Regency Turns 80 — Cousin Kate

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

There are at least a few of Georgette Heyer’s readers who have found her novel, Cousin Kate, something of an anomaly within her oeuvre. In today’s article, best-selling author, Heather Hiestand, explores what makes this novel unique among Heyer’s Regency romances. In fact, do you think this novel qualifies as a romance? And, would you use the same abbreviation to label the heroine as Heather has applied to her?

Whether you have views on Cousin Kate or the Regency genre in general, please feel free to post them in comments to this article.

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Blond woman in a white gown with gold edging, holding a tray with a silver chocolate pot.

Cousin Kate is not one of Georgette Heyer’s choicest reads among romance authors. It’s known as Gothic Suspense rather than a romance, and indeed, the romance portion of the story rather comes out of nowhere at the end of chapter twelve in a twenty-one chapter book. However, there is a lot going on here, beyond traditional Regency-style lovemaking, if you can get past the drastic overuse of slang in dialogue and a rather passive, too-stupid-to-live (TSTL) heroine. I enjoyed the book tremendously as a character study.

The supporting characters around the titular heroine Kate Malvern really shine here. Torquil, Sir Timothy and his wife, Lady Broome, and their highly individualistic coterie of servants are an exceptionally well-drawn lot, from first to last. Despite the dialogue often being slangy, Heyer’s deftness with character means you will never be confused as to who is who.

Heyer has a lot to offer about the class divides of this period in this book. Sarah Nidd, the former nurse of the heroine, still puts her twenty-four-year-old former charge ahead of her family, and treats her like a better class of humanity, despite Kate having no money or education with which to distinguish herself. To modern American eyes, this is senseless. Therefore, Cousin Kate is a good education for the modern writer who is attempting a Regency novel with servant-master relationships.

Interestingly, one poignant contrast is the difference between the loving, common Nidds and the unloving, aristocratic Broomes. The hero, a Broome, is the only blood relative who even tries to behave in a loving manner, but even he, especially in the middle of the book, is throwing up all kinds of red flags to the heroine because of the way he talks about his aunt. Meanwhile the Nidds go to great lengths to support each other and the hapless Kate, albeit in the manner to which she was born.

Speaking of the romance, there is not much of a love story here, just an "insta-love" marriage proposal, a week after "hero" Philip Broome meets Kate. There are a few conversations after, between them, where he treats Kate like a child. She hesitates to accept Philip and becomes upset when he seems to be ignoring her, but other than that, she just falls in with his plans and his kisses. At twenty-four though, Kate is no child. Her age serves the plot well at the start of the book, but after that she acts much younger—a rare case of Heyer’s plot needs outstripping her deft characterizations.

As I mentioned before, Cousin Kate is a novel of Gothic Suspense. There is a small amount of effort to make Philip seem like a villain early on, but it’s not nearly as full-blown as more traditional Gothics. The chief TSTL aspect of Kate is an inability to take threats to her life seriously, when they are very serious indeed. The suspense lies in the gradual unraveling of violent incidents, both past and present, as the truth about Torquil is revealed.

Lastly, I would offer Cousin Kate as an illustration of the history of mental health management of the period. Will you sympathize with Torquil’s parents, or the household staff, or with Torquil himself, as they all fight to deal with what is happening to him? What is the humane response when someone is proving themselves to be a danger both to themselves, others, and the animal kingdom? Medication can only do so much even in this era, much less two hundred years ago. Modern readers will recognize the signs of a potential serial killer here. Even so, I didn’t really see the ending coming, other than to realize as a romance trope, that the hero/heroine have to end up with a big fortune at the end.

The casual romance reader will have their happy ending here, for the hero and heroine at least, but I propose Cousin Kate is more of a book club read than a "happy ending" read. Torquil and his parents are very worthy of discussion in a book club setting. For me, I am very glad I finally finished this book (at least three tries over the years, I’m afraid), as the story did resonate for me.

Heather Hiestand was born in Illinois, but her family migrated west before she started school. Since then she has claimed Washington State as home, except for a few years in California. She wrote her first story at age seven and went on to major in creative writing at the University of Washington. Her first published fiction was a mystery short story, but since then it has been all about the many flavors of romance. Heather’s first published romance short story was set in the Victorian period, and she continues to return, fascinated by the rapid changes of the nineteenth century. The author of many novels, novellas, and short stories, she has achieved best-seller status at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. With her husband and son, she makes her home in a small town and supposedly works out of her tiny office, though she mostly writes in her easy chair in the living room.

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  1. I have this book along with all her others and I admit it is not one of my favourites. Saying that I have still read it a number of times and once I do start it I really enjoy it. I love her writing style especially the humour in most of her books and I also like her characters. Some more than others. I find it hard to put her books down once I have started them. I am sorry you didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did but am glad you finally got to finish it. Thanks for the review.

  2. This has never been one of my favorites, either (I doubt it is anyone’s), but I will say I just love the name Torquil. Torquil. Ahh. I want to get a pet turtle just so I can name him Torquil.

  3. This is the only Heyer book I could never make myself go back and reread. When I’ve read everything else of hers (except her contemporary mysteries) at least twice and usually several times, this is telling — more about me than her, probably. However, your review made me think I should essay it again. After all, it was probably 40 years ago that I read it and I’d probably find things in it that I didn’t before, either good or bad. I remember I wasn’t satisfied with the romance, and I was creeped out by the plot and the villainous characters, Torquil and his mother.

    Excellent article, Heather. It made me rethink my feelings about the book.

    (Torquil is a great name!)

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