Don’t you just hate it when a book appears to have numerous good elements, but somehow forfeits them all when you actually read it?
I have a profound level of respect for Georgette Heyer. I have yet to read the better part of her novels, but after The Corinthian I acquired a taste for her intelligent, witty romances. They slip down easily on rainy days, and melt my chilly heart. As a writer, I really rate her. Not only was she prolific, successful, and an impressive researcher, but her books have that rare quality of being ‘nice’ without reading like mawkish slop.
Hence, I was somewhat surprised by this novel. Royal Escape is, in my opinion, a bit of a mess.
To summarise: Royal Escape is a journey narrative, following the young Charles II during his escape from Cromwell’s England. I have no aversion to men in stockings, and charming, twinkly-eyed gentlemen are one of my favourite character types. I thought this book would be a fun little romp, and went into it expecting dashing fellows in fine coats, the odd duel, and maybe a kiss or two.
The reality was disappointing, because really this isn’t a novel at all. It’s more a drawn out character sketch of Charles II, and not a particularly good one. Our protagonist is an upbeat, loveable rogue, but the truth is that so many characters mill about him that the King is left to perform the role of a limp flower.
Charles undergoes little development, and whilst there are some good characters in the supporting cast, none of them stick around for long enough to make any significant impact. Any sense of jeopardy is stilted, and whilst the threat of the King’s capture is an overhanging shadow, the tension is lacking.
All in all, it was a bit woolly.
I can’t claim an extensive knowledge of the actual historical events, but I suspect that Heyer has completely adhered to them, to the extent that the book has a real-life muddiness and lack of structure. It is not so much a story as a series of scenes in which the King moves from place to place, muttering about his ill luck and occasionally showing his noble heart in the face of potential danger. In theory, Charles II could be an excellent character to write about, but the tragic vein of his flight into exile doesn’t fit with Heyer’s light, witty writing.
Having read other, better historical novels, the only real merit I can give this book is the quality of the research. As always, Heyer did her homework, down to the colloquialisms of the era and the colour of the King’s hat. The prose flows well, and the dialogue is light and characterised.
All the characters come across as admirable people, displaying valour and loyalty in the darkest of the monarch’s hours. Overall, this book has a lovely tenderness, especially in the scenes featuring Lady Jane Lane, but my rating is low because Royal Escape didn’t take me there. I was as moved by the tale of Charles’ daring flight as I would have been by discovering it in a textbook.
To conclude, this book is far from the author’s best.