History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 March 2008

An Age of Unrest: Britain in 1817

I'm in the process of updating my website for the May trade re-release of my second Charles and Mélanie Fraser book, Beneath a Silent Moon. I've been writing text, pulling photos, and in general thinking about the book. Set in 1817, Beneath a Silent Moon takes place mostly in Mayfair (with a few excursions to the London docks) and at a castle on the Scottish coast. As I blogged about a few weeks ago, thematically the book deals with the manners and mores of romantic intrigues among the upper classes. Yet beyond the ballrooms and drawing rooms and elegant gardens, the Britain to which Charles and Mélanie have just returned when the book opens (Charles after nearly ten years in the diplomatic corps, Mélanie as a French/Spanish war bride) is a very unsettled place.

The Battle of Waterloo is only two years in the past. The long wars with Napoleon's France have left Britain victorious but 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, soldiers released from the army 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) had 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.

In Scotland, where much of Beneath a Silent Moon is set, the Highlands are still reeling from Bonnie Prince Charlie's defeat at the Battle of Culloden over seventy years ago. Famine had always been a threat in the Highlands. Now that the society has been forcibly demilitarized by the English, a large tenant population is no longer useful as a force against raiding neighbors. Seeing the old way of life as dead, many Highland landowners are turning their land into sheep runs for lowland sheep.

Unfortunately, the tenants have to be moved to make way for the sheep. Some landowners simply burn them out (as Charles's father Kenneth Fraser has done). Others try to provide their tenants with an alternate living. But it is difficult for Highland crofters to make the transition and the new industries are often not as successful as hoped.

This is the milieu to which Mélanie comes as a war bride in Beneath a Silent Moon. It is also a world in which the echoes of the French Revolution still linger. Many of the leaders of the countries victorious at Waterloo see stifling dissent and reform and preserving the status quo as the best guarantee of stability. In France, now governed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, the zeal of the Ultra Royalists has led to the White Terror in which scores of Republicans and Bonapartists are imprisoned or executed. In Britain, 1817 began with a crowd surrounding 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.

The Tory government (Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary, Lord Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary, among others) had a pervasive fear of violent revolution at home. At the same time, they feared Parliamentary reform and saw repression rather than reform as the best way of preserving the world as they knew it. While they feared revolution, they knew that revolutionary talk, violent actions, and rioting were an effective way to separate moderate radicals and reform-minded Whigs from their more extreme fellows and also to pave the way for repressive measures. As a character says in my WIP (set in early 1820) "And with every act of violence more sober bourgeois and nervous aristocrats decide that even modest reform is the first step to the guillotine." 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. My fellow Hoyden, Pam Rosenthal, wrote about this to wonderful effect in her book The Slightest Provocation.

This milieu forms the outer shell for the intrigues in Beneath a Silent Moon. Even though many of these details are not in the book, I was aware of them as I wrote. They touch on the world of the book most strongly when Charles returns to his family home, Dunmykel, in Scotland, and sees the effect his father's Clearances have had on the tenants and what his own absence may have meant. But I think they also show in things such as the instinctive fear engendered by a cloaked woman huddled the area railings in Grosvenor Square, in the political differences with the Foreign Secretary that have led Charles to leave the diplomatic corps, in the way echoes of the French Revolution linger over the story.

Authors, how do you deal with the tension between the more intimate canvas of your book and the wider context of the world in which the book is set? Readers, are you interested in the broader context in which a story is set?

[Sources: The Age of Elegance 1812-1822, Arthur Bryant; The Prince of Pleasure, J.B. Priestey; The Industrial Revolution: The Birth of the Modern Age, Peter Lane; The Lion in the North: A Personal View of Scotland's History, John Prebble; Scotland's Story: A New Perspective, Tom Steel.]

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Tracy. I'm having to deal with that problem right now with my historical YA. My characters are living in a bubble for the most part at college, but the wide world is still out there and I will have to deal with some aspects of it when my heroine goes home for the holidays, and has a mini-reality check. I personally love when authors deal with the world outside of Almack's and the parties of the ton, it adds a richness to the canvas of the story. One of the reasons why I wish there more novels set during the American Revolution.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I can't wait for this book! I've had to hold myself back from tracking down an old used copy . . .

I love books that are set against something larger than the characters themselves, but such books seem to be a hard sell in romance. Or that’s been my experience. All my ideas for books that deal with real, hard, nasty social or political issues get shot down. :( Maybe I should pitch them as historical fiction?

7:06 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the mention, Tracy. But the nod to The Slightest Provocation should be put in context:

Which is that I was emboldened to write a book about a contentious couple on opposite sides of the post-Waterloo political divide after I'd read the earlier version of Beneath a Silent Moon (and when I'd barely spoken to Tracy personally).

Nice when books as well as authors can talk to each other. Perhaps that's one of the ways less popular themes can gain currency.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I think it's particularly tricky to show the wider world when you're characters are living in a bubble--they aren't necessarily aware of the wider world, but you want the reader to be. I like stories set on a rich canvas too--and you're right, the American Revolution offers a lot of interesting possibilities.

Kalen, thank you for waiting for the new addition :-). When I wrote historical romances, I confess I had a lamentable tendency to lose focus on the central love story. Which is a large part of what had me recast my books as historical fiction/suspense. But I do think if an author is aware of the broader context of the world the book is set in, you can weave in bits of it without pulling focus too much. It's like knowing all the details of your characters back story but not necessarily putting them all in the book.

Thanks for the nice comments, Pam! It's very cool to be at all associated with a book I enjoyed as much as "The Slightest Provocation." And I too think it's so cool when books can talk to each other. I often think about the ways other authors have influenced my own writing. Another good blog topic...

9:53 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I adored the first version of this novel!

Naturally, your post touches on a subject close to my heart; because I write historical fiction (as opposed to historical romance), my novels like ALL FOR LOVE and TOO GREAT A LADY can't help but be set against the wider world, because it is precisely that wider world that my real-life characters inhabited and which made, and occasionally broke, them.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, thanks so much for the nice words about "Beneath a Silent Moon"! Btw, like "Secrets of a Lady," the "Beneath a Silent Moon" re-release has a new epilogue and and "A+" section of extras that are letters between the characters. Only instead of fleshing out the backstory, as I did with "Secrets," I used the letters to continue the story in the months after the novel ends.

I was thinking about you and your books when I wrote the post, becaus of course as you say historical fiction about real people has to paint a picture of the era and social forces that shaped that person. But then with fictional characters, it also true that the wider world would have influenced them. Even if details of that wider world aren't included in the book, I think understanding the context a character would have grown up in can add a lot of depth to a story. I know a lot about Charles, David, and Simon's political activities and debates when they were at Oxford. I don't deal with it much in "Beneath a Silent Moon," (it's actually more important in the book I'm writing now), but I think it colors the way the three of them interact. I only briefly deal with Simon growing up in revolutionary France, but it's very much a part of who he is.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It's so difficult to depict a character who's of his/her time and yet has some critical, revelatory relationship to it.

And of course, I meant it was the earlier version of Secrets of a Lady that emboldened me -- only I love love love the title Beneath a Silent Moon so I guess it got in the way of my thoughts). ;-}

2:03 PM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

I overall like a broader view as well (War and Peace is one of my favourite books ever), though I know there's a romance tradition since Austen that keeps those aspects out, and some of them are a fun read nevertheless.

As writer, I could not do without battles, so my books are not comedies of manner set in Rome (where a lot of people might ignore the Batavian rebellion, the revolt in Judaea, the Chatti crossing the Rhine into Roman territory again, and the constant troubles in Britain Agricola has to deal with) but taking place where the action is, in the Rhine forts, the marching camps in Britannia, on the battlefields, and in the tribal villages, because I like to show the other side as well. Though I probably miss some juicy scandals in Rome that way. ;)

2:50 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's another whole fascinating topic, Pam--how to write characters that are believable in a time period but may hold views that are ahead of their time, critical of their time, atypical, etc... A lot of my favorite characters, as both a reaer and a writer, are critics of the status quo to some degree.

I thought you might have meant "Secrets of a Lady"--which was originally "Daughter of the Game." Since "Beneath a Silent Moon" is a prequel of course it deals with a lot of the same characters. I love the title too (it was actually my agent who came up with it)--I'm glad they didn't change it for the re-release!

3:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Gabriele! Austen's books do take place on a fairly restrained canvas, but as a reader I find my appreciation of them is enriched by knowing more of the world in which they're set. And you're right, the type of story one tells is going to direct the focus of a book, whether it's toward battlefields or salons. But I always think it's interesting when bits of the world outside a book's focus touch on the story.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Tracy. I love a good romance set against a larger historical back-drop. I think facing down the harsh realities of life post-Waterloo must intensify the romance, gives the H and H something to unite against. I have to read your book!

7:16 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Kathrynn! I know as a reader I often feel that a wider backdrop can intensifies a love story. It's as though the romance stands out in relief against the details of the era.

10:29 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

What a wonderful and lucid description of post-Waterloo England!

In terms of bringing the wider world into our stories, I think it also depends on how you define the wider world. You can have an entirely insular set of characters who are still partaking, unthinkingly, of the results of greater world events. Even the goods they consume, the plays they watch, the clothes they wear reflect trends in the larger world outside their own little spheres. I've been particularly struck by this as I've been researching the relationship between England and India. Even those not directly aware or interested in the doings of the East India Company would be likely to see plays with Eastern themes, wear textiles made abroad and designed in Indian-influenced patterns, and, of course, drink tea.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Lauren, that's exactly what I was trying to get at. I think an awareness of the wider world influences as books in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it means describing that wider world in detail. But sometimes it's an awareness of how events in that wider world shape and influence our characters lives in ways they may not even be aware of. India and the popularity of Indian textiles and teas and Eastern-themed art is a wonderful example. When Manon jumps out at Charles and Mélanie outside the Glenister House ball, I don't go into a long explanation about Corn Laws and the national debt and the increasing gap between haves and have nots. But all that informs Charles and Mélanie's start of fear and particularly the reaction of the other ball guests who ask if they've been accosted.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Excellent points, Lauren. A reader may never know if the printed cotton the heroine is coming from India or (later on in the 19th century) Manchester, but as a writer, I love knowing it, and I do think it matters.

10:15 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

Fabulous post, Tracy! Another one for my research file. I love books in which those odd little idiosyncratic things of the day are dropped in to give it that verismo flavor. I think any truly human relationship has to be painted against the backdrop of what is going on in the wider world AND its effect on your hero and heroine. Of course that means we as writers have to be at the top of our game when it comes to researching not just the era, but the year, the month, the week our story takes place. Not to overwhelm the reader with facts, but to able to SEE the scene as it might have been and let the reader see it as well.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point, Pam. I think the author knowing details such as where the cotton comes from comes through in a wonderful added richness that shows in the book. Or course, I'm more inclined to say that because I love research :-).

11:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Doglady! In the effort to "see the scene as it might have been" I usually end up knowing a lot more about the specific scene and general context than actually ends up in the book. But going back to Pam's comment on the cotton, If you know the heroine's printed cotton dress would be from India in that time frame and your hero just happens to have just returned from India, the origin of the dress might play into the book somehow. On the other hand, if the fabric came from Manchester and the hero is a mill owner and the heroine is questioning him about the practices at his mill while at the same time wearing fabric from there, the dress might play a very different role.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Tracy, thanks so much for explaining post Waterloo England so well. My WIP is set in 1816 and it is always so helpful to read someone else's understanding of what is happening.

I'm coming late to this discussion but like to think that when I write I am always aware of what is going on in the larger world. That said, my characters are never as aware as I am -- unless they are directly involved in Parliamentary debate.

Hopefully the story reflect how what is happening in the world influences them, but the characters rarely understand it in a larger political context. Which is how I think most people live, even today with so much more access to information

In addition, I am always aware that I am writing romance -- which for me is about relationships. And doing it for over twenty years. I've learned the hard way to focus on the hero and heroine and how they find love.

Also, to be honest, I have never felt that I was sufficiently "in command" of the information to use it as a plot point.

I expect that I should do more research -- endless research --- and these darn deadlines get in the way.

Thanks for sharing your expertise -- I learn so much from it.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much, Mary! I worry frequently worry that I don't have enough command of various historical details :-)--I think that's a constant fear of the historical novelist, where there are so many details, of so many different types to keep track of.

Unless one's is writing about politicians or reformers or others very involved in the politics and events of the day, I think the author is definitely going to know more about the wider context than the characters. It will affect the characters in all sorts of ways they probably aren't even aware of, as with Lauren's example of the Indian tea or Pam's the printed cotton. And I totally agree that romance is about relationships. As I said in my reply to Kalen, the fact that I have a sad tendency to lose focus on the central relationship is a large part of what drove me to start writing historical suspense fiction. But as you say, even with a tight focus on the hero and heroine, the story can reflect how the world around them influences their lives.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:36 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

The canvas is of the utmost importance to me, period. Whether I'm writing historical romantic suspense or straight historical romance, I can never separate my plots from their socio-political background. I am completely incapable of sitting down to write a romance novel where the conflict solely stems from the characters themselves. *g*

Somehow, because my chosen time period (Edwardian) is full of such social upheaval, I find my protagonists and plots instinctively build themselves around certain points (e.g. a planned romance featuring an American heiress revolves around the rising socialist movement and my current WIP focuses on both the intrusion of peers in business and diplomatic tensions stemming from the arms race).

The way I see it; actual Edwardians dealt with those issues despite indulging in the Season, hunting, dinner parties, theatre and other leisure activities (as we do today), so why would it not play a role in at least the sub-conscious of my characters? IMO, it makes the setting deeper, richer, and makes the romance between the h/h actually mean something.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Your plots sounds fabulous, la belle americaine! I do think some eras and settings particularly lend themselves to using the socio-political background (for instance, a book set on the Peninsula during the Peninsular War or during the American Revolution or the French Revolution). And during any time of unrest and upheaval, I suspect the characters and plots we think of are particularly likely to involve the historical context (I think it also has a lot to do with the individual author and how that author's mind works--I'm also incapable of separating my plot from its socio-political background :-). And I totally agree--even in the midst of the Season or a round of house parties, characters may be thinking about and discussing the wider world (I write about politicians a lot, so in their set discussing political and social issues is quite natural, for both the men and the women). For other characters the awareness may be more subconscious as you say (the heroine could visit her uncle's estate and notice that a number of the tenants who were there when she was a child, whose children she played with perhaps, have left, without thinking about enclosures and industrialization). That's where the author often needs to know more than the characters so the author can filter details through the characters' subconscious.

11:06 AM  

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