Book Review: Venetia by Georgette Heyer

I received a free copy of Penguin Random House UK Audio’s new audiobook recording of ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. So thank you NetGalley and Penguin! 

‘Venetia’ is the story of the 25 year old titular heroine who’s spent her whole life in seclusion on her family’s estate in Yorkshire, caring for her younger brother Aubrey and managing the house in her older brother’s absence. She’s got two boring suitors and a fairly humdrum, respectable life. So the neighborhood is shocked when she strikes up a friendship with the Bad Boy Next Door, Lord “Wicked Baron” Damerel… 

I read ‘Venetia’ years ago and liked it and, as I’d never tried a Heyer audiobook, I thought I’d give this one a go. That it’s read by Gemma Whelan didn’t hurt either! My memories were vague, but I remembered it being funny and the main couple standing out as I binge read Heyer’s Regency Romances (there are about 50!). I stand by that as I think Damerel may be Heyer’s only out-and-out rake and I live for Venetia’s Take Charge attitude. It was as funny as I remembered and Venetia and Damerel have some great banter. I like that they seem to get each other; they’re both misjudged in opposite ways, which is something they bond over. They also have a similar sense of humour (I love a romance built on humour!) and are well-matched in intelligence and wit. Also, Damerel is genuinely helpful to Venetia (cheering up Aubrey, letting her vent, socially finessing awkward situations etc.), unlike her other well-meaning but useless suitors. So the friends-to-lovers progression of their relationship feels natural and believable. I will admit, I do love pinpointing the exact moment Heyer’s romantic heroes go: “Oh no! I’m in love.” And we’re treated to a particularly intense Anguished Declaration of Love, even if it’s for stupid reasons. Another unusual but positive feature of ‘Venetia’ is the disability rep in Aubrey. There’s some commentary on how secondary characters treat Aubrey badly and he’s one of the funnier, more likeable characters in the novel (in a Jerk With a Heart of Gold sense). But I’m not disabled, so you should probably check Own Voices reviews for their take on his character and representation. Also, watch out for ableist language and attitudes (not condoned by the leads).

Alas, Heyer and ‘Venetia’ particularly are kind of problematic faves. Heyer was a product of her era and upbringing, which means classism, sexism and racism all crop up in her novels. Her internalised misogyny is particularly evident in ‘Venetia’, unfortunately. For starters, Venetia and Damerel’s ‘meet cute’ is a sexual assault (he grabs and “ruthlessly” kisses her against her will). On finding out that she’s Quality, he immediately blames his behaviour on her shabby clothes, since, of course, he would never treat a social equal in such a fashion. This adds victim blaming, classism and an implied history of dubious consent into the mix (can consent ever truly be given between people of different classes, considering these kinds of power dynamics?). It’s extremely uncomfortable to read, especially as the whole scene is played for laughs. The victim blaming continues with Damerel’s Tragic Backstory (he ruined his own reputation by running off with a married woman). Granted, he was young at the time, and it’s implied that his older lover may have manipulated him, but his self-pity is a bit rich, given how he apparently treats women. It’s also notable that, on hearing the story, Venetia spares no sympathy for his paramour, whose reputation must have been affected even more deeply than his, given the biases of the time. Besides the sexist double standards and slut shaming, the whole thing reeks of himpathy, which is not a good look. 

Venetia herself also disappointed me at times. For a supposedly free-thinking, ‘unconventional’ heroine, Venetia certainly loves to disparage actual real life trail blazers, like Lady Hester Stanhope (an archaeologist, traveler and adventurer). Her reaction to the Ladies of Llangollen (a pair of upper class ‘gal pals’ who set up house together in Wales) also seems particularly hypocritical, given her plans to stay single and live with her brother. Why does Heyer (through Venetia) feel the need to tear down women whose lives didn’t revolve around men? I appreciated the references though, as I got to learn about them and they all sound awesome!

To be fair to Venetia, it’s not all bad. She knows her own mind and she goes after what she wants, which redeems her as a heroine, in my eyes. She also stands up to the patronising men in her life, including Damerel and her other suitors. Edward Yardley, Mansplainer Extraordinaire, is rightly mocked for his high-handed, overbearing attitude towards Venetia and Aubrey. And Oswald, Venetia’s Byron-wannabe swain, essentially turns into an incel post-rejection. His swift transformation into an “incurable misogynist” is treated light-heartedly, since it doesn’t really stick, but it does lay out the misogynistic steps in Oswald’s thought processes quite handily. It’s chilling, when you think about it, both in itself and as an illustration of how easily misogyny is dismissed as trivial, even in a book written by and (primarily) for women. 

So it’s been interesting, revisiting ‘Venetia’ as an older, more socially-conscious reader. There’s still a lot to enjoy, not least Gemma Whelan’s fantastic narration! I was sold as soon as I saw her name and she does a superb job. Her character voices are consistent and recognisable and her general narration is lively. I particularly liked her Posh Older Lady and Old Boy voices! I’d definitely recommend this audiobook for first time Heyer-listeners, or anyone who wants to rediscover an old favourite. 

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