An Encounter with Venus
Over the course of a long career, the late Elizabeth Mansfield wrote over thirty books, some of which could be characterized as great. Unfortunately, An Encounter With Venus doesn’t touch greatness. With a hero and heroine who never really come alive to the reader, as well as a plot that sags in the middle, the book can only be described as average.
At seventeen, George Frobisher catches a brief glimpse of Olivia (Livy) Henshaw rising nude from a tub, not unlike Venus emerging from the waves. Unfortunately, even though he is instantly smitten, he is unable to make her acquaintance. Ten years later, George (now the Earl of Chadleigh) is thrilled to attend his sister’s house party when he discovers that Livy Henshaw will be there. But he is horrified to realize that the glorious Venus he caught a glimpse of all those years ago is nothing but “a dried-up spinster.” His shocked reaction is unflattering, to say the least, and he fails to endear himself to Livy as a result.
Before long, an uncle’s medical emergency requires Livy to immediately return to her Scottish home. Since the young woman cannot travel alone, George is pressed into service to escort her. But while George comes to respect and admire Livy along the way – especially after her quick thinking saves his life – she doesn’t return his feelings. She persists in seeing him as “autocratic, presumptuous, and conceited” and tells him rather snidely: “Your taking this trouble in my behalf does not override my dislike of your overbearing behavior.” Because she’s eight years older than he is, she is so certain that he sees her only as a maiden aunt that even a passionate kiss can’t convince her otherwise. George, for his part, is disconcerted to realize he is drawn to her just as his 17-year-old self was drawn to his Venus.
It becomes obvious why Livy is a “dried-up spinster” when we meet her crotchety, hypochondriacal old uncle. He’s a disgustingly self-centered old man who requires the full-time attention of both his household and his niece, demanding so much attention Livy has been unable to wed, and the reader can’t help but feeling sympathy for her. It’s difficult to discuss this portion of the book without spoilers, but suffice it to say, George lets loose with a tirade which almost instantly causes the old man to reconsider his ways. The problem is, Livy has quite a temper, and it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have lectured her uncle severely at least once. And George is virtually a stranger to her uncle, so why does the old man care so much what a complete stranger thinks?
The book begins in a quite entertaining way, but once George comes face to face with Livy, it’s less compelling. Livy tends to react to George with abrupt bursts of temper that seem to come out of nowhere. When he offers to escort her to Scotland, she rudely declines. When he tries to be intervene with her uncle so that Livy can at least have a moment to eat dinner, she angrily accuses him of treating her like his “little old maiden aunt.” Since most of the story is told from George’s perspective, our glimpses into Livy’s thoughts are sporadic, and she remains an enigma throughout much of the book. For his part, George is a likable character, but not a terribly interesting one. While George and Livy are together in Scotland, the plot slows to a ponderous pace that is relieved only by the occasional scenes featuring the secondary characters.
The secondary love story involving George’s friend Bernard, whose legs are paralyzed, and a young lady named Harriet is more compelling than the main plot – in fact, this subplot is quite charming. Having fallen madly in love with Harriet, the first young lady he’s met who hasn’t “shown revulsion at his crippled legs,” Bernard desperately wants to attend a ball held by her family. Insecure as he is, however, he can’t bring himself to go without George and is angry and dismayed that his friend has abandoned him to escort Livy to Scotland. For her part, Harriet is infuriated with Bernard because he won’t come to her ball without his friend. I did question the fact that Harriet, an unmarried young woman, visits bachelors in their houses unescorted on a regular basis, surely inappropriate in the Regency period. It’s also a little difficult to see precisely why Harriet falls so hard for Bernard since after just one or two meetings she seems quite fixated on him. But her persistence is delightful and Bernard’s insecurities are entirely believable.
Had the hero and heroine been as well depicted as the secondary characters, this could have been a very compelling romance. Regrettably, we don’t see enough of the story from Livy’s perspective to flesh out her character, and George, while pleasant, isn’t a really compelling man. All in all, reading An Encounter With Venus is like traveling over an unpaved road in a Phaeton – a bumpy, uneven experience. I enjoyed the beginning and the ending, as well as the secondary love story, but the pacing problems in the middle of the book, along with a heroine who’s difficult to warm up to and a less than fascinating hero, made this a very middle-of-the-road read.