Cotillion (by Georgette Heyer)

I love re-reading Georgette Heyer’s historical romances. I intersperse them with others of my favourite authors, and a handful of new books too. But Heyer, above all other authors, is my ‘comfort reading’. I last read ‘Cotillion’ in 2007, so it was definitely time for a re-read…

Kitty Charing is the heroine in this novel. She’s an orphan who has been brought up by her father’s close friend, Matthew Penicuik. It appears to have been his only unselfish action. He’s bad-tempered, and seems to care very little for anyone other than himself. He is quite wealthy but begrudges every penny spent.

Mr Penicuik has been suffering more than usual with gout and other ailments, and is convinced he hasn’t long to live. So he decides to leave his fortune to Kitty… so long as she marries one of his six great-nephews. He has summoned them all to Arnside House, the mansion where he and Kitty live, but only three of them turn up. George is already married, so nobody’s quite sure why he is there, unless it’s to badger his brother Hugh (a rather uptight clergyman) to make Kitty an offer.

The other great-nephew who has arrived is Dolph (Lord Dolphinton), who is considered to be lacking in intelligence. He is severely dominated by his controlling, autocratic mother, but Mr Penicuik loathes her, and refuses to let her into his house. Poor Dolph has no wish to marry Kitty, but makes a proposal, and is relieved when she turns him down.

The other three great-nephews are Claud, who is at sea; Jack, who was Kitty’s childhood hero, and Freddy, a likeable dandy with excellent taste, but (according to his cousins) few brains. Freddy is himself quite wealthy, and has no idea what his great-uncle wants him for - so when he eventually arrives, Kitty persuades him into a fake temporary engagement, so that she can spend some time in London, purportedly buying her ‘bride-clothes’, and seeing some of the sights which her guardian has never allowed her to experience.

Most of the book takes place in London, where Kitty stays with Freddy’s sister Meg, and learns a great deal about society. I love the way that Heyer takes unlikely people as her heroes and heroines; Freddy has no wish to marry anyone, but is extremely generous and kind-hearted, and cannot quite work out how Kitty managed to manipulate him into their fake engagement. Freddy’s father is delightfully astute, and his sister Meg blessed with terrible taste in clothes.

Several storylines develop alongside each other; we learn just why Dolph didn’t want to marry Kitty, despite being fond of her, and wishing to escape from the clutches of his mother. We discover why Jack, handsome though he is, would make a terrible husband for Kitty. We meet the innocent Olivia, with a grasping mother, and Kitty’s French cousin Camille who is utterly charming, but possibly dangerous…

There are balls, and shopping expeditions, and a nice picture of what life would have been like for a young upper-class woman in this era; through Kitty’s eyes we learn a great deal about life in London, with its stupidities as well as its sights. There’s a wonderful scene when Freddy reluctantly takes Kitty to see some famous landmarks and buildings, following the advice from a guidebook which she has bought.

Heyer was gifted in her characterisation, never commenting on her creations, but showing what they are like in their conversation and behaviours. I remembered some of the plot including its eventual resolution, but had quite forgotten most of the detail about Kitty’s foray into city life. Class consciousness comes to the fore several times, but not in a negative way; hard-working honest people are shown as being as good as (in some cases better) than the idle rich, although there are also one or two caricatured encroaching ‘nouveau riche’ types whose values are very different from Kitty’s.

As Kitty matures, and becomes more streetwise, Freddy starts to show unexpected depths. Nobody is more surprised than his father that his somewhat hapless dandy son begins to solve problems in creative ways. And Kitty starts to rely on him more and more…

It takes a few chapters to get into the story, but I like the start of the book as it shows the characters of some of Kitty’s suitors and contrasts them beautifully with Freddy. The ending is classic Heyer, as several members of the cast gather in one place - arriving one or two at a time, for different reasons - and all the threads are beautifully tied up, with a highly satisfactory, if brief, conclusion.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys historical fiction of this era. I started reading Georgette Heyer’s novels when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and expect to be re-reading them still when I’m in my nineties.

'Cotillion', like Heyer's other books, is regularly re-published and also widely available second-hand. It is now also published in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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