History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 August 2007

The Dark Side of the Regency

The Regency had a dark side. I've known this since my early days researching the era. In my mom's and my first Anthea Malcolm traditional Regency, for all its London season setting, the heroine has a reformer cousin who hosts meetings in support of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Climbing Boys and Improving Child Labor Conditions (at the later of which the politician hero speaks). Our second Regency included a meeting at the home of the same reformer at which a former prostitute speaks about contraception (researching that book was where I first learned about the Regency use of sponges soaked in brandy or vinegar). Subsequent books dealt with government agents provocateurs infiltrating radical groups, the often harsh reality of life at Eton, the Highland Clearances, conditions for millworkers, the debate over emancipation of slaves (of which there were still a number in British colonies, though the slave trade had been abolished in Britain). But by and large most of these books took place in Mayfair drawing rooms, on Rotten Row, at balls at Almack's, in the coffee room at Brooks's, on country estates.

In SECRETS OF A LADY, I knew I wanted Charles and Mélanie to have to leave their jewel-box perfect life in their Berkeley Square house and scour the dimly -lit recesses of the London underworld. As Charles learns the secrets behind Mélanie's perfect-wife façade, I wanted him and Mélanie to explore the dark corners behind the elegant façade of Regency London. (Hoyden note: Please visit Tracy's Gallery for more pics of locations from the book!)

SECRETS OF A LADY begins in the point of view of Meg, born in a lodging house near the London docks, one of two surviving children of a family of eleven, her own son dead of a fever at the age of three, her sister gone to work in a mill in Yorkshire. There are few escapes from poverty open to Meg, but she's found one of them. She's become a thief. She's fortunate to have survived into her late twenties. The law held a child of seven legally responsible for his or her actions, and I came across a mention of a boy of six who went to the scaffold crying for his mother. Five children (one of them eight years old) were sentenced to death at the Old Bailey on a single day in February of 1814. A girl of ten, charged with stealing a shawl and a petticoat, and a boy of eleven, accused of stealing two silk handkerchiefs, were sentenced to transportation for seven years. Until 1814, a parent could legally sell a child to be a climbing boy or a pickpocket or a prostitute. The only crime was the stealing not of the child but of the child's clothes.

Violet Goddard, whom Charles and Mélanie meet at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, is one of the lucky few who has found another, more secure avenue of escape from poverty. She's become a successful actress. She's learned how to speak and carry herself. Her face, Mélanie thinks, could belong to any lady in Mayfair, but her eyes have seen things no gently bred girl was meant to witness. If Violet is prudent with her money, she should have financial security. She may well have a lover from among Charles and Mélanie's acquaintance (I actually wish I'd alluded to this in the book). She could even end up married to an aristocrat, as did the actress Elizabeth Farren (whose lovely painting (at left) by Thomas Lawrence hangs in the Met in New York). Elizabeth Farren married the Earl of Derby following the death of his first wife and was received at court, even taking part in the procession at the 1797 marriage of George III's daughter Princess Charlotte to the Duke of Württemberg.

But if it was possible to escape from poverty, as both Meg and Violet have sought to do in different ways, it was far easier to sink into it. The Regency had a scant social safety net for those without the protection of family and fortune. Readers of Jane Austen are familiar with the plight of girls like the Bennet and Dashwood sisters who must marry men of fortune and have little but their charms to recommend them. In SECRETS OF A LADY, sisters Helen and Susan Trevennen are the daughters of a Devon clergyman. Their options would have been few. Marriage, if they could find men in the confined society of their small village who could afford to marry them without a dowry, or employment as a governess or a companion. Instead, both girls have turned their back on the veneer of respectability and run off to seek their fortunes in London, Helen as an actress, Susan as an opera dancer. Helen has been moderately successful. Susan has sunk from an opera dancer to a prostitute at an elegant house in Marylebone ("not one of the grandest in the city, but quite nice. Gilt mirrors and velvet sofas and gentlemen in proper coats and neckcloths") to a whore at a crumbling brothel in Villiers Street called the Gilded Lily. At thirty she has rotting teeth and is dying of consumption. And even at the Gilded Lily, Susan makes less money than Amy Graves, a posture moll, who performs erotic poses for the customers. Amy, Susan observes, is almost young enough to be her daughter.

Susan and Helen's uncle, Hugo Trevennen, has also achieved some success as an actor (to the horror of his clergyman brother), but his love of gambling has led him into debt, and he has been confined in the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Charles Dickens's father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea in 1824 when young Charles Dickens was twelve. Dickens later brought the prison vividly to life in LITTLE DORRIT. The Marshalsea was a like a small (if walled) city, in which whole families often lived (the Dickens family lived in the prison for a time, and in LITTLE DORRIT Amy Dorrit is born and grows up within the Marshalsea's walls). Peers were exempt from arrest for debt, but commoners who moved in the first circles could face imprisonment if they fell too deeply into dun territory. Beau Brummell fled to the Continent to avoid arrest for debt, as did his friend Scrope Davies and many others.

In my original version of SECRETS OF A LADY (when it was called THE END OF RECKONING, my working title before it was first published as DAUGHTER OF THE GAME), Helen Trevennen had an illegitimate daughter named Lucinda, who had been fostered out at birth. Charles and Mélanie found young Lucinda working as a seamstress's apprentice, a twelve-year-old drudge with pinpricked fingers, strained eyes, and little control over her fate. The book was already long and other scenes needed expanding. Lucia Macro, my very sensible editor, pointed out that Charles and Mélanie didn't really learn anything from their encounter with Lucinda that they couldn't learn elsewhere. So that chapter went onto the cutting room floor. I think the story is the stronger for it, but I did like the way the episode with Lucinda showed another fate that could befall a penniless girl.

At one point in SECRETS OF A LADY, Mélanie reflects that "if her life had taken a different turn, if she had made different choices, she might be preparing to open a new production of Romeo and Juliet, like Violet Goddard. Or dying of consumption in a brothel like Susan Trevennen." Or thieving like Meg or confined to debtors' prison or toiling as an apprentice like Lucinda. The corners of the Regency I explored to write SECRETS OF A LADY were not easy or pretty, but by the time I finished the book, I felt my knowledge of my favorite era was infinitely richer.


Anonymous Monica McCarty said...

Tracy, What a fabulous post! I can't believe you've been holding out on me--there are chapters of Secrets of a Lady that were edited out...where??? Maybe you could post those on your website at some point. I've been thinking a lot about historical context lately (for romances), so your post really touches on many of the things I've been thinking about. The darker side of Regency life is so interesting and one we so rarely see. Kids put to death? I had no idea. How horrible.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Monica! Historical context is fascinating. There are so many different sides to any era and how to bring that complexity to life is one of the challenges to writers of historical novels in any genre. Different books are going to emphasize different things (which I think is one reason I'm happy writing book after book in the Regency era--there's so much to explore and discover). The bit about kids being put to death caught me off guard too (I think I knew it on some level, but the reality of children being executed hadn't sunk in). I couldn't sleep every well the night I read that.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I think "children being hanged" is something you might hear and not truly register until you have children of your own and see the ages of those poor kids in print. "Six-years-old" doesn't truly conjure up an exact image until you've HAD a six-year-old and know that they are still babies and so absolutely vulnerable. That's true for me, anyway. Watching documentaries about the holocaust is a very different experience for me now. Much, much more difficult to bear, imagining the abject terror of those mothers hoping to protect their children. *shudder*

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Victoria, I think you're so right. It's the jump from "children being hanged" which sounds horrible but doesn't necessarily register and conjure up an image of just what that means. That's one of the things I think historical fiction can do--bring the past to life in a visceral, immediate way.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

Loved the post. The darker side of any period in time has always fascinated and repulsed me, but to ignore it is to allow it to continue. Even though most of my characters are in the upper classes, the seamy avenues of London, Dublin, Paris, Berlin--and especially St. Petersburg--are always seething beneath the crystalline facade of aristocratic life.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much for posting, Camilla! "Seething beneath the crystalline façade of aristocratic life" is such a great image. The tension between those two worlds as a writer. And I think it's so interesting to plunge aristocratic characters into an unfamiliar world that exists right beside the world where they dance and drive and pay calls and yet of which they often have little knowledge. As I wrote this, I realized that while much of "Secrets of a Lady" is about Charles and Mélánie leaving the elegant confines of their Mayfair life and exploring the London underwold, the book begins with Meg and her partner Jack in Berkeley Square, away from their familiar territory in Seven Dials.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Anne Mallory said...

Wonderful post, Tracy! The Regency underbelly is fascinating. I sometimes go through the Old Bailey records and shake my head. Those were harsh times in so many ways.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Anne, that's so cool you go through Old Bailey records. Court procedings do bring to life how harsh the times were in so many ways (which it's sometimes easy to forget, reading out the more Silver Fork side of life). You have some great inrigue in your books that touches on the darker side of Regency life. I love how you have characters like Faye, who are now living among the beau monde but are still connected to a rougher side of life (I think she'd made a great heroine :-).

9:37 PM  
Blogger AndreaW said...

Wow, what a fascinating post! I really need to get this book. And I love the pictures....both here and on your blog, Tracy!

6:27 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thank you so much, Tracy! We had a great time with you this week!!!

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Andrea! So glad you enjoyed the pictures. One of the great things about being able to do research in Britain was to "location scout" and take my own pictures of settings in the books (which I refer to all the time). Hope you enjoy "Secrets of a Lady"!

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much, VIctoria and the rest of the Hoydens, for hosting me this week! I've had a great time! I'll check back over the next weekend in case anyone has any follow up questions, and you can also always leave a comment or email me through my website.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

I'm so glad that Daughter of the Game is getting re-released. It's a fabulous book!!

I've done some research on the criminal justice system in Regency England, and it can be heartbreaking. There was discetion built into the system, but it can all seem so arbitrary. There were certainly children who got reduced sentences because of their age, but there were also children who were executed.

There's a fabulous Web site - I think it's basically an anti-death penalty site - that has details about the history of executions in England. Someone has literally gone through all the assize records and the Old Bailey records to record online details about all the executions. I have the link at home and will look it up if anybody is interested.


9:32 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Hi Michelle, thanks for posting! I'd love to see the link to that site. It is heartbreaking, isn't it? It's true there was discretion built into the system, so magistrates could commute execution to transportation or imprisonment, etc... but that all depended on the magistrate, which did make it very arbitrary. (I have a point i the book where Mélanie remembers Charles using his influence to intervnee when the nine-year-old cousin of one of their housemaids was sentenced to transportation for stealing a lace cap and two silk handkerchiefs). Bernard Cornwell wrote a great Regency-set mystery called "The Gallows Thief" which deals with the effort to save a falsely-accused man and included harrowing details about executions.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Thanks, Tracy!
This is a great post and one that I'm going to copy for future reference. One of the things I love about the Regency is the juxtaposition of fabulous wealth and beauty with poverty and desperation.
It is what I like to write about, too!
Your book is yet another on my list to buy!!

11:50 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Thanks, Tracy!
This is a great post and one that I'm going to copy for future reference. One of the things I love about the Regency is the juxtaposition of fabulous wealth and beauty with poverty and desperation.
It is what I like to write about, too!
Your book is yet another on my list to buy!!

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Diane! Hope you enjoy "Secrets of a Lady". The juxtapostion of wealth and ostentation and desperate poverty (often only street corners away from each other) in the Regency era also fascinate me. I was really trying to capture that in "Secrets of a Lady', from the opening scene where thieves Meg and Jack walk through the glittering elegance of Berkeley Square.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Now I have to get Gallows Thief. It's one of the few Cornwell novels I haven't read yet. And your book, too. :) This dark side of Regency sounds very interesting.

Btw, I found this blog via yours which I found via Romancing the Blog where we both commented on Sharon's post some days ago. The blog word is a village, lol.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thank so much for posting, Gabriele! I'm so glad you found this blog and also my site. I love the way the online world is so interconnected (a bit like the Regency ton, if one thinks about it :-). Btw, I've had visitors to my site from your site, which got me to visit your site--which is fabulous, great wealth of information and wonderful topics--and I noticed you had a link to my site. Thanks so much!

The Gallows Thief does a wonderful job of bringing Regency London and the criminal justice system in particular to life in harrowing detail. I was hoping Cornwell would write more about the main character, but I don't believe he has so far. Hope you enjoy "Secrets of a Lady"!

1:38 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Thank you, Tracy. There won't be much Regency on my blog, I'm afraid, but plenty about the old Romans, and Mediaeval topics.

I should get me a feature that tells me where my visitors come from, lol, I have no idea. :)

Cornwell seems to be busy with his Saxon books these days, which I love, btw. And Sharpe, of course.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Your site is a fabulous Roman and Medieval resource, Gabriele! I haven't read Cornwell's Saxon books yet, but I love the Sharpe books. (They were the inspiration behind the Peninsular War flashbacks in "Secrets of a Lady").

4:11 PM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

A big thanks for the link to your website gallery.

Fabulous pics!

4:16 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Tracy, echoing the others. Great post.

I've always found the treatment of children throughout ages so disturbing and painful. It's like humanity was lost when it came to them.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much, Jane! Glad you enjoyed the Gallery! I had a lot of fun putting it together. I'll be updating it with pictures of Scottish settings for "Beneath a Silent Moon" in a few months (and hopefully with "Mask of Night" settings before too long :-).

Kathrynn, thanks so much for posting! Glad you enjoyed the blog. I agree about the treatment of children throughtout the ages. And yet at a performance of "The Trojan Women" a few years ago, I was struck by the visceral horror everyone feels at the victoriious Greeks killing the young son of Hector and Andromache (the heir to the Trojan throne). From a political standpoint it's clear why the Greeks do it, and yet the horror of killing a child rings through accross the centuries.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Re Lawrence's extraordinary painting of Eliza Farren -- Emma Donoghue's novel Life Mask was inspired by a gossipy letter Donoghue found in a collection, linking Farren erotically to a female sculptor of the late Georgian era, the honorable Anne Damer. Some interesting speculation and lots of history. One of the best chapters, imo, is about the painting itself.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

How fascinating, Pam! I read Emma Donoghue's "Slammerkin" but not "Life Mask" (which I think I remember you referring to on another blog? is it the one with a scene with Lady Melbourne shortly after she's given birth one of her children?). I'll have to look for it. It's a wonderful portrait. The first time I saw it I was in New York for a writers' conference. I love looking at late eighteenth/early nineteenth century portraits--it's like being surrounded by characters from one's books.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't read Slammerkin, Tracy, but I'd like to, and I understand it's a better book than Life Mask. But I do very much like the history in Life Mask -- yes, that's the one with the Lady Melbourne scene. As for the Farren painting, it knocked me out one day at the Met as well -- at the time I believ it shared a room with Gainsborough's amazing portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

"Slammerkin" is a very dark story, but vivid and wonderfully written. Thanks for posting the link to the Grace Dalrymple Elliott paining, Pam. I think i was in the room with the Elizabeth Farren painting at the Met when I first saw both paintings as well. The Met collection also includes Romney's painting of the Earl of Derby's first wife, Elizabeth Hamiliton (http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/HD/bpor/hod_49.7.57.htm) , who, according to the description on the Met site, "was unhappily married and would shortly leave her husband and children". This prompted my curiosity, so I did a bit more googling and found a referernce to her having an affair with the Duke of Hamilton. Must investigate further.

5:56 PM  

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