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Gaelen Foley Reveals Regency England


An Aristocratic Gang Leader Takes on the Big Boys of Parliament in LADY OF DESIRE.

Beyond the glittering ballroom at Almack's and the elegant drawing rooms of polite society, Regency London following the glorious victory of Waterloo was a cauldron of change and social unrest. For many, it also was a world of poverty and desperation. The celebrations marking the end of England's draining war against Napoleon had barely died down when the social ills that had long festered began to emerge in British society.

At Brighton Pavilion, the Prince Regent gave a feast with 36 different entrées, but when he went to Parliament in January 1817, a hostile crowd booed his carriage and threw stones . While I love a wonderful, aristocratic "ballroom" scene, I find it adds scope and substance to my stories to explore the larger historical world my characters inhabit.

This is where the hero of LADY OF DESIRE comes in. I wanted to create a hero highborn enough to contribute to the need for change, but also with firsthand experience of poor people's desperation. So, I created Billy Blade, the swashbuckling leader of a London gang. The second son of a titled drunkard, Billy runs away from his aristocratic home. Making his way to London, he falls in with a gang of thieves, who soon become his new family. The only one who is educated, Billy turns streetwise and, eventually, becomes the gang's leader—part Robin Hood, part Don Corleone. His attitude toward the poor is one of benevolence; to the aristocracy, however, he feels resentment. He happily steals from the rich and gives to the poor. It's his way of getting even with his father.

Historically, the war against Napoleon had left Britain with a huge national debt. A few bad harvests had further strained the economy. The population was exploding, rising 15 percent in a mere decade. Out of the 12 million people in England in 1815, research suggests that less than a quarter lived above the poverty line. With too many people and too little food, the specter of starvation seemed all too real. But the land-owning classes who controlled Parliament sought to protect themselves rather than to ease the plight of the lower classes.

The Corn Laws imposed a high tax on otherwise cheap foreign grains, so that English farmers (i.e. the wealthy landowners) would not lose business. Other important goods were highly taxed too—tea, candles, paper, soap, sugar, beer. Yet while the cost of living rose, jobs became harder to find.

The returning veterans of the Napoleonic wars flooded the job market, only to discover that many businesses were closing down or bringing in newly invented machines to replace the men. Other firms stayed profitable by hiring children, who could be paid only a fraction of a man's salary.

The situation was bleak. The anger and despair of the common people terrified the government, which responded with harsh measures. The mildest was a high tax on newspapers, to keep what they viewed as dangerous propaganda away from the masses. Far more sinister tactics were used as well: Anyone under suspicion could be thrown in jail and kept there. Magistrates could imprison any person they thought might do something to disrupt public order.

Perhaps most shocking of all was Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth's strategy for dealing with fiery radicals. Not only did he send spies to infiltrate these small knots, when otherwise peaceful demonstrations were held, he sent provocateurs to disrupt them. They would give out alcohol and try to work the crowd into a dangerous mood. Goaded into a violent display, the demonstrators instantly alienated anyone in Parliament who might have been sympathetic to their cause.

Billy's gang, too, runs afoul of the law. When they're arrested, Billy realizes that to save his friends from death he must return to his family and get his father to use his influence on their behalf. His brother now dead, Billy is the only heir. His father agrees, and Billy takes his rightful place as William Spencer Albright, the Earl of Rackford.

Thanks to the elegant and always saucy Lady Jacinda Knight, Lord Rackford realizes he is in a position to do something about the injustice he's seen. He works for reform—in his spare time, that is. He also tries to win Jacinda's heart. Like I said, I'm a sucker for those glittering ballroom scenes!

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