Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: Cotillion [1953]

I am an avid consumer of well-written historical romances, and Georgette Heyer is universally acknowledged as the queen of the Georgian/Regency period. I've read several of her books here and there, and recently had the opportunity to read Cotillion on a borrowed Nook e-reader. This is the first time I've actually used a real e-reader (rather than my tiny ipod touch) to read a book, and I found the experience similar to reading the paper version . . . which I also checked out from my library. I alternated between the two, and found it very easy to use the Nook, although I still prefer my books without batteries.

Cotillion is set in 1816 and takes place largely in London. However, the action begins at Arnside, an estate to which all the young, unmarried male relations of a crotchety (but wealthy) old man have been summoned. The man is Matthew Penicuik, and he wishes to provide his great-nephews with the opportunity to offer for his ward Kitty Charing's hand in marriage, and thereby inherit his entire fortune. Miss Charing herself is not particularly fond of this plan, although she has been in love with one of the intended targets, Jack Westruther, since she was young. Fortunately or unfortunately, Jack does not appear to make an offer, and Kitty concocts a scheme to become "engaged" to his cousin, Freddy Standen, in order to get to London and secure Jack's attention.

Freddy, whose judgment "in all matters of Fashion, was extremely nice" and who has an excellent grasp on proper behavior among the ton, is also acknowledged by himself and his family members to be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to practical matters. His genial good nature leads him to acquiesce to Kitty's spur-of-the moment plan, although the idea of ultimately breaking their engagement goes strongly against his sense of propriety. Kitty feels guilty about the deception, then awed as she is brought into the Standen family fold and introduced to the wonders and pitfalls of glamorous society. Kitty's impulsive, friendly behavior gets her involved in several situations that she and Freddy work together to resolve as a pair of rather unlikely cupids, even as she begins to realize that Jack may not be the man she thought she loved. Cotillion is a seamlessly woven and gently humorous novel that is sure to appeal to any Regency fan.

Grade: A

Although the false engagement plot is very well-worn at this point, it was refreshing to have both a hero and heroine neither laboring under the harsh yoke of secrets from the past nor outcast from society in any way by their poor behavior. Definitely no rake in need of reformation, Freddy is a very engaging hero, and it is refreshing to have the main male character be a dandy with no hidden reserves of physical strength or intelligence. Rather, he is kind and tolerant, muddling through when other people's scrapes are thrust in his lap. There are a few issues I could take with the book--Kitty's month in London seems to stretch forever and the resolution of her relationship with Freddy happens quite suddenly--but nothing that dissuaded me from finding the book completely charming.

The author of more than fifty books, including detective novels, Heyer's masterful grasp of setting and the rhythm of language shines most brilliantly in her Regencies. The wry, understated humor in Cotillion had my lips twitching on any number of occasions:
The Chevalier's fingers, writhing amongst his glossy brown locks, were fast ruining what had been an admirable example of the Brutus, made fashionable by Mr Brummell. Freddy watched this with pained disapproval. It did not seem to him to serve any useful purpose; it was, in fact, a work of quite wanton destruction.
For a book that was published more than fifty years ago, Cotillion holds up incredibly well, and feels much more authentic and well-formed than most of what's published today in the same genre. If anyone reading this loves Regency romances and hasn't read something by Heyer, I would be truly sorry to hear it.

ETA: While she was dying, my mother embarked on a project to re-read (or read for the first time) all the Heyers she could get her hands on, which meant that I spent a lot of time getting books from several Salt Lake City libraries and creating a master list so we could track what she had read.

Additional reading:  
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken Hodge
Georgette Heyer's Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester

Book Review Index
Dead mother: Yes

1 comment:

schomj said...

I imagine every time you read a Heyer, you remember your mother? I can definitely see how her novels would be an appealing choice when going through a difficult time.

And I quite agree with you about Freddy. His kindness and general... well, goodness, made me happy to read his story.