The Truth in Historical Fantasy

Rowankind_cover 400My Rowankind trilogy: Winterwood, Silverwolf and Rowankind (all out now, published by DAW) is a fantasy set (mostly) in Britain in 1800, 1801 and 1802 respectively. It tells the story of Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne, cross dressing privateer captain and witch, and Corwen Deverell, wolf shapechanger, plus an assorted cast of characters from the barely reformed pirates who crew Ross’ ship The Heart of Oak, to the gentle rowankind, and the magical creatures of the Okewood, as they battle against the suppression of magics.

Here’s the cover copy for Rowankind…

What do you do with a feral wolf shapechanger who won’t face up to his responsibilities? How do you contain magical creatures accidentally loosed into Britain’s countryside? How do you convince a crew of barely-reformed pirates to go straight when there’s smuggling to be done? How do you find a lost notebook full of deadly spells while keeping out of the clutches of its former owner? How do you mediate between a mad king and the seven lords of the Fae?

Ross and Corwen, she a witch and he a shapechanger, have several problems to solve but they all add up to the same thing. How do you make Britain safe for magic users?

It’s 1802. A tenuous peace with France is making everyone jumpy. The Fae, and therefore Ross and Corwen at their behest, have unfinished business with Mad King George, who may not be as mad as everyone thinks–or if he is, he’s mad in a magical way. The Fae have left mankind alone up to now because they don’t care to get involved with mortals, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re harmless.

It’s a fantasy set firmly in our own history. There are real historical facts to ground the fantasy in reality. To my knowledge the Fae don’t exist and there are no gates to Iaru, their home, from anywhere in Britain, but my Rowankind series has a solid background in history.

Here’s what’s true.

Napoleon Bonaparte had been rampaging through Europe. Britain and France had been at war but in 1802 Henry Addington, who had recently taken over as First Minister from his friend and colleague, William Pitt the Younger, announced a peace. It didn’t last. Maybe no one expected it to, but it gave Britain (and France, too) a breathing space before hostilities recommenced in 1803.

The wheat harvest failed disastrously in 1800, leading to empty warehouses and the price of bread going up beyond what the poor could avoid, so yes, there were bread riots

GeorgeIIIKing George III was indeed mad, intermittently so at first, but his bouts of madness, which later led to the Regency, were not obvious in the period 1800 to 1802 (when my trilogy takes place). Scholars still argue over the exact cause of his affliction. Some say porphyria, others disagree, which gives me some wiggle room to say that His Majesty was adversely affected by his suppression of his own natural magic.

The Heart of Oak, Ross’ ship, is as real as I can make her. A two-masted tops’l schooner crafted from Bermuda teak, she’s an amalgamation of several existing vessels. The only thing ‘magical’ about her is that she has a sliver of magical winterwood spliced into her keel which means that Ross, seasick on every other vessel, can sail aboard the Heart without fear of illness.

HMSPicklereplicaShips. Some of the ships I mention are real ships, including the Guillaume Tell, captured from the French during the wars and brought into the Royal Navy Fleet. The Bermuda sloop, The HMS Pickle, a tops’l schooner like the Heart of Oak, under Captain John Richard Lapenotière, was a real Royal Navy ship, originally called Sting and renamed Pickle in 1801. A few years later she would have the task of carrying the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar home to Britain. The Royal Navy still holds ‘Pickle Nights’ in commemoration. The above photo is of a replica of the Pickle.

The Spanish Armada was thoroughly defeated by bad weather after the battle with English ships in the channel in 1588. Who’s to say that the storms were not magically created?

Sir Francis Walsingham was understood to be Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, so who else would she have trusted to make a magical problem disappear?

Harris_covent_garden_ladiesLondon, is as close as I can make it to the developing city of that time. I used (mainly) a very detailed map dated 1806 and researched a lot of Victorian photographs which showed old buildings obviously extant in 1800-1802. Georgian houses were being built to a plan that is still well known today with servants’ offices in the basement, elegant rooms upstairs, family bedrooms above those and cramped bedrooms for servants in the attics. Hansom cabs were a thing of the future, but Hackney coaches were common. You could buy anything from a steak dinner to a prostitute, and if you wanted the latter Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies gave you a list of who was available and what their specialities were.

Wapping old stairs - thenWapping Old Stairs are still there, as is the Town of Ramsgate public house. The stairs are tucked away down by the side of the Town of Ramsgate. When the tide is high, the foot of the stair is completely submerged, but at low tide you can step out on to the mud banks of the Thames.I have Victorian photographs as well as more modern ones.

Vauxhall Stair is the access from the Thames through to Vauxhall Gardens. There was a vinegar factory nearby which must have made the air very pungent.

The White Lion was an actual pub, close by Vauxhall Stair. It’s likely revellers heading for Vauxhall Gardens would have had to pass by on their way from the Thames.

Old London Bridge - Turner 1796

London Bridge – the old medieval one 1209 to 1831 had been cleared of all the bridge-top buildings by the time the Rowankind trilogy takes place. This is a painting by Turner from approximately 1796, so close enough for the Rowankind trilogy which starts in 1800. One of the arches had been widened to allow safer passage beneath the bridge, but the remaining arches were narrowed by the boat-shaped ‘starlings’, that protected the bridge piers. The pressure of water flowing through the starlings, especially on an outgoing tide caused turbulent through-ways and boats going under the arches were said to ‘shoot the bridge’. Cautious passengers alighted before the bridge and walked round to meet their intrepid boatmen on the other side.

Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens was largely as described with allowances made for the fact that I have used it out of season, with added hell hounds. The season was relatively short, given British weather, so it was closed up from autumn through to the following spring.

Frogmore, close by Windsor Castle, was the house King George III renovated and enlarged for his wife and unmarried daughters. At the time this story takes place, renovations would have been underway.

Barnsley in South Yorkshire, is as close as I can make it to the town of that period with its linen weaving and its wire drawing workshops. (Coal mininghad not yet become its major industry.) I used the closest maps I could find for the period, but I grew up there and the street layout in the centre of town in 1801 was remarkably close to the Barnsley I remember, before the town planners fatally messed it about in the early 1970s.

Cannon HallDenby House exists, or rather the pattern for it does. Cannon Hall, only a few miles friom where I live, was once a gentleman’s residence and is now a museum owned and run by Barnsley Council. You can go and see it (it’s free) and see the lake where Corwen’s brother Freddie acquired his fear of water. (There’s also a nice garden centre and café opposite the main car park where you can get excellent lunches or coffee and cake.)

Deverell’s Mill is an amalgamation of typical Yorkshire West Riding woollen and worsted mills of the day. In 1800/1802 the industrial revolution had started, but steam engines were still in their infancy and mills relied on water power. Some of the machinery developed for cotton spinning and weaving was being adapted for wool. Child labour was the norm and a mill owner, such as Old Mr. Deverell,  who would not employ children under ten, would have been considered benevolent.

Weymouth and sea dipping. George III used to prefer being dipped in the sea at either Weymouth or Bognor (while his son, the prince, used to prefer Brighthelmstone, later Brighton). To be dipped in the sea the king entered his wooden bathing machine (which was, indeed painted red, white and blue with a flagpole on the top). The machine was then wheeled to the water and the king emerged from door on the seaward side (possibly naked) to be ‘dipped’ by a pair of ‘dipping ladies’ experienced in the art of not letting their patients drown. The first time George III was dipped at Weymouth a band followed his bathing machine down the beach playing God Save the King and his dipping ladies had GSTK woven into their girdles. Dipping was all for the good of the king’s health, of course. Part of the ‘cure’ was also drinking seawater mixed with milk. Ugh! When sea bathing first became popular it was common for men to swim naked.

House of Commons 1808Parliament. This, of course, is the old Parliament building before the disastrous fire at Westminster that caused the rebuilding later in the century. I’ve used contemporary accounts to describe it, though I’ve taken a bit of a liberty by installing a proper public gallery, which did not exist. Ladies were not allowed to observe until 1837, hence the need for a little magic to make sure Ross and Lily see the important proceedings. The above engraving of the House of Commons is from 1808.

William Pitt the Younger was George III’s first minister, but resigned over the Irish question early in 1802 to be replaced by his colleague Henry Addington. Addington was largely concerned in securing a peace with France. Pitt became First Minister again in 1803.

Henry Addington’s tenure as First Minister was short. He did, indeed, live at the White Lodge in Richmond Park.

sutton pool mapHistorical Plymouth. Sutton Pool is still there today, a harbour (now full of pleasure boats) beneath the impressive walls of the Citadel, close to the Mayflower Steps. I had to work out what Vauxhall Quay might have been like in 1800, plus the ramshackle warehouses on the opposite side of the pool. I found some maps of the area in the correct time period, plus Victorian photographs which clearly showed houses from the Elizabethan and georgian eras. I used those to work out what Plymouth in 1800 would have looked like. The newly built Guildhall had recently replaced the old medieval one. The Ratcatchers Inn almost certainly did not exist, but it could have done because Southside (the street) definitely did. The market was marked on the map, but the street where Ross’ family home is situated is entirely fictional and situated right on the edge of the building line as it then was, close to Portland Square.

Ross Trenayne 4Fashion for men and women. Since neither Rossalinde nor Corwen are beloved of the ‘ton’ (society’s elite of the day) I can avoid high society balls and activities, and therefore not worry too much about everyone being dressed in the absolute pink of fashion. Both my main characters wear practical clothes, which may be a few years old, so a couple of years behind the trend. Hookey, when he becomes Captain of the Heart of Oak, favours a slightly out-of-date frock coat which he thinks makes him look more dashing. I found as lot of costume information on Pinterest and also visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Fashion Museum in Bath to see real garments up close. Ross would have scandalised polite society dressed in men’s clothing.

I disappeared down many google-rabbit-holes while researching all this and I now have more books on Georgian history than I really need – though – can you ever have too many books? My Pinterest pages carry a lot of photographs I used for reference, from costume to buildings geography. Feel free to take a look. https://www.pinterest.co.uk/birdsedge/

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About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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