My relationship with Georgette Heyer has now spanned more than 30 years, in which time I've re read most of her books a number of times, and each time I find something new to think about in them. Choosing Heyer for Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs started as an easy option, but I've come to really welcome the chance to have a title picked for me, and the added dimension that thinking specifically about the year it was written in gives my reading.
1968 was an eventful year - the Vietnam war, Prague spring, huge student riots in Paris, assassination of Martin Luther King, the Cold War rumbling on in the background, and Rosemary's Baby showing in cinemas. It's also towards the end of Heyer's life and writing career, she died in 1974, and a long time since she published her first book in 1921.
Her later books are not generally considered her best, not least because she piles in a lot more slang, and in the case of 'Cousin Kate' there's a lot less of her trademark humour as well. That I have a fondness for it at all is because it's set in Leicestershire- her fictional Staplewood is somewhere near the real Market Harborough (just down the road, and still a charming market town, the Angel coaching in that she mentions is still in business too).
Cousin Kate is 24, unmarried, bought up following the drum with her military father across Spain and Portugal, orphaned, penniless, not especially well educated, and very pretty. The respectable occupation open to her is as a governess, but she's too young, too pretty, and not well enough qualified to to find a job easily. When we meet her she's just been sacked after her employers brother made a pass at her.
She's staying with her old nurse looking for any kind of work, when Sarah (the nurse) decides to contact Kate's half aunt in the hope that she'll do something for the girl. What she does is turn up, sweep her away to Staplewood, and keep Kate there with her much older invalid husband, and her disturbingly volatile son, Torquil.
It's clear from the beginning that all is not well with Torquil, it's so long since I first read this book that I can't remember when we're meant to work out that he's insane but there's a brooding gothic atmosphere from the beginning that makes the mood of this book radically different from Heyer's other romances.
I'm going to skate over Torquil's madness and the way Heyer depicts it, and simply accept that she wants him to be both genuinely menacing, but also an object of compassion. I'm more interested in her decision to set the action some years after Waterloo becaus I think it's telling that Kate came unscathed through her experiences following an army across Europe, but meets real danger in peace time. It certainly seems to reflect the uncertainties of the late 1960's.
Happily, Kate meets and falls in love with Philip, Torquil's cousin. So she doesn't have to dwell on the bleak picture her aunt paints when she tries to persuade Kate to marry her son and provide an heir for the estate before he has to be committed. We can dwell on it a bit though because this is one of the things I find particularly interesting about Heyer.
Her father died when she was quite young, at which point she supported her family with her writing. She continued to support her brothers throughout their lives, and when her husband decided to retrain as a barrister it was the money that Heyer earned that payed for that and kept her family afloat. She certainly knew plenty of other successful women writers who must have essentially have been doing the same thing, and given the time she lived in must have known plenty of other capable, successful, women. She would also have seen those jobs go back to men after both world wars.
Even in 1968 the expectation would have been that most women would leave work when they married, and that marriage was a suitable career for a nice middle class girl. (My mother, born in 1950, got the sort of education that prepared girls to be efficient wives for professional men, rather than to have careers - there was no expectation or encouragement at all to go to university, or to dream of any sort of career as far as I can tell.) From a strictly practical point of view Kate could do worse than marry Torquil (provided he didn't strangle her on the wedding night) he could be quietly hidden away in fairly short order, leaving her to enjoy wealth and security in peace for the rest of her days.
Not all of Heyer's attitudes stand up to close scrutiny (she can be a snob, some find her high Tory attitude troublesome, she does occasionally sound distinctly anti-Semitic) but I don't doubt that she's making the point that women were still getting a pretty raw deal in the career stakes when she wrote this, and that it wasn't good enough. She even makes it clear that whilst Aunt Minerva is the villain of the piece, she's also in her way the victim of a bad marriage. A strong willed, ambitious, woman has married a weak man because it's the only option she had. He's given her little scope for her abilities, and wilfully ignored the tragedy unfolding in his own family (he warns Kate not to trust her aunt, but offers her no practical assistance). Minerva may be a cold and selfish woman but I'd argue that Heyer depicts her ambition as a positive attribute, albeit one that's disastrously misdirected.
I'm pleased to have had the push to reread this one. It will never be my favourite Heyer, but thinking about it against the background of when it was written has certainly made me reassess it, and I've found a much more interesting book than I expected.