Archive for July 9th, 2012

July 9, 2012

Georgette Heyer, Venetia

There’s a school of thought (and it’s not one I agree with, but it’s also not one I feel able to entirely dismiss) that suggests that one reason Twilight isn’t entirely a failure on the feminist front is that it respects Bella’s choices. On the face of it, from any reasonable point of view, these choices are extremely stupid – we’re told that this character is intelligent, that she has any number of choices before her, and as a teenager she still has time to decide what she wants to do with her future. Instead, she chooses to tie her fate to this vampire. She goes into an almost catatonic state when he leaves her, ignores the multiple people who care for and worry about her, and abandons plans of college in favour of marrying him and becoming envampired as soon as possible. And yet.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with how close to this my argument for Venetia as a potentially feminist text comes. I think the big difference, though (apart from the fact that Venetia is an adult woman) is in Heyer’s focus on the fact that her protagonists are friends – that we’re able to see substance and lasting value in that relationship. It’s also the case, of course, that there’s a difference between something set in the 1800s (and written in the 1950s) and something set and written in the early 2000s.

I’m sure all of this sounds like shameless justification. It probably is. Anyway, below is my column from last Sunday.

 

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The Russian author Boris Akunin claims, according to a friend who saw him speak at a bookshop last year, that he can sort people into sixteen ‘types’ based on which of his Erast Fandorin books they like most and least. I’ve often wondered if one could make a similar claim for the works of Georgette Heyer, but this throws up an immediate problem. Not one of my acquaintance has ever managed to satisfactorily choose a Heyer novel to be their permanent favourite.

My own favourite Heyer novel is a constantly shifting entity. Does The Grand Sophy win the spot for its wonderful heroine, or does the unpleasant thread of anti-semitism taint all the rest? Which is better, These Old Shades or its sequel-of-sorts The Devil’s Cub? A Civil Contract is realistic and touching but does not always make me happy. Friday’s Child is a failure when I’m in the mood for romance, but I adore its Wodehousean side characters. I am all but alone in my love of the delicate, gendered play that is the focus of Powder and Patch. And what about Cotillion, with its subversion of the romantic tropes of the genre that Heyer herself helped to create?

Then a few months ago I reread Venetia and decided that perhaps this was Heyer’s best. Since then, unprecedentedly, my opinion has not wavered, though I’ve had to rethink what I mean by “best” a few times.

Venetia is simple enough. A young woman who has been stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire all her life meets the rake next door. Lord Damerel has a long and varied history (starting with his elopement with an older woman in his extreme youth); in typical romantic hero fashion he’s less to blame than he seems. He makes no secret of his attraction towards his beautiful neighbour but this is far less important than what happens next; the two become friends.

A friendship between the protagonists is not unusual in a romance novel, but the importance that the book places on that friendship is. Knowing that she has found a friend, that someone shares her sense of humour and recognises her literary references, is far more important to Venetia than sexual attraction. This is not to say that the attraction isn’t there – and unlike most of Heyer’s heroines Venetia, blessed with a brother who is obsessed with Greek classics, has the vocabulary to talk about it, and about her intended’s past. Venetia probably contains more iterations of the word “orgy” than the rest of Heyer’s works put together.

Naturally, no one thinks that a relationship between a hardened rake and a sheltered young woman is a good idea – particularly when, as we eventually learn, the young woman in question has been so sheltered in order to protect her from unsavoury facts about her family. Societal disapproval is a staple of fictional romance – except here, Damerel is as dubious and as overprotective as the rest.

What makes Venetia special, then, is that it’s not a case of lovers against the world, but one of Venetia herself fighting alone to claim her own choices. She will reclaim her own family history, and decide for herself what her relationship with her parents and brother is to be. She will choose her own partner even if he is foolish enough to let her go. I find it particularly wonderful that there’s no insecurity over Damerel’s reaction to any of this; it’s clear that she trusts him to love her.

I love Venetia for its likeable, flawed characters and the banter between them, and for the presence of multiple Classics geeks. But more than any of this, I love it because it centres its heroine’s desire and agency. I’m sure Heyer didn’t set out to write a feminist manifesto (and considering that Venetia’s goal is domestic bliss with a titled gentleman …) but something rather special is going on here.

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