I love audiobooks for re-reading, whether it’s classics I might not otherwise make time to go back to or old favorite comfort reads. I’ve been building up a stash of Georgette Heyer novels on audio, and was thrilled when an unabridged Venetia finally became available. That novel’s hero, Lord Damerel, is often described as the prototypical reformed rake. While listening to it, I foolishly said I was going to write something about rake heroes, but I’m not sure I have anything worth saying–especially when many of my Romanceland friends are bigger Heyer experts than I am. Still, here are some thoughts that I hope will spark discussion. Certainly none of these are hard and fast opinions.
What Is A Rake?
Damerel is not, I think, the first rakish hero Heyer wrote, so I wonder why he’s usually seen as the prototype for the reformed rake? I haven’t read early books like These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub (I know, I know, I’m kind of hoarding them), but aren’t their heroes rakes? Venetia is among the most romantic of the Heyer books I have read, and perhaps her sexiest; is that part of why it’s seen as the inspiration for later genre romance rakes? Also, Damerel’s rakishness is the closest to on-page of any Heyer I’ve read. A year before the events that open the book, he scandalized the staid neighborhood by spending a debauched week at the Priory with a group of dissolute friends and London lightskirts; there’s a scene in the novel where he’s drunk.
I looked “rake” up in the OED out of curiosity, or in case I was missing something. There he’s defined as “A fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits.” The definition for “rakehell” offers, in addition, the idea that the rake is “immoral” and “a scoundrel.”
The Heyer rake heroes I know best–Damerel, Miles Calverley from Black Sheep (my favorite), and Oliver Carleton from Lady of Quality–don’t exactly fit these definitions. Miles and Damerel are partial outcasts from society, and none of the three dresses in the height of fashion: Heyer emphasizes their distance from the accepted mode. At the same time, they all have an individual sense of style and a careless grace that other characters notice and admire/envy. They are above the mode and the need to be fashionable as much as excluded from it.
What about “immoral scoundrels”? It’s true that they don’t espouse conventional morality (they aren’t chaste, obviously, and most of them disown their family responsibilities) and that many people around the heroine warn her against the libertine hero and try to keep them apart. But these heroes do have their own morality; the heroines refuse to see them as immoral, and the narrative voice doesn’t either, I’d say. It’s true that Miles began his rakish career by eloping with a girl from the schoolroom and Damerel by running off with a married woman, but these episodes are explained by their youth (also, the innocent girl is safely married off, scandal averted, while the rakish matron abandons Damerel for a wealthier lover. Neither is harmed by the rake hero). Since then, neither has ever seduced a virginal lady of quality; this seems to be the essence of the Romance Rake’s Code of Honor. Both Miles and Oliver are contrasted favorably in their books with fortune hunters trying to seduce very young girls. I think Venetia the novel, and Damerel himself, are ambiguous/ambivalent about whether he intended to seduce Venetia. He warns her not to trust him, but this could be read as self-protective as much as a threat. He knows he might love her enough to be hurt.
What do Heyer’s rakes, none of whom are conventionally handsome or conventionally seductive, offer their heroines? Understanding and freedom. Venetia finds in Damerel the only friend she has ever known. These heroes can read the heroine’s feelings, they laugh at her jokes, they share her intellectual interests. With the rake, she can be herself and say what she thinks, something not possible with her more conventional friends and relations. All three of the heroes I’ve mentioned here rescue the heroine from annoying and stifling domestic responsibilities (well, Venetia engineers her own rescue, which is part of why I love the book). They have charm, and Heyer is great at conveying that charm. All of these couples love talking to each other–even Annis and Oliver Carleton, who are often fighting. Finally, a man (or anyone!) really listens to what the heroine has to say. What could be more seductive?
Is Damerel Reformed?
Here again, I think the book is ambiguous, and listening to it reinforced that. There are plenty of ominous warnings from those around Venetia that even if Damerel wants to reform, changing the habits of a lifetime isn’t easy.
But it doesn’t really matter, because Venetia thinks that even if he isn’t faithful, he won’t flaunt it and hurt her, and the novel did make me believe that. Venetia seems willing, at least to some extent, to accept her friend Lady Denny’s view that sexual fidelity doesn’t mean anything to men, and their little affairs don’t matter as long as they are still good husbands and fathers. It might not be my HEA, but I believed they’d remain in love and happy. I also think there’s plenty of textual evidence for the idea that Damerel will reform, and that Venetia’s friends and relations consistently underestimate him.
Is Damerel a Prototype?
Here’s where I’m really interested in the viewpoint of other readers. I can think of older romances I’ve read (Diane Farr’s Fortune Hunter, or Laura London’s Love’s a Stage, for instance) that emphasize the rake as charming rather than sexy/sexually experienced (although of course that is part of his charm–just not all of it).
My sense is that a lot of current historical romance rakes are Dukes of Slut. Their sexual prowess is central to their appeal and they are bent on seducing the heroine. (Or sometimes she’s the one bent on it). Sexual liberation is the focus of a rake-reformed story, and the magical hoo-ha is a catalyst for reform, though the heroine’s refreshing innocence often plays a part too.
Moreover, I think of these heroes as being moody/broody/wounded/damaged. They are rakes because some woman hurt them in the past, and now they can Trust No One and Never Love Again. Heyer’s Miles and Damerel explicitly reject the heroine’s attempts to read them this way. Hearts don’t stay broken, says Damerel, “an easy lover.” They long ago got over any hurt caused by that first escapade that set them on the path to rakedom. Maybe we’re not supposed to believe them, but I do.
Many of today’s rakes strike me as more like Venetia’s comic young suitor, Oswald Denny, a Byronic hero wannabe who dresses in an affectedly bohemian way and moons around yearning to fight a duel over Venetia. Everyone sees him as ridiculous.
So in this sense, I don’t see Damerel or Heyer’s other rakes as prototypes of today’s rake heroes. And I’d rather read about men with a sense of humor who love the heroine for her mind as much as her body. I’d rather the author show me how the hero frees the heroine to be herself and leave me to infer that he frees her sexually (which I think Heyer always implies) than showing me the sex and leaving me to infer the other stuff. (Though doing both is fine).
But I can’t actually point to specific historical romances that leave me with the impression that this is what today’s rakes are like, so I’m happy to be corrected. Please comment about rakes you’ve read and how you think rakishness is defined in today’s romance.