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?