Jul 30 2008
Cotillion: a dance with elaborate steps and figures
My romance reading group is composed of eight women whose ages span a healthy quarter-century. As a group, although the membership has ebbed and flowed, we’ve met for nine years. We each have our likes, dislikes, and areas of expertise. Several members judge national romance contests from the reader’s point of view. As an author myself, I judge unpublished contests and then take tremendous delight when we come across a newly published book that I read in its first-50-page infancy.
We pick a book to read per month and over the course of these years, we’ve tried all the categories. Very few selections have been universally beloved. We also like first printings, not trusting reprints to hold to the mores of when the original was published. We’ve been to RWA National Conference booksignings, the local ones held by the closest RWA-chapter, done a stint at an Romantic Times convention, and have co-hosted, along with the local library, as many as eight area romance authors for a meet, greet, and sell.
As readers, we are jaded.
I give all this background to introduce our latest reading jump, Georgette Heyer. I saw an ad from Sourcebooks announcing a re-release of her books. I’d never (no throwing things here) read one. It had been decades since anyone else in the group had. Our buyer didn’t get the message to find the new ones, so when I found worn paperbacks on the used book store clearance rack for 50 cents apiece, we were in business. We each had our own (in many cases a first printing) Georgette.
And so began my adventure.
As the Regency romance genre’s grande dame, Georgette Heyer’s writing career spanned over 50 years and 58 books, not all of them Regency romances. As my group’s Regency-reader-in-residence, I was set for a treat. I got more than I bargained for.
At 288 pages, COTILLION should have been a snap read. But the print was small, and there were words that begged a dictionary, words that changed the way I wrote two newspaper columns. (This was a good thing.) I knew I had become lazy in my reading and my writing, but this served to prove it to me. I must reform.
Kitty Charing is young, orphaned, and under the guardianship of Matthew Penicuik, an old man suspected of being her father. That trope ends quickly. As his health fails, he desires to see otherwise penniless Kitty set for life and she will be–if she marries one of his great-nephews, men she has grown up with and calls cousins. She has always loved Jack Westruther, but he doesn’t deign to come to Great-Uncle Matthew’s “this is how it will be” lecture. In a fit of pique, Kitty agrees to an engagement to his cousin, Freddy Ledgerwood. She hopes to get to London, make Jack jealous when he sees her on his cousin’s arm, switch the intended bridegroom, and live happily ever after. Freddy agrees to all this and tells her it’s fine because he’s not ready to be married. But Freddy, unbeknownst to Kitty, has a plan of his own.
For starters, Freddy takes charge of most of the clothing allowance Uncle Matthew reluctantly parts with. Possessed of considerable fortune and a title to boot, Freddy plans to supplement the money, with Kitty never being the wiser. Freddy is a good guy, but a bit of a ditherer. I finally nailed him: Hugh Grant at his most confused. Totally charming, but I’d have liked a little less goodness me-ing.
“Goodness gracious,” exclaimed Meg [his sister], when she saw him. “What now, pray?” A gleam of hope shone in her eyes. She cast aside the hat she was just about to set on her head, and said eagerly: “Oh, do you mean to tell me the secret after all?”
“Not that one,” responded Freddy. “Tell you another instead!” He perceived that she was looking affronted, and added: “Not banning you! Wish I was! Dashed awkward business! Fact is, need your help!”
Kitty is a quite modern heroine, capable of taking care of herself, but realizing there are times that help from other quarters is needed. Freddy installs Kitty with his married sister Meg whose older husband has gone off for business in India, and the women quite conveniently manage to get themselves involved in lives and situations better left alone. But then, that’s the fun of the book. All the characters, all the interconnected lives, all the romance!
There are two romances beside Kitty and Freddy’s. Cousin Foster, inheritor of the Irish title Lord Dolphinton, a man overrun by his mother and without the brains to get out of it, desires a most unsuitable match with a woman far below his station. She, Kitty surmises, will nonetheless be quite good for him and stand up to his mother. The other is Kitty’s French cousin, the Chevalier, and Olivia, a beautiful girl with a social-climbing mama who would have her married to the highest bidder. Confusing this issue is Jack’s desire to take Olivia as a mistress, perhaps his last one, before settling down with Kitty, whom he has always considered will be his–in his own good time. He, like everyone else in the book, has seriously underestimated Freddy.
The conversations are quick, the descriptions pithy and to the point, and in the end, all the romances set to end well. COTILLION refers to the dance our protagonists are making around each other. For awhile, they don’t even know they’re dancing. But after mutual expressions of affection, Freddy gets his girl and a kiss. Jack slumps off into the sunset and, if this were written now and not in 1953, he’d have his own reformed-rake book out next year.