Monday, May 31, 2021

The Toll Gate - Georgette Heyer

This is the latest book the Georgette Heyer Redalong has finished and the first one where I've really felt my opinion of the book has been challenged by a slow reading. I like this relatively late Heyer (1954, so more than halfway through her writing career) and have long considered it a favourite. That hasn't changed, but reading 3 chapters a week and discussing them at length has shown flaws that are less apparent when you zoom through a book in an afternoon.

The Toll Gate is sort of atypical for Heyer in that the mood stays really quite dark throughout, the only other example that I can think of that's quite as grim as this one is Cousin Kate from 1968. There are other elements that are unusual, but all of them appear in other books - it's the combination of things that makes this one stand out.

It seems that when Heyer started 'The Toll Gate' she had quite a different book in mind - the opening chapter introduces us to Captain John Staple and his extended family, but that's the last of the extended family we see. Eventually we end up in quite a masculine adventure - Captain Staple (Jack, or Crazy Jack to his friends) finds himself not quite lost in the rain and rapidly drawing in night, he seeks shelter in the first habitation he finds - a toll house being minded by a clearly terrified young boy.

The boy's father has disappeared, there's a nighttime visitor he's very afraid of and Jack senses a mystery, the solving of which will alleviate his boredom. In quick succession he loses his heart, meets a highwayman, a bow street runner, and some likely villains. Nell, the woman he's lost his heart too is in dire straights - and unusually for a Heyer heroine seems at something of a loss - she's brave and capable but Heyer is unrelenting in showing us how bleak it can be for a single woman against the world. 

The adventure comes to a conclusion, the right people end up together or disposed of, and it's more or less a happy ever after even if the heroine of the piece is largely absent from the action. As a romance it arguably falls short of expectations, but as a thriller with romantic elements it works well enough for me. As a novel that has things to say about the early 1950's I think it's got  a lot going for it. 

There's the vague sense of a lingering post war austerity, of values which are all but gone, of the boredom that could afflict young men who had spent 6 years at war and don't quite know how to adjust to peace time. There's also the depressing reality for women that careers are thin on the ground again as jobs go to men and they're expected to be home makers regardless of how capable they are. 

So, a mixed book - there is also a lot of early 18th century cant which can be tiresome if yu don't enjoy it (I kind of do here, but that might make me the exception). It's also worth comparing this one to the slightly later 'The Unkown Ajax' (1959). Ajax is a much more typical Heyer - but there's a sense that the two books might have started with the same character. 


  1. Nice review. I read Heyer mainly for humor and I find a lot of it in The Toll-Gate. Also, in The Unknown Ajax. As you say, Hugo and Jack Staple do have a lot in common.

    1. It's humour and comfort that I mainly turn to her for as well, but I find there's more going on beneath the surface if I look for it, which makes her endlessly interesting.

  2. One of my favourite Heyer Regency novels along with The Reluctant Widow and The Talisman Ring as there is some mystery involved. Her detective novels are among the best written - I think.

    1. I'm with you on the favourites list, and I definitely think her detective novels deserve more attention. I'm not sure I'd go as far as saying amongst the best but they can certainly hold their own in any company and I think they're better than often given credit for.