Review 1782: The Toll-Gate

I was rereading some Georgette Heyer novels last winter as I replaced some of my ratty old 70’s copies, and I remembered The Toll-Gate as one of my least favorite of her romances. I was confused, however, for the novel was amusing and had a fun adventure plot.

Back the second time from the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack Staple has been intending to settle down. His mother and sister have accordingly presented a string of attractive, eligible girls, but Jack hasn’t been interested. He says he doesn’t want to get married until he receives “a leveller.”

On going to visit a friend, he loses his way and comes to a toll-gate that is manned at night by a terrified young boy. The boy tells Jack that his father told him to mind the toll-gate for an hour, and he hasn’t been back. The boy is terrified of a man his father sometimes meets during the night. Jack decides to stay with the boy until his father returns. Then the next morning, he receives his leveller, in the person of Nell Stornaway.

This novel is just delightful, and I don’t understand how I misremembered it so badly.

The Talisman Ring

Sprig Muslin

Faro’s Daughter

Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

The Poison Thread

This House Is Haunted

The Séance

Review 1773: A Civil Contract

Remembering back quite a few years to the last time I read A Civil Contract, I didn’t classify it as a favorite Heyer. As I was younger then and more romantic, I was disappointed in its plain and prosaic heroine. Now that I am more mature, I look at it with completely different eyes.

Adam Deveril is a dashing captain who has been serving in the Peninsular wars when he is abruptly called home because his father unexpectedly died. This death makes Adam Lord Lynton and leaves him heir to a huge amount of debt. Although the family has never been wealthy, Adam has had no idea just how his father’s spending habits and mismanagement have put the estate into debt.

Adam thinks there is no solution but to put his townhouse and the family estate on the market. Being a proud man, he ignores his businessman’s recommendation to look for a wealthy bride.

Adam also feels obliged to inform Lord Oversly of the state of affairs, since Adam had been hoping to wed his beautiful daughter, Julia. Oversly acknowledges that Adam can no longer be considered eligible to marry Julia but remarks that he and Julia probably aren’t well suited anyway. However, both Adam and Julia are heart-broken.

Oversly says he thinks he can help Adam. Soon, Adam is surprised to receive a visit from Jonathan Chawleigh, a wealthy but vulgar businessman. Chawleigh suggests that Adam’s financial problems can be solved if only he would marry Chawleigh’s daughter Jenny.

Adam’s pride does not permit him to consider this offer, but he agrees to meet Jenny. He finds her plain, plump, and matter-of-fact as well as poorly dressed. He does not even realize he has met her before, for she is a schoolfriend of Julia’s. Almost against his will, he marries her.

Maybe I’m giving away too much, but this is the story of how a young man learns to throw away his romantic illusions and begin to appreciate his thoughtful, supportive, affectionate wife. Thus, its intent is a little more serious than most of Heyer’s novels, and it also has a great deal to say, off and on, about the state of Europe at the time.

I had to laugh, because this time through I found myself impatient with Adam and Julia’s romantic yearnings and appreciated Jenny’s good qualities and hidden heartache a good deal more. The book is also not lacking in Heyer’s usual amusing dialogue, although most of it is between other characters than the two main ones.

The Convenient Marriage

Cotillion

Friday’s Child

Review 1772: The Fall of Light

The Fall of Light is like all the Irish epics rolled into one, minus the gruesome murders. It’s the tale of Dierdre of the Sorrows applied to one family.

It’s the early 19th century, and Francis Foley is moving on again. Throughout his life, he has become angry at his fate and moved from one place to another. This time, he’s had a great argument with his wife, Emer, and she left the house. Now, he and his four sons are on the run, because he broke into the lord’s house, stole his telescope, and burned the house down.

They have been heading west, for Francis believes they will make their home on the Atlantic Ocean. But when they reach the River Shannon, Francis, always hasty, never to be denied, says they must cross it where they are without looking for a bridge or ford. They cannot even see the other side. And in that fateful crossing, Francis is swept away from his sons Tomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, and Teige, who is only 10.

One by one, the brothers lose each other, and the story becomes each one’s journey to find a family and a place in the world, through famine and terrific hardships. This is a lyrical, lush story that makes the journey of a family into a tale of mythic proportions.

Four Letters of Love

History of the Rain

This Is Happiness

Review 1768: Venetia

I didn’t remember Venetia as being one of my favorite Georgette Heyer books, but actually I liked it very much. It features a sparkling heroine.

Venetia Lanyon has lived almost secluded in the Yorkshire countryside. When her mother died, her father became a recluse and refused permission when the time came for Venetia to be brought out by her aunt. Now 25, since her father’s death she has been taking care of her brother’s estate until he returns from the wars, at which time she plans to take a house with her younger brother, Aubrey. Although she has two suitors, she cares for neither of them and believes she will need to be there for Aubrey, who has a bad hip and does not relish meeting people.

The Lanyons’ neighbor, Lord Damerel, is seldom home and has such a bad reputation that when they were children Venetia and her brothers called him the Wicked Baron. Venetia is out picking berries one day when she meets Damerel. He at first mistakes her for a village girl and kisses her. However, he soon finds his mistake and doesn’t know what to make of her reaction. Fairly quickly, they find themselves friends.

Of course, this will never do, think her friends and relations, and we’re off for another funny romp with Heyer.

Black Sheep

Regency Buck

Frederica

Review 1766: China Court

Old Mrs. Quin dies, leaving her beloved house, China Court, dilapidated from lack of money and her even more beloved garden tended only in a few places. Her descendants gather, assuming the house and contents will have to be sold to pay for the taxes and the leftover money divided. Among them is Tracy, her only grandchild, who loved the house as a child but was taken away by her mother to lead a wandering existence. Mrs. Quin’s children are indignant about the presence of Peter St. Omer, who abandoned an aimless life four years ago to work the estate farm at Mrs. Quin’s encouragement.

When the will is read, there is a surprise for all, as Mrs. Quin has left the house to Tracy and the farm to Peter with an unusual proviso. But can they find the money to save the properties?

China Court was the novel I chose to read for Rumer Godden Week, hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. With a great deal of fluidity, it tells the story of the lives of several generations of Quins in their home of China Court. It moves back and forth among generations, the shifts triggered by an object or a smell, as it tells what happened to the family—the smart girl denied an education because of her sex, the wife madly in love whose husband was unfaithful at the first opportunity, the girl in love with one brother who married another.

Godden does this skillfully, inserting the seeds of the stories into the first chapter so that readers want to find out about them. She structures the novel by dividing it up like a book of hours, beginning each chapter with a description of the page of that hour from a specific book. I was perplexed about the reason for this device, but all is eventually made clear.

Godden uses a similar technique in A Fugue in Time (written in 1945) but less successfully there, I think. In this novel I became very involved in the stories of some of the characters and the fate of the house. Godden has perfected this approach to fiction by the time she published this book in 1961.

A Fugue in Time

The Lady and the Unicorn

A Harp in Lowndes Square

Review 1753: Faro’s Daughter

Max Ravenscar is exasperated when his aunt, Lady Mablethorpe, comes to consult him about Adrian, his young cousin for whom he is a trustee. She reports that Adrian has fallen in love with a girl from a gambling den and means to marry her. Ravenscar assumes the girl will have to be bought off.

When he meets her in her aunt’s home, which has indeed been converted into a gambling den, he is surprised at her well-bred appearance and demeanor. However, when he makes his offer, he finds she has turned into a termagant.

Deb Grantham, for her part, has no interest in entrapping naïve young men into marriage. Nor is she interested in Lord Ormskirk, who unfortunately holds some of her aunt’s debts and the mortgage to her aunt’s house. However, she is so angered by Ravenscar’s proposals that she decides to pretend she wants to marry Adrian and to behave as vulgarly as possible.

Even though this is not one of my very favorite Heyer novels, it is still great fun. It has some potentially melodramatic twists to it that are saved from seriousness by a feisty heroine who is not to be defeated.

Frederica

Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle

The Talisman Ring

Review 1749: The Life of Sir Walter Scott

I happened to read a comment that Sir Walter Scott had led a sad life, which made me realize that I knew nothing about him. So, I looked for a biography, but I might have done better to look for a used book. I was concentrating on not getting a print on demand book but ended up with one anyway. Boy, I hate those things.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Scott’s life sad. He overcame childhood disease that sounds like polio and resulted in a withered, weakened leg. However, because of strenuous exercise, he became remarkably fit until the strains of later life.

He was also crossed in love but overcame that as well, and two years later formed a lifelong attachment to his wife, Charlotte. He remained warm friends with the man who married his first love, Wilhelmina Stuart.

In actuality, Scott was successful at everything he did until the stresses of later years resulted in several strokes. Even then, he was amazingly productive. However, a collapse of a series of businesses, for which he was in no way responsible but took responsibility for, resulted in the ruination of him and his partner in a printing company, and he was doggedly repaying his debts the last few years of his life.

The book is interesting enough for about half the time, but the problem with it is that the author is obsessed with the biography written by Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart. Although Wright frequently criticizes Lockhart’s wordy, “journalistic” writing style, this book would have been half as long if Wright wasn’t concerned to refute practically everything Lockhart said about Scott, even to the point of repeatedly calling Lockhart a liar. The problem with this for readers who have not read the Lockhart book is that they therefore don’t care.

As for my edition by Borgo Press, it was full of typographical errors and oddities, probably as a result of an old text being machine-read with no subsequent human editing.

Charles Dickens: A Life

Jane Austen: A Life

Thomas Hardy

Review 1744: Regency Buck

On her way to London with her brother Peregrine, Judith Taverner mistakenly stops in a town hosting a prize fight and has an unfortunate encounter with a man in a curricle. When the siblings reach town and call on their guardian, Lord Worth, they find that he is the man in the curricle. Their father mistakenly designated their guardian as the fifth Earl instead of his friend, the fourth, who has died.

Judith is headstrong and determined to make a splash in London society. Although Lord Worth gives them assistance with suggestions and introductions, he and Judith continue to clash. Judith’s cousin Bernard Taverner warns her that Lord Worth may have designs on her fortune, which is large enough in itself but even larger if something happens to her brother Perry. Then Perry is first challenged to a duel and later his carriage is attacked. Judith and Worth are getting along better, but does someone have designs against Perry?

Most of Heyer’s Regency romances tend to either be funny or have an element of mystery (although they all have amusing dialogue). Regency Buck is one of the latter, with an engaging heroine, a mysterious plot, and as usual, perfect period detail.

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The Nonesuch

Black Sheep

Frederica

Review 1734: Effi Briest

Effi Briest is sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. It seems that the last half of the 19th century was a big time for novels about unfaithful wives. However, whereas Anna Karenina was a call for improvement in women’s rights on this issue, Effi Briest seems to accept the unfairness of the laws and societal mores. Nevertheless, I liked this novel more than Madame Bovary, which is more of a character study of a stupid woman.

Effi is only sixteen when the Baron von Instetten, an old suitor of her mother, comes calling. Within an hour, he proposes marriage and is accepted. The Baron is a civil servant, and after their marriage, he takes her home to a seaside village in upper Pomerania. The house is dark and depressing and reputedly haunted. Society is limited, and Effi, who is a gay person who likes to enjoy herself, finds only one congenial inhabitant, the local chemist. The women she has to socialize with are commonplace or spiteful. Effi feels neglected and unhappy.

After the birth of her daughter, the Crampases arrive. Major Crampas is an old schoolfriend of the Baron and a known womanizer. (I wonder if his name’s resemblance to Krampus is a coincidence, considering the Germanic origins of that character.) Although she tries to avoid it, Effi is drawn into an affair with him. When her husband gets a posting to Berlin, though, she is happy to leave and put it behind her. But it is not behind her at all.

I liked the character of Effi very much, but she is the only one in this novel who is fully drawn. The others just seem like placeholders for their actions, except for Rollo the dog. Also, the harsh reactions of everyone when they find out about the affair, even though it is long over with, seem even more extreme than Karenin’s in Anna Karenina.

Even though this novel is 20 years more recent than Anna Karenina, having been published in 1895, it has a much more rigid and judgmental message despite Effi being a sympathetic character. As a person, I liked Effi better than silly Emma Bovary or naïve Anna Karenina, but I found the novel a bit punitive. Fontane was reacting in it to a story he heard of a similar event in which he was struck by the lack of surprise or dismay expressed by society at the harsh treatment of the woman involved, so he is combining an approach to our sympathy with Realism in this novel.

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Greenbanks

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