Georgette Heyer’s COTILLION

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.

Re-Read Challenge: Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School Books

I’ve fallen out of the habit of blogging lately.  My addiction to blogging comes and goes in spurts.  I suspect it’s probably inversely related to how much time I’m spending at work, which, at the moment?  Way too much.  Oh, I’m still reading everyone’s blogs and commenting every now and again, but my own blog feels somewhat abandoned.

Anyway, here’s something to try and get me out of my blogging slump: Nath’s Re-Read Challenge.  And I’ve chosen my Chalet School books for this one.

51kxH6Hh-AL._SL160_ I mentioned a couple of weeks back that having come across the Girls Gone By Publishers site (which specialises in reprinting girls’ fiction from the 20th century), I’ve not only ordered a couple of new-to-me CS books, but also started re-reading my own collection.  I’ve re-read a good selection of my CS books since, ranging from the early Tirol days (“Jo Returns to the Chalet School”), the War years when the school moves back to England (“Peggy of the Chalet School”, “Bride Leads the Chalet School”) and then back to Switzerland (“The Chalet School Wins the Trick”, “Summer Term at the Chalet School”).  And err… quite a few more besides.

It’s probably no great stretch of the imagination as to why I’m loving these re-reads – they’re taking me back to my childhood days when the most I had to worry about was if I had finished my homework or not!  Ah, those were the days…

Anyway, the Chalet School series, if you haven’t stumbled them before, follows the establishment of a boarding school for girls on the shores of the Tiernsee in the Tyrol by Madge Bettany, who in later books, marries the head of a TB Sanatorium, Dr Jem Russell.  The series spans a good number of years – the eldest daughters of Joey Bettany, Madge’s younger sister and the first-ever pupil, lead the school in the final CS book, “Prefects of the Chalet School”.

51WAMY841KL._SL160_Some unique CS customs include its trilingual requirements, with all girls expected to be fluent in English, French, and German, and alternate days being dedicated to each language.  There is much emphasis on outdoor pursuits, be it walks (and rambles), sports, or excursions, as fresh air and sunshine are thought to be directly linked to health.  And each term brings its own major event, be it a Nativity play, the Sale (and yes, that’s with a capital S) or a sports regatta.  As with other boarding school stories, there are naughty Middles galore, with prefects and mistresses keeping a close watch over them.

However, it isn’t just boarding school life with pranks and midnight feasts.  More serious themes are tackled, for instance, the effects of WWII – “The Chalet School in Exile” deals with its German and Austrian girls having to leave and the school eventually having to evacuate to England.  The school’s close links with the Sanatorium (apart from Madge and Jem, quite a few ex-pupils and staff end up marrying doctors, not least of all Joey!) mean that a number of girls have relatives at the San and there is acknowledgment that not everyone will live, and even those who do may not recover fully.

51mE8bPZ4hL._SL160_To me, part of the charm of reading contemporaries written years ago is getting a sense of the social norms and values of the time, and the CS books are no exception.  The girls get ticked off for using slang – for instance, the word “smashing” is absolutely taboo!  They have to “croc”, walking two-by-two in public places and keeping their voices low in case they disturb passers-by.  In “The Chalet School Triplets”, there is a school trip where they end up in a department store (with lifts operated by liftmen) and there is mention of how the mistresses “turned them loose, warning them to keep sight of each other”, even though the youngest is “nearly sixteen-and-a-half”.  Nowadays, teens pretty much roam where they please at will, surely?

Re-reading these books (together with commentary from the CBB boards) also made me realise several anomalies that never struck me at that time.  For instance, Joey Maynard (nee Bettany)’s close involvement with the Chalet School – didn’t she ever want to let go?  And how the teachers (or mistresses) stayed sane in the closed atmosphere, especially in the latter Switzerland books when they were based on the Platz, and it was a good hour to anywhere else.  And oh, lots of other things which amuse me now  🙂

As much as I’m loving these, I’m starting to find a bit of same-ness seeping through – I will probably finish a few more that I want to re-read over the next couple of weeks… and then move on to my next obsession!

Re-Read Challenge: Elizabeth Peters’ “The Mummy Case”

617PNTs22kL._SL160_ I made the deadline this month!  Just.

Right, after umm-ing and ahh-ing about the choice of books, I went for an Amelia Peabody book.  Despite only stumbling onto this series relatively recently (I read the first one just over two years ago, and the first book “Crocodile on the Sandbank” was written back in 1975), I love love love this series.  I cannot describe how much I adore the Amelia books.  It is one of my all-time favourite series.  Ever.

In case you haven’t read any of these books yet (in which case, what are you waiting for?!), these are mysteries set in turn-of-the-century Egypt.  Amelia, her husband Emerson, her son Ramses, and other family members are keen archaeologists, who manage to embroil themselves in mysteries and mayhem during their annual excavations.  And yes, there is a strong romance element in these books.

I chose “The Mummy Case”, because this is the first book where Ramses (Amelia and Emerson’s son) plays a large part – and I am completely infatuated with Ramses.  This is the first time I’ve re-read TMC since finishing the Peabody series, and it was interesting to revisit these characters early on in their family life.  I wonder if Ms Peters knew where she was going to take these characters in later books when she wrote the early ones?

These books are written in Amelia’s POV, journal-style (though in later ones, Ramses and others’ POV are also included), and Amelia is on fire in this book.  Her relationship with Ramses is forefront in this one, with her attempts to conceal her pride in her son (even in her personal journal) hilarious.  And I love her matter-of-factness about things; this is a typical paragraph:

[Ramses] was also alarmingly precocious.  A lady of my acquaintance used that term to me, after Ramses, aged four, had treated her to a lecture on the proper method of excavating a compost heap (hers, in point of fact). (Her gardener was extremely abusive.)  When I replied that in my opinion, the adjective was ill-chosen, she believed me to be offended.  What I meant was the word was inadequate. “Catastrophically precocious” would have been nearer the mark. (p.6)

The running joke in this book is Emerson’s reproaches to Amelia for being undemonstrative towards Ramses, but after one of the final scenes, I don’t think he will ever accuse her of being unmaternal again!

As always, Ms Peters brings late 19th-century Egypt to life.  There is one scene when Amelia and Emerson set out to a rendezvous with a possible villain in the midst of the old city at night – incredibly atmospheric and wonderfully suspenseful.  Ms Peters’ love and knowledge of Egypt shine through in her writing and always make me want to visit Egypt – this is an example:

[The pyramids of Dahshoor] are built of white limestone, and this snowy covering exhibits bewitching changes of tint, according to the quality of light – a mazy gold at sunset, a ghostly translucent pallor under the glow of the moon.  Now, at a little past noon, the towering structures shone dazzlingly white against the deep blue of the sky. (p.132)

Ahhh… there is so much I loved about this book that I have no idea how I’m going to cover it all.  The chaos that follows young Ramses despite his parents’ best efforts, Amelia’s passion for pyramids, Emerson’s insistence that he doesn’t want to get tangled up in mysteries (hah!), the multiplying mummy cases…

Oh yes, and the ending in this book is brilliant.  Without giving too much away, Amelia and Emerson end up in what seems like a hopeless situation (and I do mean hopeless), and how Ms Peters resolves it and the aftermath is incredibly funny.

“The Mummy Case” is packed with hilarious scenes, Egyptian detail, characters that capture your heart, and a plot full of twists and turns.  This is a wonderful installment in the Amelia Peabody series, and I’m glad I chose to re-read it for this challenge.  In fact, I’ll probably continue on to the others now.

Back cover blurb:

The irascible husband of Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody is living up to his reputation as ‘The Father of Curses’.  Denied permission to dig at the Pyramids of Dahshoor, Emerson is awarded instead the ‘Pyramids’ of Mazghunah – countless mounds of rubble in the middle of nowhere.  Nothing in this barren spot seems of any interest – but then a murder in Cairo changes all of that.  The dead man was an antiques dealer, killed in his shop, so when a sinister-looking Egyptian spotted at the crime scene turns up in Mazghunah, Amelia can’t resist following his trail.  At the same time she has to keep an eagle eye on her wayward son Ramses and his elegant and calculating cat and look into the mysterious disappearance of a mummy case…