Cotillion is not one of Georgette Heyer’s most well-known novels, nor is it one of the famous ones that get trotted out when trying to explain Heyer’s appeal to newcomers. However, it is absolutely one of my favourites, and recently, when I was suffering an overdose of dystopic and experimental science fiction, I had a very happy evening revelling in Heyerland again. Cotillion is a domestic Heyer, one that focuses on economics and expenditure as metaphors for character. It’s also one of the Heyers in which the nobody enters the rich family and shows their quality by the performance of their values.
Orphaned Kitty Charing pretends to be engaged to the Hon. Freddy Standen because she knows she can trust him to help her escape from her eccentric guardian’s house to embrace the opportunities and pleasures of life with a month in London. Freddy is perfectly willing to help Kitty find a way to improve her situation, for she has been left on his uncle Mr Penicuik’s hands after the death of her father, and he has a mighty stingy way of conducting his affairs, expecting Kitty and her chaperone Miss Fishwick to exist on short commons and no unnecessary expenditure, such as a fire in the bedroom in winter, or a new dress in more than five years. But Mr Penicuik’s secret memories of Kitty’s mother, the Frenchwoman Desirée, have determined that he will leave his fortune to Kitty if, and only if, she marries one of his nephews.
So here is Kitty’s problem. George is already married, thank goodness, so he is out of the question, though as the self-styled head of the family he will keep imposing his pompous good advice that nobody wants. Claud, the malicious elder cousin who once snapped off the head of Kitty’s doll, is abroad with the army chasing Boney, so she is safe from him. Foster, Lord Dolphinton, is too slow in his understanding for Kitty to feel comfortable marrying him, and he has no desire at all to marry Kitty since he is secretly betrothed to a Cit’s sister, the unlovely but completely reliable and suitable Hannah. Hugh is a serious and severe minister of religion whose idea of marriage is a promise to Kitty that he will willingly take care of her education and teach her how to be a good minister’s wife. Freddy is, of course, of no account, since all he cares about is the cut of his coat. And that leaves Jack, romantic, devastating, dashing and uncontrollable, and he will not be told when and where to make a proposal of marriage, especially since he feels sure that Kitty, who has adored him since childhood, will be his for the taking whenever he feels ready to drop the handkerchief.
Kitty finds that she has arrived in London at an opportune time, since Freddy’s married sister Meg, Lady Buckhaven (in an interesting situation), needs a female companion while her husband is off to China on a diplomatic mission for a year. Freddy’s mother is preoccupied with the measles among her younger children, so, although affectionate, is distracted. Jack maliciously introduces Kitty to her long-lost cousin on her mother’s side, the gorgeously handsome Camille who calls himself the Chevalier d’Evron, but Freddy’s father, the ineffably up to snuff Lord Legerwood, discovers that no such Chevalier exists. Kitty’s chance encounter with the stunningly beautiful Miss Olivia Broughty in a linen-draper’s shop brings her into social contact with a very unfashionable group of people who will disgrace her utterly unless Freddy can pull her out of scrape after scrape. Kitty has no idea that Jack has an interest in Olivia too, so when he calls to see Meg one day and finds another putative mistress-to-be sitting with Kitty in the Buckhaven drawing-room, he realises that Kitty is drawing his worlds dangerously close together, and that the Chevalier is also encroaching on the territory that he had thought was his.
Meanwhile, the mystery of the Charing-Standen engagement continues to puzzle their friends, since neither Kitty no Freddy show any sign of loverlike behaviour. Kitty relies on Freddy’s good taste for her clothes and jewels to do him credit, and he relies on her good sense to keep Meg’s erratic dress sense under control. But when Jack is clearly bent on seducing Meg in her husband’s absence, and has introduced d’Evron to Kitty with a view to embarrassing her by the Chevalier’s eventual exposure as a professional card-sharper, Freddy’s work is cut out to protect his womenfolk from careless Jack’s games. When Lord Dolphinton takes to calling for Kitty every morning so that she can accompany him to see his beloved Hannah, the complications of Kitty’s engagement become public, and only the mystery of the double-crossed letter admitting treachery by the hysterical Miss Fishwick brings to an end this farrago of schemes with a climactic ending in the Reverend Hugh’s drawing room with the marriage licence, a lord in a cupboard, and a knockout blow.