After one of my columns
bemoaning discussing the rise of the light Regency, I got several emails from those who worried about me. And no, dearest emailer, I don’t torment small animals in my free time. I actually rescue cats and volunteer at the SPCA and – yikes! I’m a cute little urchin or reformed pickpocket servant away from being a Regency heroine! All of that aside, one kind soul wrote to suggest that I read Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. She described it as “the best of Regency romps, funny and clever at once.” Since I already had this book in my TBR pile(s), I decided to take it on for this month’s portion of the TBR Challenge.
I’ve loved a number of Georgette Heyer’s novels, so I had high hopes for this one. However, after Chapter One, I started to fear that this would be rough going. The book certainly seemed light and capery. However, it also brims over with inscrutable Regency-esque slang and the only characters who seemed to have much personality were the unpleasant ones. The basic set-up is this: Matthew Penicuik is a very wealthy old miser. He has called his great-nephews to his drafty old country house so that they can learn the terms of his will. Penicuik has decided to leave all of his wealth to his ward, Kitty Charing, on the condition that she choose and marry one of the nephews. This news prompts proposals from an uptight rector and an impoverished Irish earl who proposes more out of terror of his mother’s wrath than any real desire for Kitty.
Faced with such a plethora of promising choices, Kitty seeks out Freddy Standen, another of the great-nephews, and they strike a deal. They will form a sham engagement so that Kitty can go stay with Freddy’s family and have a month in London. As an added bonus, the fake engagement will hopefully awaken jealousy in the dashing Jack Westruther, the great-nephew Kitty really wants to marry. It’s a plot that sounds just goofy enough to be a lot of fun, but as the action moved toward London, I still found myself slogging through some awful, slangy dialogue and I couldn’t tell whether the heroine was going to turn out to be fun or horribly feisty.
In London, the book takes on a different pace and began to truly engage me. Kitty is not the most vividly drawn Heyer heroine I’ve ever read, but she isn’t repulsive either. And then there’s Freddy. Freddy Standen quickly became one of my favorite characters in a long, long time. He’s mild-mannered and initially seems a bit dim, which stands in stark contrast to the more alpha Jack Westruther. Though this novel was originally published in the 1950s, readers will immediately recognize Jack Westruther as a fairly standard-issue Duke of Slut, albeit one who has some good lines of dialogue.
As the story develops, it takes on a lighter and more humorous tone even as the plotting grows more intricate. We meet Freddy’s family, including his high-spirited sister Meg who hosts Kitty. And in London, Kitty finds herself drawn into both awkward social situations and attempts to assist in the romantic intrigues of others. One of the other great-nephews surfaces in need of Kitty’s aid, and of course her new friend Olivia would be in dire straits if Kitty couldn’t help her find a way to be with her true love. In these moments, Kitty’s friendship with Freddy deepens and he really gets a chance to shine. As it turns out, Freddy might not have much use for the romantic literature that Kitty and her governess clearly enjoyed, but he knows just what to say or do in every social situation. If you need to plan an elopement, extricate yourself from unsuitable company in graceful fashion, or simply charm a society hostess, Freddy’s the one for the job. In his understated and sometimes self-effacing way, he turns out to be one of the most considerate and also one of the most sensible men I’ve come across in a romance novel for ages. And in my book, this made him utterly charming.
Kitty is not so well-developed a character as Freddy, but she’s likable enough. And I enjoyed the interwoven strands of the various romantic plots in this book, as Kitty’s friends and some of the other grand-nephews pursue love – or at least a mistress. The book got off to a rough start for me, so I’d probably give it a B grade if I were reviewing. If you can handle the overuse and abuse of Regency slang, though, Cotillion winds up being a merry dance indeed.
– Lynn Spencer