WHAT ARE THE SHIRES?
The identification of the “Shires” has been debated, but we can say it means Leicestershire, tiny Rutland, and some nearby fringes of other counties which are mainly pasture land, and thus good for riding. But above all it means Leicestershire.
“It is a country not only of grass, but of wide pastures where there is room for a horse to extend himself between his fences, where the turf is old and sound, well drained, and seldom deep.” Foxhunting in the Shires, by T F Dale, available to read here.
Here's a photograph of typical Leicestershire countryside near Melton.
THE QUEEN OF THE SHIRES.
At the heart of Leicestershire is Melton Mowbray, a town central for the three major hunts — the Quorn, Belvoir(pronounced beaver) and Cottesmore. A hunt basically is the pack of hounds, but it also refers to a geographical area.
I did a some research in the Melton library, which has a copy of Melton Mowbray, queen of the shires, by Jack Brownlow,1980 by Sycamore Press, Wymondham, Leicestershire. Some of the information here comes from that book.
If you’ve read Regency romance for a while, you’ll be bound to have heard about Melton because it was the place to be for the top-of-the-trees young men of the period in the winter months. Travel to and from Melton was still arduous, especially in winter, so once there, the “Meltonians” as they were called, stayed. In fact, they lingered so long that society ladies would complain of the lack of eligible men at the beginning of the London season.
They lived in inns, rented rooms, or ideally had a hunting box. In theory a hunting box was a small, informal place, and some were mere cottages, but most were grander and some were mansions. Belvoir Castle, seat of the Duke of Rutland, could be considered a hunting box at times as people did stay there and ride to the hunts, or into Melton for a convivial evening.
A Meltonian would arrive in the town with a string of horses, both hunters and hacks, but once there he would buy and sell, always striving to own the best horses available. That buying and selling plays a significant part in Emily and the Dark Angel. (And also in the Rogues books, Forbidden, and Dangerous Joy.)
This is not a lady’s world, and those ladies normally residing in Melton found the influx of men annoying, for they certainly didn’t have marriage on their minds. However, Emily Grantwich can’t hide away. Because her father is crippled and her brother missing presumed dead in the army, she’s managing the family estate near Melton. She needs money, and selling her father’s hunters is one way to get some. To sell them at a high price, however, they need to be ridden in a hunt – something she can’t do.
A few women did hunt, but they were nearly all Cyprians, and it took great riding prowess unless they were willing to ride astride. The side-saddle of the period lacked the leaping horn added later, which gave a woman a more secure seat and made taking fences safer.This illustration is from this World of Jane Austen blog. Though drawn to show the folly of wearing a wig when riding, it also shows the flailing leg and lack of control.
Emily is a keen rider, but despite the role forced upon her, she’s a conventional woman who’d never dream of anything so scandalous as joining the hunt.
What Emily wants to do is hire a rough rider. Yes, that’s an English term of the period, applied to men who rode horses in the hunt in order to show them off to best advantage so they’d bring a high price. The best one around was Dick Christian. He charged 15 shillings a ride for his regulars, and a pound a ride for occasional work. He was such a good rider, that on a blank day – ie when no fox was found – he was paid to ride ahead to provide a good run. This image shows a hunt, and Dick Christian's Last Fall. I'm not sure what that means, for he died at 83.
Emily was dreaming high when she wished for Christian to ride her horses. However, Piers Verderan, the Dark Angel, has encountered Emily Grantwich, (you can read that scene, with a rake, a lady, and a Violet Tart by clicking here) and finds himself wanting to help her. His moment comes as he’s riding into Melton.
A SNIPPET — VERDERAN ENCOUNTERS DICK CHRISTIAN
“Good day to you, Christian. A handful?”
“You could say that, sir,” the young man said, laughing, ably discouraging his horse from nipping at Verderan’s mount. “But we’re coming to terms.”
“Busy this year?”
“Busier than ever, sir. Seems everyone wants me to ride. Give up, Fly-By-Night!” he said to his mount as the horse tried to circle. With voice and vicelike legs he held the horse steady. “ You’d think he’d be ripe for a rest,” he commented wryly. “We’ve just done a five-mile run. He’ll be afine one for a long day once he realises who’s master.”
“Whose is he?”
“Just a coper’s, sir. I’m riding a prime piece of blood later in the season for Lord Stourbridge, though. Might be to your taste.”
“I’m not looking for more horses at the moment.”
“Pity, sir. The Grantwich lot’s coming up. The old man’s bedridden and the son’s dead in the war they say. Sorry business, but there’s a couple of fine horses there. Sir Henry had an eye for them. Had word asking if I’d ride for them. I’d like to oblige, being such a sad case, but I’m booked for most of the season.”
“Word from Sir Henry?” asked Verderan, alert.
“No, sir,from the daughter. She runs things these days.”
It was a crazy impulse, but he didn’t fight it. “Do you have a couple of customers you don’t mind offending, Christian?”
The young man looked at him shrewdly. “A couple maybe.”
“A bonus of twenty guineas to take on the Grantwich horses. Just between the two of us.”
The young man’s eyes widened. “Twenty! You’re on, sir, and it’s a pleasure.”
Verderan saluted. “It’s my season for mad charities. I’ll send a draft to you. At the Blue Bell, as usual?”
“Aye, sir. And if you’ve any more such charities in mind, I’m your man.”
With a laugh, Verderan rode on.
MORE ABOUT MELTON
With so many rich and fashionable men in the town for months, it expanded rapidly. Like London, it had its clubs, There was a New Club in High Street, but the prime one, the one every man wanted to belong to, or even be invited to, was the Old Club in Burton Street.
Then and Now is a lovely site showing old and current pictures, and it has some of Burton Street, showing the Old Club. I've taken this image from there, but do visit to see how beautifully they show the changes. Click here.
Can't you just see the prime Meltonians standing in the bow windows, surveying lesser mortals?
ANOTHER SNIPPET. VERDERAN INVITES THREE YOUNG MEN TO DINE AT THE OLD CLUB — MUCH TO HIS SURPRISE.
“I too have inherited a place nearby,” Verderan said. “But for the moment I’m staying at the Old Club.”
He looked at their awed faces and found himself saying, “If you promise not to blow your noses on the tablecloth you may dine with me there tonight.”
Despite their attempt at sophistication, three faces flushed with colour and three pairs of eyes shone. “I say, that’s damned decent of you, Ver,” said Harry.
“ Yes, it is,” said Verderan brusquely. “Don’t make me regret it.”
The trio correctly took this as dismissal and made themselves scarce while Verderan wondered if it was a sign of senility, this tendency to be so disgustingly kind to people. More likely it was a lingering effect of the morning’s adventure. He was never coming within a mile of Poudre de Violettes again.
And what happens?
That evening, Verderan found the meal at the Old Club drawing to a close without any obvious disaster having taken place. Well trained by Eton and Christ Church, his three guests had the precise blend of ease and deference which made them invisible to the lions they ate with. They listened with flattering absorption to the hunting tales of the old hands and made just sufficient contribution to the conversation to avoid being apostrophised as nodcocks.
Verderan thought he could see them taking mental notes for their memoirs—or for tales for their grandchildren. “Did I ever tell you about the time I dined at the Old Club with Assheton-Smith . . .”
Golden memories of the evening had been assured the trio when it was found that Lord Robert Manners had ridden over from Belvoir Castle and brought with him the great man himself, the legendary Thomas Assheton-Smith, who had succeeded Hugo Meynell as Master of the Quorn.
(Lord Robert Manners was the son of the Duke of Rutland. Hugo Meynell and Tom Assheton-Smith were great men in the development of fox hunting in the Shires, along with Obaldeston, a less admirable character, as we see.)
Osbaldeston spoke up again. “So tell us, Verderan,” he drawled. “Why, pray, were you seen squiring an upper servant through town, covered with a fine dusting of flour?”
Verderan discovered that he didn’t want anyone, least of all Osbaldeston, poking around Miss Grantwich’s reputation.
“Good lord,” he replied nonchalantly. “How came you by that tale? I hardly thought any civilised person was about at that hour.”
The sharp little face, so like his quarry the fox, tightened at the slight. “You obviously were, Verderan.”
“But I have never claimed to be civilised, Osbaldeston,” replied Verderan, to a general chuckle. “And it was not flour but Poudre de Violettes.”
Violet had said the “Squire” was after her favours. From the sudden colour in his cheeks, for once she had not been lying.
Before Osbaldeston could respond, Chart Ashby exclaimed, “Violet Vane,” and then went red as he realized the knowledge his words implied.
“Can you afford her?” asked Verderan with interest.
“Hardly,” said Chart, recovering some of his carefully cultivated sangfroid. “I met her once and she asked for a gift of the stuff. I…I’d heard she was in town.”
“Did you give her any?” Verderan asked.
Chart coloured again as he said, “ Yes.”
“I wouldn’t expect too much return on the investment," Verderan said kindly. "She obviously only collects it to use as ammunition.”
(BTW, you can download a special Wench bookmark for this book here. Print it out on thick paper or card stock and enjoy.)
So in Emily and the Dark Angel I wove real people into my fictional inventions, perhaps more than in any other of my other Regencies. Melton and the Shires just such a rich ground, full of incidents and characters.
THE MELTONIAN DANDIES
There were probably more than I know about.
The Gambling Dandy. Major General the Honourable Henry Craven, 2nd son of Lord Craven.
The Red Dandy. Rufus Lloyd of County Tipperary, veteran of the Peninsular War. According to Queen of the Shires, he was crazy. (I gathered all this data before the web, and I've tried to find out more about these people. Nothing on this one.)
The Plebian Dandy. Henry Pierrepont, – son of Lord Manvers. Why plebian? No idea.
The Mosaic Dandy. John Mills of the Coldstream Guards. There’s a book, For King and Country: Letters and Diaries of John Mills, Coldstream Guards, 1811-14, and was also a famous amateur cricketer. Perhaps his many skills led to the word "mosaic."
Awareness of these Dandies led me to call Verderan’s uninvited guest, Kevin Renfrew, the Daffodil Dandy, because he always dresses in yellow.
Another Meltonian was the famous Captain Barclay, the athlete and strong man who for a wager walked 1,000 miles, but he did it by walking one mile in each of 1,000 successive hours — a mile an hour, every hour, for forty-two days and nights. There's more about him here.
DID ORDINARY FOLK HUNT?
Despite the costs, hunting wasn’t an entirely aristocratic sport. The custom was that anyone with a horse could follow the hunt, and some odd characters did. There was a chimney sweep who hunted in his working clothes, complete with black top hat and brush, and a group of weavers regularly followed the hunt. Because the hunts needed the good will of the farmers, they were not expected to subscribe to a hunt and were encouraged to take part. A group of Leicestershire graziers followed the Quorn and were called the Bluecoats.
NOW FOR QUESTIONS AND PRIZES!
When Emily and the Dark Angel first came out, I heard no unease about fox hunting, and it won a RITA, (that's a RITA) so it didn't offend any judges, but this time around I’ve heard some murmurs. Does foxhunting bother you as a major element in a Regency? Are you bothered by angling, or men going out with guns to shoot birds or rabbits?
I’ve never hunted, but why, I ask, should brothels and gaming hells be okay in period romance, and fox hunting not? Are we rational about what we object to about the past?
Regency England was another world, with different sensibilities from the 21st century. How far should authors adapt the world to suit modern tastes? We can simply ignore some things – I firmly ignore dentistry! – but some things are so central that pretending they’re not there is to create a fantasy version of the period.
But then, I did once name the Regency of Regency romance “Prinnyworld.”
I’ll pick three winners from among the most interesting comments. If you're one, you can have your pick of the reissued Classic Regencies as listed here.
Talley-ho! as they used to call when the hounds caught scent of a fox.