The world may be in a chaotic mess in many ways, but some good things are also happening. One of these good things is that the Folio Society, imprimatur of beautiful books, has finally started to publish some authors I’ve been saying for years they should add to their list.
One of these is Diana Wynne Jones, whose “Castle trilogy” (not really a trilogy, folks!) is now complete with the publication of House of Many Ways. House is one of my least favorite Jones books, but it is nice for completists to have the three books set in the same world as Howl’s Moving Castle together on their shelf, in absolutely splendid guise. I devoutly hope that more and better books by this author will be on the way as well.
But I digress. The matter at hand is the publication of another prolific author who until now has been ignored by Folio: Georgette Heyer. If you are like me, you might also have disdained Heyer for years as a writer of silly, fluffy Regency romances with bodice-ripping cover images. But you would be doing her a severe injustice, as Stephen Fry explains in his excellent introduction to the new Folio edition of Heyer’s Venetia.
Heyer is not your run-of-the-mill writer of Regency romance. She basically invented the genre, out of her extensive knowledge of and research into the period, and her books are an object lesson in how historical research can be whipped into a fantasia of literary delight, without betraying and besmirching the source material. I can seldom read contemporary Regencies without slamming them down at some point out of impatience at the anachronisms, contemporary slang, and modern sensibility inserted therein, but Heyer never subjects me to this uncomfortable experience.
Heyer is certainly aware that we look at the past through our own lens, and her characters are more openly knowing about the seedier side of life than would be the case in an actual book of the early 1800s, but her knowledge of the social customs of the time is impeccable, and always plays a believable role in the plot. Her language is expertly derived from the period without trying to copy it — more of a set of variations on the theme, which mix and heighten the phraseology and speech rhythm of our ancestors into a word-music that is uniquely hers. And she does this with far more wit, style, and taste than any of the imitators who have followed her, that I have personally encountered.
Fry mentions that the reason Heyer’s books have not been successfully adapted to the screen may be because the pleasures of her books are so very literary. I think this is quite true (although I also believe it is the case that the author forbade adaptations to be made, after a terrible one saw the light during her lifetime). Heyer’s books are most enjoyable for readers, for people who know and love the English literary tradition of the Georgian and Regency periods. They heighten our pleasure through a kind of running commentary — by providing more description of clothing fashions, for example, than Austen or Fielding would ever give, since their own contemporary readers knew quite well how people were dressed. These descriptions could be translated into costuming, but are even more enjoyable to read, as Heyer slyly pokes fun at or promotes our admiration of her characters through the way they are dressed.
That said, Heyer’s books are also prime material for some terrific visuals. And that’s why it’s so gratifying that Folio has finally produced its first Heyer: Venetia. The delights begin with a suitably ornate typographical binding design and a portrait of the heroine on the slipcase. The artist, Sally Dunne, has admirably captured her character — a diamond of the first water who has been buried in Yorkshire since childhood, and unable to take her rightful place in the world of the ton. Thankfully Venetia has developed a quirky sensibility and humorous perspective that save her from what might have been a dreadfully languishing existence, once she fortuitously meets her perfect mate — a rake, of course — and sets her mind to overcoming the obstacles to a happy life with him.
All of this is subtly suggested in the perfect outer propriety of Venetia’s portrait, her lovely countenance, and the hidden twinkle in her eye that invites us to open the book and discover what she’s so amused about. Overall, Dunne’s illustrations are most notable for their portrayal of such subtle nuances of facial expression, and I think she’s captured the characters — Venetia, her lover Damerel, her invalid brother Aubrey, two of her other unwanted suitors, and a scattering of friends and relations — most admirably. The details of their dress are also rendered with great thoroughness, of course, as any illustrator of Heyer must strive to do.
These encomiums aside, I confess to a whiff of disappointment over many of the pictures. It seemed to me that the artist chose very stiff, static compositions, and avoided scenes that would have provided more life and movement. Where are Damerel meeting Oswald on the road, Venetia with the kittens, and the fateful trip to the theatre at which Venetia is saluted by a mysterious stranger? These could have beneficially replaced — or even better, augmented — the small number of existing illustrations to give a much fuller sense of the liveliness and comedy with which Venetia abounds.
However, I will not quibble, nor advise you not to buy and read Venetia. On the contrary, I advise it most highly. Whether you already know and love Heyer or not, if you have any affection for this genre or this period of literature, you owe it to yourself to place this book on your shelf with pride, and to read it with a hidden twinkle in your eye that will often erupt into laughter. May Venetia be only the herald of many more good things to come from this beloved and very Folio-worthy author.
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are independently held by the reviewers.