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 is an 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 out of 5 Stars
The Toll-Gate, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks Casablanca (2011)
Trade paperback (320) pages
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).
Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks © 2011; text Laura A. Wallace © 2011, Austenprose