I needed something cheerful to read this weekend, so I decided to turn to one of the Georgette Heyer novels languishing on my bookshelves. I’d previously read A Civil Contract and Cotillion and found them utterly delightful. The Toll-Gate was not nearly as delightful as those books—and it’s often downright silly—but it was entertaining enough.
The novel’s main character, Captain John Staple, is home from the recently concluded Napoleonic Wars. His relatives are determined to finally find him a suitable bride, but he makes the job difficult by wandering off in search of excitement that’s hard to find now that the war is over. He finds plenty of excitement when, on a journey to visit a friend, he comes across a toll-gate being attended by a frightened boy in place of his father. At that moment, “the Captain’s besetting sin, a strong predilection for exploring the unusual, [took] possession of him,” and he decided to stay and figure out where the boy’s father was and why the boy was so terrified.
The boy, Ben, is relieved to let the Captain take over as gate-keeper and stay with him until his father’s return. They decide to tell the neighbors that the Captain is a cousin, there for a visit. The Captain immediately throws himself into this new world, getting the house spruced up and buying himself a new wardrobe, almost as if he’s going to stay for good. His eagerness to fall right into this life—and so many neighbors’ quick acceptance of it—is part of the book’s silliness. If you can’t go with it, there’s no point reading it.
Besides throwing himself into gate-keeping, the Captain also throws himself at the local squire’s granddaughter, Lady Nell Stormaway. They’re almost immediately besotted with each other, and the Captain quickly wins over the people Lady Nell trusts. More silliness here—just go with it.
The romance is only a small part of the novel. Most of the story is dedicated to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Ben’s father and the sudden arrival of Lady Nell’s cousin Sir Henry and his disreputable friend Choate. A couple of shady characters , including a highwayman with an apparent heart of gold, add to the suspense. And to the silliness—the good people recognize each other as good almost immediately, regardless of their actions. Just go with it!
This novel was certainly entertaining enough for a cold winter’s weekend, but the ridiculousness of the plot nearly did me in. Jamaica Inn it is not, and the unlikeliness of the plot never quite left my mind, making it difficult for me to ever feel fully immersed in the story. I did enjoy Captain Staple’s high spirits and good cheer. He made me think of Captain Jack Aubrey, although Staple is far more competent on land than Aubrey. It was also lots of fun to encounter slang so similar to what I found in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda just a few weeks ago. The authentic-sounding period slang is one of the things Heyer, writing in the 20th century, is known for, but it hadn’t stood out quite so much in the earlier books.
Although this wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the other Heyer books I’ve read, I still plan to read more. I have Charity Girl on my shelves already, but are there others I should make a point of seeking out?