Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The year is 1818 – three years since the Battle of Waterloo marked the end of the war with France. Political and royal events mentioned are that the Whigs are dissenting over Tierney, Princess Elizabeth has become betrothed, and three of the royal dukes have just married. In Heyer's world it is the same year that Gilly from The Foundling has his Grand Adventure, while Sophy of The Grand Sophy has been married to Charles Stanhope for a year or two, depending on how soon they arranged their wedding.
THE SET UP
Twenty-five-year-old Venetia has been running the family estate since she was seventeen. Her family consists of her older brother Conway, currently away with his regiment and busy living for his own interests, and younger brother Aubrey who lives for books. Venetia lives to keep everything in comfort and good order for everyone else. Conway is the Brawn of the family, Aubrey is the Brains, and Venetia is the local Beauty. Hers is a quiet, rural Yorkshire life which is soon to be enlivened by the arrival of a neighbour: Lord Damerel, a man of infamous reputation and scandalous legend, known to Venetia and her brother as The Wicked Baron, and he's about to change their lives forever...
'Venetia had been born with a zest for life.'
Venetia's bright, witty humour is never diminished, but her zest for life has been curbed by the social seclusion imposed on her by her late father, and the responsibilities laid on her since his death. With her intelligent, self-contained and sunny personality she is more than capable of handling these responsibilities. The family servants love and respect her, she is well thought of in her small community, and she even has a pair of eager suitors: the Byronic-wannabe Oswald Denny, and 'country gentleman of solid worth' Edward Yardley. Oswald is too young at nineteen for Venetia to take seriously, and thirty-year-old Edward is 'a dead bore' who can't take no for an answer. But Venetia cannot remain mistress of the Manor forever; sooner or later her elder brother will marry and bring home a new mistress to displace her. Venetia's zest for life, her longing to travel and see something of the world is not an option available to a young lady of her time. Hers is a 'bleak future', a choice between ageing spinsterhood in her brother's house or marrying the respectable Edward Yardley. And then one day, while out blackberrying alone, she meets a man who is neither a young pup nor a respectable gentleman – she's accosted by Lord Damerel himself, who behaves exactly as 'a shocking rake' would do – kissing her as punishment for trespassing on his land. Venetia surprises both of them by neither swooning with shock nor running away, but instead 'stays to bandy words with her wolfish assailant', then finds herself wondering how differently she might feel towards her staid suitor Edward if he were to kiss her with the same passion...
'He bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance.'
'Ogre', 'devil-may-care outlaw', 'buccaneering stranger', 'villainous', these are some of the adjectives ascribed to the romantic anti-hero, and they are not misplaced, for Damerel's first thought is to seduce Venetia for his own entertainment. But something odd is happening to him – he finds himself disarmed by her 'unshadowed friendliness'. He finds himself unable to take advantage of this young woman who is 'the most unusual female' he has encountered in all his thirty-eight years. 'The devil of it was, my dear delight,' he later tells Venetia, 'that you were too sweet, too adorable, and what should have been the lightest and gayest of all flirtations turned to something more serious than I intended.' Damerel has all the best romantic lines, including a propensity to quote Shakespeare and poetry at her. How could any girl resist?
THE ROMANCE FACTOR
'When you smile at me like that, it's all holiday with me.'
There is a Beauty and the Beast theme running through the story: Beauty is found pilfering from the Beast's garden (blackberries rather than roses), and is subsequently thrown together with him in 'the ogre's den' (complete, of course, with a fabulous library). But the twist in this delightful tale is that it is not Beast who must persuade Beauty to marry him, but Beauty who must employ all her efforts to persuade him into agreeing to marry her. And in keeping with the Beauty and Beast analogy, Lord Damerel is indeed redeemed from the curse of his past errors by his love for the beautiful Venetia. (Egocentric and possessive Edward also makes an appropriate Gaston)
The romance factor is firmly centre stage in this story; there isn't a wide cast of characters or a far-reaching plot, it's all about Venetia and Damerel. It takes a mere 'ten halcyon days together' to spark a holiday romance between the unlikely pair. By the end of chapter four the Reader knows that this couple is hopelessly in love – but do they know it themselves?
Venetia's friends, hearing of this unexpected friendship, assure themselves that there is nothing to worry about, for Venetia and Damerel are worlds apart, it is only young Aubrey who sees that they are perfectly fitted for one another. They share a deep loneliness and longing for connection. They have a physical attraction from the first moment of meeting, they share an affection for Aubrey, and they share a sense of humour. Theirs is a love story of redemption: Damerel finds an unexpected peace with his past, and Venetia finds an unexpected love for the future. Without trying to change him, she calls him out of his history, out of wallowing in past sins, and into reclaiming his true identity. Damerel's neglected house and overgrown garden reflect his own soul; it is Venetia who brings life back to it and motivates him to start setting 'his house in order', but she will have to go to great lengths to do so: 'it's my whole life I'm fighting for,' she tells her aunt as she prepares to rush back to Beast's Castle, not knowing if it will be too late to save him.
FAVOURITE SECONDARY CHARACTER
'Aubrey likes books more than people.'
I enjoyed the loyal and Biblically-minded Nurse very much, but Favourite Secondary Character goes to Aubrey, perhaps because I too occasionally like books more than people. Aubrey has an important role in bringing together his devoted sister and Damerel. It is his own surprising friendship with the Wicked Baron that reveals Damerel's qualities of a 'well-informed mind, and a great deal of kindness' to the observant Venetia. In the ten days that Venetia, Damerel and Aubrey are thrown together, they unconsciously become a close, affectionate family unit, one that Aubrey is happy to see continue, even plotting to hijack their honeymoon for the chance to enjoy a cultural vacation of his own.
FAVOURITE SLANG EXPRESSIONS
A saucy jackanapes = a cheeky and impudent person
A daffish notion = a daft idea
A Jack-pudding = a buffoon
Old court-card = an ageing courtesan
Give the go-by = shun/cut someone
HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE HEROINE GURGLE AND TWINKLE?
Venetia only utters 'a tiny gurgle of laughter' in chapter two, but she is one of Heyer's twinkliest heroines, twinkling no less than six times, sometimes merrily, sometimes mischievously. Damerel also twinkles twice, his twinkles are either 'disquieting' or 'unholy'.
When Damerel first meets Venetia, he takes her for a village girl due to her outfit of 'an old dimity' and a sunbonnet. Later in the story, Venetia goes shopping in London 'charmingly attired in a blue velvet pelisse trimmed with chinchilla, and a fetching velvet hat with three curled ostrich plumes, and a high poke lined with gathered silk' and 'a large chinchilla muff'.
ANYTHING I DIDN'T LIKE?
1. That kiss. I gasped at Damerel's presumption on first hearing of it (I was listening to the audiobook while crossing a field at the time. I also had a dippy spaniel (or three) with me, just as Venetia did). Damerel's behaviour on meeting Venetia shows that he truly is 'wolfish'. There is no glossing over this and no justifying it, and Venetia doesn't try to. Venetia comes from a world where women are expected to turn a blind eye to men's appetites; her pragmatism makes her accept it, just as she has had to accept all the bad behaviours and attitudes of the men in her life.
2. I was very disappointed not to meet Conway, the elder brother who remains offstage throughout the novel. I felt cheated out of the pleasure of seeing him get his comeuppance in dealing with his dreadful new mother-in-law, and I was left wondering – what did he do about his dogs...?
I liked the scene in the barn where Venetia is busy trying to rescue kittens, Damerel is busy trying to manipulate her into physical proximity, and being thwarted by young Oswald who charges in demanding to have Venetia to himself. There's a deal of comedy in Oswald seeing himself as Venetia's champion and Damerel as the villain, then having the roles reversed as he is thrown out by Damerel, who rescues Venetia from Oswald's unwanted amour. Then follows almost the first proper kiss between the true lovers (proper as in consensual). This is a turning point for Damerel where he realises he could take advantage of Venetia, but is restrained by feeling something more for her than mere flirtation.