In Search of a Village (with loving thanks for the help)
It started about two and a half years ago, when my husband Michael mentioned he might want to cut back on his work as a bookseller, but wasn't sure how he'd fill the extra time.
"Oh really?" I said in what I hoped was a casual tone of voice, "Well, do you think you could look up the answers to a few questions I have about... uh... Whigs and Tories?"
After which, I figured, we could move on to Lords and Commons, elections and property, boroughs that were rotten or merely kind of ripe, parliamentary reform movements, Luddism, the radical press... and all the rest of the stuff that was beginning to drive me bats.
The truth was that research-wise I'd gotten way out of my depth, by asking some very ambitious questions about a historical England I didn't understand very well. Imagine trying to decipher the New York Times' op-ed page, if you'd never taken basic high school American history and civics.
I knew I wanted to write a spy story, but not one about aristocratic guys protecting the Crown. Nor (though I greatly admire Nita Abrams' Couriers series) did I want to write one about going behind Napoleon's communication lines.
I wanted something grittier, late-breaking news that my contentious hero and heroine would have to struggle to make sense of even while they were trying to make sense of their own relationship.
And I was also mulling over this provocative bit from Benita Eisler's Byron biography:
Starting in 1793, when the Girondist government declared war on England, patriotism was invoked to justify further curtailing of individual freedoms. The political reality that permitted the Regency to waltz on unafraid was that England had become a police state.
Police state? Our cherished, charming, civilized Regency? And how could I possibly judge, when I was still on such shaky ground when it came to the basics of Whigs and Tories, Lords and Commons? Perhaps, I thought, I should ignore all that political stuff.
But I like a challenge, and luckily I'm married to a guy who does too. And anyway, aren't love stories always in some way about liberty and autonomy (if not always about sleuthing and research)?
Michael did cut back to parttime at the bookstore. And he turned his bookseller's instinct for what's new and interesting into a researcher's passion for facts, details, and analysis that makes sense of it all. Together, we began to piece together the puzzle of post-Waterloo conflicts over political liberty and to draw our own conclusions.
Eisler's "police state" is too harsh a judgment. When all's said and done, Regency England had some of the most advanced democratic institutions in Europe -- including a wildly lively press that I envy them for. But that's not to say that there weren't some pretty dicey things going on -- threatening individual liberties and even (to take an issue that's been in our newspapers lately) habeas corpus.
For the backdrop of The Slightest Provocation, I finally chose a true story of government-sponsored espionage and provocateuring, the case of a man who became known as Oliver the Spy, and an event called the Pentrich Rising that took place in 1817 in the southeast corner of Derbyshire.
My hero and heroine, Mary and Kit, uncover the real-life Oliver scandal through its affects on my made-up village of Grefford, which I located not too far from the real town of Pentrich. Michael and I followed the story to Derbyshire in search of the sights and sounds, the feel and the smell of Grefford.
And as Doreen said in her post a few weeks back, there's nothing like being there. Tramping through fields and forests, following the routes the mail coaches would have taken, wandering through old churches and venerable stately homes. There's something magical about gathering threads of historical actuality to spin into a dream fabric of historical romance.
And next post, I promise that I'll get to the fun of that research trip. But meanwhile, here are some of my most important sources (most of which Michael found for me), about tradition and change, power and protest, during the post-Waterloo Regency:
English Country Life 1780-1830, by E. W. Bovill (I got this one from the Beaumonde website)
Waterloo to Peterloo, by R. J. White
Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England: Being an Account of the Luddite and Other Disorders in England During the Years 1811-1817 and of the Attitude and Activity of the Authorities, by Frank Ongley Darvall
Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1790-1988, by Bernard Porter
England's Last Revolution: Pentrich 1817, by John Stevens
None of these books are currently in print in the U.S. We got used copies of the first four at ABEBooks.com. As for England’s Last Revolution -- our graduate student son was able to get his hands on the single copy rattling around in the university inter-library loan system.
And here's a terrific online source for Oliver the Spy (and if you follow out its sublinks, to a wealth of related information.
With all my love and thanks to Michael,