Many have stated that one of the many, many life lessons found in Jane Austen’s novels is the fact that you cannot tame a rake. In fact, Austen’s novels, these many have argued, very much demonstrate not only that a rake will never change, but also that trying to change him is not worth the effort. These many are right, of course. No one comes away from reading Pride and Prejudice with the impression that the scoundrel George Wickham would have undergone a full reformation if he had only found the love of a good woman. Most would also agree that attempting to change Mr. Wickham would be an effort not worth the time of any woman in existence. Rakes, George Wickham very much included, cannot be changed.
Austen’s best example of this is Mansfield Park’s Henry Crawford. Annoyed by his inability to charm Fanny Price, he sets out to make her fall in love with him. Of course, he plays himself and falls in love with her instead. She rejects his marriage proposal but, being a rake, he persists. Overall, Henry is a severe source of annoyance and anxiety to Fanny, and no one would argue that he is the ideal man or that she should marry him against her will. Still, there are moments. She is captivated by his skill at reading aloud, for example. When he (creepily, admittedly) follows her home to Portsmouth, she enjoys talking to him and feels more akin to him than to her family. Henry, meanwhile, is much more sensitive to and respectful of Fanny’s feelings. In Portsmouth, Henry seems like a changed man.
Then he leaves Portsmouth and elopes with Maria Rushworth.
The lesson is obvious. Rakes do not change. Whether Austen was successful in proving this fact from a writing standpoint is a matter of some debate. Though I have hardly talked to everyone currently alive in the world who has read Mansfield Park, I feel safe in saying that most who read it think that Austen did just fine. They were always wary of Henry and his intentions, and his about-face in the novel’s eleventh hour was to be expected. Others, like philosophy professor and Austen scholar Moreland Perkins, argued that Henry’s final action was wildly improbable, stating, “It’s more likely that Austen betrayed Henry in the end, than that the Henry Crawford who loved Fanny would have betrayed her and himself with Maria Rushworth.”
But I digress. Austen’s works seemingly argue that rakes do not change, and any attempt to change them via the power of love is doomed to fail. Even if they fall in love, as in the case of Henry Crawford, their rakish instincts and habits will ultimately prevail. They may love, but they’ll never be faithful. They’ll still gamble. They’ll host orgies. They’ll probably hang out with Lord Byron. They’ll eventually grow bored of you and run off with an underage lady of means. And your reputation will be destroyed in the bargain. There is definitely no point in tying oneself to a rake.
Enter Georgette Heyer.
I am embarrassed to admit that I just recently started reading Heyer. I started off with a bang — Cotillion, which I adored — and have been having a rollicking time in the Regency era ever since. If you’re familiar with Heyer’s works, and you’ve been reading this piece, you’ve probably figured out which Heyer I just finished reading.
(Yes, of course it’s Venetia.)
Venetia tells the story of Venetia Lanyon, a single lady of five-and-twenty years (!). At twenty-five Venetia is, of course, standing on spinsterhood’s doorstep, but there are extenuating circumstances. Her mother “died” when she was young (Spoiler alert: She did not die), transforming Venetia’s already eccentric father into a recluse. He never allowed guests into their house, and Venetia was never permitted to visit London during the season. Fortunately, Venetia’s father has since passed away, leaving Venetia a comfortable inheritance and, in the absence of her older brother (who is off doing military things in France), charge of the family estate. She has one admirer in the village, the exceedingly dull Edward, who is intent on marrying her. Venetia, however, is undecided. She knows that marrying Edward would secure her comfort, but she does not love him and is desperate to see some of the world after leading such a sheltered life. Since nothing can be done until the return of her older brother, however, she decides not to worry about it too much.
Enter the Wicked Baron.
Lord Jasper Damerel is the owner of the neighboring estate, Elliston Priory. In his youth, he eloped with a married woman, an action that shocked his father into having a stroke. Though that stroke did not kill him, he would die of another a few years later. Meanwhile, the husband of Damerel’s mistress refused to divorce her, meaning that they could never marry. Eventually, her trail was lost to the gossips, and it was supposed that he had jilted her and that she had subsequently died (he did not jilt her and she did not die). Lord Damerel was very rarely ever at the Priory, though he had paid a visit the previous year, during which he held scandalous orgies full of debauchery. Despite all my worldly wisdom, I fell for him instantly. And so does Venetia.
The relationship between Venetia and Damerel is a joy to read. They are genuinely good friends and seem to relate to and understand one another instantly. Their rapport is funny, charming, and sexy, filled with Shakespearean references, quips, and heartfelt conversation. They adore each other, and everyone can see it, including the reader. But of course, Damerel is a rake and, as many characters try to warn Venetia throughout the book, rakes do not change. What they don’t understand is that Venetia does not need that warning and, perhaps more importantly, Damerel is not a rake of the Austenian variety.
To put it simply, Austen’s rakes — Wickham, Willoughby, Elliot, the lot of them — aren’t just sexually profligate. They also happen to be bad people. They all tend to be some mixture of greedy, manipulative, careless, irresponsible, selfish, narcissistic, and predatory. These rakes, of course, are not worth wasting one’s time on. Damerel is not one of these rakes. His scandalous reputation aside, Damerel is actually a good man. He’s smart and thoughtful. Though he loves Venetia and wants to marry her, he worries that, with the differences in their ages and their life experience, he would be taking advantage of her and destroying her reputation in the bargain. He attempts to separate himself from her in order to avoid this though, as this is a romance novel, this separation ultimately fails. The reason why Damerel is a weddable rake can be summed up in these words that he shares with his horse: “Would she could make of me a saint, or I of her a sinner — Who the devil wrote that? You don’t know, and I’ve forgotten, and in any event it’s of no consequence. For the first part it’s too late, old friend, too late! And for the second — it was precisely my intention, and a rare moment this is to discover that if I could I would not!”
If that makes Damerel a weddable rake, what makes Venetia the one to wed him? For one, she has no intention of trying to reform him. In fact, she has no desire to do so. Venetia sees Damerel as, first and foremost, a dear friend. She loves him along with his faults, rather than in spite of them. When her not-so-dead-after-all mother asks Venetia if she expects Damerel to be faithful to her, she honestly replies that she doesn’t know, but she does know that he will always love her. This, to Venetia, is what matters — her friendship with Damerel and Damerel himself, rather than any of society’s notions of how he should behave. When they are discussing marriage and Damerel mentions his “disposable assets,” Venetia correctly assumes that he is talking about his race horses and his yacht. She then says the right thing — he does not need to get rid of the things he owns and likes for her. Of course, Damerel replies to this by saying the equally right thing — his happiness does not depend on his horses and his boat, but on her. Their relationship works because they each value the other and their relationship more than they value material objects or social appearances and niceties.
Of course, it’s helpful that Damerel is a rich rake and Venetia has an independent inheritance. In the real Regency word, or even in fictional situations such as that of Lydia Bennet, a woman throwing caution to the wind and destroying her reputation was generally a recipe for utter social and financial ruin. But in this fictional world of Georgette Heyer’s, where our characters have the luxury of not worrying over such mercurial concerns, love wins the day. And in the end, we all learn a lesson. You, too, can wed the rake. All you need is a little patience, a large amount of money, and the right kind of rake.