This is the first of two reviews I’ll be posting this week for Simon and Karen’s 1954 Club, one of their twice-yearly events where we all read and review books published in the same year. Georgette Heyer was such a prolific author I find there’s usually a book of hers to read for any year that is chosen! The Toll-Gate is her 1954 novel and one I hadn’t read before.
Like many of Heyer’s novels, this one is set in the Regency period. Our hero, the ‘overpoweringly-large’ Captain John Staple, has just returned from the Peninsular War and is finding it difficult to settle back into the monotony of civilian life. During a particularly tedious dinner party celebrating his cousin’s engagement, John decides to escape the next day and travel north to visit an old friend. Setting off alone on horseback, he becomes lost in the dark and rain and stumbles upon an isolated toll-gate somewhere in the Peak District. A frightened ten-year-old boy is collecting the tolls in the absence of his father, who has disappeared without explanation, so John decides to stay overnight to keep the boy company in the hope that his father will be back in the morning.
When the gatekeeper fails to return the next day, John finds himself helping to man the toll-gate for much longer than he’d expected, encountering highwaymen, thieves and Bow Street Runners. This is so much more exciting than one of cousin Saltash’s boring parties and John soon discovers that he’s in no hurry to leave, particularly when he meets Nell Stornaway, attractive, intelligent and, most importantly, tall – nearly as tall as John himself! Nell lives with her dying grandfather at nearby Kellands Manor and the old man’s heir has recently arrived, accompanied by a disreputable friend. But is it just the inheritance that has drawn them to Kellands or could they be mixed up in the disappearance of the gatekeeper?
Like The Quiet Gentleman, this is a Heyer novel where the focus is on the mystery rather than the romance. The romance is still there, but in a more understated way than usual. However, even though it’s love at first sight, it’s a romance I could believe in, because the hero and heroine seemed perfect for each other. I liked both of them – they are two of Heyer’s more sensible and mature characters, despite John’s love of adventure. And he certainly finds plenty of adventure when he chooses to spend the night at the toll-gate! The opening chapter set at Lord Saltash’s engagement party really doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel at all – it feels as though Heyer is setting up an Austen-style comedy of manners in that chapter, but once John sets out on his journey that aspect of the novel is abandoned and none of the characters we’ve met appear again. I was interested to learn that Heyer wrote the first chapter before deciding on the rest of the plot and had originally intended John’s family background to play a bigger part than it eventually did.
The dialogue is peppered with Heyer’s usual Regency slang, as well as the thieves’ cant used by characters such as Chirk the highwayman, and this adds colour and authenticity to the story. However, although I did enjoy this novel, it hasn’t become a favourite by Heyer; it seemed to lack her usual humour and I do tend to prefer her funnier books! Still, it was an entertaining read and a good choice for me for 1954 Club.
Other books from 1954 previously reviewed on my blog:
This is also book 17/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.