Our Favourite Heyer Reviews: The Great Roxhythe by Georgette Heyer, New York Times Book Review (1923)

BEWARE SPOILERS!

This long, thoughtful and appreciative review of The Great Roxhythe is from the New York Times Book Review (24 June 1923).


Hutchinson (1922) HC

The colorful period of the English Restoration, brilliant, witty, cynical, amusing and immoral, taking its tone from the witty, cynical and charming King who stands in its forefront, has always possessed a fascination for writers of romances. And a good deal of fascination, too, for the reader, who gets the thrill of the so-called Popish plot, of the intrigues and the perils, the turmoil over the Exclusion bill, vicariously, and without any of the dangers that beset the men and women of the time. But if the men of the time make an interesting group, a group composed for the most part of strongly contrasted and no less strongly emphasized individualities, it is the women gathered about the King, from the unhappy Queen herself to that frolicsome baggage Nell Gwynne, on whom the attention of the romances is usually fixed.

It is here that Georgette Heyer’s novel breaks sharply with tradition. For, though the beautiful Henriette d’Angleterre, Duchesse d’Orléans, appears several times, though the Duchess of Portsmouth, Lady Castlemaine, and the Duchess of Cleveland form part of the story’s background, it is principally a tale of men, and the deep love and friendship of men for one another. The strongest emotion in the life of Christopher Dart, the young, ingenuous, idealistic patriot who became secretary to the Most Noble the Marquis of Roxhythe, was his adoring love for the man who was his lord and master, the man he trusted absolutely, against whom he was warned more than once, but of whom he would believe no evil until, and to his lasting grief, that evil was proved, and proved up to the hilt. And as the strongest emotion in Christopher’s life was his affection for Roxhythe so the motive power in Roxhythe’s life, the feeling to which he sacrificed everything and everyone, Christopher included, was the bond which held him to the King. As his cousin and friend, Lady Fanny Montgomery, once told him, he had sacrificed “truth, honour, patriotism for man”; for the King’s sake he had lied and intrigued and betrayed until no one else trusted him.

Beginning in 1668, when Charles had been on the throne for only a few years, the novel closes not long after the accession of the stupid and ill-fated James. And while it gives an interesting picture of the life of the time as seen and lived by one who was the favorite and constant companion of Charles II, it suffers somewhat from having too large a canvas, and from a certain monotony in the telling. My lord’s exploit in Holland, his very interesting interview with that Prince of Orange who was one day to become King of England, form one episode. Then comes the Treaty of Dover, when Charles sold his country to France. followed by the intrigues regarding the succession, and the plot to exclude James from the throne. Charles’s triumph and his death. The effect of climax, of an accumulative building up is lacking, and this lack injures the drama of it all. Then, too, the book is very much too long: there is a great deal of repetition, many incidents and conversations which do little to develop character, while of story there is almost none. For the book is primarily the study of a single complex character, the character of “The Great Roxhythe.”

To the men and women surrounding him he was an enigma; even the “little master” he loved so dearly did not always understand him, although the clue lay in his devotion to that same master. Brilliantly clever, extremely able, cynical. graceful and gracious, kindly and cruel, cool, self-possessed at all times, courageous, daring, clear-sighted and clear-headed, the reader is made to feel more than a little of the fascination to which young Christopher so utterly succumbed. There are in the book a number of clever sketches of men and women; most notable, perhaps, the portrait of the Prince of Orange. A colorful and interesting account of a colorful and interesting period is this which Georgette Heyer presents to us under the name of the man who to a very great extent personifies it, the man who is here represented as the power behind the throne. David, Marquis of Roxhythe, whose one aim and desire in life was to do the King’s pleasure.