The Toll-Gate, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

The Toll-Gate,  by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

Georgette Heyer’s novel The Toll Gate is a little different from her typical Regencies.  It is more of a mystery than a romance, and is told primarily from the point of view of the hero.

The hero, Captain John Staple, shares several characteristics with Hugo Darracott of The Unknown Ajax.  Like Hugo, John is a former army officer who sold out after Napoleon’s defeat—though in John’s case, he sold out after Leipzig, and when Napoleon escaped from Elba and began the Hundred Days, he rejoined and thus (like Hugo) was present at Waterloo.  Like Hugo, John is a large man, six-foot-four, with a gentle manner, a sense of humor, and a great deal of intelligence that he sometimes hides behind an intentionally bovine manner.  And like Hugo, John prefers to travel cross-country on horseback rather than in a chaise with a servant and piles of baggage.

If you haven’t read this novel before, there is one thing you definitely should know before reading it.  The first chapter seems not to fit. It is a large family dinner party where John’s cousin, the Earl of Saltash, has called his relations together to meet his fiancé.  Thus the first few pages are full of characters that are hardly thought of again after John escapes the party in Chapter Two.  The reason for this is that Heyer initially planned to develop the mystery to involve John’s status as his cousin’s heir presumptive.  Instead she went in quite a different direction.  So when you read it, don’t worry about keeping any of the characters straight except John, and enjoy the rest as vignettes of Regency life.

Captain Staple, traveling cross-country through Derbyshire to put as many miles as possible between himself and Lord Saltash’s country seat, is caught in rain and darkness and finds himself at an isolated toll gate attended only by a frightened boy.  His dad, the boy explains reluctantly, went off saying he’d be back in an hour but hadn’t returned.  John decides to stay the night, and look for the gatekeeper in the morning.  And from there, finds himself in an adventure, which is much more to his taste than dancing attendance on Lord Saltash and his prospective in-laws.

There is a romance, but it is very lightly handled:  quite sweet and satisfying, but not highly developed.  There is quite a bit of thieves’ cant, but it is generally intelligible from context (and if it isn’t, provides a wonderful opportunity to delve into a cant dictionary, several of which are freely available online).  There are entertaining secondary characters, as in every Heyer novel, including a highwayman and a Bow Street Runner.  There are moments of comic relief, but they are not the focus.

Some have criticized Heyer for failing to excise or re-write the first chapter, which hangs unevenly and sets up the expectation of seeing some of the characters again, or at least of the relevance of their existence.  But on re-reading, I find that there is very little that could be excised cleanly.  John’s interactions with the various family members and guests reveal parts of his history and his own character which are important background for his later actions.  So the chapter couldn’t just be chopped out without material loss.  It would have to be rewritten, and I think that the labor involved wouldn’t be worth the return.

I give this novel four and a half out of five stars, not for any grievous faults, but because it does not sparkle as some of Heyer’s other novels.  I still would rank it higher than most Regency-set novels by other authors, for its wonderful language and well-drawn characters, but for me—and I realize that this is a subjective opinion, but I am the one writing a review—it isn’t a top-tier Heyer novel.

The Sourcebooks edition is lovely, the only possible criticism of it being that the cover photo is eighteenth-century rather than post-Waterloo, but I am happy to report that I did not find a single printing error, not even a scanno!

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Toll-Gate, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks Casablanca (2011)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238819

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011, Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

11 thoughts on “The Toll-Gate, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

  1. While there is more of a mystery in this bppk than in many of Heyer’s, I’m not sure that I’d agree that it is “more of a mystery than a romance”. The gentle flowering of Nell in response to John’s attentions, and the fact that his height and overall size make her (as a tall woman) feel attractive and desired for the first time in her life, makes their relationship one of my favorites.

    I agree that John and Hugo of The Unknown Ajax have many similarities, to the extent that they feel like the same person to the reader (especially given the sense of humour that they share). It is to Georgette Heyer’s credit that the other characters in both books (especially the heroines) are so different that the hero’s relationships with everyone else are very different in the two books.

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  2. Excellent review and I’m a bit surprised because having read at least 17 or 18 of her superlative stories, I have never heard of THIS one. Somehow, some way, I’m going to read ALL of them, including this one! Thanks!

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  3. Thanks for the recommendation. Discovering another GH is like coming upon a little lost treasure.This mystery sounds perfect timing for this Halloween season. I’ll add to my MUST READ list.

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  4. This is my favourite Heyer of all time I think: certainly always in my top five. An excellent summation. The delicacy of touch of the way Heyer draws her secondary characters is particularly evident in this book, and the delightful way she handles children comes through in young Ben, the Toll-keeper’s son. I thoroughly recommend it.

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  5. I haven’t read this for years, but I remember enjoying it for it’s adventure and mystery, as well as the romance. Must find a copy so that I can read it again!

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  6. This sounds like a wonderful book. I enjoy Heyer’s romances, but as a mystery lover, this sounds even more up my alley. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

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  7. Thanks for a wonderful review. Advice about that opening chapter was welcomed —

    “So when you read it, don’t worry about keeping any of the characters straight except John, and enjoy the rest as vignettes of Regency life.”

    Keeping my own list of characters right from the first page of any work is a necessity for me, alas, so this was very useful. TOLLGATE is next, thanks!

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