Cotillion was not an easy book to review, despite being one of my all-time favourites, or perhaps because of it. It’s one of those sham engagement stories, a concept totally overused by today’s standards, wherein two people pretend to be in a relationship and end up falling in love. Yes. But when written as a regency romance, by the incomparable Georgette Heyer, the underrated author who created the genre itself... who wrote that time era with more accuracy than possibly any other author in history - it’s a classic. It just is. Of course, I’m probably bias in her favour, but there you have it.
Named after a French dance of multiple partners, Cotillion tells the story of Kitty Charing, a destitute orphan brought up by a rich but miserly guardian, whose reins on the purse-strings are of the “strictest economy”, meaning that Kitty never had a pretty dress in her life or anything beyond the bare necessities. At 19, her guardian declared his intention to leave her his fortune – if she marries one of his nephews. With that preposterous notion in mind, he summoned the nephews to his country estate for Kitty to pick.
‘It’s about my Will,’ he said. ‘I’m an old man now, and I daresay I shan’t live for very much longer. Not that I care for that, for I’ve had my day, and I don’t doubt you’ll all be glad to see me into my coffin.’ Here he paused, and with the shaking hand of advanced senility helped himself to another pinch of snuff.
The act of advanced senility was entirely put on, as shown almost immediately afterwards:
Mr Penicuik, finding his audience to be unresponsive, abandoned his pathetic manner.
Uncle Matthew Penicuik had five nephews for Kitty to choose from – you can’t count the one who was already married and thus not invited but turned up anyway - and she favoured the handsome playboy Cousin Jack, who was so sure of her hand that he refused to turn up and propose to Kitty as was expected of him. The very piqued Kitty therefore left her home, with the vague but adventurous idea of travelling to London on her own, only to run into yet another of her cousins.
Her lip trembled. She replied with a catch in her voice: ‘I am running away!’
‘Oh, running away!’ said Mr Standen, satisfied.
Freddy Standen, late to answer the summons of his great-uncle because he’d fortunately recalled the horrors of the dishes served at Uncle Matthew’s dining table, often chosen more with regard to the host’s digestive difficulties than to the tastes of his guests, had chosen to dine at a country inn instead. There he met Kitty, who was desperate to escape. Possibly due to having imbibed too much punch, or moved by her tears, or both, he agreed to pretend to a sham engagement with her, because Kitty, having been isolated and ruralised all her life, only wanted (she said) to visit London, of which she’d heard aplenty but had never seen.
‘I do not want neatness and propriety!’ interrupted Kitty, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes sparkling. ‘I want elegant dresses, and I want to have my hair cut in the first style of fashion, and I want to go to assemblies, and rout-parties, and to the theatre, and to the Opera, and not—not!—to be a poor little squab of a dowdy!’
Having prevailed upon Freddy to pretend to be her fiancé, Kitty realises her dream of visiting London for one short, delightful month, after which she plans to cry off the engagement and return to Arnside. During that time, she and Freddy fell in love so gradually that I had no idea exactly when the tables turned, but it went from this:
He spoke severely to both ladies, which drew a giggle from each, and provoked Meg into rallying him on his unlover-like behaviour. Blushing deeply, he then bestowed a chaste salute on Kitty’s cheek, saying apologetically: ‘Forgot!’
Never seem to have any time to do anything but look after Kit! If it ain’t seeing to it that Meg don’t persuade her into buying a shocking bonnet, it’s driving with her all over London and showing her a lot of tombs and broken-down statues you wouldn’t think anyone would want to look at, let alone pay to look at!’
In romances I like couples who make each other better; Freddy and Kitty are one of those couples. She was always getting herself involved with her friends’ tangled affairs and trying to help them (without much success). So Freddy, who had previously lived the lifestyle of the privileged but brainless son of a wealthy family, finds himself cracking his head to solve the problems for her instead. It was really quite amusing. See the character development:
‘Daresay I shall think of a way,’ said Freddy. He observed a curious expression on his father’s countenance, and said with slight concern: ‘Anything amiss, sir?’
‘No—oh, no!’ replied Lord Legerwood, recovering himself, ‘I almost believe that you will think of a way, for I perceive that you have depths hitherto unsuspected by me, my dear boy.
As for Kitty, she outgrew her fairytale dreams of knights in shining armours, in favour of Freddy, who was no handsome prince, but could always, always be relied upon.
I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!
True words, indeed.