I was going to title this post “The Last Frontier,” because by reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance Cotillion, I feel as if I’ve crossed some kind of Rubicon. I am by no means a genre snob, but I think of myself as mostly enjoying literary fiction, classics, and mysteries. That means that when I try other genres, I experience a little discombobulation: westerns? Really? Well, I adored Lonesome Dove and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses trilogy. Seafaring stories? I’m addicted to Patrick O’Brian. Science fiction? Comic books? Horror? Check, check, and check — as long as it’s well-written and tells a compelling story. Sturgeon’s Law that 90% of everything is crap applies here, literary fiction included: you have to be discerning no matter what genre you’re reading. And besides that, I have an almost absolute pleasure principle about reading. If you enjoy reading something I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, more power to you! I don’t believe in “shoulds” when it comes to reading for pleasure.
But romance novels? I admit, with embarrassment, that I have been a snob about them. I have eclectic taste, I would think… except romances. Simplistic, cliched, sexist, ill-written, everything I dislike. To Be Avoided. But then I discovered that Michael Dirda placed Georgette Heyer among the Great Entertainers. He claims she’s not to be missed, and since, for me, Michael Dirda has been batting a thousand with his recommendations, I couldn’t disregard that lightly. So I picked up Cotillion.
The plot is simple enough. Kitty’s irascible great-uncle Matthew has made his will: his enormous fortune will go to Kitty if, and only if, she marries one of his great-nephews. There’s the rake, Jack, with whom Kitty has been in schoolgirl love for ten years; the vague and hapless dandy Freddy; the sanctimonious Hugh and the imbecile Dolph. An impossible choice? Not for Kitty, who convinces Freddy to agree to a sham betrothal so that she may come to London to enjoy a month’s revelry before all is discovered. I’m sure you can guess the happy ending. Unpredictability is not the shining virtue of this book. What surprised and delighted me was the execution of it. Heyer’s writing is wonderful, her characterization exquisite. Her period detail, unlike so many people who write historical novels, is accurate to the smallest degree. She’s funny, and more than funny, she’s witty; her heroine is not “spunky” or “feisty” but strong and good (if a bit headstrong.) And Freddy, who inherits his style from Freddy Arbuthnot and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, reminded me in the end of no one so much as a very young, pre-war Peter Wimsey, full of piffle. My one, modest objection was that Heyer overdid the exclamation points a little. But that’s just my taste, and once I got into the story I got used to it.
I enjoyed this book enormously. I can see that Heyer will become a favorite for light reading, beach reading, comfort reading. Once again, Michael Dirda steers me right: one of the Great Entertainers, indeed. And if there are any genres left for me to read, don’t hesitate to introduce me!