One of my favorite authors if I want the lightest of reading material and a good laugh is Georgette Heyer. Although I am not a romance reader, for her meticulously researched and comic Regency romances I have to make an exception. Her period pieces are absolutely convincing, as she was an expert on Regency dress, deportment, and speech. In fact, she became such an expert on the period’s idioms that she once was able to successfully sue a plagiarizer by proving that the expression the other writer copied appeared only in some records to which she had been granted private access.
But Heyer was also an expert at creating charming comic characters and situations. Cotillion is one of my favorites of her books, and one of the silliest.
Kitty Charing is an impoverished orphan who has been raised in discomfort by her miserly old guardian, “Uncle” Matthew Penicuik. A great one for manipulating his putative heirs, Uncle Matthew announces that he will leave his entire fortune to Kitty, but only if she marries one of his four grandnephews. Then he invites them all to come calling. Priggish Reverend Hugh Rattney and doltish Lord Dolphinton arrive, and the married Lord Biddenden comes to represent his rakish brother Captain Claud Rattney, but dashing Captain Jack Westruther, whom Kitty has grown up hero-worshipping, does not make an appearance, as he is unwilling to be manipulated.
Kitty is furious that Jack doesn’t appear, but even more furious at being put in this position. She soundly rebukes all of her “cousins,” except Lord Dolphinton, who is too stupid to be responsible for his actions and has been compelled to come by his mama. But then Uncle Matthew announces that if Kitty refuses to marry one of her cousins, he will leave her with nothing. What is a spunky Heyer heroine to do but run off into a snowstorm with only a few possessions and an impractical plan to get a job as a house maid?
She arrives at the local inn to find her cousin Freddy Standen, who has absolutely no idea why he has been summoned. Freddy, not the brightest of bulbs but a kind-hearted young man, is perfectly wealthy in his own right and has no intention of getting married. When he meets Kitty at the inn, she talks him into pretending an engagement with her and inviting her to go up to London so she can acquire some “town polish,” buy some nice clothes, and (she hopes but doesn’t tell Freddy) enchant Jack into a proposal.
Freddy, an expert in deportment and fashion who can always be relied upon to accompany a young married woman to a dance or concert, is not really a lady’s man. When he and Kitty arrive in London to find his harassed mother attempting to care for a house full of children with mumps, he is dismayed to find he is left responsible for a naïve girl who tends to fall into difficulties and odd friendships.
The novel is crammed with comic characters, such as Kitty’s foolish governess “Fish,” who has a turn for quoting romantic poetry; Freddy’s frippery married sister Meg, who wears color combinations that shock him to the core and spends her time trying to avoid her mama-in-law; Camille, Kitty’s real French cousin, who is impersonating a lord; Lord Dolphinton, who is terrified of his mother but strictly charged by her to get Kitty to dump Freddy and marry him; and the silly doe-eyed Olivia, whom Kitty befriends but Jack is pursuing to be his mistress.