It was perhaps inevitable that I would love Martine Bailey’s second novel, The Penny Heart. I was a huge fan of her debut,An Appetite for Violets and once again she has returned to my beloved Georgian period. What makes The Penny Heart even more exciting is the Gothic world in which it immerses the reader. In a nod to the popular novelists of the era, Bailey creates a neglected old house with dark secrets to unearth.
There are two heroines to this story. The first we meet is the indomitable Mary Jebb, a flame-haired beauty working the Manchester streets as part of a criminal gang. Alone in the world and reliant on her own resources, Mary soon realises she does not want to become a prostitute like the other poor drabs at her lodging house. Using her talent for crafting sweetmeats, she charms herself into the graces of the forger Charlie and becomes involved in his operations. However, when she is caught in a confidence trick, she soon learns that her friends are powerless to protect her. The gentleman she tried to defraud, Michael Croxon, gives a powerful testimony against her and she is sentenced to death. At the very last moment, Mary’s life is saved. But is it really a reprieve? When Mary learns she is being sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay due to a ‘shortage of women’ she begins to suspect her trials are just beginning.
When we next meet Mary, she is back home in England. With forged papers from her friends, she is trying to start a new life as a housekeeper, under the name of Peg Blissett, at Delafosse Hall. Her mistress is our second heroine, the new Mrs Grace Croxon.
I found the character of Grace compelling and extremely sympathetic. Bailey has done an excellent job of making her a woman of her time, whilst giving her just enough spirit to get the reader onside. Grace has lived a sheltered life after the death of her mother, trying to care for her drunken father. When her best friend marries and her father chases her sweetheart away, she realises the true misery of her situation. It is no surprise that when the opportunity to marry the handsome Michael comes along, with her father’s blessing, she is eager to take it. Like many women of the era, Grace is aware that Michael’s primary interest is the money she will bring to the marriage. But although she feels gauche and inexperienced in his presence, she trusts that love will come in time.
Despite these happy auspices, the union proves difficult. Grace’s marital home is the stately but dilapidated Delafosse Hall; uncomfortable, low on staff and positioned in the middle of nowhere. Local gentry do not come to call and her husband is more interested in his business and the local tavern than her company. Left alone, Grace begins to find strange rooms and stories about the house. Every detail of Delafosse is vividly created, from its winding passages to the overgrown trees that tap against the window panes. We begin to share Grace’s curiosity as she explores and gains a strange affection for the old place.
Deprived of friends, Grace becomes intimate with her servants. Peg Blissett, the confident and knowledgeable housekeeper, is just the companion Grace needs to combat her own timidity. With Peg’s help, she sets out to win her husband’s love with money, sumptuous apartments, fine food and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes. Although she succeeds, Grace begins to suspect she has been foolish and allowed her servant too much freedom. Moreover, she is not sure that Peg is altogether what she seems . . .
The narrative switches between the two women as we sense a deadly trap closing about Grace. We do not know what Peg intends, but is clear from her narration that Grace is the object of her latest fraud. . .
Peg/Mary was a fascinating and skillfully drawn character. Through flashbacks, we begin to discover what she endured in the years at Botany Bay and how she arrived home. Teased out with perfect precision, the story reveals a more tortured and yet sympathetic character with every scene. Bailey balances condemnation with a brilliant pathos that really strikes at the heart of this woman and her need for revenge. While she is by no means a nice person, Peg’s reactions are believable given the life she has endured. And perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t help rooting for her a little – even if her plans were evil. She is one of those characters you just love to hate.
Through Peg, we encounter a variety of Georgian cant and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the criminal underworld. We sit on the dirty tumbrel to the gallows, we blister beneath the Australian sun. We also have a taste of some more period recipes, which was such a great feature of An Appetite for Violets. But Peg being Peg, these recipes have a dark twist, with many intended for nefarious means and others used to cheat customers out of money.
While both Grace and Peg are wonderful characters, it is clear that only one can survive. As the story begins to unravel, the women realise how they have underestimated each other. It all comes down to a thrilling battle of wits and nerve – I literally could not put the book down for the last quarter!
I would highly recommend The Penny Heart for a historic, disturbing and wonderfully exciting read!
Writing about real-life historical figures is difficult. Because if there’s one thing readers expect from a ‘character’, it’s consistency. Unfortunately, in the realm of the real world, things don’t always work like that. I’m sure we’ve all had an experience of a friend or colleague acting ‘out of character’. Real people are often contradictory – and this makes it extremely hard to craft them into a novel!
Beta-readers, critique partners and editors have often pulled me up on the ‘real-life’ elements of my novel. Actual quotes from correspondence have been marked as ‘sounding out of period’, so I have been obliged to change the ‘character’s’ own words. More recently, a reader was surprised by George II’s reaction to the news that he had become king. They didn’t think anyone would respond the way he did. I agree that George’s shout of, ‘That is one big lie!’ was an unusual response, but what can I do? More than one primary source quotes him – it just happened like that.
Similarly confusing is an episode involving George’s wife, Caroline. Caroline was a well-educated and intelligent woman with an inquisitive mind. She was interested in science and entertained ‘natural philosophers’ such as Isaac Newton to hear their ideas. Along with Lady Wortley Montagu, Caroline is credited with introducing the smallpox inoculation to Britain (this was different from Jenner’s later, safer vaccination).
Alongside her ideas of progress, Caroline had an earthy sense of humour. She was not ashamed to speak of sex or bodily functions. Nothing suggests she was ever squeamish. You would think that a Queen such as Caroline would be the first to turn to science in the case of her own illness. But in fact, when Caroline found an umbilical hernia after the birth of her last child, Louisa, she did . . . nothing.
Why exactly did Caroline not only ignore, but attempt to conceal, her illness? Lord Hervey states that she had ‘strong apprehensions of making her person distasteful to the king’. It is true that she exerted great sexual power of her husband. Moreover, George II was a man who showed impatience when others were ill. But I do not think we can blame him for this piece of folly on Caroline’s part. As we can see from George’s confession to Hervey, shortly before Caroline’s death from the hernia, he had actually been concerned and supportive.
The first symptoms I ever perceived of it were fourteen years ago, just after the Queen lay in of Louisa and she then told me . . that it was nothing more than what was common for almost every woman to have after a hard labour. . . it grew better and continued better afterwards for several years. When it grew worse again, I persuaded her to consult some surgeon, which she declined and was so uneasy . . . that I knew not how to press her . .. I again spoke to her, told her it was certainly a rupture and that she ran great risks in taking no care of it. . . [She] spoke so much more peevishly to me on this occasion than she had ever done in her life . . . every time I mentioned it, more and more hurt and angry
It is here I begin to suspect that Caroline, usual so astute, misjudged both the situation and her husband. While George was only concerned by the rupture she perceived that he was disgusted:
The Queen had received what he had said to her on the subject, upon his return from Hanover, as if she had reproached him with being grown wear of her person, and endeavouring to find blemishes in it that did not belong to her.
In short, her own fears preyed upon her mind, and she started to hear things the King was not actually saying. You cannot help but pity Caroline. To think that her devoted husband of many years would fail to love her because of an illness shows a touching vulnerability. Most of her life she had been commanding and assured. She used to be so confident in George’s love that she turned a blind eye to any mistresses he took. As one of the closest courtiers of her last years, Lord Hervey was also puzzled. ‘People may think this weakness little of a piece with the greatness of the rest of her character,’ he wrote.
Perhaps Caroline, so used to playing the all-ruling Queen, did not like to be reminded that she was mortal. She tried to face the hernia down with the same resilience as she endured her gout. Pride kept her silent, and she found it impossible to accept weakness. The shame she felt about her condition was so acute, that she would rather die under the symptoms than let another person examine it. Even in her last days, she was furious that George wanted the doctors to look at the hernia:
He whispered to her that he was afraid her illness proceeded from a thing he had promised never to speak of again; but that now his duty to her called upon him to tell the physician all he knew and all he apprehended. She begged and entreated him . . . and spoke with more warmth and peevishness than she showed at any other minute during her whole illness.
As it turns out, Caroline was probably right to try and elude the doctors. Their botched attempts at a cure rather prolonged the suffering of her last days. You can read a grizzly account of the facts here, or my short story here.
In writing Mistress of the Court, I tried to explore Caroline’s feelings and the extraordinary, elaborate cover-up of her illness. You might enjoy this deleted scene, where she and George argue over the hernia.
It was even better than Caroline had hoped. Only a single lamp lit the corridor between her window and Henrietta’s chamber, but she recognised the ill-formed shape of Chesterfield. He was a smear on the glass, Henrietta another. They did not appear to embrace or go near the bed. That was a disappointment, but Caroline still had ammunition. The mere fact that Chesterfield was in Henrietta’s room when she asked to be left alone spoke volumes. George would not need more evidence than this one imperfect sighting.
Ladies stood beside the bed, ready to unlace Caroline’s mantua and deliver her into a nightgown. She kept them waiting. She was full of a bitter glee. Mrs Howard thought she had won, did she? Spreading her poisonous poem, turning George against Caroline’s advice. Begging cap in hand. Soon enough, the whore would see who held the winning cards. She was not mistress of this court yet.
When George’s footsteps finally sounded on the stairs, Caroline was disappointed to hear them stop outside her own door. On the one night she would have him go his mistress, he came to her! ‘Leave us,’ she told the ladies as George knocked on her door. ‘I will speak to the King alone before I sleep.’
The ladies retreated, leaving a single candle burning upon her dressing table. Yellow light danced across the wood, glinting off her silver brush and comb. She opened the door. In the shadows, George spread his arms, letting Caroline slump into his embrace. His body felt softer these days, cushioned by fat, with no hard muscle beneath.
‘You are tired tonight, my love,’ he breathed into her hair as he pushed her gently back into the room and closed the door behind him.
‘I am always tired. There is much on my mind. Anne talks only of marriage, Carrie gains weight every day and Emily is running wild.’ She paused, weighing his reaction, listening to his body. Gently, she slipped in the fatal words. ‘Then there is this business with Mrs Howard and her husband.’
He tensed beneath her hands. She buried her face in his velvet waistcoat and held her tongue, allowing him time to simmer.
‘Henrietta is not your concern,’ George said at last. ‘I have raised her allowance to pay off that dog Howard. She will not trouble you again.’ He put his hands on her shoulders and tilted her back to gaze into her face. ‘It vexed me to hear she approached you for money. I’ve made my displeasure very clear.’
She painted on a grateful smile, but it hurt her cheeks. How long would that woman suck at the King’s funds? Even leeches dropped off when they had drunk their fill. ‘I’m glad of it. You are very kind, my dear.’
George’s face softened under the candlelight. She swallowed, feeling the chemistry between them. It was still there, the fizz of desire, after all these years. Amorously, he ran a hand over her curves, shaping her breast, her waist. After unpinning her stomacher, his warm fingers strayed to her petticoat, where he tugged at the waistband, searching for the ties. Pain scorched through her belly. Caroline gasped. Winded by agony, she stumbled back and leant on the bedpost.
‘What is it?’
She shook her head, unable to speak. Her vision flickered, split by undulating lines. In a moment, she would fall . . .
George moved behind her and dropped to his knees. Flicking up her heavy train, he rustled beneath it, unhooking first her petticoat and then her panniers. Relief swamped her as the weight fell away and landed on the floor with a hiss. The tender nub on her stomach throbbed like a pulse, but it was better without pressure on it.
George poked his head up. His face was red and his wig disheveled. ‘It’s that lump again, isn’t it?’
That lump. He had noticed, then. Caroline felt it on her body like a stain, a wretched fungus she could not uproot. ‘No,’ she lied. ‘It has nothing to do with that. I came over faint.’
Streaks of gold and black danced before her eyes; she realised they were full of tears. Her knees shook. After all that careful concealment, she had been exposed. He had seen the lump. Remembered it. What if he found her repulsive? What if she couldn’t make love to him, with the constant pain in her belly? She needed him in thrall to her. He was already suspicious of her guiding his policies. If he became weary of her person too, all her power was lost. A younger, able-bodied mistress would take her place.
George crawled out from beneath her skirts and stood. ‘You must consult a surgeon. It is a strange growth.’
Caroline felt disgusting, abhorrent. She twisted and turned from her shame like a child refusing food. ‘Nonsense! Nothing unusual. Many women acquire one after a hard labour.’
He shook his head. Shadows heightened the gravity in his face; the long nose and high cheekbones. ‘It is certainly a rupture. You run great risks, taking no care of it.’
A dark whisper told her he was right, but she couldn’t acknowledge it. She could not face her own body’s decay. ‘Oh, I see what this is!’ she cried, flinging away from him. Her unsupported skirts were too long and heavy; she tripped, causing a spurt of fresh pain. ‘You are tired of me. That ridiculous poem has turned you against me. You endeavour to find blemishes where there are none.’
‘Don’t be foolish. My concern is for your health – ’
‘So I am foolish now, too?’ Her voice quavered. ‘Well you need not stay with me if I am so ugly and stupid. Go and fawn over your mistress.’
‘Caroline . . .’
She pointed to the door, her throat raw with tears. ‘Go!’ she screamed.
Fury clouded his features. Picking up his hat, he cast her a glare and stomped from the room. He slammed the door, extinguishing her candle.
Caroline slumped to the floor. She knelt for a few moments, wetting the carpet with her tears. What had come over her? She feared losing George, yet here she was pushing him away. Awkwardly, she pulled off her mantua and threw a powdering gown over her shoulders. She would go after him and apologise. Where would he be? She stopped. Guilty pleasure stole up her spine. Henrietta’s apartments in Stone Gallery. He would want someone to shout at, and when he reached her rooms, he would find her ensconced with Lord Chesterfield . . .
Caroline pressed her face against her cool palms. Luck favoured her. The lump on her belly would soon pale into insignificance beside Henrietta’s sins.
Hodder and Stoughton must be my favourite publisher at the moment. Not only are they releasing books set in the Georgian era, but very good books at that! I’m currently reading Martine Bailey’s The Penny Heart and have just finished Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Both are the authors’ second books, both dark and wonderful in different ways.
I read Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea last year and enjoyed it. The sensory details and grim reality of life for 18th century debtors were well captured. However, something was lacking for me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. It was pizazz, something extra that kept me turning the pages and holding my breath. And the good news is, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins has this in droves.
Hawkins, a kind-hearted but fatally flawed young man, has recently won his freedom and a new girlfriend. He should be happy, but gradually he begins to slip into the old habits that landed him in debtor’s prison in the first place. What starts off as a harmless adventure soon embroils him in the world of criminal gangs in St Giles and vicious wife beaters.
Finding the lives of his loved ones at risk, Hawkins tries to wriggle out of his troubles. Yet he only puts himself in further danger. Not only does he owe a debt to the Queen, he has been wrongly accused of murder.
The victim’s family all hide dangerous secrets. But will Hawkins be able to discover them before the law catches up with him? The twists and turns just keep coming – right until the last few pages.
While the narrative is an enjoyable murder mystery in its own right, it is interspersed with present tense ‘snapshots’ of Hawkins in a cart on his way to Tyburn. For me, these little glimpses made the book extra special. They were immediate and extremely well written, driving the narrative forward and providing a hauntingly accurate account of the last journey made by so many to the ‘Tyburn tree’.
Another clever interruption to the narrative were the ‘press-cuttings’ of Hawkins’ case. We see a ballad written about his crimes and a court record of his trial. These snippets evoked the flavour of the time perfectly and came across as very authentic.
Amidst some heart-pounding action scenes and forays into the slums of St Giles, we also get a glimpse of life at the highest rank of society. I have to confess, I was a little nervous to read the parts where Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, featured in the book. I’m a bit of a hard customer to please when it comes to two historic figures I hold so dear. But not only was the depiction accurate, Hodgson’s portrayal of Queen Caroline was, to my mind, spot on. I even managed to guess which of the princesses Hawkins was talking to, merely from her speech, which shows what a good job was made of researching the family, despite their comparatively small bearing on the main action.
While Hawkins is not exactly my type of hero, I found myself rooting for the well-drawn characters and eager to return to the their world. A highly recommended book.
There are many reasons why Henrietta Howard, the heroine of my new book Mistress of the Court, is a fascinating woman to write about. In previous posts I’ve covered her determination, early feminism and struggle against domestic abuse. However, the aspect of her life that contemporaries at court chose to concentrate on, in poems and in jests, was her partial deafness.
Not all of these were malicious. Pope charmingly uses the affliction to highlight Henrietta’s modest nature:
When all the world conspires to praise her
The woman’s deaf and does not hear
Indeed, Henrietta herself was inclined to make light of her condition with her friends, writing to Lord Chesterfield
I know you so indulgent to your friends, that you would not interrupt their diversions . . . you always affirmed pain was my particular one
But this frivolous comment hid, as so often with Henrietta’s life, a world of pain and suffering. She was not born with any hearing impediment. Her biographer Tracy Borman believes the trouble began in Henrietta’s late 20s or early 30s. The cause is not clear, although for dramatic effect in Mistress of the Court, I attribute the damage to a blow received by her husband.
Henrietta’s was certainly a painful deafness; she often described her ‘poor pain in the face’ and letters from her correspondents are rife with regrets that she is not in better health. Her friend Dr Arbuthnot constantly treated her for headaches. It may be that Henrietta started to have difficulty hearing her own voice and adopted some signs; one of her letters refers to ‘that gesticulation of the hand for which I am so famous.’
Despite the fact that George II, in one of his rages, referred to her as a ‘deaf, peevish old beast’, it appears Henrietta was perfectly stoical about her condition. In fact, one wonders if she could have born for so long with George II if she were not partially deaf. With the writer Jonathan Swift, she engaged in a kind of playful competition to see who was the most unwell. ‘I should make you the best husband in the world,’ wrote Swift,’for I am ten times deafer than ever you were in your life.’ Henrietta, however, beat him by showing superior fortitude. Deafness and headache were ‘misfortunes I have laboured under these many years,’ she boasted, ‘and yet never was peevish with myself or the world.’
Eventually, the agony became too severe. Something had to be done. In the summer of 1728, Henrietta consulted the eminent surgeon Mr Cheselden. He suggested an operation – something to be feared and dreaded in the pre anesthetic/disinfectant era. One only has to read Fanny Burney’s account of her own mastectomy to swoon in horror.
Horace Walpole makes an interesting reference to Henrietta’s operation in his anecdotes. He claims that Henrietta heard a condemned man at Newgate, who suffered from the same condition. According to Walpole, Cheselden arranged for the prisoner to be pardoned, on the condition that he submitted to an experimental operation. This is not impossible – Queen Caroline made a similar deal when testing her smallpox inoculations.
Despite reading treatise and advice on treatment for bad ears, I could not establish the exact nature of the procedure Henrietta underwent. Suffice to say, it involved some sort of boring tool. Her own description is rather chilling, calling to mind a sweating surgeon and horrific instruments.
I sent for Mr Cheselden, who, give him his due, worked very hard, but found so much resistance, that I was justified to inquire no further then into my jaw; besides, finding nothing there, we were afraid to proceed.
Henrietta admits that the pain of the operation was ‘almost unbearable’, but it seemed to do good. ‘‘I am much better;’ she reported to John Gay in August. ‘Whether I owe it to the operation I underwent, or to my medicines, I cannot tell.’
When I write biographical novels, I often draft little scenes that I have no intention of putting in the final draft. I like to explore important events in the subject’s life and see even the mundane parts of life through their eyes. As I wanted to get a feel for the medicines Henrietta would take daily, and think about how she would cope with an operation, I wrote the following scene with my research into hearing difficulties. It is not in the novel, but I hope you will enjoy it.
The doctor peered down his nose at Henrietta. He was dressed in black and white like a parson; as if he was prepared to perform the funeral rites, should she take a turn for the worse. A short, unpowdered wig sat beneath his hat. He looked eminently respectable, but Henrietta eyed him warily. Could this man help her? No doctor had been able to save her parents or siblings from their fate. In her experience medical men were mere harbingers of death; crows that sat on the lychgate and cawed as the coffin passed by.
‘Mrs Howard. An honour.’ He bowed, keeping his eyes fixed on her ear.
Suddenly, pain pulsed through her head, nearly felling her. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed a hand to her brow. This would not do. The pangs were coming frequently now, with greater strength. She had to try something to stop them.
A whiff of smelling salts beneath her nose jerked her back to her senses. She looked up gratefully at the doctor, who now stood beside her. ‘Thank you Mr Cheselden. I came over most queer.’
Her frowned. ‘It is your head that troubles you?’
‘Yes, my head and my ears. I do not hear well at all. My friends Dr Arbuthnot and Lord Chesterfield have spoken very highly of your skill with such things. They believe you can help me.’
He wet his lips. His face was plump and ruddy; like most doctors, he looked astonishingly well living off others’ pain. ‘Perhaps I can. Tell me how this first came about.’
With lowered eyes, she explained the gradual loss of her hearing and the headaches that arrested her, especially in times of distress. She told him she had knocked her head many times in the past, but attributed it to riding accidents instead of Charles’s well-aimed fist.
He lifted his bag and began to rummage in it. ‘And what have you taken so far?’
‘Some pills made of Jesuits’ Bark and gillyflower syrup. Laudanum, of course. I try to sleep with half an onion on the bad ear.’
‘With this type of pain, you should be kept cool and take emollient substances such as milk and spinach. Did you never think to shave your head?’
She could just imagine George’s reaction to that. ‘I wish to keep my hair. But I did have a blister, here.’ She ran her finger along her jawbone from the side her chin to just below her earlobe.
‘Yes. The corner of your jaw, just there. That is where we should concentrate.’ He drew out a small wooden case and laid it on a side table. Then, with his index finger, he tilted her chin to the light.
She swallowed. ‘What – what do you mean to do?’
‘You are familiar with the theory behind bleeding? Letting the ill humours flow out?’ She could not nod while he held her head, so she blinked. ‘Then there is a process where we go deeper, especially in cases of lunacy. You may have heard of trepanning?’
She froze. Everyone knew of the horrific procedure where a hole was drilled in the skull to release pressure in the brain. Sometimes discs of bone were removed permanently.
Mr Cheselden smiled. ‘Do not turn so pale, dear madam. I only mean to say that whatever obstructs the flow of blood through the head may cause the ache. With an instrument similar to the trepan, I can bore a small hole in the angle of your jaw to unblock it.’
Her heart bounded within her. Suddenly she did not want any help; she would rather be left alone. ‘Would it hurt?’
Evading her question, he gestured to an armchair. ‘We might do it just there. You could sit comfortably with a cambric handkerchief over your eyes; you would not see a thing. Have you an old sheet, and some lint?’
The ache in her head was dull now; terror drove it off. She moved her dry tongue. ‘I believe I do. But sir, pray tell me how much it will hurt. I must prepare myself.’ She watched him as he passed to the side table and opened his box. Polished steel glinted from within. She turned her face away, sick with horror.
‘I do not believe it will be much greater than the pain you already labour under,’ he said gently. ‘Unless . . . Perhaps you do not feel yourself equal to withstand it?’
Unexpected pride kicked in her chest. Unequal to withstand it indeed! This man had no idea what she had been through. ‘I am accustomed to discomfort, I assure you. What is your price?’ He named a large sum. ‘For such a fee sir, you must be sure of success.’ He inclined his head.
It did not feel right to spend so much, after begging George for more money. But didn’t she deserve some relief; a slither of money to spend on herself, instead of Charles and his blasted debts? ‘If you are certain, I will proceed, Mr Cheselden.’ Fear crept through her as the words left her lips.
‘I must ask for the payment upfront. In case of . . . difficulty.’
Trembling, she told the money into his hand. George’s impassive profile stared back at her from a coin. Despite everything, her lip twitched. It seemed absurd to pay out such a great sum, when George would gladly put a hole in her head for no charge at all.
I’ve just finished reading another piece of Georgian non-fiction – and a rather ghoulish one at that! While A Grim Almanac of Georgian London is not for the faint-hearted, it is fascinating and I wanted to share it with you.
Since the Old Bailey records went online, we have a wealth of real crime information at our fingertips. But sometimes it can be a chore to sift through them all, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A Grim Almanac of Georgian London takes the leg work out for you – all the famous and strange cases are listed in a handy ‘on this day’ format.
We tend to think of crime as a very modern phenomenon, but as these real life cases show, we are probably safer in our own time period. In a society where men could carry guns and swords around every day without comment, accidents could and did happen. Added to this were the frequent riots, duels and brawls, which went south very fast. A fight in a Georgian pub often proved fatal.
More surprising, though, are the range of punishments – or lack thereof – for the guilty. While some offenses, which we would view as minor, received the pillory – a punishment that could quickly prove a death sentence when the crowds started slinging brickbats and dead cats – there were truly hideous cases of child neglect where the perpetrator was acquitted. Your sentence really did seem the luck of the draw – or jury. And in no field was this more obvious than that of domestic abuse.
Having written so much about Henrietta Howard, who spent over twenty years in an abusive marriage, I was both interested and appalled to read just how many incidents appeared in this small sample of Old Bailey cases. While men and women both suffered, as today, the female victims were the most predominant.
While writing about the abusive Charles Howard, I sometimes worried I was going over the top. I based most things he did on the accusations Henrietta leveled against him, but I did wonder if any person could be so truly dreadful to their wife. After reading A Grim Almanac of Georgian London, I have come to realise Henrietta was very lucky to survive at all. It is clear that in some poor quarters, mistreatment and starvation, along with both mental and physical abuse, were the common lot for women and children. While neighbours might pity, they hardly ever intervened. It was only when a death occurred that the abuser got into any sort of trouble. A huge amount of the murders listed were women killed by their own husbands, and of course a few examples of vice versa. Many of the murderers were hung or branded as punishment – a worrying amount also came off scot-free.
If anything, I have come to admire Henrietta even more after reading about these contemporary cases. She lived in this world, she knew what could happen. She knew there was little hope of legal redress for her. But through it all, she refused to be a victim. In many instances of domestic abuse, the victim can end up blaming themselves or making excuses for their abuser. It is, psychologically, very understandable. But it was not so with Henrietta. She always believed the treatment she received was disgusting and reproachful – and told her abuser roundly in an impassioned letter many years later. This takes a strength of character, and a bravery that astounds me.
However, the Almanac is not entirely full of gory murder and upsetting abuse. There are also the wily thieves, the insane and the tricksters. One of the latter who stands out was the lady who tried to convince the world she had given birth to rabbits. While I had heard of many of these tales before, it was lovely to have them grouped together and with a good deal of detail. I would recommend this book to all Georgian enthusiasts for an intriguing glance at the underbelly of London.
Followers of my blog will know I am always bewailing the fate of the Georgian queens. Or, more accurately, bewailing the fact that so few people know about them. This looks set to change, for Queen Charlotte at least, with the birth of the Princess of Cambridge. Huzzah!
My publisher has asked me to write something in honour of royal Charlottes. I am therefore pleased to present a potted biography of my very favourite Georgian, Princess Charlotte of Wales. You can see the full article below.
On 2 May 2015, a tiny baby took the nation by storm. TV channels went wild and the fountains in Trafalgar Square ran pink to celebrate her birth. Leaving St. Mary’s Hospital in her mother’s arms, she managed to charm without even opening her eyes. It seems fitting that this little princess should be called Charlotte. She shares the name with one of the most beloved heirs to the British throne.
Princess Charlotte of Wales was born on the morning of 7 January 1796, following a ‘terrible hard’ labour. Her birth was much anticipated; despite raising a family of fifteen with his faithful consort, another Charlotte, George III had yet to become grandfather to a legitimate child. He was delighted with the arrival of this little girl, who secured the succession as third in line to the throne. ‘If the Prince of Wales is blessed with such a daughter as mine are to me, he will be a very happy man indeed,’ he wrote.
But all was not as it seemed. Princess Charlotte had arrived in the midst of a failing marriage. Her mother, Caroline, was living a life of slow humiliation. Her indifferent looks and coarse manners had estranged her from Charlotte’s father, who now paraded a mistress before her. Not that the Prince of Wales was without his own troubles. He had illegally married a Catholic widow before Caroline, and the birth of his first child caused a crisis of conscience. He spent the night of Charlotte’s birth writing a wild and passionate Will – one suspects under the influence of much alcohol. In this strange document, he made it very clear that he wanted his new daughter to be protected from what he saw as the evil influence of his wife.
This was to be an ill omen for Charlotte’s childhood. She lived as a continual bone of contention between her parents, who fought for control of her. It is no wonder that she grew up to be an unconventional princess. Her laugh was too loud; she wiped her nose on her sleeve. She did not mind showing her drawers when she climbed out of the carriage. As a horse-mad tomboy, she picked up habits from the grooms in the stables, nodding at people rather than bowing to them and adopting a slouched standing position.
Despite, or perhaps because of these eccentricities, Charlotte was immensely popular with the public. After a few failed love affairs a broken engagement, she finally found happiness with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. The nation rejoiced over the marriage of this golden couple. Their fame grew to such a degree, that Charlotte’s father became jealous.
Tragically, on the eve of starting her own family and providing another male heir to the throne, Charlotte’s life was cut short. She delivered a stillborn son on 5 November 1817 and experienced complications after the birth. Less than twenty four hours later, Charlotte was dead, aged just twenty-one.
The outpouring of grief from the British nation was unprecedented. Shops closed for a fortnight, even the poor went into morning. ‘It is difficult for persons not living at the time to believe . . .’ wrote Henry Brougham. ‘It really was as if every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.’
But Charlotte’s legacy lives in. Her death paved the way for one of Britain’s most famous queens, Victoria, to take the crown. Victoria’s beloved consort, Albert, was coached in his role by none other than Charlotte’s widower, Leopold. The stage was set for another great royal love story. And now, this generation has its very own Princess Charlotte to love. She looks set to become every bit as popular as her namesake.
Every novel has its minor characters. Sometimes, they can be even more interesting than the protagonist. In fiction these ‘bit part’ characters can create spin offs, but in fact-based historical fiction they are real people with rich lives of their own. Today I want to consider the life of Henry Howard, who features in my story about his mother, Henrietta, titled Mistress of the Court.
On New Year’s day 1707, Henrietta Howard gave birth to a son. First child and heir to his father, Charles, who was in turn the son of an Earl, you would think his future would be bright. Unfortunately, the boy was to live a confusing and emotionally traumatic life.
Named for his maternal grandfather, the young Henry Howard arrived in a family already at odds with one another. His father Charles was in the process of suing Henrietta’s brother over her dowry. Money was short, and so was the love between the two parents. From Henrietta’s writings, we know that Charles was a drunkard, gambler and abusive husband. When his lawsuit failed, the family were left more in debt than ever. Depositing Henrietta and the infant Henry in ‘mean lodgings’ in Berkshire, Charles returned to London to live his life unencumbered by their presence.
This abandonment lasted some two years. Henry was deprived of a father for the earliest part of his life – and any form of financial aid from that father. Even when Henrietta, finally at her wits end, set off in search of Charles, the family did not enjoy a happy reunion. They boarded with Charles’ brother at Audley End house for a year and a half. However, Charles was again frequently absent, deserting mother and child for months on end. They were finally expelled from Audley End for failing to pay the rent. It is testimony to Charles’s bad behaviour that he was evicted by his own brother.
If this constant movement and upheaval was confusing for the young Henry, it was about to get worse. He was dragged across the roughest parts of London under the assumed surname of Smith to avoid his father’s debtors. Every so often, his father would run away under fear of arrest and leave him with his mother. Unsurprisingly, mother and child grew close. Henry was Henrietta’s only comfort and gave her the affection she did not receive from Charles. They were both ‘under the pressure and smart of hunger’ most of the time.
In Mistress of the Court, Henrietta travels to Hanover in order to make money and a future for her son. While this probably was her main motivation for going abroad, it is distressing to think that she must have further traumatised Henry by depriving him of his only friend. She only raised enough money for herself and Charles to go to the Hanoverian court and woo the next monarch. Henry was left behind, though it is not clear with whom.
My knowledge of Henry’s life comes solely from Tracy Boreman’s excellent biography of Henrietta and Henrietta’s published correspondence. I have not seen any letters Henry wrote about his childhood, if indeed any survive. But it is hard to conceive that he was not deeply affected by these strange early years of his life. He had been passed from pillar to post like a package, half-starved through most of his formative years. He was a frequent witness to the abusive relationship between his parents. At the age of barely seven, he was abandoned by them both for just over a year. Little wonder he appears as a strange and rather prickly child in my book.
Prospects improved for Henry with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. His parents arrived back in England shortly before the coronation of George I and were granted places at court. However, their new lodgings in St James’s palace were not as grand as they sound. It was a horrid place, rife with damp and the necessity of sharing chamber pots between families. One wonders if Henry was altogether pleased to be reunited with his parents under these circumstances.
The domestic situation certainly did not ease up. Henrietta and Charles were constantly coming to blows. He disapproved of her clothes and her friends. He was annoyed that her service to the Princess of Wales interrupted her attendance on him. Henrietta confessed to getting out of bed several times a night for fear he would kill her. Not precisely an ideal environment for a child under 10 to grow up in.
Things finally came to head with the split of the royal household in 1718. Henry’s parents worked for different factions of the court and were both unwilling to give up their roles. After a furious row, Henrietta stormed out without even stopping to take her belongings. Charles sent a bitter letter after her, saying he no longer considered her to be his wife.
In Mistress of the Court, I have Henrietta separated from her son unwittingly. But the sad truth is that she actually made the decision to leave him. It was certainly not something she did lightly. Her writings show she agonised over the choice and genuinely feared for her life if she stayed with Charles. But what a blow it must have been for Henry, just eleven years old! It was a breach of trust that he would never forgive.
Henrietta was in fact, extremely naive about her son. At first she thought Charles would allow her to visit him – an illusion which he quickly dispelled. She then remained convinced that Henry would take her side, despite her actions. She was determined not to pressure him but ‘leave all to his natural inclinations’. What she actually did was leave him to the insidious ways of Charles. And Charles, accordingly, was raising the child to despise his mother.
This was all the easier when Henrietta became mistress to the Prince of Wales. While it was necessary for her survival, you can imagine how it looked to Henry. He probably thought his mother had deserted him to run off with her lover. And though it was far from the truth, Charles would have encouraged the idea. Charles wrote to tell Henrietta that their son was forced to ‘hear the reproaches of your public defiance to me, and what the world will interpret as the occasion of it.’
Henrietta was only able to obtain sketchy details of her son’s life over the next few years. She discovered he was at a school near Salisbury and sent her cousin to visit, but he was removed to a private school before she arrived. In 1720, he attended Magdalene College at Cambridge. His studies were followed up at an academy in Paris. Henrietta’s friend Lord Peterborough sent his son to the same academy, hoping to glean some further information. It does not seem he was successful. Whether in or out his father’s company, Henry made no effort to contact his mother.
It appeared that Charles was right when he wrote that ‘No artifice or temptation . . . will every prevail with [Henry] to desert me.’ This is surprising, considering Charles’ behaviour through Henry’s childhood. Henrietta was certainly shocked, and disbelieving. ‘I wish to God [Henry] was of a riper age to be judge between us,’ she wrote. ‘I am not willing to suppose he will long neglect a parent who has not forfeited the duty he owes her.’ Nor was she alone in her hopes. From Alexander Pope’s letter of 1727, we can see that Henry was not treated particularly well by his father:
And yet, as to the last thing that troubles you (the odd useage of Mr H towards his son) I would fain hope some good may be derived from it. It may turn him to a reflection, that possibly his mother may be yet worse used than himself; and make him think of some means to comfort himself in comforting her.
It was not to be. Henrietta legally separated from Charles in 1728. This proceeding was highly usual at the time, considered as something only resorted to by ‘blasphemous, trouble-making’ women. Henry would have felt humiliated by this public end to his parents’ marriage, and the wide spread gossip of his mother’s infidelity.
This separation was the final nail in the coffin of the mother/child relationship. Charles died just five years later in 1733, but still Henry made no contact. In fact, Henrietta appeared afraid of seeing him. Lord Bathhurst could only convince her to visit by assuring her that ‘my castle is not molested by your son.’
Henry became Earl of Suffolk upon Charles’ death and enjoyed some success in his life. He was elected. Member of Parliament for Bere Alston and married a wealthy heiress, Sarah Inwen, on 13 May 1735. Her dowry cleared Audley End house of its debts. It was the kind of shrewd action Henrietta herself would take.
Sadly, Henry’s life was not destined to be long. He had no children and died in 1745, aged just 39 years old. I like to think his young widow was deeply in love for him, for she left it a good seven years before remarrying. She became the second wife of Lucius Cary, 7th Viscount of Falkland, though still remained childless.
It is so sad to consider that Henry’s short and tragic life is completely of a piece with the miserable, tempestuous marriage that created him. The one good thing to come of the union, he did not survive long enough to carry on the bloodline or find reconciliation with his mother. We can only imagine Henrietta’s feelings when she lost her son, some twenty-two years before her own death. But I hope that at least, in his earldom and his marriage, Henry was able to find some of the happiness that eluded his early days.
I’ve now read two books by Michelle Moran and absolutely loved both of them! She is undoubtedly an author that keeps you turning the page. Madame Tussaud enthralled me with its depiction of the French Revolution, skillfully portraying the struggle from both sides of battle line. I galloped through The Second Empress in an even shorter time and, as it handily fits into the Napoleonic era, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the book.
I was thrilled when I found out that this novel existed, and not only because it was by Moran. I had long thought that the story of Maria Lucia of Austria was just waiting for its own historic novel. This was a young woman who, despite strong personal feelings against the match, became Napoleon’s second wife to save her country. Rather than sinking into a depression or becoming obstructive, as many a princess would in her position, she actually made the marriage a success. If this wasn’t a good enough reason to admire her, she also grew up in my favourite palace, Schönbrunn.
Moran brings Maria Lucia to life masterfully. We meet her as an artistic young woman who loves her family and is being raised as the future regent for her unwell brother. Her political astuteness and strong nature are clear from the start – she wishes to be a credit to her homeland of Austria. Through her eyes, we also learn of the toll the Napoleonic wars have taken on the land and grow to understand how hated an enemy the French were at the time period. This only heightens the conflict we feel when, to get her country out of its difficulties, she is forced to leave the man she loved and become the bride of Napoleon, a man she despises. I say she is forced – I mean by her conscience. Perhaps the most inspiring thing of all is that Maria Lucia is under no compulsion from her loving father – she makes the sacrifice for her people.
We join Napoleon’s court as fellow newcomers, equally dazzled and appalled by its excesses. Whilst Napoleon does not come across positively in the story, his behaviour is perfectly in keeping with the accounts I have read of him. Furthermore, we must remember that Moran is portraying him through the eyes of his enemy – ancient royalty looking down on what they perceived as an upstart solider. While Maria Lucia settles into her strange marriage, well aware that Napoleon is still in love with Josephine, we meet the other narrators of the story.
Napoleon’s most scandalous sister, Pauline, takes up the tale. I found her point of view immensely fun and wonderfully disturbing to read. While at times I thought the voice sounded a little modern, Moran’s choices seem to be supported by further reading I have undertaken about Pauline. Pauline is a bold woman, wildly ambitious and the closest of all the family to Napoleon. While she is bitchy and clearly mentally unstable, it is impossible not to feel a kind of affection for her. Her obsessions with Egypt and – worryingly – her brother, push her beyond the means of her health as she strives to become a queen worthy of legend. Slyly manipulating the split between Napoleon and Josephine, she is also instantly jealous of the success of his second empress. In her distracted state of mind, she begins to think that she will one day wed Napoleon herself. We learn that this bizarre love/hate relationship between the siblings goes back a long way; in his need to be beloved, Napoleon has exiled all of his sister’s lovers. It’s all rather disturbing, but it’s fascinating to read about.
Our third narrator is Haitian man whose name, for the moment, is Paul. He has given up his given name, his family and his heritage to serve Pauline, While he loves her, he is able to see her faults and condemn her treatment of Maria Lucia. Through his struggles, we see the price that the conquered have paid for Napoleon’s wars. We learn of Paul’s once beloved country, laid to ruin, and his identity crisis following the move to France. While he has made a good life for himself, he is reaching the end of his patience. He cannot put up with the hollow pretense of the French court for much longer. So far, his heart has kept him in France, but as times change he begins to take on courage. Pauline with have to choose between him and her brother – a contest he rather hopes than expects to win.
Full of drama and conflict, this is a book that will appeal to most readers of historical fiction. I do not mean to imply that men cannot enjoy the story, but I feel that women would perhaps appreciate it more, bound up as it is with the intricacies of female relationships and squabbles. The beginning of the book lacked pace for me, as it was full of backstory for the three narrators. However, this soon picked up and I found myself enthralled. A must for lovers of the French court and those who want to read about women in history who have dared to defy convention.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take an architectural tour around the Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street. A delicious little Georgian townhouse hidden off the Strand, it is full of wonderful period features.
I have to admit, I knew very little about Franklin before attending the tour. Obviously I knew about his experiment with lightning and his involvement with the Declaration of Independence, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. The visit really piqued my interest; Franklin was a man at the center of diplomacy who lived through an astonishing time. Part spy, part scientist, diplomat, inventor and philosopher, he was a fascinating man. Franklin lived in London for nearly sixteen years in his role as Postmaster for American, returning home in 1775 with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Sadly, his Craven Street house is the last of his residences to survive.
I have visited many Grade II listed buildings, but Benjamin Franklin House tops the bill at Grade I – a place of exceptional interest to our heritage. The restoration project completed to bring the house up to its present condition was a huge undertaking. Fortunately for us, lots of love and devotion have rescued the place from dereliction and you can now see a genuine example of an everyday Georgian townhouse.
I say ‘everyday’ – in fact, it seems 36 Craven Street was far from ordinary! Not only did you have Franklin lodging there with his experiments and important dinners, but there was an anatomy school running downstairs. A collection of bones found during conservation were on display, from where the school had practiced cutting up bodies – either obtained from the gallows or the resurrection men! I rather feel for the poor landlady, Margaret Stevenson, with such strange lodgers, but it seems she rather enjoyed her eccentric household.
One of my favourite parts of the tour was a chance to play Franklin’s famous glass armonica. You can get some seriously spooky sounds from this instrument, but also great music – Mozart and Beethoven both composed pieces for it. My musical skills were sadly lacking – still, I had fun!
Hopefully I will be returning to Benjamin Franklin House later this year to take part in their Historical Experience. Through this attraction, the house is brought to life in its Georgian splendour. Actors read excerpts from Franklin’s writing and recreate every day scenes from the house. Using light projectors, the interior is returned to something like its original decoration, immersing you in the smells, sights and sounds of the era. I can’t wait!
You can find out more about Benjamin Franklin House here.