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Gentle Readers, Source Books has reissued a number of Georgette Heyer novels, including two historical novels, The Spanish Bride and Royal Escape, which is about Charles II’s escape to Europe after his defeat by Cromwell. Coincidentally, NPR’s Nancy Pearl chose another Heyer historical novel, Infamous Army, as one of her recommended summer reads.

Hillary Major, a friend and colleague who had never read a Georgette Heyer novel, but who is quite knowledgeable about life and historical events of the era, agreed to review Royal Escape for this blog.

Let’s give Georgette Heyer and her publicists props for her subtitles; she certainly tells it like it is: “a novel in which a daredevil king with a price on his head fools his enemies and terrifies his friends.”

Rightly or wrongly, Heyer expects her reader to know her history – that, though defeated by Cromwell’s forces in 1651 and exiled to Europe for most of a decade, Charles II assumed the throne in 1660, when England’s monarchy was restored (by invitation of Parliament). Thus, despite quite a bit of action in Royal Escape, this is not a novel of suspense. Instead, it’s truly a character study. Heyer spends the length of the novel fleshing out her “daredevil king” and exploring the effects his journey through the English countryside have on Charles the man. Charles is without a doubt the book’s most complex character – foolishly brash in the opening pages as he urges the defeated Scots army to greater efforts; nearly despairing as he contemplates capture or a life in exile (while hiding out in a big tree); saucy in his overtures to a tavern mistress; reckless in risking his life (and his companions’) for a spot of lunch; coolly determined in his plan to disguise himself as a servant despite the indignities. On the whole, however, Heyer’s Charles comes across as confident, persistent, charming, unshakeable in the face of danger – in fact, not so surprisingly, an air of majesty hangs about him like a mantle.

What keeps the book interesting are the small details of how a royal intruder affect the life of an everyday Englishman or woman. From the poor householders who, quite against their will, find themselves slaughtering a neighbor’s sheep for the king’s mutton supper to the not-so-secret Catholic noble who finds his home’s hidey-holes a bit overcrowded with priest, pupils, and royalty, Charles disrupts business-as-usual wherever he goes.

The large cast of minor characters are not treated with as much depth as is the person of Charles: by and large, each is exactly what he seems to be: the poor but loyal farmer, the stern and loyal ex-soldier, the loyal servant, the loyalist noblewoman, the staunchly loyal nobleman. (Get the picture?) True, Heyer adds a twist to some of these types: the steadfast fop, for example, is hardly a literary cliché. And Heyer makes it clear that women are an integral part of the king’s escape, dramatizing such quandaries as whether giving the king the best eiderdown will damage his masquerade as a servingman. While her older female characters are generally wise dames indeed, her younger women fall victim to some rather unfortunate typecasting. Jane is the first young lady to assist Charles in his pose as a servant and escort; she is both sensitive and sensible, the romantic heroine who doesn’t (quite) give in to the romance. The next young woman to perform the role, however, is cast as foolish, fearful, and perhaps even a bit of slut – this despite the fact that she faces even more real danger than Jane and that her fears are quite well-founded. Georgette, couldn’t you be a bit kinder to womankind?

In the end, the almost-too-sweet Jane is the character who best sums up the tone of the novel (as she assures her cousin Harry Lassels that she does not intend to give in to Charles’ not-so-subtle advances):

“I shall not regret, Harry. You spoke of our journey as an adventure. Indeed, it is one, and I have thought that since the King is merry we should be so too. We shall never have another adventure like to this, you and I…. He will go his way, and we ours, but this will be a little part of our lives that we shall remember always, like a fairy tale told us in our childhood. You are anxious because the King kissed me, but you need not fear for me. I am not for him, since I am not a princess to whom he may offer marriage, and not a trollop whom he would make mistress. … In my heart, I know him for an easy lover, but no ravisher.”

Between Heyer’s idealized worldview and the informed reader’s confidence of an eventual happy ending, Royal Escape reads a bit like an advertisement for monarchy. This said, it’s certainly an entertaining one. I shall not regret my first Georgette Heyer read; indeed, I rather enjoyed the journey. Who wouldn’t want to abandon her cynicism (and occasionally her good sense) and, like Jane, join Charles and company on a merry adventure?

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My other Georgette Heyer Reviews:

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