Catherine Charing has a difficult decision to make. Her guardian, the irascible Mr Penicuik, will make her his heir, but only if she marries one of his nephews. The good-natured but dim-witted Lord Dolphinton asks for her hand immediately, against his own will. The priggish rector Hugh begrudgingly offers as well. Lord Biddenden is already married, and his brother Claud is with his regiment in France. The fashionable dandy Freddy Standen says that he “ain’t in the petticoat line,” so he’s not going to ask. And the handsome rogue Jack Westruther, whom Kitty claims to hate more than all the potential suitors put together, is nowhere to be found.
Kitty is less concerned about her eventual marriage than her desire to get out of her guardian’s house and kick up her heels in London for a while. But the controlling cheapskate Mr Penicuik won’t hear a word of it, so Kitty decides to hoax him by pretending to be engaged to Freddy and going to London with him to be presented to his family. Against his better judgment, Freddy goes along with the scheme, and hijinks ensue.
This is only the second novel I’ve read by Georgette Heyer (the first was A Civil Contract), and what a fun read it was! Heyer’s characters, both the central and minor ones, are wonderfully developed, and the story is so amusing. And the romance wasn’t as entirely predictable as I thought it might be. For the first half of the book or so, I waffled between two possible directions in which the story might go. In the end, I was immensely satisfied and not particularly surprised at the outcome.
I’ve often seen Heyer compared with Jane Austen. Heyer’s romances are frequently set in Austen’s era, and she shares Austen’s skill at revealing character through observation. But beyond that, their styles are quite different, and I think readers would be unlikely to mistake one for the other. Heyer’s characters talk a lot of “flash,” using exclamations and slang to a degree that would be out-of-place in an Austen novel. See, for example, this conversation between Freddy and Kitty about Kitty’s governess, Miss Fishguard:
‘Can’t make the woman out at all, myself. Know what she said to me this morning? Asked me if I’d slept well, and when I told her that it beat me how anyone could sleep at all, with a dashed lot of cockerels crowing their heads off, she said that rural sounds exhilarate the spirit, and do something or other to languid nature.’
‘Cowper,’ said Kitty, in a depressed tone. ‘”Restore the tone of languid nature.”‘
‘Well, it’s a bag of moonshine!’ said Freddy. ‘What’s more, I always thought so! Often hear of fellows ruralizing—going into the country on a repairing lease, y’know—but I never could see that it did ’em a particle of good. Well, if they’re kept awake the better part of the night by a lot of cockerels, stands to reason it couldn’t! It’s my belief, Kit, the woman’s touched in her upper works.’
‘No, she is merely addicted to poetry,’ explained Kitty.
‘Well, that just shows you!’ said Mr Standen reasonably.
To say that Heyer isn’t Austen is not to insult Heyer, because she’s very good in her own way. But I do want to mention it because I think the frequent comparison might give potential Heyer readers the wrong impression.
This is a fun, light read, with some moving moments and pleasing insights into human nature. I was especially taken by Lord Dolphinton’s story, which could have gone so wrong but whose resolution seemed so right for the period. It was interesting, too, to see characters who care so much about social convention and respectability recognize that there are times when defying convention is the best course for everyone (even if that defiance is really a way to protect one’s own respectability in the long term).
I enjoyed this very much and look forward to reading more Heyer. If you have a favorite you’d like to suggest, please share in the comments!
Cotillion was Jenny’s first Heyer novel, and she also enjoyed it. Check out her review.