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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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08/05/2008 Archived Entry: "Novel review: Royal Escape"

Royal Escape
By Georgette Heyer
First published in 1938 in the United Kingdom by William Heinemann, reissued in 2008 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
ISBN: 9781402210761

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Here is another of Georgette Heyer's "serious" books, about a real person and/or an historic event. Every now and then, the Queen of Fantasy dug deep into the history of her sceptered isle to prove that she was capable of writing more than just the frothy Regency romances she was known for. Having previously read her account of the Battle of Waterloo (see my review for "An Infamous Army"), which I found as wordy as "Gone With The Wind" but only half as entertaining, I was a bit leery about this book, which is about Charles Stuart, who became King Charles II of England on January 30, 1649 and reigned until September 3, 1685 (not Bonny Prince Charlie, who came along much later in the 1700's).

But it didn't take long for me to find out that Ms. Heyer's account of King Charles' escape from England after the disastrous Battle of Worcester was much more interesting than her account of Wellington's battle against Bonaparte. This book was written very much in the spirit of her romances, portraying the king as a dashing young man, full of high spirits despite his defeat, surrounded by a small circle of loyal friends who daily risked arrest by Cromwell's Roundheads as they try to help the true king escape his father's fate.

Oliver Cromwell led a Puritan uprising which resulted in the beheading of King Charles I at Whitehall on January 30, 1649. He then became Lord Protector of England and convinced Parliament to outlaw kings. Charles II, already living in exile in Holland, was forced to turn to Scotland for help in claiming his rightful throne. The Scots agreed to crown him king, but only if he signed agreements with their parliament supporting the Solemn League and Covenant, which would make the Scottish Presbyterian church the dominant faith in Britain. After signing the agreements he had to live among them for a year to drum up support for his cause, during which he was forced to endure their joyless Presbyterianism, their lack of respect for his rank and their disapproval of his youthful exuberance. He had to listen to endless sermons from long-winded Bible thumpers and do penance not only for his own sins, but that of his Anglican father and Catholic mother as well, causing him to remark bitterly "I think I must repent too that ever I was born!" When he was finally allowed to lead the Scottish army into the south of England, they were soundly defeated at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651. The Scots ran away like scared rabbits before the Roundheads' superior numbers, abandoning the young king and his small circle of friends to their fate.

So, after burning his papers to keep from implicating his friends and supporters, Charles disguised himself as a commoner, cut his long, black curls and darkened his skin with walnut dye, then proceeded across the hostile countryside from one Royalist household to another, trying to find a ship that would take him to France and safety. He had very little money, but a large supply of charm, which he used to great effect on everyone he met, especially the ladies. Few of them could resist his smiles and sweet words, despite his ugly face(he was tall and dark, but far from handsome; Heyer describes him as having "a mass of dark curls falling about a sallow face with great melancholy dark eyes, a jutting nose, and deep lines running down to a large curling mouth").

Two ladies in particular assisted him in his royal escape, Jane Lane and Julianne Cothingsby. Both of these ladies rode behind him on his saddle, Jane on the first part of his journey and Julianne on the second part, as he pretended to be a servant escorting his wellborn mistress, this sort of arrangement being common among ladies of that era, who seldom rode abroad unescorted. Even though he became a notorious ladies man later in life (He died leaving twelve illegitimate children by seven mistresses! One of them, Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond [1672-1723], is the common ancestor of both Princess Diana of Wales and her rival Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles' second wife, which means young Prince William of Wales, Charles and Diana's son, will be the first monarch to be descended from Charles II in the direct male line), his relationship with both ladies was chaste. He called Jane "My Life" because she held his life in her pretty hands while he posed as her servant. He had more respect for her than for Juliana, who treated the journey as if it were a great adventure arranged for her amusement, rather than the risky venture it was, with death the likeliest outcome for both the king and whoever aided him.

The journey across country to the little fishing village of Brighthelmstone, where Charles finally finds a ship to take him to France, is filled with danger, made easier and harder by the king's easygoing manner to noble and commoner alike. To the despair of his friends and the delight of his subjects, Charles insisted upon treating everybody with the same good humored geniality. Even the rude Scots he was forced to dwell among for a year never heard him say a bad word about them or their fanatical religious beliefs (though not surprisingly he refused to abide by the contract he had signed with them once he was back on his throne; being abandoned in battle does make one distrustful of an ally). This king definitely had the common touch; he wasn't all stuffy and stuck-up, insisting upon being treated with the respect due to his rank. When offered a meal in a poor man's house, he would eat just enough to satisfy his hunger and share the rest with whichever friend was escorting him. He did not protest over having to sleep in barns, priest's holes (the hidden rooms where Catholic priests were kept to prevent them being arrested, it being illegal to practice Catholicism openly in Cromwell's England), even up in a tree once, to avoid a party of Cromwell's soldiers searching the grounds of a house where he was hidden.

In short, "Royal Escape" is just the thing for you if you're into royalty, romance, and adventure. There's also a bibliography in back listing all of Ms. Heyer's research sources, in case you want to learn more about King Charles II without all the romantic embroidery, along with a helpful list of questions for reading groups to aid in your discussion of the book. A satisfying read; I'd give it an A+, because it didn't drag itself out with unnecessary detail like "An Infamous Army" and the author didn't find it necessary to entangle the king in a romance while he was running for his life, which I'm sure a modern scriptwriter would do just to liven things up. Though I wouldn't mind finding out what became of Jane Lane after the King was restored to his throne. He did promise to remember everyone who helped him during his flight from Worcester. I'm sure he rewarded every one of those loyal subjects in a suitable fashion. I just hope he didn't make Jane one of his mistresses!

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