by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 14+
Yes, that especially applies to Miss Venetia Lanyon, a 25-year-old lady who has grown used to managing her own affairs, and violently chafes against the expectation that she must either marry a "worthy" (read: unbearably dull) country gentleman, or get a dowdy widow to chaperone her around town until some society dandy makes an offer for her. Frankly, she would rather set up a little place in London, with perhaps room for her bookish younger brother Aubrey when he's not at university, and live the life of an unconventional spinster, in disregard of social norms. But everyone around her, from the busybodies neighboring her family's country estate to her uncle and aunt in the city, are desperate to prevent her from making a scandal of herself.
Everybody, that is, except a no longer young and handsome rake who owns the next estate down the road. Lord Damerel has seldom spent time at his country house, except for an infamous orgy of some kind a few years ago. He has been a hiss and a byword since he ran away with another man's wife, long years ago, and is now well known to have wasted nearly all of his family's fortune. He's the type of character Austen heroines are meant to recoil from. But when Damerel and Venetia become acquainted, sparks begin to fly. They are each other's match in intelligent banter, frankness and strength of character.
Venetia's two suitors are soon stirred to take shocking steps. (I forgot to mention the other one, besides the "worthy" fellow – a romantic lunatic who has been making calf-eyes at Venetia despite her attempts to discourage him.) Venetia finds herself hemmed in by people doing their best to keep her from soiling her reputation, when she would enjoy nothing more than to live in disgrace with a fascinating character like Damerel. Meanwhile, he starts out with the idea of toying with her, as he has done with so many fetching girls, only to realize that he wants to become a better man for her. Social propriety and the gravitational pull of the London ton seem destined to pull them apart, and keep them apart. Even Damerel seems ready to accept it. It's only when Venetia learns a shocking secret that's been kept from her, and her alone, all her life that she hits on a scheme to save their romance.
Perhaps Austen's heroines, spirited though they are in their way, sometimes annoy you with their devotion to the appearances of propriety. If so, Venetia may be the romantic heroine for you, unconcerned as she is about all that – even to a fault. She's her own woman in the same either-anachronistic-or-Wollstonecraftian way as Enola Holmes, if you know who I mean. She means to stay that way, and she stakes her chances of doing so on the devoted love of a cad who has never felt such an emotion before. You come away unsure how it's really going to turn out or whether you quite sympathize with her, but she doesn't want your sympathy so I guess that's all right. And neither does Aubrey, by the way, who hates it when people take notice of his lameness – a character I think people with disabilities will understand better than most of the people he meets.
I haven't even mentioned the other brother, who in a low-key way is the villain of the piece without even appearing in person; his actions from afar bear a lot of blame for the unbearable position Venetia finds herself in, along with the behavior of ... well, let's not spoil that for you. Let's just say the novel could have been a tragedy, considering the constraints Venetia was forced to bear – and that it turns out to be a lighthearted, romantic comedy testifies to the keenness of her character.
Anyway, I'm now reading Regency Buck, Heyer's very first Regency romance. Other titles in that series, written from 1935 to 1972, include An Infamous Army, Cotillion, The Toll-Gate, Sprig Muslin and Charity Girl.