Going old school with this one of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances from NPR Books.
I have never before in my life heard of this book, and more’s the pity. Despite being written in the “style” of Jane Austen, it being a Regency historical romance novel written in the 1950s — in fact, the FIRST Regency historical romance novel — rather than a contemporary novel like Austen’s were, it holds up remarkably well compared to its notable (and legendary) predecessor. “Venetia” may never acquire the sentimental attachment so many people have for “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s every bit as good as “Emma,” whether or not it has a plucky mid-90s cinematic reimagining that changed the face of teen comedies forever. And I like “Emma” a lot.
This is all to say, “Venetia” is fantastic.
Venetia Lanyon is the preeminent Regency heroine. She’s a woman of substance and humor. She’s intelligent and capable and independent. Most of all, though, she has an incredible sense of self that allows her not only to know what she wants out of life, but to know what suits her and what doesn’t. Honestly, I feel like if I’d read more of this sort of thing in my formative years I probably wouldn’t have had the weird fixation with marriage in my early twenties that I did. It feels stupid to say so, but the possibility of declining a marriage proposal never really occurred to me as an option back then, but Venetia declines two specific suitors and the idea of several others. She knows what (and whom) she wants, and nothing else will do, despite society’s dictates. So many of the historical romantic heroines I encounter never really doubt that they will fit into that social strata in some way, but Venetia rejects it completely. It’s refreshing.
“Venetia” is refreshing as a story as well, because there is no stubborn denial of feelings or forced conflict between Venetia and Damerel. On the contrary, they openly like each other, instantly upon their first formal meeting, and their affection for one another only grows from there. Damerel may not think he’s a suitable match for Venetia, but he never doubts he’s in love with her. Moreover, they are the closest of friends and confidantes, kindred spirits who come together. They share sensibilities and ideals and most importantly they like each other tremendously, which is a surprisingly rare trait in quite a few romance novels. Damerel and Venetia’s relationship, in fact, is addressed almost exclusively from this friendship angle, in that they fall in love by way of their compatible personalities and close companionship while their physical attraction is an afterthought — not absent, by any means, but entirely beside the point. Lust, while certainly alluded to by Damerel from time to time, doesn’t come into play, because their attraction is so much more than that. It warmed my heart from start to finish.
I was also impressed with “Venetia” as a novel, in its form and structure. It’s written in the third person omniscient, and it’s done remarkably well, seamlessly weaving in and out of characters’ thoughts, into references outside of anyone’s knowledge, and back again. The prose is incredibly easy to follow — bearing all the style of 19th century language without being overwrought or cryptic — and while the dialogue can sometimes seem stilted and circuitous it’s clear this is because of the mannerisms of the characters and their unwillingness to be too forward, lending even more authenticity to this world.
In short, I really really really liked this book a lot, and I think it should be right up there with the works of Austen in the category of Classic Romance Novels We Love to Read Over and Over, and I think it deserves AT LEAST one quirky cinematic homage. I would watch the shit out of that.