The Toll-Gate

Toll GateI 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?

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22 Responses to The Toll-Gate

  1. Harriet says:

    Oh my, so many great Heyer books to recommend. Sylvester is one of my favorites. I love Heyer’s dry wit. My book club liked it. One of her first, and to my mind the best, is These Old Shades. It’s sequel, The Devils Cub is also good, but Shades is lovely. It’s not Regency, but oh so good.

  2. Natalia says:

    The Toll-Gate should come with a warning: “Beware: not Heyer’s best!” It was the first Georgette Heyer novel I tried to read and it was just too silly, so I didn’t finish it. In its defense, I was expecting something similar to Jane Austen, which is silly in itself. It took me a year to give Heyer another chance (with The Nonesuch, which turned out to be delightful)

    • Teresa says:

      I knew it wasn’t Heyer’s best, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as preposterous as it was. I’ll be donating my copy to the library, so maybe I’ll add that warning note :)

  3. The Toll-Gate is not her best. My favorite is probably “The Grand Sophy”.

  4. Rebecca H. says:

    I really loved The Talisman Ring. I think I’ve read three Heyers now and liked that one the best.

  5. Lisa says:

    I strongly recommend that you not rush to read Charity Girl. It’s one of her last, and it feels a bit tired to me. If you’ve read Cotillion, you’ve already read one of the best – and A Civil Contract is another. I’d add The Talisman Ring, The Quiet Gentleman, and The Unknown Ajax (Hugo reminds me of Nicholas – but now that I’m reading Dunnett, everything will remind me of her books). The Grant Sophy (for whom my Sophie is named) is fun, and so is Venetia (possibly her most romantic – a hero with a serious case of Hunchback in the Gutter AKA Lymond Syndrome).

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for those suggestions! I’m getting the impression that the Heyers I find at used book sales are not her best. But my copy of Charity Girl is a lovely old edition at a sale where I got a bag of books for $5, so no regrets!

  6. rohanmaitzen says:

    I’d second the recommendation of Venetia: I like the more mature, decisive heroines more than the ingenues. I also like Devil’s Cub and Black Sheep, for the same reason.

  7. I’m fond of The Toll Gate so I won’t recommend another one. I like it for all the reasons you don’t finding it an atmospheric adventure story (no need to question it to much) that’s an agreeable way to spend a rainy afternoon. The cave scene (hope I’ve got the right book) definitely deserves a cup of tea and peace and quiet to enjoy it in!

    • Teresa says:

      I was wondering if anyone liked this. It is the one with the cave scene, and it was agreeable enough for a cold winter weekend but I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief enough to fully appreciate it.

  8. ash says:

    Frederica has a fairly realistic romance and Friday’s child is very amusing. They don’t take a lot of time to read, as you know. I hope you pick them up. All of her books are have a unique charm to them even when some are not great.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for the suggestions. And yes, this one did have its charms. I liked the main characters a lot, and the subplot with the highwayman and nursemaid was fun.

  9. JaneGS says:

    When it comes to Heyer, you often have to “just go with it,” but that is a huge part of the fun of these books. I like the premise a lot–I loved the movie of The Scapegoat which is based on a du Maurier story–and the notion of stepping into another’s shoes is a wonderful sub-genre (I first encountered this w Twain’s Price and Pauper when I was a teen).

    For sheer fun, The Reluctant Bride remains my favorite Heyer, although I am a big fan of An Infamous Army.

    Wonderful review for a timeless comfort book.

    • Teresa says:

      I have got to get around to The Scapegoat. I love du Maurier, and so many people told me I had to read it after I enjoyed Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree.

  10. Care says:

    I’ve only read Venetia and it is great fun! And I’m sure I picked this one based on answers to my question of “Which one should I start with?”

    • Teresa says:

      Venetia does seem to be a common favorite. It may be my next–I’ll have to see if my library has it. It’s fun to see that people have so many different favorites, so there are lots of promising options for where to go next.

  11. Becky says:

    I love Venetia, Convenient Marriage, Frederica, Talisman Ring, and Bath Tangle. Bath Tangle probably reminded me the most of Jane Austen.

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