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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 November 2015

Britain 1818


 


My recently released novella, Incident in Berkeley Square, takes place in late April 1818. The nxt full length novel in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series, London Gambit, which will be out in May 2016, takes place in June of 1818. In both stories, danger and intrigue find their way into the secure Mayfair world where Malcolm and Suzanne have found a haven after the Napoleonic Wars. Beyond their jewel box of a house and leafy plane trees of the Berkeley Square garden, Britain is not a very settled place either.

Waterloo is only three years in the past. Napoleon has been defeated and exiled to the tiny island of St. Helena, but the ruling powers from Whitehall to Paris to Moscow still fear he could escape. In France, a restored Bourbon King is on the throne, and the “Ultra Royalist” faction is eager exact revenge for everything since the Revolution. Their zeal has brought about the “White Terror” in which scores of former Bonpartists have been imprisoned and executed. In this fevered atmosphere, political games are played for life and death stakes and personal loyalty is an ephemeral thing. The Come de Flahaut, a real historical figure who plays an important role in Incident in Berkeley Square and returns in London Gambit, is fortunate to have escaped France. Flahaut was an officer in Napoleon’s army and the lover of the Empress Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. He is also the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s wily one-time Foreign Minister (a mentor of Malcom Rannoch's who has also appeared in the series. Talleyrand has managed to survive under the Bourbons and helped protect Flahaut. Flahaut has sought refuge in Britain and married the Scottish heiress Margaret Mercer Elphinstone in the teeth of her father's objections. His former lover Hortense Bonaparte is also exiled from France, living in Switzerland with her two young sons. Hortense and the Bonaparte family have past ties to Suzanne Rannoch.

While the British Government still worries about Bonapartist plots, the situation in Britain itself is far form easy. The Napoleonic Wars left Britain badly in debt. With the end of the war, the British Government is no longer pouring money into munitions and supplies for the Army. Without Government contracts, the textile mills that made uniforms and the iron foundries that made cannon have cut back on workers (and changes in manufacturing had already made jobs scarce). At the same time, former soldiers are flooding the job market. Work is scarce and the price of food is exorbitant. With the Government no longer buying food for the Army and foreign grain markets opening up, the price of corn (wheat) dropped. But Parliament used the Corn Laws to protect the price of homegrown corn. This also protected the profits of the landowners who grew the corn (and who had already benefited greatly from the high corn prices during the war). But the unemployed factory worker or the discharged soldier returning from the Continent (possibly less than whole), faced high prices as well as dwindling income. Yet though the conditions are bleak in Britain ‘s industrial towns, the rural poor keep leaving the countryside and pouring into the cities.

The Tory government (Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary, Lord Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary, among others) have a pervasive fear of violent revolution at home. (Echoes of the French Revolution reverberate through the politics of the day). At the same time, the Government Ministers fear Parliamentary reform and see repression rather than any sort of reform as the best way of preserving the world as they know it.

In 1817 a crowd surrounded the Prince Regent’s carriage as he drove to open Parliament. Someone threw rocks at him or possibly fired an airgun. As J.B. Priestley writes in The Prince of Pleasure, “The Regent may or may not have felt panic-stricken–if there is evidence either way, I have not found it–but Lord Liverpool’s government soon behaved as if there had been barricades in St James’s Street and the rattle of musketry along Piccadilly. They may have been genuinely alarmed or they may have seized upon a good excuse to be repressive, but what is certain is that they rushed through a number of deplorable measures, which could hardly have been worse if half the towns in England had been in flames.”

Habeas Corpus was suspended. Based on an act from the days of Edward III, magistrates were given the power to imprison anyone they thought likely to behave in a way that threatened public order (a wide definition, which could end in someone being thrown in prison for making a face at a person of higher social status). Protesting any of this in person or in writing was made difficult by acts against Seditious Libel and an act that prohibited meetings of more than fifty within a mile of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

While the Government feared revolution, they recognized that events such as the mob surrounding the Prince Regent helped pave the way for repressive measures. They also realized that revolutionary talk, violent acts, and rioting were an effective way to separate moderate radicals and reform-minded Whigs from their more extreme fellows. With this end in mind, the Government, particularly Lord Sidmouth, employed agents provocateurs, who infiltrated radical groups and not only reported back to Westminster but actually incited violent action.

Though Malcolm and Suzanne's lives are seemingly more settled after the war, their story now unfolds against this backdrop, in a city seething with suppressed unrest, teetering on a knife edge between reaction and reform. At heart Suzanne, a former Bonapartist agent, is still a revolutionary (and now free to voice her opinions to her husband) while Malcolm, however reform-minded, is still a member of the aristocracy.  Which means that though they may have battlefields and council chambers of the Continent for the ballrooms and alleys of London, there is still plenty of intrigue in their lives.

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2 Comments:

OpenID helenajust said...

Thank you for this excellent explanation of the state of England in 1818. Often we are so focussed on Waterloo that we assume that defeating Napoleon meant all was well, whereas in fact England did not adapt well to peace.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Helena! I was just thinking tonight that there's a tendency to see the post-Waterloo era as much more settled than it was or certainly than it would have felt to one living through it.

12:26 AM  

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