Cotillion: Georgette Heyer book club no. 19

(33 Posts)
LeonieDeSainteVire Wed 06-Mar-13 23:15:32

I had no recollection of this book at all which means I can't have rated it highly reading it in my younger years. So I reread it and was amazed to find it quite brilliant. If you prefer the more adventure/sleuth style novels it's not going to be for you but if you prefer the comedy of manners where nothing much happens but it happens with style then this is one of the best IMO.

Like The Foundling this is a bit of a departure from GH's usual romances. Jack, who is handsome, stylish, excellent sportsman, has all the ladies at his feet and therefore should be the hero, isn't. In fact he's a bit of a shit. Freddy, kind, foppish, diffident, in the style of many of GH's best friends or younger brothers actually turns out to be the hero and get the girl - mainly I think because he's nice but above all he's competent - definitely the kind who can find a hack when it's raining!

Most of the book is really about Freddy's transformation from slow witted, nice-but-dim character into, well, husband material and about Kitty's recognising his good qualities as she falls out of love with Jack. But I don't think Freddy was ever that dim. We know he's not 'bookish' (although he went to Cambridge - I guess the entry requirements were different then!) but he's kind, well mannered and well liked, I just think he's been living a very easy and idle life and never had any chance or need to show what he can do. Once he has Kitty in his life he has to step up to the mark and does so - to the surprise of his father which leads to one of my favourite lines:
...I ain't such a sapskull as you think!'
'I have always known you could not be, my dear boy.'

This is one of the really comic books and the supporting cast all play their part but Freddy is inherently a comic character, his bewilderment at The Fish's poetry quotations and his horror at being dragged around the tourist sights of London are particularly good. It is significant I think that Kitty mostly agrees with him in the end about the sights and doesn't mind that he doesn't understand the poetic references - I think it indicates that really she is as frivolous as he is at heart, just bought up differently. The Fish, what little we see of her, is horrific and funny at the same time, Uncle Matthew is just horrific! Lord Legerwood is excellent, clearly a Heyer hero from an earlier setting - reminds me of Justin in some ways.

The Dolph and Hannah romance is rather sad in every way and I am not sure it adds to the book much other than as a plot device. Camille and Olivia are irritating and entertaining equally but I feel as relieved as Freddy when he finally packs them off.

One bit of plot which I think gets lost is the suggestion that Jack and Meg's relationship is closer than is suitable, but after the masquerade that just kind of fizzles out with no indication of what was really going on.

Finally, the ending, which is perfect I think! Freddy's words at the end are just so lovely and sum up what a nice chap he is and how they are going to be happy together because he will always work to make her happy.
'What I mean is, like you to have everything you want. Wished it was me, and not Jack, that's all.'

I'll stop now because I could go on forever. Sorry! What do you think?

onthelastlegtohome Thu 07-Mar-13 07:54:13

Yes I love most of GH's novels. They were responsible for my excellence in spelling tests at school! I now re read them every 10 years or so blush and Cotillion is one of my favourites. Thanks, your precis of the story has brought back happy memories..

onthelastlegtohome Thu 07-Mar-13 08:01:04

ooh sorry didn't realise this was an in depth GH bookclub [bows]

onthelastleg - dig out your copy and jump in!!

Leonie, I duly re-read Cotillion, and I'm not converted. It's less dreadful than I thought (hey, it's Heyer after all!!) but I have problems with it.

But first, the good:

The minor characters are glorious. I adore Lord Legerwood, who deserves far more of a part than he gets. You mentioned "^I have always known you could not be^" - talk about a back-handed compliment. There is also the lovely bit where he bumps into Kitty in their house and asks if she has come to visit London, and she flusters, and we get Lord Legerwood's calm grey eyes took note of the blush; a twinkle came into them. "Can it be that you have come to stay with us?" he suggested. And he obviously knows exactly what Kitty's game is from the start. He's just lovely - like Avon might have been if Vidal hadn't been such a hellraiser and Justin weren't so proud.

Fish is interesting. I find her decidedly plausible - although the convoluted reference to Katherine Parr baffles Kitty and Freddy, it's all too plain to us. Hugh has already told us what her fate is, when he warns Kitty against throwing away her legacy:

I hesitate to wound you, but I must tell you that, the world being what it is, a respectable marriage is hard to achieve for a dowerless and orphaned female. What could you do to maintain yourself, if left alone on the world? George has spoken of such a position as that held by Miss Fishguard, but surely without reflection! Miss Fishguard is an excellent woman, but she is lacking in such accomplishments as a governess seeking employment in the first circles is today expected to impart to her pupils. Her knowledge is not profound; her performance upon the pianoforte is not superior; she has no skill with water colours; little mastery over the French tongue; none at all over the Italian.

With Kitty married and gone, Fish would have been cast out with very short notice - and who would have had her? Bronte shows us in Jane Eyre that the list of subjects/accomplishments expected of a governess changed quite quickly - in 1810 ish they only needed bits and bobs, but by the time Jane herself is engaging staff for her children, that is considered "very narrow". Fish will have been with Kitty for a decade, and been completely outdone by the new generation of governesses. She is obsolete. She does a Becky Sharp, in effect, inveigling herself into the family's affections and leaving her old career behind.

I love Dolph and Hannah. I think the portrayal of mental weakness in the period (Jane Eyre etc again) is fascinating: a complete lack of understanding of what we would now call learning disabilities or mental illness, leading to permanent imprisonment, which obviously led to raving lunacy which only seemed to justify their actions. Lady Dolphinton's threats to have Dolph locked up are hideous: we can only guess whether or not she would actually carry them out, but one wonders how much his cousins would be able to defend him if she managed to find a doctor to declare him insane. Hannah is quite clear about her expectations of the marriage, and she will do him a great deal of good.

I don't like:

The fact that there's just too much story for a fairly short novel. There are too many strands, any of which could be a novel on its own, and none of which is given sufficient treatment. I want more of Dolph and Hannah; I want more of Camille and Olivia, even; I want more between the Legerwoods; I want more between Meg and Jack. I wonder if she intended a longer book, or a series (like Shades/Devil or Regency Buck/Infamous Army), and got cut short.

I can't be doing with Olivia and her family. I don't really see how Kitty gets away with spending so much time with them, even given Meg's lax chaperonage.

Meg is implausibly pregnant, simply to get Buckhaven out of the way and leave her there. It would be far more interesting if we were allowed to speculate that it's Jack's baby.

And I don't believe in Freddy. We don't see enough of him. He's like Sir Percy Blakeney without the self-possession.

And I DON'T LIKE KITTY. She has no redeeming features.

No. I doubt I'll bother again, although I'm glad I was made to read it.

* * * * *

Toddler woke up while I was typing this up. I have missed other things I wanted to say. There's a lot in this novel, and for me that's the problem. There is too much breadth and not enough depth.

Cotillion is safely in my top five Heyers and it's one I return to again and again.

I love Freddy, but I do see some small issues with his depiction. In places he's been given some spectacularly bone-headed things to say, for comic effect, while elsewhere he's depicted as really very shrewd, albeit not bookish, and if you concentrate too hard (if you're reading it for an online book group, for example) I don't think she's entirely smoothed over the joins. But it's not something I ever noticed when reading it for pleasure.

I like the way in which Freddy uses the image other people have of him to buy himself breathing space in awkward situations:

I hesitate to contradict you, George, but I am far more inclined to suppose that Freddy does not know for what purpose he was invited here .”
Mr. Standen, who had turned to observe himself in the spotted mirror over the fireplace, discovered that his neckcloth needed an infinitesimal adjustment. Until this delicate operation had been performed, it was plainly useless to address questions to him .

Mr. Penicuik’s hand clenched on his ebony stick, and his demeanour was for a moment so alarming that Kitty feared her betrothed might flee from his presence. But as Mr. Standen had just then caught sight of a piece of fluff, adhering to the lapel of his riding-coat, and was carefully removing it, he remained entirely unconscious of the danger he stood in. By the time he had leisure to turn his attention again to his great-uncle, Mr. Penicuik had regained control over his emotions ...

He moved towards her as he spoke; his eyes were laughing again; and he held out his hands. The Rector cast a glance at Mr. Standen, but Mr. Standen had discovered an infinitesimal speck of fluff adhering to his coat sleeve, and was engaged in removing it. It was a task that appeared to absorb his whole attention .

I think Kitty has plenty of redeeming features. She has a kind heart (which is why she wants to sort out Dolphinton's and Olivia's problems) and while she would like to have an independence she's not mercenary or acquisitive (she's genuinely glad that the Fish has married Great-Uncle Matthew provided that the Fish is happy, and she won't let Freddy spend significant sums on her, and she's quick to be conciliatory towards Meg when they have their spat. I think she's just nineteen and has never been allowed to have any fun at all. Once she's married she'll attach herself to some charitable cause, I bet. But I do feel at the end of the book that Kitty is luckier to have Freddy than Freddy is to have Kitty.

I take your point about the lack of development of the sub-plots, but probably that would have taken away from the feel of a light-hearted romp. If she could have pulled it off it might have been a more interestingly complex book, though.

But I do feel at the end of the book that Kitty is luckier to have Freddy than Freddy is to have Kitty.

Absolutely and definitely.

I take your point about the lack of development of the sub-plots, but probably that would have taken away from the feel of a light-hearted romp. If she could have pulled it off it might have been a more interestingly complex book, though.

Or series of books, indeed.

MooncupGoddess Thu 07-Mar-13 21:57:06

Cotillion is not one of my absolute favourites, and I get terribly bored of Olivia and her ghastly family, but it has many redeeming features - particularly, for me, the opening and closing scenes, which are both beautifully choreographed and extremely funny.

In many ways it is one of the fluffier novels, but there are unusually strong hints of the perils in wait beneath glossy high-society life. At one point someone says, almost in so many words, that Olivia is in danger of becoming a high-class prostitute, and Jack has a real nastiness to him - like Montague Revesby in Friday's Child. Likewise I think the portrayal of poor Dolph is kindly and thoughtfully done. Neither Olivia or Dolph can really fend for themselves, hence the importance of getting them both married to someone who can protect them.

Agree that Kitty is one of the less characterful heroines... bit of a placeholder, really, compared to Sophy/Arabella/Venetia etc.

LadyIsabellaWrotham Thu 07-Mar-13 23:12:32

I like Kitty a lot, she's like a cross between Arabella and Hero. And Freddy is fun - the idiotic young men about town are my favourite Heyer character type. I second everyone else in adoring his proposal scene.

Jack I think deserves more than a single punch in the face, I can't believe that Kitty forgives him so much. And I can't really believe that he would propose to her at a time when her inheritance was so dicey, though I guess he is a gambler.

I have a soft spot for Hugh the hunky vicar - priggish but very much in need of an eligible match. If I were plotting it I'd have been very tempted to shave ten years off Fish and match her up with Hugh, because I can't bear to think of how appalling her marriage to Matthew is going to be...with children too! I can only hope that he gets carried off by an apoplectic fit or complications of gout within the year. I know of course that marrying off Matthew with a woman of breeding age is brilliant plotting because of the way it disposes of the inheritancs whhch has driven the plot, but I can't be happy with it - and I note that Heyer draws the line at showing us the affianced couple.

Welcome and come on in, onthelastleg. All always welcome, either on this thread, the last one (The Quiet Gentleman) or the next ones (Toll Gate, then Bath Tangle, then Sprig Muslin) which will be up at roughly fortnightly intervals, so the perfect excuse to get re-reading now.

I really enjoyed re-reading Cotillion. It isn't one of my regular re-reads, so I couldn't remember much of the detail. And there is so much detail. Agree with Previous comments regarding the many sub pots and how they lend themselves to further follow up.

I love the way GH has subverted the traditional romance plot (something she does in lots of her novels) and made the obvious romantic lead (Jack) distinctly unheroic. He is a rake and a philanderer, and in Cotillion we see what the consequences could be for those women he is toying with. Meg is saved from a potentially damaging liaison by both her pregnancy, and the vigilance of Freddy. I can't remember the quote exactly, but at one point Freddy is talking to some (Lord Ledgerwood?) about Meg and Jack's relationship and says some thing like there is no need to worry about any 'brats through the the side door' because of Meg's intersection condition, plus he [Freddy] is keeping an eye on her. Olivia, is saved from the even more potentially disastrous consequences of a liaison with Jack because of her friendship with Kitty and, consequently, Freddy's practical intervention.

Freddy is the antithesis of Jack's aggressive and potentially destructive masculinity. He is sexually ambiguous ("not a marrying man"), being apparently uninterested in women - "had never been know to indulge in the mildest flirtation" - and fastidious about dress and decoration and an arbiter of good taste. He is not perceived as a threat by other men "Nor was the most jealous husband suspicious of him". But it becomes apparent throughout the novel that he is neither as effete, stupid or pacific as he is initially perceived to be.

In the end, Freddy is the hero, he floors the villain, gets the girl and thwarts Jack's designs on all three women he is attempting to engage with (flirtation with Meg, carte Blanche to Olivia, marriage and consequent acquisition of assets and person from Kitty). He provides a practical resolution to the Dolphin / Hannah and Camile / Olivia sub plots; finally acts on a growing anger towards Jack by knocking him over, and proves that he is actually a marrying man after all, by proposing to Kitty and 'ruthlessly' ruining her bonnet so he can kiss her.

mackerella Sat 09-Mar-13 15:36:00

Hello all, lots of excellent points have been made so far and I think I agree with nearly all of them! I'm still re-reading so will probably come back and add more when I've finished. The thing that's struck me most forcibly on this reading is how explicitly GH conveys the sense of sexual peril that threatens all the women of marriageable age - even Fish! The most obvious example is Olivia, who is being virtually prostituted by her Abbess of a mother - I love the bit where Kitty says how many admirers Olivia has:

"Olivia coloured and averted her face. 'Don't - pray! Gentlemen do sometimes admire me, but - but they do not offer to marry me. Situated as I am - the manners of my cousins - so very free! - I have met with a want of propriety in - in some whom I believed to be so very gentlemanly!'
"'I know what you mean, I daresay,' said Kitty, wisely, but in blissful ignorance of Miss Broughty's meaning."

Kitty's innocence is quite endearing but it does mean that she is equally blind to the threats to her own reputation - it is only because Freddy is explicitly looking after her that she escapes with her virtue and name intact. The slightly depressing message that I got from this novel is that women need to be looked after by a husband, or fiance, or brother or mother in order to preserve them from sexual threats - and even the breath of scandal is enough to diminish their value on the marriage market. Even Lady Maria has her father guarding her honour (and her fortune) against unscrupulous adventurers. Meg thinks that the is sophisticated enough to look after herself because she can gossip about the latest crim cons with the best of them, but she's also perilously close to ruining herself with Jack. YorkshireTeaDrinker's point about her pregnancy protecting her from the worst effects of a scandalous affair is a good one, and made me think about Horry's suggestion that she is "implausibly pregnant, simply to get Buckhaven out of the way and leave her there" - actually, I wonder if Buckhaven made damn sure that she was pregnant before he left for China, as a sort of long-distance chastity belt for his wife?!

All the stuff about how Olivia's virtue was under siege felt rather dark to me, and was a striking contrast to the way this theme has been portrayed in previous novels. Belinda and her awful mother are shown as rather comic in The Foundling, and there are endless throwaway references to the heroes' sowing their wild oats among Paphians in the muslin company. But it all stops being rather jolly and amusing in this novel, when we actually see how Olivia (who is portrayed as sympathetic, even though a bit wet and over-sensible) is in danger of ruining her life, either through marriage to a rich old goat, or (if that fails) by turning into a high-class call-girl.

Actually, I found the emphasis on how women needed to be aware of - and use to their advantage - their sexual capital rather depressing, too. Even Fish's marriage is shown as a desperate act to secure her future once Kitty has left. Again this is in contrast to the similar marriage in ^Charity Girl^: the housekeeper there is a grabby social climber rather than the slightly pathetic figure that Fish cuts.

Sorry, that is all rather long and downbeat for what is, after all, a frothy romantic comedy! I do think that the comic elements are glorious in this novel, it's just that I was also struck for the first time by the rather darker undercurrents that lie beneath.

mackerella Fri 15-Mar-13 20:41:15

Oh dear, I logged on after going on holiday for 5 days, only to find that I'd killed the thread with my ill-considered ramblings blushsad

Someone else come and post something sensible, please!

sarahtigh Fri 15-Mar-13 21:23:05

I was going to comment but have not finished re reading yet but I do love Lord Legerwood,

Freddy is seen as a good decent man by everyone but not a threat, no husbands guard their wives while freddy is about unlike Jack, but I like the way GH plays with Freddy's reputation as nice but dim and the fact that he is more astute than generally given credit for, has plenty of social & elope skills

Was thinking if we were in early 19th century when marriage was really the only option which of the GH heros would we choose the dashing Vidal, Damarel etc or the solid husband material like Adam, Giles, Waldo and freddy

don't ask me - I've been reading The Toll Gate, which beats Cotillion into a cocked hat!

Honestly, Cotillion is like a first draft. Yes there are good bits but it doesn't coalesce. It needs a lot of work.

MooncupGoddess Fri 15-Mar-13 22:14:16

On the contrary, mackerella, we were struck dumb in admiration for your incisive analysis. In addition to the sexual peril theme, there is a strong emphasis on women's monetary value, isn't there - Kitty is only of interest to most of her suitors because of her anticipated inheritance, whereas Olivia's worth comes purely from her beauty, which her mother hopes to convert into cold hard cash.

Meanwhile I am preparing my demolition of The Toll-Gate.

D-d-demolition? As in, you don't love it?! These few books are polarising, aren't they.

thewhistler Mon 18-Mar-13 01:03:04

Just bumping. Not a fave as I don't find Freddy attractive but am quite fond of it. Will post more when recovered from awful weekend.

LeonieDeSainteVire Thu 21-Mar-13 17:41:44

Sorry, I started this and went away, assuming it would take on a life of its own (because it's such a good book) but it hasn't. Which just goes to show that though we all describe ourselves as GH fans there is a huge variety in what we actually like within her work. I wonder at the end if there will be any we all agree on as being superb?

Well, I stand by my original points, (although i think YorkshireTeaDrinker put it better and more succinctly!) it's an excellent book and has gone up to my top 5-6 Heyers now. And yes, it definitely shows us more of the perils that lie beneath the surface for women in this time, I find that element very unsettling.

I have to add that I don't think really that Fish will threaten Kitty (or Jack's) inheritance. I can't help thinking that marriage will be purely for convenience! GH definitely could have done a sequel for this one, focusing on the Legerwoods and their family, maybe a murder mystery in a country house type - think she missed a trick there.

I have been reading the Jennifer Kloester biography, I'm only half way but one thing I find very interesting is how she describes GH's opinions of her own works, the ones she rated compared to those she thought indifferent. She seems to have thought highly of Regency Buck for instance which I think no one here thought very much of. I can't wait for her opinions on some of the later books.

Any further thoughts or is it time for The Tollgate <<groans>>

Takver Thu 21-Mar-13 17:49:46

I haven't posted on any of these threads, because although I love GH, somehow I find it hard to make pertinent comments; they're too much my comfort reads for analysis.

But, I definitely agree with you that Cotillion is one of the best, and Freddie one of the most pleasing heros.

Only one thought going right back to your OP: "The Dolph and Hannah romance is rather sad in every way and I am not sure it adds to the book much other than as a plot device."

I've always read it as a concious echo of Charlotte / Mr Collins in P&P, but rewritten as light comedy rather than tragedy. My feeling is that Hannah will have a pretty happy life in the countryside in Ireland, with Dolph occupied with his horses (rather than very much on the scene as Mr Collins is).

I am very ready for the UTTERLY BRILLIANT Toll Gate. Shall I start?

mackerella Thu 21-Mar-13 19:24:04

Yes to starting The Toll-Gate - I'm about 50 pages from the end and some of it is better than I remember.

Just a quick point about Cotillion before we finish this thread, though - I've been wondering why the title? Almost all of the other titles are descriptive of the heroines, either directly (Arabella, Frederica) or indirectly (Charity Girl, April Lady, The Reluctant Widow, etc.) and the rest either describe the hero (Sylvester, The Nonesuch) or the key subject (A Convenient Marriage, An Infamous Army ... even The Toll-Gate). But Cotillion bucks this trend slightly, in that it's not (literally) about dancing! I'm reluctant to think that GH chose the title at random just for its air of Regencyness, so I presume that it somehow reflects the novel thematically or even structurally.

Wiki says that the cotillion was 'a type of patterned social dance that originated in France in the 18th century. It was originally made up of four couples in a square formation, the forerunner of the quadrille [...] 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.' I know (from GH novels, inter alia!) that the figures making up the cotillion were complicated and required dedicated learning. It also seems to have been an elegant, social dance (in contrast with the more rustic country dances and racy waltzes that are also mentioned), so seems peculiarly suitable as the central metaphor in a romantic comedy of manners.

With that in mind, I've been trying to find the four couples who 'dance' through this novel. Kitty and Freddy are obviously one, as are Olivia and Camille and (presumably) Dolph and Hannah. I assume that Mr Penicuik and Fish get together too late and too marginally to count, so could it be Jack and Meg who form the fourth (almost) couple?! The trouble with this interpretation is that not much partner-swapping goes on: Jack nearly gets Olivia, and he also thinks that he has Kitty in the bag (just as she intends to marry him at the start), but I don't think there's really enough 'dancing' to justify the title.

<massively overthinks things>

No, it's a good point.

I think the idea is that Mr Penicuik thinks he is choreographing the dancers, but they pair off wrong and take different steps.

LeonieDeSainteVire Thu 21-Mar-13 21:24:27

I'm impressed! I have wondered why 'Cotillion' but I didn't get any further. I am glad we have these threads.

Apparently it was originally titled 'Quadrille' - which I think is a similar dance, and then 'Chicken Hazard' which I don't think would have worked!

thewhistler Thu 21-Mar-13 22:00:47

I confess I disagree with Horry on one level, I think this is a tightly plotted book. I can't see why fans of Friday's child are not equally fond of this one, save that this is darker. (Yes, ok, that is a good reason.) It has a silly young man and a silly young girl who both develop, some amusing vignettes, some light hearted characters, and a nice flush hit at the end.

Freddie is much nicer than Sherry. I agree that there are no equivalents to Gil, save for Lord Legerwood, which is a sad loss, but we do have Jack and Dolph. Jack is so much the hero/antihero, GH is teasing on one level and on another warning. Dolph is sad, and might have been left as such but has a most touching happy ending.

I have now reread it several times to try to get to grips with it. For me, although it is still not one of my faves, it is interesting for two reasons.

One, the heroine actually develops. Sophie doesn't, I doubt Judith will, Mary and Ancilla are too perfect already to do so, I am never convinced about Hero.

And the second is that, whether we like it or not, it does deal in the social realities of life at that point. Sophia is prepared to sell herself, Olivia will be forced. Jack is only prepared to contemplate marriage with Kitty on the basis that she may come into a fortune and is too innocent to understand , at any rate at the beginning, the implications of his behaviour. GH is showing with no amusement the flip side of the coin of Miles Calverleigh etc. We had a little of that in Friday's Child, but the maid was a cardboard cut out. So was Leaky Peg in Arabella.

There are also some very funny moments. My favourite is the tongue tied Freddy getting Olivia to explain herself and picking up her reticule, but that is pretty much equalled by the Lord Legerwood moments. I also like Kitty's saving of Meg, and the point when they think of Freddie's view of Lochinvar. And "Hannah come too, both get into cupboard."

The problem for me is that I still don't like Freddie enough even to spell his name consistently. His lack of intellect drives me nuts. Yes, I know he is astute but it doesn't quite compensate. And his friends and family don't equal Sherry's. Although Hugh is pretty good.

I quite like Kitty but prefer her clothes. I don't like Meg. Olivia is wet. Camille is too cynical to be even very amusing. The Fish subplot is ok, with the obvious Henry Vlll hint, and the gushing poetry. But it isn't so funny as the appearance of Nemesis , came across him at Eton, in Friday's Child.

So I do enjoy it, it is a GH, but although well plotted it feels like a conventional dance and only mildly diverting, not the mad careering we are used to.

thewhistler Thu 21-Mar-13 22:06:25

Mackerella, yes I think it is Jack and Meg.

Originally I thought it was Freddie, Jack, Hugh and Dolph as in the first scene, but Camillle usurps Hugh's place.

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