Almost every writer of the Romance genre will try her hand at a Gothic tale; even Jane Austen did it in Northanger Abbey, although to be really accurate, she was poking fun at her heroine rather than developing a scary tale. Georgette Heyer takes her turn in Cousin Kate, and while this is a darker story than most of her romances, her Gothic tale is not so far-fetched as it is mysterious and uncomfortable for her heroine. Perhaps, like Jane, Georgette is too sensible and too amused by life’s foibles to take the Gothic seriously.
Pretty Kate Malvern is in dire straits as the book opens. She is the only offspring of parents who ran off and married without the approval of either of their families. Her father, an Army officer, was more successful in war than in peace, where his propensity for gaming squandered what little money he had, since he had been disowned by his starchy father. His death was ignominious, and left his child not only orphaned, her mama having died when Kate was 12, but destitute. At 24, Kate must support herself, because with no money and no family, she is not likely to make a good marriage.
Young ladies who found themselves in such situations had few options: governess or companion being the best. Kate has just been “turned off”, or fired, from her position as governess to three young children because their uncle, brother to their mother, had fallen for her and the old gorgon who was the children’s grandmother, disapproved. Kate runs to her old nurse, her only refuge, for a place to stay while she makes her plans for her uncertain and likely unhappy future. Mrs. Nidd, a woman of high energy and great resource, contacts Kate’s aunt. Kate has never met her, nor had there ever been any correspondence between her father and his sister, but, interestingly, or strangely, enough Aunt Minerva, or Lady Broome, comes in to take Kate off to her home, Staplewood.
“ ‘You are too young to know what it means to have been an only child, when you reach my age and have no close relations, and no daughter! I have always longed for one, and never more so than now! It’s true I have a son, but a boy cannot give one the same companionship. Dear child, I’ve come to carry you off to Staplewood! I’m persuaded I must be your natural guardian!
“But I am of age ma’am!” protested Kate, feeling as though she were being swept along on an irresistible tide.
“Yes, so your kind nurse has informed me. I can’t compel you – heaven forbid that I should – but I can beg you to take pity on a very lonely woman!’ ”
And so Kate goes off to spend the summer at the great manor. She meets Sir Timothy, Lady Broome’s much older and frail husband, and Torquil, her incredibly good-looking son. She is surprised to know that the two men live in opposite wings of the house and seem to have little to do with one another. Dr. Delabole, a somewhat smarmy man who seems to be acting as a companion to her beautiful young cousin, completes the household.
Kate settles in to a life unlike anything she has experienced, because the family lives so very quietly and she has so little to do. Her one concern is that the letters she sends to Mrs. Nidd are not answered, and she becomes increasingly aware that she is entirely cut off from the world. It seems to this reader that Kate is very slow on the uptake, but that could be because she has not read many Gothic tales. The over-strict watch on her cousin, his wild displays of temper and capricious behaviors alert the reader to the dangers ahead. Fortunately, there is another cousin, Philip Broome. He is related to Sir Timothy, and although he often stayed with his uncle in his youth, Lady Broome, whose strong character rules the household, does not care to have him visit often. Philip, however, is not deterred, and he, along with Mr. Nidd, Mrs. Nidd’s papa-in-law, ensure that everything is resolved in the proper fashion.
As always with Heyer’s books, the dialogue among the characters is completely delightful. Kate, who was raised following the drum, knows more about young men than do most young ladies of her era and can hold her own in any conversation. Incurably forthright, she wins Philip’s heart quickly, as well as the devotion of Sir Timothy. The Gothic devices of screams in the night, locked doors and horrendous thunderstorms are not the normal Heyer fare, but the winning heroine and the steady and handsome hero are as good as any she created. The somewhat clumsy Gothic device of considering everything to be wonderful as soon as we achieve the death of the dangerous character is a little off-putting for me; still, once this heroine meets her hero there is nothing more to be done but marry them and settle them happily ever after. They certainly agree.
Cousin Kate is not the best of Georgette Heyer’s romance novels, but even a weak Heyer is better than an offering of almost any other Romance writer. It’s a great read for a stormy night. As she always does, Georgette Heyer builds a wonderful and complete world for her reader to sink into – like a bubble bath or a welcoming chair to relax you at the end of a busy day, but more fun. Much more fun.
When Georgette Heyer wrote Cousin Kate in 1968 she had the flu and contracted ‘the worst cold of the century.’ She caustically informed her editor: “[I have] done about 30,000 words of Cousin Kate, and they stink. I don’t suppose you ‘ve ever been subjected to a course of diuretics, but I can assure you that they have the most disintegrating effect.”
While Georgette’s synopsis of the novel was superb -
Cousin Kate is the orphaned daughter of an impoverished Peninsular officer. Her mother died years ago, and she followed the drum with Pop. He must have been a very volatile type, because , when he died (of natural causes, after Waterloo) he left her with nothing but debts. I expect he was a gamester, or Lived Above his Income, but I’ll work that out later. Don’t interrupt!
- she was not pleased with the novel and told her publisher, “I don’t want to sound insufferable, but I know from the various booksellers of my acquaintance that when it comes to selling ME, no one wants to know what my latest effort is About: they only want to know whether there is a new Heyer Out.”
My friend, Lady Anne, reviewed the novel, and while she generally agrees that this story is not among Heyer’s best efforts, the book went straight to the top of the best-seller lists, and years later still provides its readers with hours of suspense and fun.*
- *The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, ISBN 0-370-30508-6, P 178-179
My Other Georgette Heyer Reviews Sit Below
Lady Anne is my special friend and co-founder of Janeites on the James. For this fine review, she has earned a ratafia at one of Richmond’s select restaurants for ladies who kvetch, gossip, and lunch.