Friday, February 1, 2013
Friday's Forgotten Books: COTILLION (1953) by Georgette Heyer
Obviously I am in a Georgette Heyer frenzy, having read several of her books back to back and debating whether I should begin reading COTILLION again immediately since I enjoyed it so much.
If you know Heyer, you know how addictive she can be. If you don't know, then here's your chance to learn about this most treasured author whose books I lately discovered a few years ago, but about whom I'd heard nothing but praise for years. If you love Heyer, you adore her. That's just the way it is. There doesn't seem to be a middle road.
Of courser, there is a reason for the exultant praise. The woman knew what the heck she was doing. When it comes to the execution of plotting, characterization and even locale (generally London, Bath and its environs) Heyer had/has no peer. Jane Austen began the whole thing but Georgette Heyer carried on - slicing and dicing with a wicked sense of the absurdity of the time. (I'm not saying that Heyer had Austen's brilliance, but what she accomplished in her lifetime surely amounts to some form of genius.)
COTILLION is the very entertaining story of poor but honest Kitty Charing, a half-French orphan adopted by a penny-pinching old miser (a rich old miser, needless to say) named Matthew Penicuick (pronounced, I'm thinking, Penny-Quick). To provide for Kitty, the daughter of his old friend, the clever and oh-so-maniacally thrifty Penicuick invites his long-suffering nephews to his roomy but chilly country house and lets them know that whoever 'offers' for Kitty's hand will inherit the family fortune. No marriage. No money.
If Kitty refuses, she will be left without a shilling and be forced to earn her living heaven knows how. If the men refuse to cooperate, the money goes to a foundling hospital. Them's the choices.
Kitty has her heart set on one of the nephews (Jack, the black sheep of the family) - the one who, out of sheer orneriness refuses to show up for the family conclave guessing correctly which way the wind was blowing. So Kitty refuses the rather reluctant offers from two of the other nephews in as hilarious a scene as any ever written by Heyer.
But when Freddy Standish, a splendidly dressed dandy (son of a Viscount) with a wonderful self-deprecating manner and a great tolerance for foolishness arrives on the scene just to see what's what in the family (he's the only one who doesn't need the money since he's loaded) Kitty immediately sees a way out of her predicament, at least temporarily. To get back at Jack, she takes matters into her own hands and asks Freddy to marry her.
He thinks she's lost her mind. But then she explains that it's only a 'pretend' betrothal' for a month. She just wants to see London and have some fun before she heads off into drudge city - that is, the life of a governess or worse.
Freddy is so good-natured that he agrees even if he surmises (rightly) that the plot is fraught with all kinds of trouble for himself, his family in town and even for Kitty herself.
So off to London they go to visit with Freddy's family and break the news of the upcoming nuptials - for no one is to know the actual truth until it's all over. Unfortunately, they arrive just as Freddy's mother is dealing with a measles epidemic among the younger members of the family.
Everything about this book is perfection. Kitty Charing is a wonderful character - one of Heyer's specialties: the young, intelligent, opinionated Regency miss who is poor but will not allow that to stop her from hatching improbable plans. In Freddy Standish, Heyer has outdone herself. He is a likable, good-natured young fop about town who cares more for his sartorial elegance than Kitty's problems but even so, is willing to help Kitty keep out of scrapes. His growth as a character, as a man, is part of the charm of the novel.
The characterizations in this book are such that I wished over and over again that I could know these people, could hang out with them while they tumble in and out of trouble hatching one hair-brained scheme after another. It's not just Kitty we worry about, there are two other love stories going on at the same time.
Two stories in which Kitty can't help getting involved, dragging Freddy along with her as she tries to help fashion happy endings for four other people. It's all a jumble until the very end and I found myself not wanting to reach the last page because then I'd have to say goodbye to Kitty and Freddy and the rest of 'em.
Though this book is loaded with wonderful, memorable characters (besides Kitty and Freddy) the one who touched me most was the slightly dotty Lord Dolphinton, a slow-witted Earl whose future happiness Kitty eventually takes in hand to the consternation of the entire family.
"I ain't a clever, like you fellows, but when people say things to me once or twice I can remember them." He observed that this simple declaration of his powers had bereft his cousin of words, and retired again, mildly pleased, into his book.
..."I am an Earl," said Lord Dolphinton, suddenly re-entering the conversation. "You ain't an Earl. Hugh ain't an Earl. Freddy ain't - "
"No you're the only Earl among us," interposed Hugh soothingly.
"George is only a Baron," said Dolphinton.
I loved this book and will definitely be buying a copy so I can re-read it whenever I wish.
COTILLION is now, officially, on my top five list of Heyer books. I can't recommend it enough if you, like me, like well-written novels, Regency or otherwise, and laugh-out-loud wit.
A novel that can make me laugh out loud ain't nothin' to sneeze at. Especially these days.
To see the links for other Friday Forgotten Books, check out Evan Lewis's blog. He's doing hosting duties for Patti Abbott this week.