“Cotillion” is one of my favourite Georgette Heyers, and one that has been gathering dust on my bookshelves for a very long time. So when I was looking for something different to re-read*, this sprang to mind.
A quick recap of the plot:
Mr Penicuik, a rich miserly cantankerous man with no direct heirs, has finally had enough of waiting for his favourite grandnephew, Jack, to propose to his ward, Kitty Charing. He decides to force Jack’s hand by promising his fortune as Kitty’s dowry, provided she marries one of his grandnephews.
A pretty safe choice, seeing that Kitty has had a schoolgirl crush on Jack since, well, forever. However, Mr Penicuik fails to take into account Jack’s dislike of being manipulated. And both Jack and Mr Penicuik have failed to take into account Kitty’s embarrassment at having suitors bribed to marry her.
So instead of waiting for Jack, Kitty asks Freddy, another of Mr Penicuik’s grandnephews, to propose. Freddy is nowhere near ready to get married and, having a sizeable fortune himself, is not swayed by the promise of a substantial dowry. But Kitty persuades him to agree to a fake engagement so that she can go to London, where she just might bump into Jack and show him what he is missing.
And so we are off…
Warning: I’m going into specifics about what I loved about this book so there are spoilers in this post. But read on if you don’t mind being spoiled – or want to know how a Heyer Regency reminded me of Lois McMaster Bujold!
At the heart of “Cotillion” is one of the more popular romance plotlines – the fake engagement that turns into a real one. And yet it is done so beautifully that I wasn’t quite sure how it would turn out when I read it for the first time. Upon re-reading it this time around and knowing that Kitty and Freddy end up together, the first scene when they meet was infinitely more enjoyable.
Kitty is a charming heroine, somewhat naive due to her upbringing in the country, but certainly strong-minded and good-hearted. I’ll be honest and say that she is a run-of-the-mill romance heroine. And “Cotillion” would not stand out from the other Heyers if it wasn’t for Freddy.
Because Freddy, unusually for a hero, is a very beta hero. Some of Ms Heyer’s heroes are very alpha, and certainly Jack, who is arrogantly sure Kitty will come running when he snaps his fingers, is as alpha as they come – when he first makes an appearance, he is described as “… a tall man whose air and bearing proclaimed the Corinthian”. Compare that to Freddy’s entrance, that of “… a slender young gentleman, of average height and graceful carriage. His countenance was unarresting, but amiable; and a certain vagueness characterised his demeanour”.
And yet, Freddy quietly steals the book – and the girl. He doesn’t change from the Pink of the Ton he is introduced as in the third chapter, who knows exactly what to wear to the country and whose main concerns upon reaching his destination are that “… the high points of his shirt-collar were uncrumpled, and the intricacies of a virgin cravat no more disarranged than a touch would set to rights…”. But somehow, over the course of the book, Ms Heyer slowly reveals the qualities that are hidden under the exterior (though of course, Freddy would scorn the idea that he has any depths). In the last chapters, he rides to the rescue, not as a dashing hero of the sort he disdains, but in a much more prosaic manner. A perfect ending. A very Freddy ending.
The next point may not mean much if you haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series**, but this realisation struck me like a thunderbolt halfway through the book… if Ms Bujold ever wrote a story with Ivan as the protagonist, it would be exactly like “Cotillion”. Freddy is Ivan.
Freddy’s not the person who will plunge headfirst into reckless enterprises, he is persuaded to take part despite his inner voice screaming “no!”. Well, not persuaded exactly, it’s more that people know exactly the right buttons to press. Similar to how Miles gets Ivan to sign-up to the most hair-brained of schemes by making it impossible for him to refuse, Kitty gets Freddy to agree to a fake engagement by appealing to his better instincts.
He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, certainly, yet family and friends underestimate him to their own peril. He’s incredibly practical, and even more importantly, knows his way around society, which counts for a lot more than book smarts. It is honestly the perfect Ivan story.
Okay, random observation over.
There are so many passages I loved that when it came to deciding which ones to quote, I struggled. Here are the two I ended up picking.
The first is one with Freddy and his father together. I adored Lord Legerwood and his astute observations. There is affection and respect on both sides, but their exchanges never failed to amuse me, especially when Lord Legerwood’s attempted barbs completely miss the mark due to Freddy’s obliviousness. For example, in this passage where Lord Legerwood tries – and fails – to make the point that Freddy has been rather neglectful of his parents recently:
These led [Freddy] to seek counsel of his father, whom he met one day in St James’ Street, and who exhibited great surprise at seeing him, saying that he had supposed him to have gone out of town again. But this shaft went wide. Freddy eyed his satirical parent in mild bewilderment, and said reasonably: “Can’t have thought that, sir! Dash it, met you at Meg’s two nights ago!”
Lord Legerwood sighed. “You have your own armour, have you not, Frederick? Of course I should have known better!”
“Offended you, sir?” asked Freddy intelligently.
“Not at all. How came such an idea as that into your head?”
“Notice more than you think,” said Freddy, with simple pride. “Never call me Frederick except when I’ve vexed you!”
“Almost you encourage me to look forward to a brilliant career for you!” said his lordship, impressed.
I’ll stop there, but I re-read the whole scene several times, laughing.
And this one with Kitty and Freddy also amused me. The two of them are talking entirely at cross-purposes; Freddy has finally had enough of people implying Kitty is going out behind his back with Dolph (yet another of Mr Penicuik’s grandnephews) not because he cares of course, but because of how it reflects on himself and his family! He tracks her down to remonstrate with her, but Kitty is completely bewildered as she’s actually trying to help Dolph woo his secret sweetheart***:
“Freddy!” cried Miss Charing, jumping almost out of her skin.
“And don’t you say Freddy to me!” added Mr Standen severely. “I told you I wouldn’t have it, Kit, and I dashed well meant it! Have the whole town talking!”
Kitty looked very much bewildered, but as it was plain that Mr Standen was filled with righteous wrath she refrained herself from protest, merely saying in a small, doubtful voice: “Frederick? Should I, in public, call you Mr Standen?”
“Call me Mr Standen?” said Freddy, thrown quite out of his stride. “No, of course you should not! Never heard such a silly question in my life! And it ain’t a bit of use trying to turn the subject! Not one to take a pet for no reason, but this is the outside of enough, Kit!”
“I wasn’t trying to turn the subject! You said I must not call you Freddy!”
Mr Standen stared at her. “Said you wasn’t to call me Freddy? Nonsense!”
“Cotillion” has reminded me of how much I love Georgette Heyer’s books. It’s one of her lighter, funnier ones (though I must admit the Regency slang at the start of the book was heading towards impenetrable at times) and well, I adore Freddy. It remains a strong B+ read for me.
* I did attempt to meet Nath’s Re-read Challenge for June – hey, I’ve only missed it by a few days.
** And if not, why not? Seriously. Start with “The Warrior’s Apprentice”. I mean it.
*** Another thing that struck me was how Ms Heyer referred to the characters. When either was on their high horse (horses?), the character was referred to as Miss Charing or Mr Standen, else it was Kit and Freddy.