Girl With the Persian Shawl


An Encounter with Venus
by Elizabeth Mansfield
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-20997-4
An Encounter with Venus could have been so much more. This is a rather unusual Regency, featuring a heroine who is eight years older than the hero. At thirty-five, she’s supposedly resigned to her fate as a spinster, but ends up acting like a shrew for most of the book, which makes the love story unconvincing and forced.

When he was seventeen, George Frobisher caught sight of his sister’s friend Olivia Henshaw emerging from her bath, and the sight of all that pink-and-white perfection stunned him. He was unable to make her acquaintance at that time, and the thought of her has haunted him for the last ten years, through a stint as a soldier and then into his life as the new Earl of Chadleigh. Now his sister is throwing a house party and wants George to attend. He’s loath to do so, until he finds that “Livy” will be there. At last, George can meet the woman he’s nicknamed “Venus”.

George’s first meeting with Livy is a shock to him. No longer the young beauty he remembers, she’s now thirty-five, pale, and sour-looking. He’s stunned into speechlessness, and then fumbles his introduction. Livy is affronted at George’s reaction, and reacts with sarcasm and hostility. Once George gets over his initial shock, he finds Livy to be quite interesting, and he sincerely wants to get to know her. Livy, however, is just about as shrewish as a heroine can be. She belittles George, throws his attempts at consideration back in his face, and insists she needs no one to look out for her.

George ends up escorting Livy back to Scotland and her uncle’s estate when her uncle takes ill. Once there, George finds that the uncle is using his imaginary illnesses to keep Livy under his control. George offers to help Livy, but his offer is thrown back into his face. Before he leaves to head back to London, George gives the old man a piece of his mind, earning Livy’s wrath as she accuses him of interfering in her life. When he points out that she should have stood up to her uncle long ago rather than allow herself to be treated like a servant, she accuses him of treating her like a helpless, befuddled old maiden aunt and stomps off.

It’s been a long time since I’ve come across a heroine with a chip this big on her shoulder. Livy twists every action of George’s into something negative, accusing him of arrogance, smugness, interference, and a host of other nasty things. The fact that she can’t seem to get her own life under control and is, indeed, under her uncle’s thumb is largely lost on her, as is the fact that the uncle shapes up after George confronts him. When George gives in to impulse and kisses her, she accuses him of pitying her. This shrewish, defensive harridan is absolutely nobody I could imagine a hero falling in love with, and the romance in this story fell completely flat.

There is a secondary romance involving Bernard, a disabled friend of George’s, but it takes place in London, necessitating a lot of bouncing back and forth from locale to locale to follow it. Consequently, it feels like a separate story, unrelated for most of the book. Bernard is a good match for Livy, as he also instantly assumes the worst in several situations. Since he’s never shown as doing anything but feeling sorry for himself or insisting no lady could love him, his romance felt no more realistic than that of George and Livy. Why would any lady fall for him? Readers aren’t likely to know.

I enjoyed George. He’s youngish, but not a callow youth, and his actions are those of a gentleman. Too bad they’re wasted on Livy. When I think of what this story could have been with a sympathetic, good-natured heroine, it makes Livy’s flaws stand out in relief. But, then, her shrieking shrewishness is the only conflict in the book. Other than her insistence that George is treating her like a maiden aunt and can’t possibly be interested in her, there’s nothing standing in the way of their romance.

An Encounter with Venus is more like an encounter with a harpy. Elizabeth Mansfield has a lot better than this in her backlist. Give this one a pass.

--Cathy Sova

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