Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

Venetia and the Byronic Hero

A Garden Stroll by George Goodwin Kilburne, 1924.

A Garden Stroll by George Goodwin Kilburne, 1924.

(*Author’s Note: The following article was originally published in the April edition of The Regency Reader.  I thought it was time to have it here in its entirety.  Enjoy!)

As romance writers and readers, we are all intimately acquainted with the Byronic hero.  That particular brand of brooding, mysterious, misunderstood – and did I mention handsome? – Regency rogue that has stolen the heart of many a sheltered young Regency heroine.  He is Captain Conrad in The Corsair, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.  And as dark and dangerous as he is, he makes the honorable, morally upright gentlemen with whom he shares the page seem downright unappealing.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer, 1958.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer, 1958.

In Venetia, Georgette Heyer offers her own contribution to the legions of Byronic heroes that have been populating romantic literature ever since Lord Byron first took quill pen to paper.  Lord Jasper Damerel is tall, dark, and dissipated with a reputation so notorious that for years Venetia and her brother, Aubrey, have privately referred to him as “The Wicked Baron.”  It is an apt title.  Damerel womanizes, he drinks heavily, and he sneers far more than he smiles.  But what he lacks in traditionally heroic qualities, he makes up for with “swashbuckling arrogance” and the rather endearing habit of quoting fragments of plays and poetry, even when in the midst of ruthlessly kissing a trespassing Venetia.

As a counterpoint to Damerel (and to poke a bit of fun at the archetype of the Byronic hero), Heyer created the character of Oswald, the nineteen-year-old son of the village squire, who sees in Lord Damerel the romantic figure that he himself aspires to be.  As Venetia describes him to Damerel:

“He is Sir John Denny’s son and the top of his desire is to be mistaken for the Corsair.  He combs his hair into wild curls, knots silken handkerchiefs round his neck, and broods over the dark passions in his soul.” 

“Does he, indeed?  And what has this puppy to say to anything?” 

She picked up her basket.  “Only that if ever he meets you he will be quite green with jealousy, for you are precisely what he thinks he would like to be – even though you don’t study the picturesque in your attire.” 

He looked thunderstruck for a moment, and ejaculated: “A Byronic hero–!  Oh, my God!”

As disagreeable as the idea is to the character of Jasper Damerel himself, in Venetia, Heyer has crafted one of the finest examples of the Byronic hero that I have ever read.  Damerel is not just a formulaic “devil-may-care outlaw” who roams the world with “dark secrets locked in his bosom” and “nameless crimes littering his past.”  Nor is he a run of the mill rake seeking redemption.  He is – in the true spirit of Conrad, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff – an actual, flesh and blood, brooding Byronic hero.  For this reason, Venetia is not only my favorite Georgette Heyer novel, it ranks right up there with my favorite novels of all time.

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

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