parents which turned him into dissolute libertine and a man who allows himself to be cast as a villain by others. It takes him much of the book to realize that its a role he’s outgrown.
Cover by Arthur Barbosa for ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer, 1958
We meet Damerel when he’s thirty-eight at his home, the Priory. The estate, has slid into near dereliction: the woods are over-grown and the land badly neglected; and his once handsome fortune has shrunk to almost nothing. Only the year before, Lord Damerel made a rare appearance at the Priory accompanied by several ramshackle bucks and three ‘shameless lightskirts squealing fit to bring the rafters down and egging on the gentlemen to behave in a very scandalous way, they were turning the house into a gambling den, and drinking the cellar dry.’
Venetia opens the following year when he returns to the Priory alone to find Venetia Lanyon picking blackberries in his woods. She realizes immediately that he must be the locally famous ‘wicked baron’. He was taller than Venetia had at first supposed, rather loose-limbed, and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance. As he advanced upon her, Venetia perceived that he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation. A smile was curling his lips but Venetia thought she had never seen eyes so cynically bored.’
Georgette Heyer also gives him intelligence, wit and a love of Shakespeare. This is all very promising and female readers’ reaction at least is likely to be (in spite of the obvious hazards): I’d like one of those.
So far, he is a typical fantasy hero but Georgette Heyer also makes it clear that he has some unsavoury traits in his character: he is an absentee landlord and his estate is going to rack and ruin, heaven knows how his tenant farmers are faring – his lordship plainly doesn’t care. He has had strings of mistresses, he drinks, he gambles, he’s always in debt; and he can behave like an irresponsible, randy teenager.
On this occasion, Damerel had planned on staying at the Priory for only a few days but, once he’s met Venetia, he changes his mind and decides that it would amuse him to stay a while and seduce her –and he’s experienced enough with women to know that, after their first, surprisingly exhilarating, exchange, to play a waiting game until they met again would serve his purpose best.
While he allows time to pass, he rides round his estate with his long-suffering bailiff, Croyle, who points out the neglect of acres of good land. Damerel finds himself unwillingly taking in Croyle’s advice.
Man and horse
Whilst out with Croyle, they hear a cry for help. Aubrey Lanyon, Venetia’s sixteen-year-old lame brother, has fallen from his horse onto his bad hip. Damerel takes him back to the Priory, which is nearer than Undershaw, the Lanyons’ home. He writes an ironically formal letter to Venetia telling her of Aubrey’s accident. He guesses that Venetia will be anxious enough about her brother to come at once to the Priory, though he’s also sure she’ll see that Fate has played into his hands, so she’ll probably arrive in a mood of towering resentment – and he will enjoy coaxing her out of it. It looks as though fate is taking a hand in Venetia’s seduction.
But that’s not what happens. Venetia is too open a person to doubt Damerel’s letter’s sincerity. She arrives with the old family nurse, and greets him with ‘a glow of warm gratitude’. When he’d first met her, in her shabby blackberry-picking dress, he’d thought she was pretty, but when he sees her dressed ‘charmingly in jonquil muslin, with a hat of unbleached straw whose high-poke front made a frame for a lovely face that was neither flushed nor indignant, but smiling up at him with unshadowed friendliness, she took his breath away.’
But mow Damerel has her dragon of a nurse to cope with. Nurse is deeply suspicious of Damerel’s motives. Can Damerel work his charm on her, too? He orders his housekeeper to set up a bed for her in the adjacent dressing-room and to obey any orders she may give. Furthermore, he respectfully calls her ‘Mrs Priddy’, just as he ought (the ‘Mrs’ is a courtesy title). When Aubrey is well enough to come downstairs, Damerel insists that Mrs Priddy be there, too, to chaperone Venetia when she visits, which she does every day. Nurse begins to soften.
As Venetia and Damerel get to know each other, it becomes obvious that they hit it off. They laugh a lot and realize that they both share the same sense of the ridiculous. Venetia feels that she has found, ‘a friend to laugh with’. Damerel agrees, but, privately, he thinks of her as much more than a friend. For him she’s ‘a beautiful, desirable creature’ and he asks her to visit again: ‘Don’t let them dissuade you, our worthy neighbours! Beyond my gates I make you no promises: don’t trust me! Within them –’ He paused, his smile twisting into something not quite a sneer yet derisive. ‘Oh, within them,’ he said in brittle self-mockery, ‘I’ll remember that I was bred a gentleman!’
Basket of Fruit
Damerel demonstrates that he understands Aubrey’s over-sensitivity with regard to his disability and treats him with a no nonsense friendliness which is exactly the right approach. He and Aubrey, a serious Classical scholar, get on well (Damerel studied the Classics at Oxford, which helps). He continues to treat Nurse with respect and she responds. We sense that something within Damerel is changing, but he doesn’t want to let go of his ‘disreputable rake’ persona just yet. It’s as if he’s testing the waters, behaving as an intelligent gentleman should behave but, so far, confining it to the Priory.
Venetia, herself, can see this. She says, ‘And furthermore, my dear friend, it is high time you stopped trying to make everyone believe you are much blacker than you have been painted.’
When Damerel protests, she says that she allows him all the vices he choose to claim but he has some good qualities, too: ‘A well-informed mind and a great deal of kindness.’ It is obvious that Venetia judges him by other criteria – ones which she has observed herself.
And Damerel’s treatment of the love-sick Oswald Denny who is eaten up with jealous hatred of him, shows his empathy with the young man. Oswald instantly intuits, correctly, that Damerel is his rival in love. Damerel, too, once behaved as intemperately as Oswald does now.
As Damerel and Venetia talk, he confides that, in fact, he hasn’t come to the Priory to escape his creditors – he’s escaping from his three aunts. They, in particular his formidable, and wealthy, Aunt Stoborough, are determined to see him re-established in Society. He’s the head of the family and it’s imperative that he marries a respectable lady, settles down and produces children. If he does his duty, Aunt Stoborough will make him her heir. And the lady they’ve settled on as a suitable bride is Miss Amelia Ubley; thirty years old and dowdy, ‘a butter-toothed female with a pug-nose and a deplorable figure.’
Venetia’s comment is scathing. ‘They must be quite addle-brained to suppose that you would look twice at any but the most ravishing females, for you have only been used to be in love with beauties for years and years! It is most unreasonable to expect people to change their habits in the twinkling of an eye.’
Costumes Parisiens, 1827
Damerel is amused by Venetia’s comments on Amelia Ubley, and he tells Venetia that, whilst careful Mamas won’t let him near their daughters, he’s not actually completely ostracised by the ton. The truth is that he’s not interested in Society, and the last thing he wants is to be dragged into doing the Season. We notes that, with regard to his aunts, Damerel is still the resentful teenager; he can’t say, ‘No’ – he desperately needs the money – he can only escape from them.
However, there are signs that Damerel is now beginning to question his chosen way of life. He says to his man, Marston, ‘Even if I could set my house in order – How far have I gone into Dun territory? Do I owe you any blunt, Marston?’
‘Nothing worth the mention, my lord – since Amaranthus won at Nottingham.’
When asked why Marston stays with him, Marston replies, ‘Sooner or later you do pay me, and if you lead me into scrapes you don’t forget to rescue me from them – on one or two occasions at considerable risk to yourself.’
With regard to Marston at least, Damerel takes his responsibilities seriously. The potential is there.
But then the appalling Mrs Scorrier and her sweet but shy daughter, Charlotte, arrive unexpectedly at Undershaw. Mrs Scorrier announces that Charlotte is the new Lady Lanyon and Venetia’s sister-in-law. Events at Undershaw take a nasty turn as things rapidly become impossible for Venetia. Mrs Scorrier wants to drive Venetia and Aubrey out – and she sets about making herself seriously unpleasant.
Damerel instantly offers to help; he rides over to Undershaw and tells Venetia that Aubrey is welcome to stay with him. ‘I should be glad to have Aubrey at the Priory. I like the boy, and I certainly don’t consider him a charge, if that’s what’s on your mind. No-one could accuse him of being a difficult guest to entertain! Let him come to me when you choose, and remain for as long as may suit you both!’
Damerel has, voluntarily, taken on something of a father’s role with regard to Aubrey, and it has the concomitant of ensuring that he, Damerel, stays at the Priory and doesn’t retreat back to the continent and his old way of life.
Lovers from Ladies’ Pocket Magazine
We are on tenterhooks; Damerel is just about to propose to Venetia when he hears Aubrey coming and backs off. It is obvious that he is still ambivalent. ‘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.’ And we note, too, that Venetia is his first concern.
Events, however, take a completely different direction. Venetia’s Uncle Hendred arrives with the intention of taking her back to London – and Aubrey, too, if he wishes. What is Venetia to do? Nothing has been settled with Damerel. The following morning, she rides over to see him and is greeted by his unexpected coldness. Damerel insists that their relationship was simply an autumn idyll, nothing more. It’s an almost unbearably poignant scene and Venetia is devastated. How could things have changed so suddenly? Aubrey moves to the Priory and Venetia, in a state of acute distress, travels to London with Uncle Hendred. Is there nothing she can do? The situation teeters on a knife edge. Then two things happen; her aunt lets slip that Uncle Hendred visited Damerel immediately prior to his arrival at Undershaw. The men got on well, but her uncle succeeded in securing Danerel’s promise not to propose to Venetia. They both agree that she knows nothing of the world, and that he would be taking an unforgivable advantage of her innocence if he proposed and was accepted. He must renounce all thoughts of marrying her.
Lady on Horse
Knowing the truth takes a huge burden off Venetia. She wasn’t wrong in her conviction that Damerel loved her and wanted to marry her, but he has allowed himself to be persuaded that she is destined to make a brilliant marriage and to have a life as an ornament of Society – which is not what she wants at all. It is another example of Damerel not being able to stand up for himself against authority when he really needs to. His usual response is to flee – and find another mistress.
But this time he can’t flee, he’s committed himself to having Aubrey to stay. But how long will that last? Once the vicar, Mr Appersett, returns, Aubrey can stay with him, and Damerel could be off. Venetia is desperate and time is running out. If only she could find a way to ruin herself socially – perhaps then he would change his mind.
Georgette Heyer is very clever here. So far, Damerel has made most of the running, but he has got himself into a corner where he feels he can’t act. It is now Venetia who must be pro-active – and being proactive is exactly what ladies are not supposed to be.
Fate again takes a hand; Venetia unexpectedly sees her mother, who she thought had died when she was a child. It turns out that her emotionally cold recluse of a father had divorced her mother for adultery and she had later married her lover, Sir Lambert Steeple, and they now lived in Paris. But, on this fateful evening, the Steeples were visiting London and at the theatre, and Venetia was in a box opposite them enjoying her very first theatre visit.
Pink Evening Dress, Ladies’ Pocket Magazine
Her aunt is horrified: I shouldn’t wonder at it if she came back on purpose to ruin you, my poor child,’ she cries, and, reluctantly, she tells Venetia what happened.
Mrs Hendred might lament but Venetia immediately sees it as a possible lifeline. She realizes that her mother could help her achieve social ruin – the threat of which might allow Damerel to change his mind. She discovers where the Steeples are staying and visits them at the stylish Pulteney Hotel.
Lady Steeple left her husband when Venetia when she was only ten, but, after listening to Venetia’s story, we sense that she understands her daughter’s predicament. She is not shocked by Venetia having fallen for Damerel (she has known him for years) and she doesn’t throw up her hands in horror. Instead, she asks simply, ‘Do you imagine that he would be faithful to you?’ It’s a reasonable question.
Venetia replies with equal honesty, ‘I don’t know. I think he will always love me. You see, we are such dear friends.’ Venetia is realistic and able to face an uncomfortable possibility. It could happen.
And Lady Steeple does as she is asked. She produces a ‘charmingly written missive’, inviting Venetia to stay with her in Paris (with Sir Lambert’s full approval) with the added promise of going to Rome in the spring. She and Venetia have obviously discussed the letter carefully; it aims to shock Damerel into changing his mind about the impossibility of their marriage. Lady Steeple may even have given Venetia the idea of accusing Damerel of thinking that no Damerel could possibly marry the daughter of Lady Steeple. It’s certainly something that Venetia hasn’t mentioned before, and Lady Steeple makes it clear to her daughter just how upsetting social ostracism is.
There is also a moment where Venetia realizes that there may be more of her mother in her than she had realized. Lady Steeple is wearing a dressing gown which is little more than a foam of lace and gauze, as improper as it is pretty. ‘Venetia wondered whether Damerel would like the sight of his bride in just such a transparent cloud of gauze, and was strongly of the opinion that he would like it very much.’ It bodes well. She might be an innocent but she is not a prude.
The question now is – will Damerel pick up her offered escape route? Can he, too, be proactive? She says goodbye to her horrified aunt, buys a ticket for the mail coach to York and sets off for the Priory.
Ball Dress, 1831
We left Damerel at the Priory having agreed with Mr Hendred that marriage to Venetia was impossible. When he parted from Venetia, he’d denied that their relationship was anything other than a charming flirtation, and sent her home in the rain.
When she next sees him, he is drunk. His first reaction is to pull her into his arms and kiss her hungrily, the next is to tell her that she shouldn’t be there and that she must go. Whatever his heart is saying, it is obvious that his head is still saying something different.
Damerel has seen his man of business and discussed reducing his debts by selling his disposable assets: his race horses, his yacht and so on. He knows what needs doing on his estate. But, so far, he’s done nothing. He doesn’t want to lead his old life any more, but having promised Mr Hendred that he won’t propose to Venetia, the impetus for sorting out his financial affairs has disappeared. He drinks to blot out the pain.
When Venetia shows him her mother’s letter. His reaction is immediate: ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing but if this isn’t a hoax I hope you know that under no circumstances must you join that menage!’
Venetia disagrees, she adds, sadly, that she doesn’t think she’s necessary to Aubrey either. Damerel’s rigidly disapproving carapace begins to crack but Fate has one last card to throw as Mr Hendred appears, dyspeptic and cross, having driven up from London.
Venetia leaves the room to order some restorative tea for her uncle. When she returns, something has shifted. Mr Hendred and Damerel have been discussing Lady Steeple and they both agree that no stigma whatsoever attaches to Venetia. Perhaps, now that Lady Steeple’s adulterous past is in out in the open, there is more room for manoeuvre. Tentatively, Damerel and Venetia discuss a possible marriage, though Mr Hendred is still very disapproving.
Finally, Damerel takes charge. He tells Mr Hendred what he’s going to do with regard to his debts and which seem to be rather less than Mr Hendred had expected. He tells Mr Hendred, ‘I shan’t be able to support my wife in luxury, but I trust to support her in comfort.’ He also tells him about Lady Steeple’s invitation.
Promenade Dress, 1831
Venetia adds her bit. There is no need for Damerel to make a financial settlement on her – ‘I have a great deal of money of my own.’ She adds that it wouldn’t worry her at all to be ostracised by the ton.
But Venetia’s possible ostracism worries Damerel and he comes up with a master plan which makes me laugh every time I read it.
‘It would trouble me, however.’ Damerel turned his head and looked thoughtfully at Mr Hendred. ‘With your support, sir, and my Aunt Stoborough’s, I think we may contrive to brush through it. I rather fancy you are acquainted with my aunt.’
‘I have been acquainted with Lady Stoborough these twenty years,’ replied Mr Hendred, with a thin triumphant smile.’ And the only heed she would pay to any persuasion of mine or of anyone, would be to do precisely the opposite to what was desired. ‘
‘Just so,’ said Damerel. ‘I see that you will know to a nicety how to bring her round your thumb.’
Game, set and match.
Photograph of Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster, 1939
This is the first time that Damerel behaves like an adult regarding his formidable aunt and he comes up with a strategy which will spike her guns and, at the same time, keep Mr Hendred – who is much amused by Damerel’s outrageous suggestion – on his side.
All, of course, ends happily, and when Venetia was published by Heinemann in 1958, the first edition of 60,000 copies sold out almost immediately. I myself have one of those copies, though, alas, without the original cover.
I have created a Georgette Heyer category on my website, so you might be interested in my other GH posts. I also have a Jane Austen’s Novels category.
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