CLASSIC YA – Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

“… if you’ve never read a Georgette Heyer book, please read this one!  You won’t regret it.”

Blurb:  “One of you shall have her, and my fortune into the bargain.  The offer of Miss Kitty Charing, with an attractive bonus, was an outrageous gesture from the ageing Mr Penicuik.  Marriage to any one of the attractive beaux seeking her hand would assure the lady’s future (and theirs).  Yet Kitty was in no hurry for wedlock.  She was determined to get to London town where anything might happen and very often did …”

Ms Heyer’s books are perhaps not considered classics by everyone, but they definitely should be IMO!  For anyone who loves romantic fiction, and especially novels set during the Regency period, she is the undisputed queen.  She more or less single-handedly invented the sub-genre of Regency romance novels and to me, her books are even better than those of Jane Austen, in whose footsteps she may have been trying to follow – blasphemy, I know!  But Ms Heyer’s novels are so much more exciting and fast-paced, despite the old-fashioned writing style and dialogue (she did a huge amount of research to get all her facts right, including how people spoke at that time, and even uses a lot of slang terms), and her stories are infused with a subtle and dry sense of humour that is just brilliant.  The characters fairly leap off the pages, irresistible and intriguing.  Her books have spawned innumerable imitations and I think most authors who write in this sub-genre today owe her a huge debt.

Ms Heyer is renowned for her fabulous heroes – alpha males, titled and wealthy, superior in every way, and often cynical and/or sardonic, and extremely intelligent.  They have perfect dress sense, are great in a fight, bruising riders and impeccable drivers of any type of carriage.  They never cheat at cards but always win anyway and they are crack shots.  In short, they are perfect, and that they are handsome as sin goes without saying.

These heroes often fall in love with very unconventional heroines; girls who are either overlooked because they are penniless or too “bookish”, or they are young and inexperienced so that they get into a lot of difficult situations from which they have to be rescued by the hero.

The heroine of Cotillion falls into this last category, and although she is quite well educated and not stupid, she has no experience of society and is very naive.  When it comes to the hero, however, it would seem Ms Heyer decided to have some fun when she wrote this novel, because she turns her own usual “recipe” on its head completely.  There is a man in the story – Jack Westruther – who fits her normal hero mould, but the more we learn about him, the more we realise that he is not a nice man.  In fact, he’s quite unbelievably selfish and not hero material at all.  The unlikely hero who emerges instead is his cousin, Freddy Standen, a young man who is neither particularly handsome nor clever – just ordinary (although he does have a title and is quite wealthy).

So Kitty’s miserly guardian has hatched a plan – in order to leave her well provided for, and at the same time bequeath his fortune to his favourite great-nephew (the villainous Jack), he tells his five great-nephews that whichever one of them Kitty chooses as her husband will inherit everything (knowing full well she would choose Jack).  Only things don’t quite go to plan, because Jack absolutely hates being coerced, so he doesn’t turn up.  He is perfectly happy to marry Kitty eventually and had been planning to do so, but not until he’s good and ready.  And although Kitty has been in love with him forever, she is understandably miffed when he’s the only one who doesn’t come to ask for her hand in marriage.

She decides to teach Jack a lesson, and enlists the help of the only one of the great-nephews she actually likes – Freddy.  She persuades him that they should pretend to be engaged and that he must take her to London for a month to stay with his parents.  Freddy is very reluctant, but he’s a nice guy and eventually agrees and they set off for the capital.  And that is when he begins to realise that he’s taken on more than he bargained for, as Kitty has absolutely no idea how to navigate the pitfalls of the ton, the fashionable world of the aristocrats in London.  It falls to poor Freddy to rescue her, again and again, and to his father’s great surprise, he does.  Freddy may not be very clever in an academic way, but he has impeccable taste and manners, and has been in polite society long enough to know all its dangers.  He can be depended upon in every situation and has a lot of common sense – he’s an extremely likeable character.

Kitty begins to compare his conduct to that of Jack, and Freddy, of course, wins hands down.  He has such a good heart and wants nothing more than to keep her happy because he knows she’s had a tough time living with her stern guardian who’s never allowed her to have any fun.  The two of them bring out the best in each other and seem well matched.

By the end of the book, the reader is totally rooting for Freddy and wishing for Jack to receive his come-uppance, and you can almost hear Ms Heyer laughing at the clever way she’s turned the tables on the alpha male.  But will he still get the girl and does he have to mend his ways in order to do so?  You’ll have to read it and find out.

For me, however, the absolute best thing about Cotillion is the humour.  In this book more than any other, Ms Heyer has succeeded in creating real comedy.  She excels at the sort of ridiculous conversations that have you laughing out loud.  (The first time I ever read this book was during a train journey and I’m convinced my fellow passengers thought I was completely insane as I had tears of laughter running down my face!)  The most comical character in the book is a cousin of Freddy’s called Lord Dolphinton (or Dolph for short), who is extremely thick and says the most absurd things.  Add to that Freddy’s horror of all things academic, several other cousins who have no patience with poor Dolph and just make him seem even more stupid, and the sardonic utterances of Freddy’s father (who is actually a properl Heyer alpha hero, only a nice one, and who has been under the misapprehension that Freddy is not blessed with a great intellect), and you have the perfect blend of characters for a farce.

For example, poor Freddy is horrified when Kitty wants to see the sights of London – “No dash it, Kit, you can’t think I’m going to totter all over London looking at a lot of buildings I don’t want to see!”  But she persuades him and they go to Westminster Abbey, where he bears up tolerably well until they reach the Henry the Seventh chapel.  The effigies there, “in particular the ghoulish countenance of Queen Elizabeth, proved to be his breaking-point.  He said that he had never seen such a set of rum touches in his life”, and tells her in the strongest terms that “another five minutes spent in the Chapel would make them both feel as blue as megrim.”  The rest of their tour of the capital is more of the same, with Freddy feeling cheated out of his money when he discovers the Elgin marbles are broken, and so on – I just love this!

Cotillion is the only book I have reread more than twice – in fact, it’s my “comfort read” and I must have read it at least ten times, if not more!  It is seriously worth it though, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again in the not too distant future.

I won’t go on, but take my word for it – if you’ve never read a Georgette Heyer book, please read this one!  You won’t regret it.

Pia Fenton writes contemporary romantic YA stories and her Northbrooke High series features UK heroines clashing with US heroes in an American high school setting.  The fourth one in the series – New England Dreams is out now!

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