Aristotle's wrote: "It is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends' sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality."
"The Great Roxhythe" is a love story in every sense of the word. Some may categorize it as a "bromance", or a m/m romance or even a romantic triangle. But whatever label one tries to hang on it, it is at its core the story of a man's deep, abiding emotional connection to another. This is reflected in Roxhythe's love for Charles II as well as Christopher Dart's love for Roxhythe. The two relationships are anchored in a love for "the other for what he is, and not any incidental quality."
This book was the second book written by Georgette Heyer published in 1925 and is one of historical fiction rather than historical romance. In "The Private Life of Georgette Heyer" by Jane Aiken Hodge , she writes that "The Great Roxhythe" "is probably the worst book Georgette Heyer ever wrote." (17) I guess it would be safe to say that Ms. Heyer agreed with that evaluation as she suppressed reprinting of Roxhythe throughout her life.
So, what is The Great Roxhythe all about? It's set during the Restoration Era of Charles II covering the years 1668 to around 1685/86. David, the "Most Noble Marquis of Roxhythe", has "the ear of the King". In fact, he had fought with Charles at Worcester, the final battle in the English Civil War which propelled Oliver Cromwell into Lord Protector, had been with Charles throughout his exile, and is, of course, with Charles upon his return to England in 1660. He is an "enigma." He has few friends, and, of course, lots of enemies because of his influence with Charles. On the surface he appears "indolent", "licentious", charismatic, a man without ties to either Country Party or Court Party. Roxhythe is no schemer, no plotter, no master of intrigue. Or is he?
According to Ms. Heyer's biography, Roxhythe is a character based on George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham. Villiers, too, was the "favourite" of his monarch, James I, (and many believe his lover as well) and on his tombstone is a Latin inscription which translates into "The Enigma of the World." But Ms. Heyer seems to have also channelled, at least, some of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, a contemporary of Charles II and frequent visitor to Whitehall, into Roxhythe. For instance, when Roxhythe needs a cover to travel to The Hague on behalf of Charles, it is put about that Roxhythe was exiled from Whitehall for displeasing Charles. That, to me, sounded a lot like what happened from time to time with Rochester. Roxhythe and Villiers (and for that matter, my beloved Rochester, too) were handsome men. Roxhythe is "the ladies' darling", "a perfect courtier", "his brow incomparable, his air French, his wit spicy, his tailoring beyond words, remarkable." (5)
Many dismiss Roxhythe as a fribble to their detriment, mistaking his lack of interest in State affairs as lacking in political acuity or the ability to intrigue. While it is true Roxhythe is apolitical, he is completely devoted to Charles. What Charles wants, Roxhythe will do everything in his power to see he gets. The emotional connection between Charles and Roxhythe feels stronger than just monarch and loyal subject, however. Deep love and affection between these two men is palpable at every meeting. For example, Charles summons Roxhythe for a private meeting complaining that it had been five days since he last saw him. When Roxhythe explains he had been turned away because "His Majesty was greatly occupied with State affairs", Charles makes it clear that "business" is NOT "of more account than you." (7)
There are two really emotion-packed examples of how much Charles and David love each other. The first is when David is shot by an irate jealous husband. Charles immediately comes to David's house upon hearing of "my David" being injured.
"John bowed his Majesty in. Roxhythe struggled up.
Charles went quickly to him, pressing him back on to the pillows.
'Don't move, Davy! Ah, what a crime!'
Christopher withdrew discreetly.
Roxhythe kissed his master's hand.
'Sire, you honor me greatly. I scarce know how to thank you -'
Charles sat down.
'I came as soon as I heard the news. Some said you were dead; I
have been in a ferment! No one knew the truth concerning the matter.
Davy, how dared you scare me so?'
'I do crave your pardon, Sir. It was not my intention to be shot.' He
smiled faintly. His hand rested in the King's hand. 'It was an
For me, the love is apparent in Roxhythe's struggle to rise for his master, in Charles pressing him back down gently, the frantic quality of Charles' words in not knowing if Roxhythe lived or not, and finally in the tender way David's hand rests in Charles. I saw a movie several years ago called "The Lover" about an older man who has a forbidden affair with a teenager. There is a scene in which the two are sitting in the backseat of his car, both their hands are on the seat between them. At first, they aren't touching, but slowly, slowly, their hands move closer and their little fingers become entwined. Just those two fingers. Of course, there are more explicit scenes later in the movie, but none that moved me more than this. When I read the part about Davy's hand resting in Charles', I felt that same kind of emotional punch.
Similarly, when Charles falls ill and isn't expected to live, David rushes to be by his side.
"He went quietly to the great bed where lay his master. Charles' eyes
were closed; his face was ghastly; one hand lay on the sheet.
Roxhythe lifted that hand and tenderly kissed it.
The King's eyes opened. With an effort he smiled.
'This is the end, Davy.' He spoke feebly, little above a whisper.
'Have courage, Sir. This is not the end.'
The smile lingered.
'I shall not be sorry, Davy. In - truth, my spirit has - not been at rest -
this many a day. Stay by me.' His eyes closed." (291)
Again, I feel the emotional connection in the lingering smile, the tender kiss, the whispered words to stay by him - all of it delivering a punch right to my heart.
But back to scheming. Charles needs money, and he's reluctant to deal with King Louis XIV of France because he's "too grasping." Charles wants Roxhythe to meet secretly with Wiiliam of Orange at the Hague regarding ousting De Witt, the grand pensionary of Holland. If William takes over as Stadtholder with Charles help, and agrees to pay Charles a yearly tribute, then Charles' money problem will be solved. Unfortunately, Charles is attempting to bribe William, and he's going behind the backs of most of his advisors (only Ashley and Villiers know most of the plan) in his scheme. It's a dangerous game Roxhythe has been asked to play, but he shows no hesitation.
"'And so we come to the part I have to play.'
Charles glanced at him affectionately.
'I would not press you, David. I but request.'
My lords lips twitched.
'Your Majesty knows I can refuse you nothing,' he said.
The King put out his hand quickly.
'Ah, David! If I had more about me with your loyalty!'" (10)
Roxhythe is financing the plot but requires a man "who may be to some extent cognizant of the intrigue, who will be loyal to me; who will transact all the business of transport for me; who will take orders from no one but me; who will act in implicit obedience to me. In short (..) one who is trustworthy and discreet." (15) Ashley recommends Christopher Dart, who has lately come to town looking for work. As an added bonus, Chris's brother, Roderick, is in service to William of Orange at the Hague.
Roxhythe is not a nice man. He uses poor Chris as a cover for his intrigue in Holland and later as a blind to any who may be suspicious that there's more to Roxhythe than his libertine ways. He uses women as a cover for traveling to France, he lies with impunity, and he has no scruples about mediating for Charles with Louis of France. When the choice is love and loyalty of country or his love and loyalty to Charles, Charles wins every time.
So add into the mix Christopher Dart, secretary to Roxhythe, honorable, honest, trustworthy. Actually, he's sort of a 17th century Boy Scout. Chris is as idealistic as Roxhythe is realistic. If Roxhythe is a cipher, then Chris is an open book. He, at first, dislikes Roxhythe, first for being a "foppish court-darling with his affectations and his languor" (23) instead of a more "sober-minded individual." Yet Chris is a little "dazzled" not only by Roxhythe's "rose velvet and purple trimmings" but also by the "deep brown eyes" which seemed to "cast a spell over him." (19) And so begins a relationship that endures despite disillusionment, distance, and heartache.
Chris, in the beginning, finds Roxhythe repugnant and accepts the position of secretary despite "his inner promptings." He is clearly torn on how to think of Roxhythe.
"He was by turns charming and insufferable. There were moments
when Christopher's dislike for him became acute; moments when his
lordship was curt, or distrait to the point of rudeness; but just as
Christopher's anger could not longer be controlled, Roxhythe would
disperse it with some look or remark that Christopher could not
withstand. Gradually, dislike gave place to amusement, and ripened
into liking." (25)
Despite several warnings from several camps for Chris not to love Roxhythe too much because he cares for no one except Charles, Chris falls hard for Roxhythe.
"He was supremely happy. In spite of all Roderick's gloomy
prognostications his love for Roxhythe grew steadily. (...) He no
longer held my lord up as a model of good behavior; he knew that
Roxhythe was careless, frivolous, sometimes ruthless." (67)
But there is an inevitable break between Chris and Roxhythe when Chris discovers the extent of Roxhythe's perfidy. Despite Chris' love for him, Chris knows he can't work for Roxhythe any longer. The scene of their break packs almost as much punch as those between Roxhythe and Charles.
"'I cannot, cannot remain with you! There would always be suspicion;
I should be no further use to you, and - I should be wretched!'
'Where is your vaunted love for me?' My lord asked sadly.
Christopher kissed his hand.
'It will always be there sir! Nothing could kill it - I - I would give my life
'Yet when I ask you to stay with me you refuse.' (202)
Yet despite the way their paths diverged, through time and distance, Chris still loves Roxhythe. Chris writes to Lady Fanny, Roxhythe's cousin and friend from Holland after Charles' death that:
"Howe I wish thatt I might be with Him nowe! Alas, it cannot be, but I
am looking forward eagerly to the Day when I may once againe press
His Hand. (...) I live for the Moment when I shall once more hear His
Beloved Voice..." (305)
What struck me profoundly was the love between Charles and Roxhythe and Chris' love for Roxhythe truly was "because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality." Roxhythe fully recognizes Charles' flaws like his unending search for funds to support a lavish court and the way Charles turns a blind eye at times when innocents were prosecuted. But he also knows Charles is witty, kind, generous, and playful. Chris, too, sees Roxhythe as a whole person, flaws and all, and loves him all the same.
The Great Roxhythe isn't a perfect book, but neither is it the "worst book" Georgette Heyer ever wrote. While it is true that the book is heavy on dialogue and light on plot, it was a refreshing look at relationships between men instead of a traditional hero and heroine. Just as Villiers was assassinated, so, too, is Roxhythe. After Charles' death, Roxhythe is adrift. He sees no one, disconsolate, "sick at heart". And, of course, his thoughts keep circling back to Charles. He wishes Chris was here with him. He sees a gold comfit-box, a gift from Charles, with an inscription written in diamonds "Roxhythe:CR."
"He picks it up, a smile that was more terrible than tears upon his lips.
Slowly his hand clenched on it; his face had grown very grey. He sat
down, resting his arms on the table, gazing dry-eyed at the jeweled
box in his hand. He was still smiling, looking back across the years.
'...So we are linked together, Davy, you and I.'
'Always, Sir. I stand or fall with you.'
'And always you had my love, David...'
There was a long, long silence. The proud head sank over my lord's
hands; the comfit-box was pressed to his lips.
'Ah, Sire...Sire...!' whispered Roxhythe." (304)
Before he's assassinated, Roxhythe thinks back on Chris' choice to leave him and how Lady Fanny told him that Chris had chosen "the better part." Yet he disagrees. For better or worse, Roxhythe stood by Charles. He, too, had a choice when two paths were open, but for Roxhythe the only path was the one with Charles, for good or for ill, and he has no regrets. His last words and thoughts are only of Charles:
"'I must... to Whitehall. To... my little... master.' Faintly, very faintly
came the whisper. His beautiful smile curved my lord's lips. 'Sire...
The eyelids fluttered, closed. My lord's hands quivered. He gave a
deep sigh, full of peace.
'Only... your... pleasure... Sir...'
His head fell sideways a little on the pillow. The smile was still on his
lips, but the light had gone out.'" (313)