Tue
Jul 2 2013 5:00pm

When Highwaymen Go Dull: The Toll-Gate

The Toll-GateI 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.

16 comments
Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
This is the only Heyer mystery I've read, because after this one I immediately decided I should never read any of her others. Given this review, I gather that it's not actually all that representative of that particular genre in her books, which is...reassuring.

You know, I've completely forgotten the first chapter. I thought that the book started with John jaunting about the countryside and running into Ben at the toll gate. And my goodness, the toll gate parts were very interesting, especially compared to everything else going on. But I did love the Bow Street runner, who seemed so much more interesting than the villains.

(Spoiler alert, insofar as it matters?) I did find one bit of the ending a little jarring from a modern standpoint, though perfectly reasonable from a historical immersion one: that the happy ending for Ben is taking him off to learn to be a servant. He's clearly thrilled at the prospect, and it's probably the best offer he'll ever get, but my modern mind got all twitchy at that. Rescue a poor, somewhat abused child from a perilous and uncertain situation, and offer to provide him with room and board, while he clearly admires you, and adult, reads very much in my head as an adoption scenario. But here it's... "Look! You can have training for a job, kid, and work for me forever!"

Which I suppose just goes to show that I should be very grateful to modern labor laws for the fact that this no longer reads as a Marvelously Happy Resolution for the child.
Pamela Adams
2. Pam Adams
a Marvelously Happy Resolution for the child. Of course, given the child's class, since this is a Heyer novel, becoming a servant of a somewhat wealthy gentleman is probably a step up. His other career choice was innkeeper's stableboy, after all. I think that the chimney-sweep child in Arabella got a similar offer.

I enjoyed this one- and it is a favorite with me. No dark chocolate required to keep me reading. I can see its flaws- one you didn't mention was that Henry's father was a Cit, so his blood was naturally bad, but still enjoy the book. I think my enjoyment focuses on a few areas-

1) John and Nell are kind, strong characters. (as well as tall) John first stops in the night in order to help a frightened boy, although finding a made-to-order love interest as well as a mystery keeps him around. My least favorite Heyers are those with unliikeable heros and heroines. (Bath Tangle, anyone?)

2) The minor characters, Chirk, the Bow-Street Runner, Rose, and Babbington are all enjoyable.

3) I love the slang and John's ability to blend in. (or think he does- it's pretty clear that the whole village knows he's not what he pretends to be)
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
(Oh, Bath Tangle. I still sincerely hope that those assholes drown on their honeymoon cruise.)

I can totally see that becoming a servant--a groom, even, not a scullery boy or the like--is a major step up for the boy under the circumstances. Very period appropriate and all that. It's just modern sensibilities that make me wince at an orphaned preteen being rewarded with a job.
Laura P.
4. LadyDisdain
I...liked this one? I discovered Heyer through smartbitchestrashybooks.com and picked this one up after reading The Talisman Ring because it sounded like the least romantic book in her bibliography (in the sense that any romantic stuff that occured between the main characters took a backseat to the action/adventure plot. I'm not a big fan of romance novels but I love reading reviews of really terrible/batshit insane romance novels, which is why I was reading SBTB in the first place). Throughout the book, I kept thinking: This is an 18th century western. A stranger came to town, a villain was threatening the damsel in distress, and hidden treasure was involved. Certainly there were some quibbling bits of illogic--the issue of the servants, as you mentioned--but overall I thought it was a pretty satisfying read. *shrug*
etv13
5. etv13
Am I completely misremembering the ending? I thought Rose and Chirk adopted Ben.
Fade Manley
6. fadeaccompli
It's possible I'm misremembering the ending! I only read it the once. I may be remembering some mid-book promise ("If nothing else, you can come be my groom") that was then superceded by an adoption at the end.
etv13
7. Tehanu
Well, no accounting for taste and all that. This is one of my very favorite Heyers and I'm just settling in to read it again. Most of Heyer's aristocratic heroes would have tossed Ben a half-crown tip and kept right on riding away; John Staple is a better man than that, and I find his romance with Nell incredibly romantic. I also like all the secondary characters, and as far as I'm concerned, Heyer could have left the first chapter completely out; there's nothing particularly amusing in it. YMMV, I guess. There are some laughs, and I'm all for them, but I think this is a terrific example of a romantic adventure instead of just a plain romance.
Rachel Howe
8. ellarien
I have a soft spot for The Toll-Gate for a couple of reasons: it was one of of the first Heyers I ever read, in my early teens (I found it in the children's section of the library, along with Friday's Child); and it's set in my part of the world. Every time I walk along a certain old turnpike road over the moors near here, I get the urge to reread it, though I don't succumb to the urge all that often. So it's hard for me to be objective about it, but I suppose you're right that it isn't one of her best.
etv13
9. Jane W
I also quite like this one. I agree that it is not a typical Heyer story, not a comedy of manners but a straightforward adventure story, and wholly agree that the first chapter is in a different mood- but I suppose it is setting the scene for the sort of life John is trying to get away from (drinking/gambling).
I wonder whether in part it is the male protagonist that lends it a different flavour. There are several: this one, Unknown Ajax , Quiet Gentleman and the Foundling spring to mind, where there is more dramatic action and less pure social interaction, than the ones with a female main character.
I also think this one is less class ridden than some. The good guys include the groom, Ben, the butler, Rose, Chirk, the police officer (even if he is a bit of a fool) and some of the villagers. The bad guys include Henry (cit blood and all) and Coates (hanger on to the ton), and in some ways Sir Peter too (even though Nell loves him his selfishness does come through quite strongly).
etv13
10. Sienamystic
I suppose part of my love for this book is based around the fact that I simply omit the first chapter either by skipping past it on rereads, or just plain forgetting it exists so that every time I pick up the book again, I have to think, "oh, right, this bit." But the thing is, I do reread it, and love it, because I love the relationship between John and Nell (and yeah, I can definitely see them as having one of the happiest Heyer Couple marriages) and I find many of the supporting cast irresistably charming. Also, my kink for competent heros (which Heyer does provide a lot of) works out here - a big guy (poor John, he gets called all sorts of names because of his size!) who can step in and correct a really bad situation. It all just hums along nicely.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
Lots of counter viewpoints here, I see! Excellent!

@fadeaccompli and etv13 -- I already returned this book to the library, so I can't check. I think it's pretty clear that Ben will remain part of the working classes, however, as servant or farmer, but also be decidedly better off without his father.

@Pam Adams -- Bath Tangle is coming. Oh, is it coming. That one I remember. You're right about the city blood. We have to reach Black Sheep to just start to creep past that -- and that hero isn't a Cit, either.

The protagonists and secondary characters are certainly likeable; I just found them dull.

@LadyDisdain -- I didn't see the Western aspect before this; thanks!

@ellarien -- I have the same sort of soft spot for Charity Girl, which I don't think anyone would rank among the better Heyers.

@Tehanu -- I guess it's that as I've been reading along, I've been finding better romantic adventures from her.

@Jane W -- I was going to note once we reached Unknown Ajax how in novels with male protagonists Heyer tends to pull the action OUT of London or Bath and into more or less isolated social areas (not that the castle in The Quiet Gentleman is all that isolated, given the big ball in the middle), rather as if she knew how her men would act in the city, and was curious about how they would act outside the city.

@Sienamystic -- If I ever reread this one I will follow your example with the first chapter!
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
For some reason I double posted. I blame the cat.
Pamela Adams
13. Pam Adams
I believe that that is the true purpose of cats- to be blamed. Of course, they believe that the true purpose of humans is to serve and worship them...........
Pamela Adams
14. Pam Adams
Yes, Rose and Chirk offer to adopt Ben- Rose going so far as to state that she's wanted to clean him up- a fate Ben regards as something approaching death.
etv13
15. KariS
Include me in the group who loves The Toll-Gate. It is one of my "Top 15" Heyer books, that I never tire of rereading. I love John's size, his competence, and his kindness. He is particularly understanding of Nell and the difficulties of her situation.

I think the opening chapter does accomplish two things - it makes clear John's boredom with the Ton, and shows the machinations of his mother and sister (who've been trying to find him a suitable wife). This also makes his attraction to Nell more understandable: she is a lady, but it's doubtful that his mother or sister would have taken such steps to bring her to his attention! She doesn't bore him, however (unlike all the candidates of his mother and sister) and I think they will be very happy together.

I enjoy reading this book with The Unknown Ajax. The heroes are a lot alike, and I love big men who also happen to be kind, with a generous sense of humor. (The Unknown Ajax is probably my favorite Heyer, if I'm forced to make a decision.)

According to Joan Aiken Hodge, one of John's cousins from the first chapter was meant to be the villain and plotting against him. She later jettisoned that part of the plot, but never got around to changing the first chapter.

Regarding Ben, John meant to train him as a groom until Chirk and Rose offered to adopt him. Whether we like it or not, class distinctions of the time (that Heyer was slow to get past) made it inevitable that Ben could never be raised up into an upper class level. Adoption by a kind couple who are obviously fond of him is much preferable to the fate Ben fears early on: being thrown to the "mercy" of "the Parish" - which meant being sent to the workhouse, to a factory, or to the mines. His odds of surviving to adulthood in one of those situations is very unlikely.
etv13
16. Heyerfan
IIRC, Heyer meant to have John Staple succeed his ineffectual cousin and one of his cousins (Lucius?) plot to murder him to succeed to the title and fortune, hence that crazy first chapter, which she really should have omitted or rewritten.

I like John Staple as a person, and he is quite a satisfying hero. I also believe his falling in love with Nell Stornaway at first sight. I agree that Sir Peter was incredibly selfish (although he did try to arrange a match for Nell by sending her for a Season and of course, being too tall and straightforward, she wouldn't take). I feel that he did neglect both his family (and I including the faithful servants) and the estate. In short, he is a bad landlord and not a good steward of the family estates and heritage. I would love to know if he had always been that way (sounds like it). He was friends with John Staple's grandfather a previous Earl who apparently mended his ways after marriage. Unfortunately Sir Peter apparently never did, or he married a woman who was even more of a spendthrift. Yet, he gets off lightly because of a charm of manner, because Nell loves him, and because his heir Henry is so much worse. (If Henry had been a conscientious heir, I wonder if the retainers or tenants would have felt the same way, bad riding to hounds or not). Again, I am reminded of two earls of Spenborough (Serena's father and her distant cousin) in Bath Tangle; I wonder if the old earl was a better landlord. (He certainly knew more about the land, but that was partly because he had been raised to the position and lifestyle).

It's a pity we don't learn more about Nell's parents and her mother especially, since she is so very different from her grandfather.

Henry's mother was the daughter of a Cit, not his father, who was apparently a younger son of Sir Peter. And of course, the Cit blood is blamed for Henry's ways. I would really have preferred Nell's mother to have been a Cit but Heyer was really rigid in her classism. It's one of the reasons I read her with mixed feelings these days.

My favorite Heyers by the way are Cotillion, A Civil Contract (despite the anti-romantic tone), and The Nonesuch. For laughs, I love the Talisman Ring (Sarah Thane and Sir Tristam Shield are amazing), Devil's Cub (Dominic is such a brat), and pick up almost any other Heyer on a cold wet day.

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