When Highwaymen Go Dull: The Toll-Gate

I should point out from the outset that The Toll-Gate is one of two novels by Georgette Heyer that I don’t own. This is mostly because this is also one of two novels by Georgette Heyer that I can never remember. Various comments in previous posts did not exactly raise my hopes high for this book. But books in these rereads have surprised me before, so, armed with dark chocolate and wine (two ingredients that generally improve any reading experience), I began.

And then went to go hunt down more dark chocolate and wine.

The Toll-Gate starts out promisingly enough, as the Sixth Earl of Saltash gathers the various members of his distinguished family to a rather dull dinner party where they will finally have the opportunity to meet his new betrothed, at least officially. Among the guests is a certain very large Captain John Staple, an amiable enough gentleman. The family considers it well past time that John Staple, having spent several years serving in the army, settle down. A lot. Two years of attempting to settle down have left John mostly bored, except when attempting to settle down has involved getting picked up by some smugglers. It’s all a lovely setup for one of Heyer’s elegant comedies of manners, particularly when his sister reveals that the family has decided to marry John off to Elizabeth Kelfield, who is lovely and dark.

And that’s about all I can tell you about her, since it soon becomes clear that Heyer is as bored by this chapter as John is, and as inspired by the mention of smugglers as John’s family isn’t. So with that, she completely abandons all of the characters she has so carefully introduced and created, except John, for the rest of the book.

According to Jane Aiken Hodge, this abrupt change occurred because Heyer wrote the first chapter without settling on a final plot; she was having family, health and financial troubles, and found it hard to focus on writing. Her husband once again helped out with the rest of the plot. Her other biographer, Jennifer Kloester, confirms the troubles, and also adds that Heyer resented having to write the book; she wanted to work on her medieval opus, but instead she found herself writing this, and paying rather less attention to the book than she usually did.

It says something for Heyer’s status that she could get away with this without raising hell with her editors. Oh, sure, I can think of a few other books where the characters in the first chapter or prologue are never seen or heard from again—but that’s usually because they’re dead, and were only mentioned in the first place to put a certain sense of doom over the proceedings. Here, they’re just abandoned and forgotten about; it’s not just that they never appear again, but that they have absolutely no effect on the rest of the plot. John does mention his mother and sister every once in awhile, but gets married without informing them or the rest of the family.

This is partly because John is now busy with a new, considerably less entertaining and amusing plot. Wandering through seemingly endless paragraphs around England, John stumbles upon a toll-gate currently manned by a small boy named Ben. This strikes John as odd, since toll-gates are not usually employed by small boys, especially since the main point is to collect tolls to repair the local roads—and as Heyer notes, with probable accuracy, many of the people on these roads are not at all interested in paying these tolls, or, if they are, have come up with all kinds of interesting reasons why they should pay only part of the tolls. This forms a distressingly large part of the book; distressing since as it turns out the details about toll-evading are among the more interesting parts.

John’s suspicions are not quelled when Ben admits that various unsavory characters have been coming to the toll gate and that he has no idea where his father, Ned Brean, is. John soon regards this as a fortunate occurrence, not so much because by all accounts Brean was not the nicest of people or kindest of fathers (although we are assured he’s done his duty to the boy), but because taking up Ned Brean’s position allows him to court the lovely and very tall Miss Nell Stornaway. It takes John and Nell all of five meetings to start making out and agree to get married, even though their first kiss is described as gratifying and uncomfortable. We should probably not think too much about that turn of phrase.

Nell Stornaway lives with her grandfather at nearby Kellands Manor. His estate, however, will not pass to her, but to her unsavory cousin Henry, a gambler and mild blackmailer who also—gasp, gasp!—can’t ride to hounds. (This is a Heyer novel. The last is a Very Serious Offense, everyone.) Worse, Henry has invited an even more unsavory friend, Mr. Nathaniel Coate, for a visit, made still more unpleasant when Coate starts making extremely unwanted advances on Nell. (She’s saved by a valet.) It’s all Very Suspicious, especially when combined with the mysterious disappearance of Ned Brean and the romance Nell’s nurse is having with a nice highwayman, Chirk. Oh, and the arrival of a Bow Street Runner—a fairly competent one.

Nell’s situation is distinctly unpleasant. I suspect that one of the reasons I keep putting this book from my mind is that Nell, more than almost any other Heyer heroine, faces a very real threat of rape. At one point, Coate even says out loud that he will rape Nell, since once he does, she will be ineligible for any respectable marriage and thus be willing to accept and even be grateful for his offer of marriage. The plan might have worked better if Coate hadn’t announced it out loud.

But forewarning only goes so far. Nell may be tall, and generally able to take care of herself, but Coates is easily able to overpower her, and her servants are of only limited use as protectors, and propriety and Ben’s fears of being left alone at the toll gate prevent John from staying at the manor. It’s one reason Nell’s grandfather rushes her into marriage with John (and I mean really rushes; they marry after knowing each other for less than a week), although since the marriage is mostly kept a secret from Coate, its protection is thin indeed.

That’s not the only threat of rape that constantly hangs over this book: Chirk, the highwayman, is convinced that John has either rape or seduction on his mind with Rose, Nell’s nursemaid turned maid. John’s initial denials fail to convince Chirk, who points out that the Quality tend to regard lower class women as mere sport, available whenever they—the upper class men—want them. It’s a bitter truth not really denied by John, who himself is trying to keep Nell from getting raped by Coate or her cousin.

Nell can’t simply order them off the premises: the house will soon belong to her cousin, and she is terrified that involving her grandfather will bring on another stroke. In fact, her grandfather is even more upset that no one has told him about his grandson’s guest. About the only thing her servants can do is go to great lengths to make Coate uncomfortable.

Incidentally, for an estate that everyone agrees is near ruin, to the point where the gardens are completely untended and the household is trying to make ends meet by raising pigs and growing a vegetable garden, they keep a lot of servants: a valet, a butler, a cook, Nell’s old nurse, a groom, and at least two housemaids, in major contrast to Heyer’s other poverty stricken households, who keep only one or two servants if they keep any at all. Then again it’s a very big house, and the general idea is to keep Sir Peter from realizing that anything is wrong, and he’d certainly notice a lack of servants. Various people trotting through his estate to hide chests of golden sovereigns in the caves on his land, apparently not, but no servants, absolutely yes.

Speaking of those golden sovereigns, for a book filled with highwaymen, mysterious caves with almost buried treasure, golden sovereigns, love at first sight, a last minute wedding, no less than three elegantly attired men, and a genuine scandal, it’s all remarkably dull. Mostly because, for the first time in several books, Heyer’s irony and humor are almost entirely lacking, until John’s friend Mr. Babbacombe makes an appearance. And even Babbacombe’s moments of fun—his reaction to John’s marriage, his attempts to collect tolls at the gate, and his attempt to cook eggs—are too few and far between. Not to mention that Babbacombe is too competent a soldier, too much of a hero, to be much of a comic figure—even if he and John do offer one of the most realistic and convincing male friendships in any Heyer novel.

Which is far more than can be said for the rest of the novel. Try though I might, I have a difficulty understanding just why everyone is so concerned for Sir Peter’s feelings, given that under his management, the estate has gone bankrupt and his granddaughter has no fortune, no protection, and no prospects. She cannot even work as a governess, and Sir Peter seems to have failed to make any provision for the servants. His tenants are not overly thrilled either. And the less said about the entire questionable plot of hiding six chests filled with gold in nearby caves the better. Oh, I get why the caves were chosen, and since the caves also manage to successfully hide a corpse for several days, they’re fine as a hiding spot. I am questioning the ability to bring them to this location at all.

Oddly, given my previous complaints about this, the one thing I’m not questioning is the romance: as fast as it is (one of Heyer’s few uses of the love at first sight trope) Nell and John do seem well suited to one another: bored and uncomfortable with society and wanting to tread their own paths. They share similar interests, and are immediately comfortable and happy with each other. Also, Nell seems delighted to have finally met a man taller than she is. It perhaps says something about Heyer’s couples that I’m more convinced these two will make it than other couples who spend a great deal more time in banter.

The amusing first chapter, the nice romance, and Mr. Babbacombe aside, this is, as I’ve noted, a surprisingly dull book. It reads somehow as if Heyer desperately wanted to escape the comedies of manners that had now become her stock in trade, to return to the adventures and derring-do of her earlier works. And yet, those works had succeeded only when she had allowed herself to laugh. She did not do so here, and the result is one of her rare missteps in her Regency world. Fortunately, I suspect I will forget it again very soon.

Mari Ness has refused to say how much wine and chocolate were consumed during the reading of this book and the writing of this post. She lives in central Florida.


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