Georgette Heyer: Regency Romances

Marble Surface

Fiona Mackintosh

May 8, 2013

The Regency Period: This was the period of the Napoleonic wars. Mad King George gave way in 1811 to his son, who became Regent until his father's death.  Prinny, aka the Prince of Wales, aka also George, reigned as Regent until 1820.  It was an era of  decadence, lavishness, lasciviousness; the era of Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know. The era of romantic Shelley of The Faerie Queen.

But it was also the period where the industrial revolution, having grown strong roots, was firmly established and growing in momentum. The social ills that Dickens would write about in the Victorian era were plentiful during the Regency. Slums, poverty, disease, child labour, high taxation, post war economic difficulties, crime, gaming hells and prostitution, the Corn Laws, suppression of the population, all existed along with some limited, incremental reform successes.

After the Regency period, George reigned for another ten years.  Then there was a fair amount of royal turnover in the top job until eventually the Crown fell onto the head of Victoria which led, naturally, to the Victorian era.

Marriage at that point in history was still very much a matter of economics. Well, in many ways it still is, but in those days it was more open, especially within the aristocracy.  Arranged marriages based on dowry on the one hand from the female’s family and land/title and settlements from the male side of the equation (sometimes the other way if there were no more male heirs on the female side).  Love in relationships was not the fashion.  It wasn’t really until the 1950s and later but that’s another post.

And now back to author Georgette Heyer and more specifically, to The Toll Gate published in 1954. (I read the ebook version from Kobo). 

[On a purely superficial note,  Heyer appears to have been a kickass flapper, if the pictures are anything to go by. I’m partial to that 20s look though I would not have had the patience to maintain it].

Synopsis:  Captain John Staples, the hero of the story is a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. Recently returned from the Battle of Waterloo, he doesn’t have much patience for the ton and their ways.  He takes off from a weekend affair at his cousin’s estate, across country, to visit a friend.  He leaves his valet behind to accompany his mother home, thus setting up the opportunity for him to engage in the mystery/adventure ahead incognito.

Miss Stornaway, the heroine, is an orphaned daughter, 26 years old, who, having had a failed Season as a Long Meg, returned home in relief to act as the right hand for her grandfather the local Squire.  Miss Stornaway has been doing this for a sufficient period of time that she is seen as being the authority in the District.  Her brother Jermyn was killed in the war.  There is a dissolute cousin, now the heir, who has returned home with a mysterious and dodgy companion. 

There is a toll gate on a country road that is being manned by a young eleven year old boy whose father, Bearn the gatekeeper, has not returned from a mysterious outing one evening. Captain John Staples (aka Jack) decides to stick around to try and figure the mystery out, as he's been looking for an adventure and Miss Stornaway  has captured his attention.

So that's the set up.

Dialogue and Cant: Reading this book made me think about Stephanie Lauren’s regencies and how she doesn't really have very much of the "downstairs" folks in her stories.  The servants in Lauren’s books - which, to be honest, are the bulk of the Regency that I have read - don’t really participate either in the action or in the narration.  They are peripheral and might get only one or two lines here and there in the book at best.  Lauren’s “upstairs” servants have a bit more of a role. In fact, the relationship in By Winter’s Light is focused on the governesses and tutors but for the most part the underclass is invisible, except as background.  

In Heyer’s The Toll Gate, however, the story takes place away from London, in the countryside near Sheffield.  The servants play a key role in this story, the old governess, the groom, the grandfather's valet etc. As a result of being in the country, the relationships between the servants and upper class are also seen as being more "relaxed" and informal. And so there is much more ability in this story to engage in interplay between the Queen's English and other dialects. In fact, it was the extent of the dialogue and the use of cant that made me notice this difference between the two authors.   

I don’t know if it holds for her style overall, or if it is just peculiar to this novel, as I haven’t read anything else by her yet, but there is a lot of dialogue.  The characters are chatty-chatty and have long conversations with each other and about each other.  One chapter is essentially just the two main characters driving from the toll gate to the village engaged in a conversation with very little action or place description or world-building to break up the back and forth between them. 

Again, just an interesting contrast to other writers where the narrator may be doing more of the exposition on the nature of the character or allowing the action to build the reader's understanding.  In this book, the characters engage in exposition on the nature of other characters through conversations with each other.

The extended dialogue, as noted above, also provides a real opportunity to explore the cant of the working class.  In some of the conversations, that concept of language as a separator out of the gentleman from those of working or middle class is consciously present i.e. the characters talk about it as part of whether or not they find it believable that Captain Staples is a cousin of the gatekeeper.

For the most part the use of cant works well to differentiate when Jack is "in character" as the gatekeeper or engaged with those who are playing along with the guise but there are one or two spots where there is an entire page of dialogue at the end of which I probably had only understood half of the phrases. It was enough for me to get the general gist of what the conversation was about but still lots of it passed me by. 

The Relationship:  Heyer was writing her books back in an era when, I am presuming, writing about sex explicitly was taboo.  So for those of us who are used to the slightly racier relationships in our romance reading (not leveled up to the Lora Leigh mistress level but at least the Stephanie Laurens' version of racy) the relationship on a physical front left a little something to be desired (pun intended totally).

The descriptions of physical encounters left me mostly wanting to double check whether the heroine might need the attendance of a good country doctor.  In one scene (and there were only two or three in the whole book) that I recollect, I think they were kissing. I "think", not because I can't remember but because when I was reading it the references were so obscure I wasn't actually quite sure what they were doing.  But, nonetheless, the "passion" of that moment was telegraphed to the reader by indicating when it was over and Nell emerges that she felt her ribs might be bruised.  And I was left thinking - geeze either that was the best first kiss ever or the worst first kiss ever but either way can we get a doctor in the house.

My quibbles with the writing of the physical aspects aside, the relationship itself is fairly typical of more modern regencies with an independent, outside the norm heroine who is quite capable, thank you very much, of managing the entire district on her own.  Jack then fits himself into that structure in a helpful and protective way as the mystery unfolds.

The interesting thing, in this story at least, is that the relationship appears to build through conversation and actions/interactions only; maybe because the writer couldn't get into very much about sex; but I don't think at the HEA stage that I had much of a sense that these two were physically compatible.

Age Differences:  In The Toll Gate there is only a 3 year age gap.  In addition, because of the nature of the heroine and hero, (Nell's role filling in as the Squire of the District; not a typical debutante kind of heroine, has loads of experience in managing, directing, has lots of agency, etc) Nell meets Jack as an equal and he sees and treats with her as one.

But I also read a couple of other books by Heyer in addition, The April Lady and Pistols for Two (a short story collection)  In all of these stories I found the age differences created some ick dynamics.  (I disclose my own bias as a reader is to like more modern regency writers because there is not the same tendency to build in a massive age gap and differential in economic and other forms of power between the heroine and hero). 

In The April Lady there was something very '"Professor and Eliza Doolittle" about the whole thing which I found off-putting.  The older, wiser hero helping the young ingenue heroine mature into herself (shudders) ...

Here's a chart from the interwebs that looks at the age gaps in the Heyer novels.  Obviously it is not true of all of them but definitely in The April Lady and in all the short stories in Pistols for Two. 

Analysis of Age Differences

The reason I find it off-putting is not the actual age gap itself but that there is a real power differential in how the heroine is in relation to the hero.  In The April Lady the economic dependency of the very much younger wife is underlined by the nature of the plot which is focused on a dissolute family, some bad financial decisions and the consequences flowing from those as a result of financial dependency.  The heroine is on an quarterly allowance and is treated as a financial dependent, and that is just ick, no matter that there is an HEA.  Modern regencies generally set heroines up with financial independence, either through marriage settlements that are independently managed or because the heroine has inherited something that gives her independence.

Plot:  Typical regency plot structure in that it is focused on a mystery that must be solved. In this case a missing man, some highwayman shenanigans and some bad actor/dissolute reprobates who need to be stopped.

Overall:  Interesting to go and read earlier regency, that came between Austen and modern day regency authors. 

The writing is strong. The dialogue and cant are really quite remarkable in the sense that conversation does not seem to form as a big a part of modern writing at least not the kind of in-depth conversation that is part of The Toll Gate.

The plot, while a typical regency mystery, is enjoyable and has some suitably delicious gothic moments.

Pace:  It was a bit slow.  I admit that I got a bit impatient in one of the earlier chapters that was just a conversation between the hero/heroine on the way from the toll gate to the village - but this may be necessary in a book that can't describe the physical connections/ attraction between the characters. It also made me realize my own bias as a reader to seeing who a character is through their actions and not having their character explained to me by either the character through long, drawn out conversation or exposition from a narrator.

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