The Toll Gate was an interesting read and my rating is hovering somewhere between 3.75* to 4* for this Georgette Heyer work, the reasons for which I shall elaborate further in my review below.
The best feature of this book for me is it’s outstanding characterisation, which is typical Heyer, with an incredulous hero, equally matched heroine, a strong and inexorable grandfather, an amazingly natural urchin and a good natured highwayman ever ready to take offense. And that is what pushed my rating from 3.75* to 4*.
The story is about the adventurous Captain John Staple or Crazy Jack, and as the name suggests, he is obstinately crazy and is most unsurprisingly found in scrapes no one would ever think of! So, suitably matching his habit of getting into unprecedented tangles, he finds himself minding an unmanned toll gate with a mystery hanging about the disappearance of the gatekeeper and an urchin at his disposal to be taken care of. The details of the story and the plot may be gathered from several earlier posts and the book summary at GR, so I will concentrate on my perceptions of the book.
Mind you, this ain’t a regular romance, hardly much of it to be seen in here, but it is more of a mystery and a good and exciting one at that!
The character of Captain John Staple is dynamic to say the least. He has an incredible presence to his credit and is very kind, intelligent and ingenious at the same time. The most striking feature of his character is his ability to switch from one phase to another without much trouble. He can be the vulgar cant bantering gatekeeper without an ounce of sophistication in him at one time and a very kind and empathetic listener and comforter with very agreeable manners endowed within him at the next. He is handsome to behold and of a mountainous size towering well over everyone around him. He is also tolerably good at handling a kitchen and manages to keep his wardrobe and dress himself without his man at his disposal.
So when the hero is so incredible, shouldn’t he have a suitable heroine to match him? Here enters Miss Nell Stornaway in her overgrown size closer to 6 feet, (for John does say she is taller than his sister, who herself stands at five feet and nine inches) to give him a leveller at first glance and has him loose his balance. Nell Stornaway is very much my kind of heroine, not a diamond if the first water but kind, compassionate, understanding and a fighter, but sadly she has not a very big part to play throughout the book. And she is definitely a change from the regular misses and a complete match to the Captain for her notions of propriety do not very much match with those of Society.
Sir Peter Stornaway is one emphatically strong character of astounding mettle. Even in the obvious face of death he is anxious to do right by his granddaughter and pulls and holds on till he has not settled everything to the rights and to his satisfaction. He is a very perceptive and discerning man with a glorious past and keen determination to keep his family name unsullied. His was the most impressive character of the book for me and I could not help but like him immensely and feel his death harshly through the pages.
The next character I liked best, rather I loved, was that of Ben. The way he shrieks from being cleansed and his innocent, childish ways of groping for security and loving to live in unadulterated childhood playfulness is what catches the attention. Also, his perceptions of the adult nature and ever readiness not to disoblige any of the elders for fear of some scary (though unreal) punishments is very heart wrenching.
Rose Durward is also one likeable character and tends to be very endearing in her loving scoldings, like one of those good natured matrons putting up a tough exterior. Bred to high propriety she astonishingly falls for a highwayman and cherishes unshared dreams of having a happy married life with him, though not sure of its fulfilment.
Jerry Chirk, a highwayman and Rose’s love interest is not bad either. Though his cant was the most difficult to comprehend, his character was nevertheless interesting.
Henry Stornaway is a person with a long tongue and no discipline and faithfulness in him. While Nathaniel Coate is one really cold blooded and black villain.
Secondary characters of Lydd and Stogumber were also very realistically designed and executed.
Overall, the story is intriguing and very different with new twists and has an ability to keep the reader wanting to know the next turn of events, which is absolutely a sign that the author has been successful in achieving the expected intrigue.
Why not 5*? Too much thieves cant in it for my taste! There were lines together where I could not make a word of what was happening and that was a damper! Also, I would have liked a more elaborate ending, with some note on what happens to the manor, how Ben takes to being taken up with Jerry and also a glimpse at Nell and John’s eccentric and adventurous life and his family’s surprise at having to directly welcome a daughter in law! But then some thoughts are better left on the reader’s imagination and to be supposed to be the obvious.
Georgette Heyer fans should have a read of this work of hers at least once