“It Won’t Do, You Know!” Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion

A cotillion is a Regency dance where you change partners, and Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion is a Regency Romance where everybody twirls and faces their partners and ends up in a happy set of not-entirely predictable couples. It’s an implausible confection set in a world that never was, and it’s delightful. It’s full of banter and tiny details of taste and behaviour, and it has an ending that is surprising the first time through and beautifully played no matter how many times you’ve read it.

If A Civil Contract is my favourite Heyer, Cotillion is perhaps the quintessential one. Kitty’s guardian writes a will leaving his fortune to whichever of his nephews marries Kitty. Kitty persuades one of those nephews, Freddy, to pretend to enter into an engagement with her so that she can go to London, because once she is in London she’s quite sure something will happen. She even has a plan, which concerns the nephew who didn’t show up, the elusive Jack.

I always read Regencies (or any historical novels) with SF notions of worldbuilding, and there’s plenty of that here. This is a comedy of manners with broadly drawn characters and beautiful scenery. There’s a proper ball and a masked ball, there are chaperones and new clothes — and there’s a man who is trying to make a beautiful poor girl his mistress. People are always considering what will or won’t “do”, what will pass in society. Matters of taste — from the colours of clothes to how public a seduction may be — are paramount. Kitty, new to everything and with an enthusiasm and determination which one can only applaud, draws the reader on through the complications of the plot to the triumphant resolution.

If you like Sorcery and Cecelia and The Privilege of the Sword you will have fun with Cotillion. There are four very different couples who end up happily together, and the entwining of the different romances and the part Kitty plays in helping all of them reach their conclusions is what provides the complications of the plot. They are the kind of characters it’s delightful to encounter, and they are deftly developed and entangled.

But the thing that makes Cotillion such fun is… a great big spoiler. Some people suggested that you ought to read Cotillion only after reading other Heyers, so that the spoiler will be a surprise because you’ll know what your expectations are supposed to be. I don’t think this is the case. I think a reader who hasn’t read any other Heyers will be just as surprised as anyone else.


It is a Cotillion, where everyone changes partners, and we’re led to believe that Kitty’s engagement to Freddy is all pretence and that it is Jack she loves and will end up with. Jack is the very model of a standard romantic hero, but here he is in fact the villain.

Taste is everything, and Kitty has naturally good taste. While we are encouraged to laugh at Freddy thinking Young Lochinvar is an idiot and so on, Freddy’s taste is also held up as exemplary. So it shouldn’t be a surprise — although it is — that the whole book is poking fun at the idea of grand sweeping passion as opposed to long term quiet love. In The Unknown Ajax, another of my favourite Heyers, a character says of falling in love that she had slowly come to find him “indispensible to her comfort.” And that’s what happens here. Freddy isn’t an idiot or a foil, although the engagement is a “hum,” a fake at first, Kitty comes to love him because he always knows the right thing to do. He can find a sedan chair in the rain, he knows you have to have a special license to get married in a hurry, he remembers that people eloping need hair brushes.

But Freddy says to his father very early in the book that he “isn’t in the petticoat line.” It’s really hard not to read that as a polite period declaration of homosexuality. And it’s really hard not to read Freddy as one of those gay best friends so common in fiction who knows about men’s clothes and women’s clothes and how to dance. Indeed, even with his delightful declaration of love for Kitty at the end, I see him as bi, one of those people who is most attracted to the same sex but somewhat attracted to the opposite sex too. I have no idea if this was Heyer’s intention, as while there were lots of gay people in 1953 they didn’t generally appear in fiction unproblematically. I like to think of this as being one more twist the book gets away with.

In any case, I think anyone will be surprised at the ending whether or not they are familiar with Regencies, because there are so many romances in all genres where the hero looks like a villain and then changes his apparent character in the last chapter, so few where the villain looks like a hero and the hero looks like a gay best friend. That’s such a cool thing to do! And all in such exquisite taste.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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