Mar 20 2012 1:00pm

“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.

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
Somehow I did not actually know that about the title. How silly of me.

I have the vague idea that when I read the book, I took the petticoat line as a negative (lack-of) statement ("I find women and societal expectations regarding heterosexual romance baffling") rather than a positive ("I am attracted to men not women"). But I think that I already knew the spoiler and am sadly used to (and not immune from, though I am working on it) bisexual invisibility.

Anyway, fun book and I like the way it's examining the idea of a suitable relationship from lots of different angles (I can only remember three of the four couples right now, but all three are unsuitable from one angle or another).
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
I was delightfully surprised by the ending when I read this book, and it was the first Heyer I ever tried. Jack showed up as the obligatory hot-tempered smug handsome sporting romantic hero, and I sighed a bit at how inevitably Kitty would end up with him, and, well. We know how it went.

...sadly, this made most of the other Heyer romances I read terrible disappointments, because so often the smug, irritating, self-assured stroppy asshole is exactly who the protagonist ends up with. I would really rather get another book on Freddy And Kitty's Adventures In Marriage.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
Plus, this has one of my all time favorite Heyer scenes: Kitty and Freddy's tour of London, and Freddy's stringent comments on the Elgin Marbles and the foolishness of Elizabeth I. "She might have caught a chill!"
4. pilgrimsoul
Freddy is my favorite Heyer hero ever. And yet when I first met him, I thought--as Heyer intended--him merely a well meaning fool. She does a great job getting us to appreciate his kindness and admire his savoir faire. A key scene is at the masquerade when he asserts his position as "pink of the ton" to rescue Kitty from a social fix.
Heyer does a splendid job showing how his "engagement" to Kitty gets him to accept more responsibility and pushes his growth beyond being simply a fashionable man about town--although he will always be that.
5. John R. Ellis
" 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"

That definition seems a tad narrow.

Quite a few of my bi friends would find it off-putting and wrong. (Not all, but quite a few.)
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams
Kitty is one of my favorite Heyeroines, and I loved the twist in this one. One of my favorite moments is at the masked ball, where proper young ladies don't go, when- SPOILER- she runs into Meg, who also shouldn't be there.
For goodness sake, Meg, keep your domino closely tied if you don't want to be recognized! I daresay half London must know that dreadful lilac dress, for nothing that Freddy, or Mallow, or I can say to you serves to convince you that it is not at all becoming to you!
Of course, having bought the book in Hatchards, I was ecstatic to find that Kitty bought her guidebook there.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
John Ellis: Sorry to be unclear. I meant the second part of that to modify the first not to be a definition of it. I meant that a) he was bi and b) he was one of those bi people who falls on the spectrum of being more attracted to one gender than the other. I didn't mean I meant all bi people were where I imagine Freddy is -- they range all the way from 10% one and 90% the other through to 50/50.
Beth Mitcham
8. bethmitcham
Another switch in characters is in Talisman Ring, where in the first chapter we meet two men who are impossible to imagine with our supposed female lead. Luckily she rides off into the forest to discover additional characters, which allows for better couples to form.

Kate @1: Are you counting the older couple?
Claire de Trafford
9. Booksnhorses
A lovely review Jo. I hope that you will review a few more (dare I hope for all of them?). A Civil Contract is also one of my favourites, not least because we see a married couple rather than the courting whirlwind.
10. JennyRad
Hi Jo, I enjoyed this review of one of my favourite Heyers, which a friend recommended. I haven't yet gone through your whole archive, but I gather from one of the other comments that (aside from the A Convenient Marriage review) you haven't reviewed (m)any other Heyers yet. Given your reading of Cotillion, I am on the edge of my seat for your reaction to Friday's Child; I want to know if you - and everyone else - reads it the way I do ...!
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@ClairedeT and JennyRad -- :: grins :: I can't speak for Jo or if she's planning any further Heyer reviews (I'm hoping yes), but I can say that a Heyer reread of nearly all of her books is forthcoming :) , including some of the early contemporary novels that she later suppressed. This is tentatively planned for sometime this summer or fall.

I hope you can both join in; I'm always interested in differing viewpoints, and I'd say Friday's Child gives us a lot to talk about.
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
bethmitcham @ #8: Kitty and Freddy, the not-very-bright cousin and the sensible woman who wants to take care of him, and . . . the foreigner who isn't what he seems and . . . someone, possibly the woman Jack is trying to seduce?

That's all I got.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Kate: Kitty and Freddy, Dolph and the sensible cit woman, Camille and Olivia Broughty, (yes, the woman Jack is trying to seduce) and Fish (the governess) and Great Uncle Matthew.
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
Thank you!

(I'd say it's time for a re-read but that would require me to have time.)
15. etv13
I've pointed this out before, but I think it's notable that when we are first introduced to Freddy, not only has he had the forethought to stop and get himself a good dinner before going on to Mr. Penicuik's, but we're told along with everything else that he rides and drives well. Riding (to hounds, at that) requires athleticism, and driving horses is a real skill.

I never really thought about Freddy's sexuality until somebody (Sherwood Smith, I think) said the book only works for her if you think of Freddy as gay. I think (a) I was too young when I first read it; (b) I am the original girl with no gaydar; and (c) sexuality is nearly always very, very subtle in Heyer. Even today, I have no clue if Hero and Sherry have consummated their marriage by the end of Friday's Child. I also take the fact that Freddy punches Jack to mean that he is physically attracted to Kitty. I'm not sure I can explain why it take it to mean that, though.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
etv13: Hero and Sherry's consumation or lack of it and the possible timing are things that make me wonder a lot every time I read Friday's Child. I have similar thoughts about The Convenient Marriage and April Lady. These are all married people who fall in love during the book and have consumatory kisses -- and what has their sex life been like before?

On the same lines, I find that Austen talks about sex without talking about it, but it's perfectly apparent that her characters have sexuality, while Heyer characters tend to stop at the waist,
Pamela Adams
17. PamAdams
My first signs of Freddy and Kitty being perfect for each other was that same lilac dress. Meg gives a dress to Olivia to take to France, sand Freddy asks hopefully, The lilac one?, only to be disappointed.

These are all married people who fall in love during the book and have consumatory kisses -- and what has their sex life been like before? In A Civil Contract, Adam promises 'not to do anything you won't like,' to which Jenny replies something along the lines of 'I'm not afraid,' but of course she's already in love with him.

I always wonder, especially with the characters like Jack 0r Damarel, about the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. No penicillin then, and the mercury cure as mentioned in Patrick O'Brian, was more likely to kill than cure.
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Pam: Adam and Jenny have a baby, so we know they have sex at least once. (Unless babies grow on cabbage bushes, which wouldn't surprise me overmuch.)
Beth Mitcham
19. bethmitcham
Yes, Fish and Uncle Matthew were the older couple. I figured they were the only one with an element of surprise, so I didn't want to spoil anyone's rereading.

I like the idea of loving someone with the quality of finding a cab on a rainy day.

@18 Adam and Jenny seemed to have a healthy sex life. I have trouble believing that Hero has any idea how things work. Which is just as well, since the last thing those two need is a child.
20. etv13
I think in April Lady they have consummated their marriage, because in a conversation with her brother, Nell expresses disappointment that she hasn't gotten pregnant yet, and she surely can't be that ignorant.

I don't get the sense that Sir Richard and Pen Creed stop at the waist (though it occurs to me he's never seen her dressed as a girl), or Charles and Sophy, or Venetia and Damerel, but for many other Heyer characters, they might as well. While I'm thinking of
The Corinthian, can anybody explain to me what is the distinction Pen is drawing when Richard says she's "just seventeen" and she corrects him to "turned seventeen"?
Pamela Adams
21. PamAdams
I also take the fact that Freddy punches Jack to mean that he is physically attracted to Kitty.

Another beautiful moment, since Freddy is doing his 'airhead fashionista' imitation just before the punch in order to allow Kitty the freedom to make her own choices.
22. Shellywb
I don't see Freddie as gay or bi, and I'm a fan of slash fandoms so I tend to notice things like that. But reading Freddie that way seems to me to be taking it out of the context in which it was written and it which it was set. There's a difference between reading subtext, and creating a subtext based upon modern sensibilities.
23. pilgrimsoul
Have to agree with Pam Adams and Shellywb--re Freddy. His awakening to his physical love of Kitty and hers to him! rather than simple fondness is very well done.
Kitty (being very proper) merely takes his hand and raises it to her face. He's abashed by this action--abashed meaning aroused?
Alice Arneson
24. Wetlandernw
pilgrimsoul @23 - Dude. Google it. Abashed means embarrassed or disconcerted. He didn't expect it, because it's not entirely a "proper" thing for her to do. Sorry, but by no definition does "abashed" mean "aroused."

Shellywb @22 - "There's a difference between reading subtext, and creating a subtext based upon modern sensibilities." Thank you! Having read a lot of these books (Heyer, etc. as well as Austen & co.) I absorbed quite a bit of the lingo, and I've always read Freddy as someone who was enjoying his sports, his horses and his fashion but wasn't ready yet to take on the complications of getting involved with women.

Being "in the petticoat line" was often used to indicate someone who was willing to be considered as looking for a wife, although it was also sometimes a euphemism for spending too much time and money on ladies of... negotiable virtue, especially while up at Oxford. IMO, Freddy was using it primarily in the former sense; wives are high-maintenance creatures, after all, and his point was that he wasn't interested yet. It fits with everything else in the book much better than claiming he was either gay or bi.
25. pilgrimsoul
@ 24
Yes, Wetlander, I know that. I just didn't make myself clear. I was speculating that the physical contact--as minimal as it was--didn't just merely embarass him.
26. Lynne Connolly
"Being in the petticoat line" especially with Jack in the picture (the villain? Surely not! Merely a temporary antagonist!) would mean not a lady's man. Freddy might have a ladybird or two from time to time, but he doesn't go to the ton balls very often, preferring to spend time with his friends.
When Heyer wrote this book, the idea of putting a homosexual or even homosexual references into a mainstream romance was pretty much unthinkable. Since her characters rarely do much more than kiss on the last page, that would be completely out of her purview!
27. S.M. Stirling
As to Freddy, note that a gentleman didn't have to get married to have a sex life. Well, other people didn't either, but a gentleman in particular could have a mistress or other alternatives and if he followed the conventional rules nobody would blink an eye.

He'd just be a "confirmed bachelor".

"Confirmed bachelor" didn't necessarily mean "gay"; it might often just mean "not fond of women's company all the time" or "don't want to go to the bother of a married man's social life".

If you weren't under an obligation to produce a legitimate heir for the family name, this was a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice in the period.

In any case, upper-class men often didn't marry until fairly late in life -- the 30's was quite typical.
28. di
to me "not in the petticoat line" wasn't as suggestive of his non-straightness as the bit where freddie is described as the man even the most jealous husbands didn't mind their wives dancing with.

"oh, freddie-- well, in that case..."
29. Suburbanbanshee
"In the petticoat line" means someone who sleeps with women of easy virtue or with outright prostitutes; a womanizer of a particular type. "Starting in the petticoat line" is starting to patronize prostitutes or sleep around with loose women. It's UK Regency/college slang.

It's funny because Freddy is so reserved that he hardly needs to defend himself that strongly.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment