Whether described by Sappho — “she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty” — or Marlowe — “the face that launch'd a thousand ships” — there’s not a woman in literature more lovely than the famed Helen of Troy. In Ms. Thomas’s latest historical romance, Beguiling the Beauty, the allure of her heroine Venetia rivals that of Helen. It is Venetia’s extraordinary beauty that ensnares Christian, the Duke of Lexington, in 1886, when he’s a student at Harrow and sees her at a cricket match. And it is her beauty and the way it shapes both their lives that, over the next the next ten years, nearly destroys them both. Their story, written by Sherry Thomas with poignant radiance, is every bit as lovely as Venetia and will ensnare all but the most chary of mortals.
The book begins with this:
It happened one sunlit day in the summer of 1886. Until then, Christian de Montfort, the young Duke of Lexington, had led a charmed life.On that day, Christian, a brilliant budding naturalist, is playing in the annual Harrow vs. Eton match when he suddenly sees, sitting on a phaeton on the far edge of the field, a young woman.
Her face — he lost his breath. He’d never encountered beauty of such magnitude and intensity. It was not allure, but grace, like the sight of land to a shipwrecked man. And he, who hadn’t been on a capsized vessel since he was six — and that had only been an overturned canoe — suddenly felt as if he’d been adrift in the open ocean his entire life. Someone spoke to him. He couldn’t make out a single word.
There was something elemental to her beauty, like a mile-high thunderhead, a gathering avalanche, or a Bengal tiger prowling the darkness of the jungle. A phenomenon of inherent danger and overwhelming perfection.
He felt a sharp, sweet ache in his chest: His life would never again be complete without her. But he felt no fear, only excitement, wonder, and desire.
This singular beauty is Venetia Fitzhugh Townsend, and she, much to Christian’s horror, is very much married. Overnight, Christian becomes a changed man. “Until he’d met her, he’d not known envy, misery, or despair.” Now, such emotions are his constant company. Late one night, several years after he first espies Venetia - to whom he’s never spoken - Christian encounters her husband, Anthony Townsend, in the quiet library of his club. Anthony, a bitter, destructive man, tells Christian he recognizes him from that day at the cricket game as the man “gawking at his wife.” He elliptically warns Christian about the dangers of loving Venetia and takes his leave.
The next day, Christian reads in the paper that Anthony Townsend is dead, and his life was in shambles. He was deeply in debt to jewelers and on the verge on bankruptcy. A year later, Venetia marries Mr. Easterbrook, a wealthy man thirty years older than she, and rumors swirl throughout England she’s blatantly unfaithful to her elderly spouse. Christian presumes the great love of his life is “a shallow, greedy, selfish woman who injured and diminished those around her.” He moves on with his life, still obsessed with Venetia, but determined to make sure their paths never cross.
By 1896, Venetia is again widowed and visiting Boston with her sister, Helena, and her, sister-in-law, Millie. Venetia, who has loved fossils since she found a famous one as a young girl, sees that the famous naturalist Duke of Lexington is giving a speech at Harvard discussing the theories of Darwin and Lamarck. The women decide to go — Venetia and Millie think Christian, from what they’ve heard of him, might make a grand husband for Helena. On the night of the lecture, Christian makes the pronouncement — in the context of answering a question about beauty’s role in Darwinian theory — “beautiful women are essentially untrustworthy,” and recounts, without naming names, his version of Venetia’s life, calling her “Exceptionally heartless, our beauty.” He, of course, has no idea Venetia and her family are in the audience. Venetia is devastated.
The reality of Venetia’s life is nothing like what Christian described. Venetia’s first husband, too weak to not be threatened by his wife’s pull on all who saw her, ultimately tried to destroy her. Her marriage to Easterbrook was not at all what society believed it to be. When the reader first begins to know Venetia — this only begins to truly happen when Venetia is in Boston — it is clear Venetia’s beauty and its impact on others are not what she and those who love her value in her. She’s a woman of great character and intellect whose life, in large part because of her beauty, has held a fair share of loneliness and misery. When Christian assails her in public, she’s undone — his assertions bring up all her pain over the last ten years.
She, needing time to be alone and lick her proverbial wounds, tells her family she’d like to leave Boston early and travel to New York to stay for a few days before the three set sail back to England. When she arrives in the city, she — and this is key — dons a veiled driving hat to protect her hair and face as she is driven from Grand Central Station to her hotel. As she steps out of the car, she sees Christian striding into the hotel. Panicked, she keeps the hat on as she steps up to the desk where he too is checking in and, when the desk clerk speaks to her, she answers in German and gives her name as Baronesse von Seidlitz-Hardenberg. As she sees Christian, she realizes she is furious at him for disclosing her personal pain so publically and, impulsively, decides to break his heart. She books a suite on the same boat he is returning to England on and, the next day, still in her veiled hat, boards the ship, and embarks on a trans-Atlantic affair with him, all the while keeping from him who she really is.
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