(Arrow e-book 2005, originally published 1938)
Georgette Heyer is primarily known for her romance novels set in the early nineteenth century of ‘Regency’ England, though she did write historical novels set in other periods. Of these, most feature real people as minor characters – Beauvallet, for example, set during the reign of Elizabeth I – but in Royal Escape, imaginary characters appear hardly at all, and the story is merely a fleshed-out version of real events.
The book begins at Worcester, in 1651, where the young Charles Stuart (only twenty years old) is facing the Parliamentary troops along with a rather rag-tag army consisting largely of Scots in the charge of General Leslie. At the close of the battle, won by Cromwell’s forces, Charles is forced to escape, disguised – not as anyone in particular, but as a simple soldier or servant – along with his friend Harry, Lord Wilmot. The book tells Charles’ story from the battle to the point where he finally is able to leave the country – although one knows, from history, that his escape was eventually successful, Heyer manages to make the journey thrilling and eventful.
Charles in this novel is portrayed sympathetically, partly by focussing on his youth, but also because of the way he’s shown to be a rightful king (anointed, even if by the Scottish allies he has come to distrust and dislike) but also because he can put off that royalty in a way that his father never could have done. His retainers and friends, however close they may be to him, find it difficult to treat him without the formality that majesty requires, and Charles entertainingly enters into his masquerade willingly, playing the part of a servant when he has to. The bravery of his adherents is well-drawn, too – for they all risk much in helping him to safety. The Parliamentarian party are not treated with great sympathy by Heyer – I suppose in a novel written focussing on Charles it’s hardly surprising that the opposition are treated as traitors to the true king.
Heyer doesn’t gloss over Charles’ legendary lasciviousness, describing some of the women characters in terms that certainly wouldn’t be used in her romances, but this trait in him in seen as part of his nature and one that he acknowledges but for which he takes responsibility (there’s a rather interesting bit where he talks about his bastard son and the boy’s mother, who are well provided for): it’s not seen as something he should be ashamed of. I think this is one of the excellent things about Heyer’s historical novels, her ability to portray the mindset of her characters, particularly in the ways which differ so much from ours.
I hadn’t ever read this novel before, which surprises me a little, since I’ve been a fan of Heyer’s novels since I read The Grand Sophy when I was a teen. I think the only ones I’ve now not read are her contemporary novels (Barren Corn and the like), and The Great Roxhythe, which aren’t in print, and which Heyer apparently disliked. Heyer draws a lot from contemporary sources, and the books feels authentic, even though there’s a lot of travelling round in circles, and the difficulty of finding passage to France is more complicated than in these modern days.
Highly recommended; especially for those who like historical fiction or books about Charles II