Regency Gothic: Cousin Kate

As she continued to churn out bestsellers and tried to fend off imitators, Georgette Heyer could not help but notice another romantic subgenre once again heading for bestseller lists: the Gothic. In some ways, Gothic romances had never exactly left the bestseller lists since Ann Radcliffe had first enthralled readers in the last years of the 18th century, but the genre had rarely garnered critical approval, perhaps explaining why Georgette Heyer, desperate for such approval, had avoided it. By 1968, however, desperate for a plot, still worried about finances, and noting the number of Gothic romances landing on the bestseller list, she finally tried her hand at a Gothic novel, Cousin Kate, after a nice luncheon at Buckingham Palace had at least given her the seal of royal, if not critical, approval.

As I’ve mentioned before in this series, we’ve all made mistakes.

Small sidenote: Jo Walton has done an excellent job discussing the Gothic novel of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They all usually follow a very similar outline: a young girl without money, and usually with very few friends or relatives (if any) arrives at a Mysterious House to find Mysterious Doings, Secrets and Untrustworthy People. Usually a Sinister Hero is around and the girl must—gasp!—decide if she Trusts the Sinister Hero or Not. Often People End Up Dead, and the heroine is almost always in a Perilous Situation Requiring Rescue although sometimes she does manage to Rescue Herself only to be Clasped in the Hero’s Arms at the Last Minute. Often people are Very Proud. Too Proud. And they know Dark Family Secrets. It’s All Very Dangerous.

TOTAL SIDENOTE: Royal Historian of Oz Rachel Cosgrove Payes decided to write Gothic novels after Oz publishers Reilly & Lee turned down her second Oz book. I had the good fortune to find one completely by accident at a local used bookstore and oh, Tor readers, it completely sucked. I mean, just awful. My little Oz heart was broken, if not quite as much as my little Heyer heart was broken by this book. But I anticipate. Anyway, the overall message is, if you’re curious about Gothic romances of this period, the exemplars are arguably the terrifyingly prolific Victoria Holt (stick with earlier novels) and Phyllis A. Whitney (ditto); richer, more original examples are Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier, both of whom played with the tropes, or for a comedic touch, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. But avoid, avoid, avoid, the Gothic work of Rachel Cosgrove Payes. We now return to the Heyer post.

Anyway. Cousin Kate contains all of these elements: a young orphaned girl who is (almost) friendless and without other relations; a large house in the countryside that receives few if any visitors, an untrustworthy doctor (who annoys me about as much as he annoys other characters, but moving on), a Mysterious Servant or Two along with some loyal servants, a retiring and disabled lord of the house (technically, just a baronet), his wife, who is Full of Pride, and a remarkably unconvincing madman. Also, a remarkably boring hero, but with all of this going on, I guess turning the hero into a Mr. Rochester would have been Too Much. Heyer adds in a few of her own characteristic touches—the household servants are at war, in a general echo of her previous books; the French chef (a very minor character) is lifted straight from her previous books; and of course, everyone is very interested in clothes.

The plot, too, is straight out of a Gothic novel. Young Kate Malvern (not that young, at 24, but young enough to have problems getting a job as a governess) has been turned out of her position. For various not really all that well explained reasons she has no contact with her mother’s family, and no money from her parents. Facing reality, she intends to get a job as a dressmaker. This drop in the (gasp) working classes horrifies her old nurse, Sarah, and Sarah’s father-in-law, Mr. Nidd, who together write Kate’s half-aunt, Minerva, Lady Broome, for assistance. (I assume the “Minerva” is meant to be ironic; it mostly just adds yet another annoying note.) Lady Broome turns out to be remarkably affable for someone who has never met her niece, showering Kate with gifts of expensive clothing (is it really a Heyer novel without the mention of a pelisse and a Norwich shawl?) and offering her a home at, gasp gasp, Staplewood. (Keep gasping, because Lady Broome wants you to gasp.) The offer, as we find out ssseeeevvvveeerrraaallll tedious pages later has a bit of a catch: Lady Broome, well aware that her son, Torquil, is dangerously mad, wants Kate to marry him and produce an heir so that the Broomes of Staplewood can continue in an unbroken male line. No, really, that’s the reason. Not to make Torquil happy, or sane, but to make sure that the Broomes of Staplewood can continue in an unbroken male line.

Lady Broome is convinced that this is an excellent deal for Kate, and I have to say, in many ways, it is: Lady Broome will ensure that Kate and Torquil only meet when Torquil is marginally sane, and once Kate produces an heir she can have all the little affairs that she wants AND a London house and extensive luxuries and Torquil can be safely shut up in a little house by the sea accompanied by some men who know how to deal with madmen. Kate’s alternative working class future, as described by Lady Broome, sounds quite dreary in comparison. Alas for Lady Broome, Kate’s already received a very respectable offer of marriage from Lady Broome’s nephew, Philip. Also, Torquil is already killing things and shooting guns which does not exactly make him an enticing husband.

It all makes for very dreary (I know, I keep using this word in this post, but really, it’s that sort of book) and depressing reading. Also, slow. Very slow. Months and lots and lots of pages go by with nothing happening, and then a rabbit dies, and then nothing happens, and then Kate and Philip meet and fall in love and get engaged in about three days (which seems out of character for both, but moving on) and a dog doesn’t die, and then we go right back to nothing happening except for a lot of characters saying that there’s nothing happening and they can’t do anything for months. Even with a rabbit killing madman almost on the loose! RABBIT KILLING!

Speaking of the rabbit killing madman almost on the loose—arguably the second least convincing part of the novel is the character of Torquil. (The least convincing is Heyer’s attempt to convey a lower class lifestyle and dialogue with the Nidds, about which probably the least said the better.) It’s not that Gothic novels in general are known for accurate portrayals of mental illnesses, but even against that background, Heyer’s portrayal lacks something. Well, a lot. Clearly wanting Torquil’s mental state to be a Big Revelation, she initially attempts to portray him as simply spoiled and rude, while simultaneously trying to hint—but only hint—that something more may be wrong. She could hope to trick a few of her devoted readers, perhaps; The Unknown Ajax had also featured a young male character who lived in an isolated part of the house and was obviously involved in mysterious doings. But that character, despite some obvious moments of immaturity, was never insane, and generally polite and friendly. Torquil borrows some of his mannerisms, and even sounds like him, until Heyer suddenly remembers, wait, this character is meant to be insane.

Most people who suffer from or who have suffered from or know others who have suffered from mental illness will find plenty in this book to aggravate them. Apart from some vague references to “mania” and “paranoia” Heyer never specifies what mental illness, exactly, Torquil is suffering from. I don’t think she bothered to think that through. Instead, she falls back on repeating many of the common myths about the mentally ill: that animals hate them; that they are violent; that they go insane during a full moon; and so on. This is both vaguely irritating and about the least convincing depiction of mental illness, or a mentally ill character, ever.

It’s not that I can’t believe that almost no one, except Kate, thinks of helping Torquil, or obtaining treatment for him; treatment for the mentally ill was for all intents and purposes non-existent in the early 19th century, even for the wealthy. Minerva follows the standard “treatment” for the mentally ill of the upper classes: shut them up under close supervision. William Lamb did this with his wife, Lady Charlotte Lamb, in one unusually well known example. Generally speaking, events of this sort were not well publicized outside of the immediate family. The shock of Jane Eyre was not so much that Mr. Rochester was keeping Mrs. Rochester up in an attic with someone to watch over her, or that he failed to let the greater community know, but that he didn’t bother to tell Jane this little detail. Jane accepts his treatment of his wife as a matter of course, as do other characters; she just (understandably) doesn’t want to be a bigamist and is pretty annoyed that she was lied to. The whole locking up the madwoman? That she seems less upset about.

At the same time, I find Kate’s horrified responses to Minerva’s plans for Torquil’s future both unrealistic and glaringly anachronistic. Ok, Minerva’s more than a bit possessed on the STAPLEWOOD MUST HAVE AN HEIR bit and I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for her there. At the same time, Minerva gave up a life she adored for Staplewood, and although Kate doesn’t have a lot of sympathy, given her own boredom with Staplewood, she really should. Minerva is also carrying around a lot of guilt; she knows full well that she was not the best match for Sir Timothy, and that she followed that up by not providing Sir Timothy with a healthy, mentally stable son. So her hopes that her niece might make up for this make a bit of sense in context.

Nor are her plans for Torquil all that cruel under the circumstances, as I noted. Kate finds the idea of locking Torquil up appalling, but this is a guy who is already killing rabbits (poor rabbit), attacking his servants, attacking horses, and shooting at adorable little dogs nearly killing other people, who has to be controlled by stern looks (which are no longer as effective) and drugs. Heyer is very vague on the drugs involved, but it seems that the mysterious and irritating doctor seems to be dosing Torquil with a lot of opiates, which apparently keep the kid sorta docile, but can’t be particularly helpful in the long run. Given, as I said, the lack of effective treatments for the mentally ill at the time, Minerva’s plan for a cottage by the sea for her son with 24 hour supervision seems almost kindly.

But I was talking about how unconvincing Torquil was as a character, much less a mentally ill one. Quite a bit of his “mental illness” could be called “being a spoiled brat,” and for all of Heyer’s attempts to show him as a dangerous madman, until the last few pages he mostly just comes off as an annoying but frustrated teenager. Which, granted, does make Minerva’s plans for locking him up seem bad—but by the time Minerva tells us this, Torquil has already killed the rabbit (sorry to go on and on about the rabbit, but it’s about the only plot point for PAGES AND PAGES so it kinda sticks in my mind) so I’m willing to buy that he’s done other things in the more interesting parts that happened before the book started.

Minerva herself is not particularly convincing. She’s meant to be evil, but she’s really not all that menacing; as I said, her plans for her son are not that dreadful under the circumstances; she has taken excellent care of a husband she no longer loves; and she can’t really do that much to Kate. True, concealing her plans and Torquil’s madness from Kate are not exactly Good Things, and she’s obviously not one of the nicest people around, but since she’s not following the Gothic trope of locking Kate up in a Dark Mysterious Cave or Tying Her to a Rock or Imprisoning Her, this doesn’t mean much.

If Minerva and Torquil are basically only unconvincing caricatures of Gothic tropes, the protagonists are not much better: Kate is nice enough but seriously not all that bright (dead rabbit, Kate! dead rabbit!); it takes several characters to get it through her thick skull that MAYBE THERE IS A PROBLEM and not just with the rabbit. Philip, her love interest, is slightly more observant, but also dull, and their falling in love in three days for no apparent reason except that they are both in the general vicinity of each other is not very interesting, completely lacking the spark and wit of Heyer’s other pairings. Or, to repeat the word, convincing. (Reading this directly after the wit of Black Sheep is seriously jarring.) Which makes it in turn rather difficult to care when Torquil murders Lady Broome and goes and jumps in the lake. Especially since I had spent much of the book grumbling, oh, Torquil, just go jump in the lake.

Not to mention the plot holes, both minor and major. For instance, Lady Broome tells Kate, “Your father told you how ambitious I was.” Kate’s father did in fact say this, but Kate never repeated it to Lady Broome, so how exactly does Lady Broome know this little tidbit? No one asks. Lady Broome deplores the lack of neighboring society just pages before Kate encounters neighboring society on a brief horseback ride. Minor characters appear and vanish without a care. A lake is inserted solely for the purpose of letting Torquil jump into it (Heyer even admitted this in her proposal for the novel) and is otherwise ignored. Lady Broome is supposedly rigidly devoted to her duties and concerned about the estate and yet has been allowing the lands to fall in disrepair. Granted, allowing lands to fall into disrepair is Heyer’s standard method of letting readers know that Someone Is Not Right, but given Lady Broome’s obsession with keeping things up, it just feels wrong here. Heyer’s previous failed landlords failed because they didn’t care.

The bit about governessing, however, does ring very true. Governesses had often featured in the background of many Georgette Heyer Regency novels. Characters had taken pains to warn young women of the inherent dangers of working as a governess: terrible pay, a questionable place in the household, and a complete lack of job security—for women who even had the qualifications for the position to begin with. Several of her heroines are fully aware that they lack either the accomplishments—the ability to play the piano or the harp, or draw, or do watercolors—or the education—the ability to speak French—to obtain even a low-paid position. Her few heroines intent on careers instead of marriage typically chose other options: even the questionable security of professional writing and the social disgrace of running a gaming house. And both of these women chose marriage in the end.

But for all the warnings against a career as a governess, the actual governesses that appear in her books are treated quite well: indeed, Miss Ancilla Trent is Heyer’s only professional woman in Heyer’s historical novels to have a secure, well paying job. The governesses with actual speaking parts in the novels (as opposed to those just referred to other governesses are generally treated not merely benignly, but as cherished family members—a slight nod to Heyer’s awareness that many novels written in the Regency period softened the reality of a governess’ career—or suggested the career could be a route to marriage. Anne Bronte, for one, felt the need to throw a strong dose of reality at that rosy picture, but Heyer, focusing on building an idealized Regency world of manners, froth, and humor, had embraced it.

In Cousin Kate, however, Heyer finally shows a more realistic version of the life of a governess. Kate becomes a governess, something she is not overly suited for, because she has absolutely no other options. She is dismissed after being sexually harassed at the job, and finds herself unable to obtain another position. This is, indeed, what causes her to accept her aunt’s charity in the first place. Were it not for the convenient arrival of Philip, she probably would be better off marrying Torquil—one of the few hints in Heyer novels of the very real threats that unmarried, penniless women could encounter. Or perhaps, now that Heyer was at least attempting to embrace the Gothic novel, she was willing to embrace Anne Bronte’s more realistic depiction of the period.

Heyer wrote the book during and after a bad bout of illness, which perhaps accounts for its depressing feel. It’s a pity she couldn’t have put her comedic energies towards another parody of a Gothic novel, as she had (mostly) successfully done in her earlier novel, The Reluctant Widow. She might have envied the success of her contemporaries with Gothic novels, but it was not something she could imitate. Fortunately, it was not something she would ever try again.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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