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REVIEW: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

The first book I assigned my continuing education class on Georgette Heyer at NC State was Regency Buck. The second was Cotillion, which I actually taught last week. As one of my students said, “It’s just delightful.”

cotillion georgette heyerCotillion shows up on “Favorite Heyer book” lists all the time, and I never really understood why. I mean, I’d read it, of course — I read (almost) all of Heyer’s historical romances. But in the sub-sub-genre of Regency romance that Cotillion belonged to (not smart heroes), I preferred Friday’s Child. But I assigned Cotillion because other people apparently loved it so much. And I’m glad I did, because it meant I had to read it again. And I loved it.

Kitty Charing is a penniless orphan. She’s lived her entire life with the friend of her father who is exceptionally wealthy but utterly miserly. She has no money of her own and Uncle Matthew feels obligated to leave his money to someone in his family. So he invites all his grand-nephews (who are of age and unmarried) to come to visit and offer for Kitty and Uncle Matthew will leave his money to the grand-nephew who marries Kitty. This way Kitty is provided for and the money stays in the family.

Three cousins show up, only two of whom are eligible: Lord Dolphington, an Earl who is slightly mentally retarded (there’s a throw-away line about him being a seven-month babe), and the Reverend Hugh Rattray. Hugh’s brother is also there, to bring Hugh up to scratch, but he’s married and Uncle Matthew doesn’t like him. Three cousins are missing. One’s in the Army of Occupation and we never hear from him. One is Freddy, the heir to a Viscountcy and himself not the brightest candle in the wall sconce. The other is Jack, the dashing and bold man-about-town who Kitty has loved for years. She’s furious that Jack didn’t show up, so runs away in pique. She meets Freddy at the local inn, partaking of dinner before he shows up at Uncle Matthew’s. She convinces him to fake an engagement so she can go to London — just for a month. She wants to make Jack jealous and realize what he’s missing.

So, she goes to London…and unwittingly falls in love with Freddy and he with her, thoroughly overturning Jack’s plans.

I asked my students what Kitty and Freddy learn, and we found something, but it’s so slight: she learns what a true hero is; he learns to grow up a bit. And although this isn’t profound, it doesn’t have to be. You just adore the characters anyway. And this is an utterly character-driven book. Nothing HAPPENS, but nothing has to happen because you’re having too much fun anyway.

And the characters are constructed in such a way that make the plot happen utterly naturally and perfectly. For example, Dolph is able to find his happiness because Uncle Matthew despises Dolph’s mother. Uncle Matthew’s dislike is set up at the very beginning of the book and seems perfectly natural and just the crotchets of an old, disagreeable man and don’t need to mean anything else. But they do mean something important by the end of the book, but it doesn’t look labored at all.

At the end of the book, there are four happy couples — it’s better than Shakespearean comedy.

But the book really is Freddy’s. He’s ridiculous and his sexuality is questionable (he’s a Pink of the Ton and very much NOT “in the petticoat line”), but he makes an amazing hero because Heyer does such a wonderful job of showing what makes a true hero. Kitty says at one point:

“Freddy is the most truly chivalrous person imaginable! . . . and a great deal more to the purpose than all the people one was taught to revere, like Sir Lancelot, and Sir Galahad, and Young Lochinvar, and — and that kind of man! 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! And as for riding off with one in the middle of a party, which I have always thought must have been extremly uncomfortable, and not at all the sort of thing one would wish to happen to one — What is the matter?”

Meg raised her head from the sofa-cushions: “He w-would say it was not at all the th-thing!”

“Very well, and why should he not?” said Kitty, refusing to share in her hostess’ unseemly mirth. “If you were to hear of such a thing’s happening, you would think it most improper, now, wouldn’t you?” A sudden thought occured to her, and she choked, and said, in an uncertain tone: “As a matter of fact, he said that Lochinvar sounded to him like a d-dashed loose-screw!”

The Cotillion dance, according to Wikipedia, “The Cotillion is a type of patterned social dance that originated in France in the 18th century and was originally made up of four couples in a square formation . . . Its name, from French cotillon, “petticoat”, reflected the flash of petticoats as the changing partners turned. The Cotillion, of repeated “figures” interspersed with “changes” of different figures to different music, was one of many contredanses where the gathered participants were able to introduce themselves and to flirt with other dancers through the exchange of partners within the formation network of the dance.” This is an exact metaphorical description of the book: flashes of petticoat and couples forming and reforming in order to flirt. As my student said, utterly delightful.

Grade: A

Next up: Sylvester! and a visit from Sabrina Jeffries.

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

18 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    May 25, 2011 @ 17:17:47

    One of my all time favorite books. I do hope that your review will bring more fans to Cotillion!
    Anyone enjoying Heyer’s books might be interested to know that the yahoo group Almacks is devoted to her. We read a book a month.
    Freddy is the kind of hero you’d want to marry, rather than the one you want to spend the rest of your life with.

  2. sarah mayberry
    May 25, 2011 @ 17:32:09

    I like Cotillion, but Sylvester is one of my faves. Can’t wait!

  3. Kaye
    May 25, 2011 @ 17:47:32

    I’m having a moment of sheer teacher envy that you’re teaching Heyer.

    I completely agree with you that the plot evolves naturally; the realization that Freddy was the hero and deserved that title didn’t dawn on me until the middle of the book. Cotillion was one of my first Heyers and will always be one of my favorites.

  4. LizA
    May 25, 2011 @ 18:12:44

    I never really thought that Freddy was stupid; he is just not a very articulate person who thinks of himself as stupid. He is not intellectual of course, but he has a lot of common sense (as Hannah tells him). He is also shy. Of course Heyer is poking fun at the conventions of the genre she herself helped invented, by reversing the roles – dashing Jack is not the hero while the bumbling side kick is the real main character.
    I’ve always loved this book….. can you tell?

  5. etv13
    May 25, 2011 @ 18:32:11

    LizA: I agree. At the very beginning of the book, he’s shown looking out for himself very well, remembering to eat at the inn before going on to his uncle’s — which neither Hugh nor his brother thinks to do. And I’m generally regarded as being pretty smart, but I can’t honestly say Freddy’s realization about the missing special license would ever have occured to me.

    I just pointed this out in the discussion of beta heroes at HeroesandHeartbreakers: in the very first description of Freddy, we’re told that he’s not only a good dancer, but also a good driver, and “he rode well to hounds.” Driving well and being good on horseback are accomplishments of a lot of Heyer’s more “alpha” heroes, and she tells us right up front that in a quiet, non-flashy way, Freddy shares these accomplishments. Nonetheless, I didn’t figure out that Freddy was “really” the hero much before Kitty did. Of course, Kitty didn’t seem like a “real” heroine the first time I read it; they both felt to me secondary characters in one of Heyer’s other books. It wasn’t until my thirties that I really developed an appreciation for Cotillion.

  6. Ros
    May 25, 2011 @ 18:52:51

    Cotillion is one of those Heyers that has grown on me, rather than being love at first read. I just don’t like Jack very much, or Mr Penicuik, or Meg, or Olivia, or Dolph (I feel sorry for him, but don’t like him). And although Kitty and Freddy are nice enough, I prefer Heyer’s feistier characters.

    Sylvester is an all-time favourite, though. So much fun.

    By the way, who on earth are those girls on the cover of this edition meant to be?

  7. Joy
    May 25, 2011 @ 19:52:42

    This is a simply delightful comedy of manners, and Freddy is smart in the way that really counts–navigating the treacherous social scene! (and I also like _Friday’s Child_ best of all the frothy Heyers).

  8. Sarah Frantz
    May 25, 2011 @ 20:17:28

    @LizA: Yes, that’s exactly why I chose this book — because she’s poking fun at her own conventions.

    @Kaye: It’s not a for-credit course. But that makes it more fun — no grading. :)

    @etv13: “they both felt to me secondary characters in one of Heyer’s other books” That’s exactly what we said in my class. They feel like secondary characters and I love that Heyer gives them their own book.

  9. Sarah Frantz
    May 25, 2011 @ 20:19:49

    @Ros: OMG, I despise Sourcebook’s covers for all their Heyers. They’re pretty and together give a “look” for the books as a group, but they have less than nothing to do with the book itself AND even the distinctly non-Regency books (Convenient Marriage) get Regency treatment, which bugs me no end.

  10. Kate Hewitt
    May 25, 2011 @ 20:47:43

    I love Cotillion. Like another commenter, I didn’t realize Freddy was the hero until halfway through the book. I was getting annoyed thinking Jack was going to be the hero and I didn’t like him and I was so thrilled when I realized it was Freddy after all. I’d love to read a review of A Civil Contract… another great Heyer, but definitely different than the Regencies of today!

  11. Kate Pearce
    May 25, 2011 @ 23:18:03

    Cotillion has grown on me over the years,but I prefer Fridays Child as well as Sherry really has to grow up in that book.
    Looking forward to your review of Sylvester!

  12. Emily
    May 26, 2011 @ 02:53:12

    I adore Heyer. I agree that Freddy is smarter than he looks. I also agree that he has a lot of common sense. I think the main thing with Freddy is that he has never had to think as much until Kitty shows up. Kitty gets him thinking. She poses problems that engage both his mind and his heart.
    I like Freddy better Sherry (Friday’s Child.)
    Freddy has a better heart and a sweet diposition. Sherry is sort of a spoiled brat.
    My copy has a different picture than the one currently on source books Cotillion.
    I like some of the sourcebooks covers particularly: Arabella, who looks like Arabella to me, False Colors, which shows a woman escorted by two men one hidden(symbolic of the story which features Identical twins), and The Grand Sophy which features a girl just arriving and a dog which that looks like Sophy’s dog. (The Grand Sophy might be my favorite cover.) I also think others are pretty.
    Sylvester is one of my least favorite Heyers. I can’t seem to finish it. I am interested to see a review.

  13. Marianne McA
    May 26, 2011 @ 06:01:10

    @Emily – I think a lot of the pay-off for the reader comes at the very end of Sylvester. It’s a book that builds and all the good stuff – Edmund and his button, Tom standing up to Sylvester, Sylvester’s disastrous proposals, and Sylvester’s mother’s intervention all happen in the last few chapters.

  14. Jorrie Spencer
    May 26, 2011 @ 07:18:04

    Cotillion is one of my favorite Heyers. Right up there with Venetia, Frederica and The Grand Sophy. (Though the latter has one awful scene.)

    Someday I’ll have to do a reread. Fun discussion!

  15. Stephanie
    May 26, 2011 @ 09:18:16

    I first read Cotillion with somewhat modest expectations, since the Heyers featuring silly ingenues aren’t usually my favorites. But I ended up liking it immensely. I enjoyed seeing a young heroine who wanted to be fashionable and have the chance to go to parties and dances in London–and who wasn’t shy about admitting it. And Kitty does get her eyes opened with regard to Jack, which I also liked. Her reaction to finding out about his intrigues with other women and even more, the way he treats the women he pursues was also interesting–no tears, vapors, or jealousy, but a growing distaste and disgust for his behavior that ultimately leads her to reject him when he finally proposes.

    Freddy is the star, though. He may not be an intellectual giant, but he knows the rules of his world and his society, and he navigates both flawlessly. I like how his much cleverer father gains a new appreciation of his heir while watching him guide Kitty through the world of the ton. And he’s a good son and brother too. I also prefer Freddy, who does think (if a bit laboriously) to the spoiled, thoughtless Sherry. Plus, I’ve never been able to get past Sherry actually striking Hero at one point. The last image I want to see in my head when reading romance is the Regency buck smacking around the petite ingenue, no matter how foolish or provoking she’s been. Freddy’s mixture of protectiveness and firmness towards Kitty is much more admirable.

  16. LizC
    May 26, 2011 @ 09:30:44

    Cotillion has the advantage of being the very first Heyer I ever read so it’s my favorite. Although it does war with The Grand Sophy but I reread both of them at least once a year. I just love how subtle Cotillion is. I can’t remember where I first read the term but Freddy is the quintessential Beta hero and I love him. He’s not stupid, I don’t think, he just thinks very carefully about things.

  17. Brussel Sprout
    May 27, 2011 @ 06:54:04

    Sylvester is one of my top three Heyers – Frederica, Sylvester and Venetia are my favourites, with Arabella leading the rest. Although abridged, Richard Armitage’s readings of both Sylvester and Venetia are terrific. I listen to them while doing boring stuff at gym.

    I like Freddy, but I don’t love Cotillion – I’m not wild about Kitty. The book is very neat and Heyer’s play with our expectations is great fun.

  18. Once Upon A Bookshelf » Blog Archive » Cotillion
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 06:20:55

    [...] Dear Author, Becky’s Book Reviews, Genre Reviews, Sassymonkey Reads, S. Krishna’s Books, A Work in Progress. Have you reviewed this book on your blog? Let me know and I’ll add your link. [...]

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