I enjoyed my first forays into Georgette Heyer’s historical fiction novels last year and decided it was time to try some more. Cousin Kate, published in 1968, is one of her later novels and one that appears to really divide opinion – possibly because it’s not what people tend to expect from Heyer. Although there’s still some humour and some romance, it’s a lot darker than the other Heyer novels I’ve read. It also has a gothic feel and I couldn’t help being reminded of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Our heroine, Kate Malvern, is a young woman who has been left orphaned and penniless following the deaths of both her parents and who has been working as a governess to support herself. At the beginning of Cousin Kate, she has lost her position and has returned to the London home of her former nurse, Sarah Nidd. Worried about Kate’s future, Sarah writes to Kate’s Aunt Minerva, who invites her to stay at the family mansion, Staplewood.
On her arrival at Staplewood, Kate remarks that the big house is not very homelike. Aunt Minerva, Lady Broome, is a manipulative woman, obsessed with the family lineage; her husband, the elderly Sir Timothy Broome, lives in a separate part of the house; and then there’s Kate’s handsome young cousin Torquil, who can be charming one minute, violent and aggressive the next. As Kate begins to learn exactly why Minerva was so keen to welcome her into the family, the only person she can turn to for help is Sir Timothy’s nephew, Philip.
The gothic elements of the book come in the form of the descriptions of the house and its grounds, locked doors and strange sounds in the night, the ruthless scheming of Aunt Minerva, family secrets – and Torquil, who is considered ‘mad’ and spends much of his time isolated in a distant wing of the mansion where he is attended by his doctor and faithful servant. It’s always sad to read how people with mental illness were treated in the past, in a time when it wasn’t properly understood, and I could sympathise with Torquil’s situation.
I also really liked both Kate and Philip and enjoyed watching their relationship develop. Kate has a kind heart and an ability to always see the best in people, but she is also a strong, courageous woman who values her independence. Philip is a pleasant, sensible person and felt to me like a realistic character, if not a particularly interesting or memorable one. I thought he and Kate made a believable couple.
I love Heyer’s use of language in the dialogue between her characters and I thought there was just the right amount of slang in this book to set the story in its period without becoming too difficult to understand. In fact, the only character who used an excessive amount of Regency-period slang was Sarah’s father-in-law, Mr Nidd, and this really suited his personality, making him an amusing, vibrant character who seemed to leap out of the pages!
Although, as I’ve said, this was quite a dark Heyer novel which deals with some serious themes, I still thought it was an entertaining read. I can see that it might not be to everyone’s taste but I loved it.