Royal Escape, Georgette Heyer
When I first discovered Georgette Heyer's books, in the early 1980s, they were hard to find, at least in my corner of the United States. The library had a few of her Regency novels, which I read and re-read, but I had no luck finding copies for myself. Despite the lists of "Other books by Georgette Heyer" that I occasionally saw, I really had no idea of the scope of her work. It was only when I joined an on-line Heyer discussion group in the late 1990s that I learned she had also written four contemporary novels (later suppressed) and twelve modern mysteries, let alone historical fiction, set much earlier than the stories with which I was already familiar.
Luckily this was at a time when her books were becoming more available, both through reprints and on-line book-sellers. It also helped that I was living in a city with lots of bookstores. Since I enjoy mysteries from the Golden Age of the 1930s, I started collecting those. But I was more hesitant about Heyer's historical fiction. In reading about Heyer herself, starting with Jane Aiken Hodge's The Private World of Georgette Heyer, I learned that she was a tireless and careful researcher, who turned first to primary sources, amassing countless volumes of notes for both her Regencies and other historical works. She wanted to be taken seriously as an author, and her ambition was to write straight-forward historical fiction. But while I still had some of her Regency novels to track down, let alone the mysteries, I wasn't anxious to read her books about William the Conqueror, or Simon the Coldheart in the reign of Henry IV. When Beauvallet came up for discussion on the Heyer list, I took the plunge with that one, and I enjoyed it more than I expected. It's a swashbuckling story of an Elizabethan privateer, who captures not just treasure from a Spanish galleon but a lady's heart as well. It can't compare with Dorothy Dunnett or Patrick O'Brian (my gold standards for historical fiction), but it's a quick fun read.
I've had a copy of Royal Escape on the TBR shelves for several years now. I don't remember why I bought it - maybe for a discussion on the Almacks list. I have to admit, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It is the story of King Charles II's escape after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in September of 1651. Rather than retreating to Scotland, the starting point of his campaign, he hoped to make his way to France. For the next six weeks, he moved in secret across southwestern England, evading Cromwell's soldiers, guided and hidden by Royalists from all ranks of society. Heyer carefully researched contemporary accounts of the King's adventures, most famously his hiding in an oak tree, but also disguising himself as a servant traveling with family parties. She writes with sympathy of her Charles, a young man, a king with no throne, finding his way among dangerous factions. Despite his harsh features, he has great charm and charisma, and an easy way about him, which draw people to help him almost in spite of themselves. Still a bit immature, he will run risks that horrify the elders around him, particularly his loyal Lord Wilmot, a fussy courtier wilting under the harsh conditions of life as a fugitive, and the responsibility he feels for his sovereign's safety.
This is a very enjoyable adventure story, complete with priest's holes and disguises and messages sent in code. Charles has more than one narrow escape in his wanderings, particularly after news spreads of a £1000 bounty on his head. And it has some familiar Heyeresque elements, including a snippy valet who would be completely at home in any of her Regencies. But I have to say, I struggled with the first couple of chapters. The story opens with a bang, in the middle of the battle. Heyer must have assumed that her readers would be familiar with Worcester and those who fought it. She introduces ten or fifteen of the King's supporters, in what becomes a confusing crowd of names. Then she takes all of them fleeing from Worcester, and I got equally lost among the villages and roads. I finally resorted to an atlas to figure out where exactly they were heading. A map showing Charles' route and the various places (including the manor houses) where he found shelter would have been a great help in this book. Heyer also seems to have assumed that her readers would know the context of the battle, how Charles came to be in England and what brought him to Worcester. There is some discussion of this with various people he meets in his travels, especially the problems he had in Scotland before the campaign started, but they don't explain enough. This is tricky to handle in historical fiction, to give the necessary background without overwhelming the story, and Heyer doesn't manage it well here. My other quibble is the dialogue, which to my mind reads a bit awkwardly. That's another tricky thing in historical fiction, and Heyer does it well in her Regencies (though sometimes relying too much on slang). Here the language seems self-consciously "historical," with convoluted grammar and people constantly saying "oddsblood" and "oddsfish."
As much as I enjoyed this book, it did not inspire me to immediately read The Conqueror or My Lord John. But it did though leave me wanting to know more about Charles II, both before and after Worcester. Can anyone recommend a good biography of the Merry Monarch?