21/11/2007

Cotillion (by Georgette Heyer)

Georgette Heyer is unquestionably my favourite writer of historical fiction. Her plots are cleverly devised, her settings realistic, her conversation believable, and - best of all - her characters are three-dimensional, often with unexpected traits.

I have almost all of her books, and re-read them regularly, though I try to limit them to one a month. 'Cotillion' was the one I chose recently, having not read it since 2002.

The story is about Kitty, an orphan who was reared by an eccentric guardian, Uncle Matthew. As the story opens, Uncle Matthew has summoned his adult and unmarried great-nephews to his home. Only two have turned up, along with one married great-nephew. He informs them that he intends to leave his entire fortune to Kitty, on condition that she marries one of them - and he doesn't mind which.

Naturally this arrangement is embarrassing for them all. The eligible two who turned up are Hugh, a rather stuffy (though good-hearted) rector, and Dolph, an Earl with rather lacking intelligence. Kitty would not dream of accepting either of them, and is - moreover- upset that they both propose to her for mercenary reasons. She had hoped their cousin Jack, her childhood sweetheart, would arrive; however Jack does not like obeying a summons, and anyway is enjoying several flirtations and a great deal of gambling in London.

So Kitty tries to run away, and bumps into another of her potential suitors, Freddy. Freddy is very wealthy, and hasn't any wish to be married anyway. So Kitty persuades him to pretend to be engaged to her for a month so that (a) she can go to London for the first time in her life (b) Jack will be annoyed.

That happens in the first two chapters. Most of the book takes place in London, where Kitty enters society, buys some fashionable clothes, and finds herself beginning to rely on Freddy to get her out of all kinds of scrapes. She also learns more about Jack's lifestyle, and makes some highly unsuitable friends, since she is very kind-hearted.

It's a delightful story. There's a great deal of gentle humour, several intriguing subplots (some of which I had forgotten about), and a surprisingly moving finale when - as so often happens in Heyer's novels - the principle characters find themselves gathered in one room, to untangle their confusions.

Highly recommended. By the time I'd got half-way through, I could barely put it down, despite knowing what was coming. Still in print in both the USA and UK, despite having first been published over fifty years ago. Widely available second-hand too.

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