GEORGETTE HEYER REREAD: The Great Roxhythe
Welcome back to this reread of the manifold and magnificent works of that unparalleled doyenne of historical romantic fiction, Georgette Heyer.
Previously, in the reread:
The Black Moth (1921)
And now, Georgette Heyer’s second novel:
The Great Roxhythe
Setting: England, France and Holland. Also, Flanders!
Timeline: 1668 - 1685
David, the Most Noble the Marquis of Roxhythe – suave courtier and secret courier
Mr. Christopher Dart – his secretary
Lady Frances “Fanny” Montgomery – Roxhythe’s cousin and confidante
Millicent, Lady Crewe – Roxhythe’s would-be mistress
Sir Henry Crewe – her jealous husband
His Majesty, Charles II of England – the, well, King of England
His Majesty, Louis XIV of France – the, well, King of France
Henrietta, la Duchesse d’Orléans – sister of Charles and sister-in-law of Louis
His Highness, William, the Prince of Orange – Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland
Mr. Roderick Dart – Christopher’s brother and the Prince’s man
His Grace, the Duke of Monmouth – Charles’s illegitimate son, a soldier
His Royal Highness, James, the Duke of York – Charles’s brother, a Catholic
Charles II is in need of some ready cash, and since Parliament refuses to bankroll his excesses, he turns to assorted foreign powers for financial aid. Acting as intermediary in these delicate, secret negotiations is the seemingly indolent Lord Roxhythe, a Royal favorite who will need every ounce of cunning at his disposal to get the job done. (Also, there’s religion.)
Lord Roxhythe is a man of exquisite tastes, admired everywhere for his style and panache if not necessarily for his convictions—of which he appears to have none. Strolling through his King’s Court, he is commanded to visit with his royal master, and there he is given a commission: to visit the Prince of Orange at his camp in Holland and ask of him a sum of money in exchange for King Charles’s promise to aid his country in their conflict with the French. He meets with two of the King’s Councillors to arrange the business, and after working out the strategy for his secret Contiki tour, he asks if either can recommend to him a good man to employ as his secretary. Specifically, he requests one who: “… will be loyal to me; who will transact all the business of the transport for me; who will take orders from no one but me; who will act in implicit obedience to me. In short, gentleman, one who is trustworthy and discreet.”
And that is how he comes to meet one Mr. Christopher Dart.
My lord arrives at Dart’s abode late at night, expecting, it seems, to be instantly recognized. When taxed with his name, he responds with “naïve egotism”: “I am Roxhythe.” (He’s Chuck Bass.) Christopher is a very sober young man and seems to have been raised in a virtuous, humorless house – for all the world as though it were on the Prairie – and thus is not immediately won over by my lord’s splendor. It does not, however, take long for Roxhythe to cast a spell over young Chris, who takes on the post; it is not very many paragraphs later when “… dislike gave place to amusement and then ripened into liking.”
There are, at this time, some excursions and alarums around the King’s Court, when it seems the favorite has pissed off the monarch mightily. Of course, Charles loves his “Davy” far too well for this to be true; Christopher, who knows that they are soon to depart for the exotic locale of, er, the Hague in the King’s service, suspects that the cold royal shoulder his boss has lately received is merely a “blind for spies." And of course, he is right! Chris doesn’t give Roxhythe too much credit for smarts, and so assumes this cunning stratagem must have been someone else’s idea (it wasn’t), and also believes it “a very brave thing to do.” Well, sure. Clearly, he’s fearless.
Without any further ceremony, my lord and his secretary set sail for Flushing (known to us by its Dutch name, Vlissingen; but at least now we know how nanny Fran Fine’s home of Flushing, Queens got its name), where they meet a Mr. Milward, fellow traveler with an all too apparent interest in Roxhythe and his proposed destination, and who offers his company on the journey. Roxhythe accepts, knowing him to be a spy; he later eludes the interested gaze of other spies by the simple expedient of pretending to be ill and then slipping out the window in the dead of night to go and treat with William of Orange. Sadly, Roxhythe’s errand comes to nothing; the Prince, a stern young man of forbidding aspect, is outraged – outraged! – by the proposal that he pay tribute to England, and sends my lord away disappointed, in himself and his powers of persuasion as much as in the ruination of his King’s plans.
Returning to his sickbed and thence affecting a recovery, Roxhythe and Christopher continue their supposed tour of Holland until the former is called home to Charles’s side – his pseudo-slight forgiven – and it is left to him to inform His Majesty that his mission was a failure, because dude just don’t play that way. Thwarted, Charles decides instead to seek the money he needs through a different secret alliance: with the French! Let the negotiations begin.
Meanwhile, Christopher Dart, secretary to the stars, is having the time of his life. He is positively smitten with his lord and totally digging his new proximity to greatness. Other people have popped up as major players in Roxhythe’s life – Millicent, Lady Crewe, the beautiful teenage newlywed to whom my lord makes elegant advances; Lady Fanny, a cousin and contemporary of the fortyish Marquis, who is perhaps the only person who really understands the complexity that is he. But no one, perhaps not even the King, holds Roxhythe in as much esteem as Chris, who is sure that Roxhythe is the earth and sky, without whom there would be no spring every year, nor would England still be here. (Nor fruit on the tree, a shore by the sea, or crumpets and tea, etc. Chris really likes this guy.) Yet Chris does not see in his idol a terribly clever man; despite their first adventure together, in which Roxhythe bested the cunning minds of assorted Continental agents, Chris thinks of his lord a touch indulgently, believing him to be honorable and decent but unsullied by petty political machinations: none of which, as it turns out, describes Roxhythe at all. Only Lady Fanny – on whom Chris also has a monster-sized crush – suspects the truth of her cousin’s influence with, and intrigues on behalf of, the King; the rest of the world thinks him shallow and suave, and trusts him not at all.
They are very right not to trust him; Roxhythe thinks of nothing but his King’s pleasure, and sets about solidifying this alliance with the French – in defiance of several existing treaties, as well as the will of Parliament, at whom Charles at all times disdains – by the simple expedient of travelling back and forth to France under the pretence of being in love with la Duchesse d’Orléans, King Charles’s sister who had been forced to marry King Louis’s brother (who is also her cousin). Because being a royal is fun! Much is made, throughout the negotiations, of a key point that Charles must accept if he is to become Louis’s pensioner: he must re-Catholicify his country, and outlaw Protestantism, which by this stage had been the national religion of England for over a century (yeah, thanks for all the wars, Henry VIII!). His brother James is all for this, since he’s a Catholic from way back – to the point where he gets a little… er… energetic when at war with the Protestants up north; yeah, thanks for all the wars, Henry VIII! – but Charles comes out with a really cool law, the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, which allows everyone to follow whatever religion they want to without fear of reprisals or beheading.
It turns out to be a weirdly unpopular law, and gets almost instantly repealed; apparently people liked all the beheadings. Man, they needed cable.
Back in the not-on-a-History-test-or-Charles-II’s-Wikipedia-page portion of the narrative, Lady Crewe’s husband, Sir Henry, is getting crosser and crosser at the three-year long flirtation in which his wife has indulged with Roxhythe. She had been hopelessly devoted to her husband when a new bride, but has grown distant and cold as her fascination with the unscrupulous Marquis heated up. He is but playing, but she is in earnest, and before long Sir Henry just can’t take it anymore. He challenges Roxhythe to a duel (denied), then challenges him again (denied) and then finally just goes ahead and shoots him in the chest, because a man can only take so much, and probably also because it took so long to load those old fashioned pistols that it would have seemed a waste of time not to go ahead and use it once you had. Happily, it’s only a flesh wound (suck it, Sir Henry), but the Crewes must perforce immediately leave the country following an attack on the King’s favorite, and Roxhythe, who was supposed to leave the country himself to deliver yet more messages to Louis re: Charles’s pocket money, now cannot.
So he sends the devoted Christopher instead. It is the beginning of the end.
Christopher’s very dour brother, Roderick, we met earlier when he disapprovingly allowed Roxhythe to visit with William of Orange that one time. Roderick, in company with almost every other character in the book save the King and Roxhythe himself, has repeatedly begged Chris to leave the service of his lord, whom he considers all kinds of dodgy; it is this trip to Holland that finally does it, however, when Chris – surprisingly not as oblivious as he has heretofore seemed – discovers that he was used as a conduit to make a non-sanctioned deal with the hated France, selling his beloved Country to the highest bidder. Roxhythe had not wanted to use Chris in this way, for he had discovered in his selfish heart that “In some vague way, Christopher’s presence was necessary to his happiness.” But in the end, the needs of his King outweighed his own need for an adoring secretary who would kiss his hand and lavish him with praise 24/7. And thus: schism, and one far more dramatic in the context of this story than the divide between Catholic and Protestant.
After nine years, Chris leaves Roxhythe, jaded, bitter, disillusioned, heartbroken. He goes to work for various politicos, but none give him job satisfaction so eventually he ends up in the service of his brother’s man crush, William of Orange. The Prince is all set to marry King Charles’s niece, the Lady Mary, and all kinds of riots and rumpuses are occurring throughout the land – Catholics are being put to death, conspirators against the King are being put to death, good men who have political enemies are being put to death. Also, Charles’s eldest son – illegitimate, as are all his children – is part of a plot to overthrow the Crown. Roxhythe turns double agent and pretends to be a part of the cabal, eventually bringing about their downfall. Hurrah! Charles is safe! Except, no, he gets sick and dies, because this was the seventeenth century and one could be King and still basically die of a hangnail.
Roxhythe is sad. And now pretty much everyone fears and/or hates him. James takes the throne, and wants to throw his brother’s favorite in the Tower. The conspirators that favorite betrayed are worried he knows too much, and might foil Monmouth’s rebellion, v 2.0. Christopher is still in Holland, and sends word to Lady Fanny to pass on his sympathies to his “deare Master”, and that he is “looking forward eagerly to the Day when I may once againe press His Hand” – but that day will never come (sorry, Chris), because all too soon Roxhythe takes a bullet to the chest in a drive-by – no, more a walk-by – shooting that he made no effort to stop. In fact, it was kind of a Suicide by Cop situation; without his King, his lordly life is simply not worth living, and so he allows himself to be gunned down like a bewigged gangsta rapper, later saying from his deathbed: “Dear Fanny—all my difficulties are solved.”
Then, reminiscences… delirium… death.
Even the most ardent of Georgette Heyer fans may be furrowing their brow in confusion right now and wondering what the hell is this book I have just painstakingly revisited. Did I make it up? Is it some bizarre attempt at Heyer fan fiction? (Which: no. If I was gonna do that, I would totally write a crossover in which Sophia Tallant ends up with Ferdy Fakenham). Instead, this is one of Heyer’s almost legendary Lost Novels, one of five tales that she so despised she refused to allow them to be reprinted within her lifetime.
In the Foreword to the 1977 posthumous paperback edition of Simon the Coldheart (another of her suppressed works), Heyer’s son said that his mother was “her own sternest critic” and that “in this instance at all events, her judgment had been too harsh.” As Simon the Coldheart is one of my Top 10 favorite Heyer novels ever, I could not agree with this verdict more; in the case of The Great Roxhythe however, I am totally on his Mom’s side. Because… damn.
Look, it’s not like this book doesn’t have its virtues. For one, Roxhythe himself is the very model of the witty, quippy, laconic anti-hero with which Heyer first began experimenting in The Black Moth. Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, is the spiritual ancestor of David, the Marquis of Roxhythe just as Vernon, Marquis of Alverstoke and his excellent secretary Mr. Trevor (cf. Frederica) are the spiritual heirs of Roxhythe and Christopher Dart. However, just as Tracy was made too villainous to ever be redeemed, and thus was made over into the less objectionable Justin, Duke of Avon in These Old Shades, Roxhythe is rather too coldblooded, too unlikeable to be a true hero for us here. For example, even after he has been ill-used by his lord shamefully, Chris comes to him seeking his help for an acquaintance of theirs who was to be executed for a crime he did not commit.
“My dear Chris!” expostulated Roxhythe. “Do you expect me to meddle in these low matters?”
Chris wants him to ask the King to intervene, but Roxhythe won’t even consider it:
“The King is not omnipotent, Chris. The public will not be content unless some blood is shed. If he interferes they will turn on him. His position is precarious.”
Roxhythe is so in love with his King that the concepts of right and justice elude him. In fact, Roxhythe himself had recommended innocent men be put to death, because it was the will of the people and would make Charles’s life easier:
“I thought you knew that nothing counts with me save His Majesty’s safety and peace?”
Yeah, nice guy.
That “His Majesty’s” there, though – that is clearly a typo. Because the evidence given elsewhere throughout the book suggests that it should have been rendered as “His Majesty his peace”, which I at first found quite grating in its execution but by the end of the novel found utterly charming. Georgette Heyer is always making me wonder at this language that is ours – for those who joined us in The Black Moth, you may recall that I am determined for the exclamation “Zounds!” to make a comeback – and here as nowhere else she does so by the simple expedient of removing apostrophes. Look at the title of Chapter II: “The King His Councillors”; Today, it would be “the King’s councilors”, of course, and sound far less romantic and ye olde, wouldn’t it? So throughout the novel it’s “The King his this” and “the Prince his that”, which of course is because back in the days of which she writes, the accepted possessive abbreviation had yet to become common practice... except, how does one then explain Shakespeare? (Seriously, I’m asking. Any Shakespearean scholars in the house who can riddle me that?)
Speaking of scholars, Heyer’s dab hand at the history stuff is certainly on display here, and is impressive as hell, except that it’s also a little… well…dry. It’s almost like this novel started out as a high school essay on the power struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants in Stuart-era England, or even of the political machinations undertaken by Charles II, or even of Charles II and his many mistresses (some of whom he made duchesses in their own right, just for sleeping with him – nice work if you can get it?). There are opaque references to personalities and laws and parliamentary procedures, and the reader is given perhaps a shade too much credit for personal knowledge of some fairly obscure historical events. Perhaps one day Showtime will air a series called The Stuarts, and we’ll come to know all there is to know about such things – or, at least, all there is to know that is vaguely accurate and portrayed by people with far too sparkling teeth for the era – but until then, this book had me awash in a sea of bubbling confusion for pretty much the duration.
The most notable thing about this book, however… and especially, in a Georgette Heyer novel? Hardly any romance at all. Of bromance, there is much – Roxhythe and Charles; Chris and Roxhythe; Chris’s boring brother and William of Orange; assorted nobles and the Duke of Monmouth, pretender to the throne, etc. – but aside from Roxhythe’s unkind dalliance with the immature Lady Crewe, and passing reference to others of that nature, there is really nothing here. All the emotion is reserved for the guys, and boy, are they not afraid to show it. Let us go back to that earlier passage, in which Roxhythe confessed his perfidy to Chris:
“Oh—oh, heaven, how I wish I had never laid eyes on you!”
Roxhythe stretched out his hand.
“Chris, dear boy, you are demented. Calm yourself.”
Christopher ignored his hand.
“Then ‘tis you have driven me so! You did your best to break my heart—and now you reveal yourself to me—callous! Ruthless! It—hurts damnably, my lord.”
Even after this, Roxhythe begs Chris to return to him, but to no avail, for Chris won’t “sacrifice my honor for love of man.” No wonder he never gets himself a girlfriend; not that we even meet with any prospects for such. Lady Fanny’s pretty cool, and Chris adores her, but she’s married; in fact, all the protestations of affection in this book are either between married people to others who are not their spouses or between liege lord and humble servant. It’s…weird.
Even before reading The Great Roxhythe (available and bound with elegant simplicity from boutique publisher Amereon House – my edition was part of a print run of only 200 copies, or so it claims), I had found Heyer’s dense historical works to be of limited interest. Oh, I always loved The Spanish Bride – based on a true story of love amid the Napoleonic wars; you just kind of have to ignore the fact that our heroine is fourteen – and had a soft spot for The Conqueror – can you guess who that one’s about? – but Royal Escape and her unfinished master work, My Lord John I found dense and difficult and depressing: I am certainly not looking forward to rereading them for this project when the time comes, although I am hopeful that my adult self will find in them more merit than my teenage self did.
As for The Great Roxhythe…I only read it for the first time a couple of years ago, so my tastes and opinions haven’t changed too much in the interim. Basically, as a Heyer completist, I am glad to have had the experience of it. Also, there is much of her nascent genius to be enjoyed in these pages, in particular her way with a natty Frenchman – seen here in the person of Roxhythe’s friend, M. le Comte de Saint-Aignan – and her talent for a lazy, sardonic rejoinder. Also, I shed genuine tears when I reached the not-at-all shocking end; there was just something so poetic about a supreme egoist like Roxhythe – I mean, he even refers to himself in the third person!; wow, he really is like a gangsta rapper – basically going into a decline for want of his BFF.
But man am I glad that it wasn’t readily available back when I first started reading Georgette Heyer novels, because had this been my introduction to her work, I don’t know that I’d have carried on. I mean, the author herself wanted all mention of this book stricken from the record, and yet allowed Cousin Kate to remain on library shelves everywhere. That says it all, really.
(She was wrong about Simon the Coldheart, though. Now, that one I can’t wait to reread.)
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.