Category Archives: The Regency

The Historical Tourist visits Walmer Castle

Between 1539 and 1543, King Henry VIII, who feared an invasion after divorcing his Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon and splitting from the Catholic church, constructed a chain of defensive castles. Built to a common design, the three artillery forts created to protect a stretch of beach along the Kent coast consisted of a central circular keep with lower semi-circular bastions that were arranged symmetrically around the keep to allow several tiers of guns to be mounted. Although one of the three, Sandown Castle, was almost entirely destroyed in the nineteenth century, Deal, the largest of the three, and Walmer survive.

Walmer Castle is often overshadowed by the better known Dover Castle, six miles away, but the Historical Tourist chose to visit Walmer because of its unique history. Although the castle was occupied by Royalists and put under siege by Parliamentarians following the execution of Charles I in 1648, its design had become old-fashioned by the end of the seventeenth century and Walmer Castle began to be used as the official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1708. Holders of the post are usually appointed for life, but it is not a hereditary title. The office continues to be “seen as a high honour to be conferred on those who have given especially distinguished service to the State”, so it is not surprising that previous Lords Warden include the Duke of Wellington, Viscount Palmerston, Sir Winston Churchill, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The Historical Tourist has to admit that while she certainly respects this illustrious company, her interest in Walmer Castle is primarily due to another Lord Warden, the Rt Hon. William Pitt, who was born 252 years ago today! The son of the Earl of Chatham, Pitt the Younger became the youngest man ever to become Prime Minister when he took office in 1783 at age 24. Remembered for his gift at managing the nation’s finances and for his eloquence in the House of Commons, Pitt is also one of the longest serving Prime Ministers, in office from 1783-1801, and again from 1804 until his death in 1806.

View from Walmer Castle

In a note following his well-written and extremely readable biography of the late Prime Minister, author William Hague wrote that he “felt closest to [Pitt], perhaps, in Walmer Castle, where the panelled landing and the dining room are not dissimilar from how they would have been in his time, and it is possible to imagine him sitting at the head of the table, entertaining military visitors, humouring Lady Stanhope, and going out onto the wide terrace to look for signs of activity at sea” (p 17 *). With such an endorsement, I couldn’t help passing over Deal and even Dover for the official residence of the Warden of the Cinque Ports!

Although the Willingdon room, near the entrance of the castle, contains objects associated with Pitt the Younger, including a mahogany desk and a campaign chair, named because its metal frame meant that it could be taken apart for traveling, Walmer Castle’s most interesting displays are the rooms associated with the Duke of Wellington. Wellington was a frequent visitor who called the castle the “most charming marine residence”. The proximity of Walmer Castle to the port of Dover made it ideal for entertaining foreign royalty, but it was also enjoyed by the British Royal family. Victoria visited the castle at age sixteen and returned seven years later, as Queen, with Albert and two of their children. They stayed for a month.

Today Walmer Castle is home to the Lucas Collection of Wellington Memorabilia, which was donated to the property in 1966. The collection contains portraits and busts, but I was more impressed by the other objects featuring the Duke’s likeness, which included pot lids, paperweights, and even a doorstop!

The smaller Wellington Museum room contains a number of objects associated with the Duke’s Wardenship, including a pair of his famous Wellington boots and the instructions written to the shoemaker about their design. More on the history of Wellington boots can be found in an earlier entry here. The collection also contains a death mask of the Duke, who died at Walmer Castle on September 14th, 1852 at age 83.

Successive Wardens usually bought furniture from their predecessor’s estate, but Lord Palmerston refused to do so and the late Duke’s items were moved to his Apsley House residence so they were not dispersed. After W.H. Smith became Warden in 1891, he initiated the Indenture of Heirlooms by an Act of Parliament so that historic items would remain at Walmer Castle. As a result, when Lady Reading, in the 1930s, attempted to restore Wellington’s bedroom to the way it had been at the time of his death, the original contents of the room were returned to the castle by the fourth Duke of Wellington. Wellington’s bedroom, which is decorated with period appropriate wallpaper, now holds his campaign bed and the armchair in which he died.

My favourite resident is remembered in the Pitt Museum room across the hall. Pitt became the first commoner appointed to the post in 1792. Deeply in debt, he accepted the position because it came with an annual salary of three thousand pounds, and when his finances forced him to give up his country house he moved to Walmer permanently in 1803. The Pitt Museum is smaller than the displays on Wellington, but I enjoyed viewing the Gainsborough-Dupont portrait, political cartoons, and letter written by Pitt that adorn the walls and the leather covered gaming chair and writing desk that likely belonged to him.

Walmer corridor

During his Wardenship, Pitt created the corridor that runs the full length of the castle, which was painted a vivid teal by the succeeding Granvilles, and added the room later used by the Duke of Wellington as a bedroom to the castle as a winter apartment because it was the warmest part of the castle. He also made important contributions to the castle’s gardens with the help of his niece and hostess Lady Hester Stanhope.

The Dining Room at Walmer Castle

Other rooms at Walmer Castle include the royal bedroom suite used by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert during their month long visit in 1842, the 1920s/30s style drawing room, and the dining room mentioned in William Hague’s biography. The dining room continues to be set with a blue minton service that was used by the Queen Mother, Walmer Castle’s first female Warden, and the grounds contain a garden that was commissioned by English Heritage as a ninety-fifth birthday gift.

Queen Mother's Garden at Walmer Castle

* William Hague. William Pitt the Younger. London: Harper Perennial, 2005.

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Vienna, 1814

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King. Crown Publishing Group, 2009.

One of the most famous images of the Congress of Vienna is Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s enduring portrait of the representatives, including the Duke of Wellington and Austrian Prince Metternich, gathered around a table. It isn’t hard to imagine them working diligently on a territorial dispute, but as David King explains in his non-fiction work Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, the biggest misconception about the event is that it was a Congress at all! Although many European delegates arrived for the Congress, it never sat as one. In fact, most of the business was discussed in private informal sessions between the Big Four (Austria, Russia, Britain, and Prussia) and France, or during decadent feasts and balls. One attendee, Prince de Ligne, who was known for his wit, famously commented “Le Congres danse, mais ne marche pas” (The Congress dances, but does not progress).

King’s book not only details the lavish feasts and balls, it also examines the romantic affairs that took place during the nine month Congress and looks at intelligence gathering in 1814. I was especially captivated by the description of Prince Metternich’s network of spies, who frequented salons (drawing rooms where the intellectual, political, and social elite gathered to converse) and intercepted letters, reading, copying, and re-sealing them, before delegates began to catch on and took measures to prevent intelligence from falling into Austrian hands.

King spends most of the book detailing the frivolity and excesses of the Congress but, despite its imperfections, ultimately concludes that the Congress of Vienna did have a positive and lasting impact on European history. The peace treaty signed on June 9, 1815 resulted in what Henry Kissinger called the longest period of peace Europe has ever known. It was also “the first international peace conference to discuss humanitarian issues” and resulted in a condemnation of the slave trade, and discussions on literary piracy and the civil rights of Jews.

Purely by chance, I began reading Vienna, 1814 during the preparations for the G20 summit in Toronto, and couldn’t help considering similarities between the two events, both of which were paid for by the hosting country and seemed to involve unnecessary excesses. Fortunately, the G20 didn’t last nine months, although it also seems to have accomplished a great deal less than the Congress of Vienna did.

History has provided a dynamic set of characters in the handsome Russian Tsar Alexander, French delegate Talleyrand, who had helped Napoleon gain power but resigned in 1807 because he did “not wish to become the executioner of Europe”, and Metternich, who likely arranged the marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. With such strong personalities involved, it is no wonder that bickering over who entered a room first gave rise to the myth that Metternich had cut extra doors into his office so representatives could enter at the same time!

The personalities are there but it is King who brings them to life as characters by describing their physical presences as well as their temperaments and quirks. Instead of simply stating what historical figures discussed, King uses letters and other sources to extrapolate conversations between characters. The result is a researched work of non-fiction, complete with endnotes, that reads like a novel. I found the book to be so engaging with its balance of nineteenth century gossip and politics that I’m surprised there isn’t a film, or at least a documentary, based on the book!

The one area where the author fell a little short was in his examination of the long and short term consequences of the Congress of Vienna. He does note that it created a lasting peace using a system where leaders met periodically to work out their differences, through what diplomatic historian Charles Webster called the first ever attempt “to regulate international affairs during a time of peace”, but I felt that the book would be better served by a more detailed look at the consequences of the Congress. This was my only criticism of an otherwise informative and fast-paced read though.

Verdict: A great popular history book that will inform and entertain with its balance of gossip and history.

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Sunday Spotlight: The Duel for Europe 1800-1830

‘The Duel for Europe 1800-1830’ is an exhibition created by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Although there is a physical exhibit, which contains artifacts such as an 1811 pistol, made by a leading London gunmaker, and the Treaties of Vienna and Paris, it is also, much to the delight of this history enthusiast who lives in Canada, an online exhibition.

‘The Duel for Europe 1800-1830’ “highlights one of the most important periods in the history of the Foreign Office, when it helped to end the devastation of war and begin one of Europe’s longest periods of peace.” The exhibition, made up of images and explanatory text, begins with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that consumed Britain, and the need for a new system to bring peace. Further pages summarize the 1809 duel between the Foreign Secretary, George Canning, and the Secretary for War, Lord Castlereagh, which I have previously discussed on this blog, and their different approaches to foreign policy.

Discussing the idea behind the exhibit, Chief Historian Patrick Salmon explains, “we thought of it as a literal duel, obviously, but also as a metaphorical duel; a duel between Britain and Napoleon for the future of Europe, and a duel between two alternative views of foreign policy”, referring to Canning and Castlereagh. Both men served as Foreign Secretary, but while Castlereagh worked through persuasion in one-on-one meetings and favoured a policy of international agreement, Canning preferred to use public oratory and was viewed as an isolationist.

I was surprised to learn that the Foreign Office regularly employs historians, such as Chief Historian Patrick Salmon. Aside from providing briefing support on historical issues, the historians’ roles include publishing the Official Record of British Foreign Policy since World War II, with an emphasis on documents from the last thirty years that have not yet gone to the National Archives.

‘The Duel for Europe 1800-1830’ is the first exhibition by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, but Salmon hopes that this will be the beginning of several exhibits. I hope so too.

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The amazing race… to the altar!

History is full of royal mistresses and marriages based on political alliances rather than love, but the union of King George III and Charlotte was a rare case of an arranged marriage that was both successful and happy. George met his bride for the first time on their wedding day but he never took a mistress and the couple had 15 children. With seven sons and six daughters surviving to adulthood the succession seemed ensured.

But at 32 their eldest son George, Prince of Wales, was still not suitably married and his extravagant lifestyle had put him deeply in debt. His father refused to lend him money but Parliament offered an increased salary as well as repayment of all his debts if would marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, so the Prince reluctantly agreed. The marriage was a disaster. It was consummated only once (with him drunk) and the couple formally separated after the birth of a baby girl, Charlotte.

With her parents constantly at war, it’s not surprising that Charlotte had an unhappy childhood. She had a strict upbringing and came to believe that the only solution to her problems was marriage. Charlotte wasn’t in love with Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, nor he with her, but he set out to win her love and Charlotte fell for the handsome Leopold. On May 2, 1816 Leopold married the heiress to the British throne. Later he would train his nephew Albert to win the heart of another English Princess… Victoria.

Charlotte had miscarried twice in the early months of their marriage before she became pregnant again. In November she delivered a stillborn son. At first Charlotte seemed to be recovering from the long labour but later she began to have difficulty breathing and passed away, likely of an internal hemorrhage. The devastated Leopold wrote ‘Two generations gone – gone in a moment!’

The double tragedy also left open the question of who would inherit the throne. George III had many surviving sons, all of whom were in their forties or fifties, but none had produced legitimate offspring under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The Act said that:

“no descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council… and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”

It went on to add that if the descendant wished to marry someone the King disapproved of, they could apply to Parliament for permission and then wait twelve months before doing so. Despite the restrictions of the Royal Marriages Act, there was a large incentive to marry within its limits – married Princes would receive an extra income from Parliament!

When Charlotte died in 1818, George III’s insanity had taken hold and he was in seclusion at Windsor Castle while The Prince of Wales ruled as Prince Regent. After the 55 year-old Prince George the succession went as follows: Frederick (age 54), William (52), Edward (50), Ernest (46), Augustus (44) and Adolphus (43). All seven sons were supported by Parliament and had been called “the damnedest millstones around the necks of any government that can be imagined” by the Duke of Wellington. Of the seven, only George, Augustus, and Frederick were already married and none with legitimate offspring so the race to the altar began…

William already had 10 children with his mistress Dorothy Jordan but married the German Princess Adelaide. Their union was by all accounts a happy one, but it produced only one child who lived more than a few days.

Ernest married Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and, two weeks after Charlotte’s death, Adolphus married Augusta of Hesse-Kassel. Edward married a widower, the Princess of Leningen, who had originally refused him because she was happier as a widow and already had two children. After the double tragedy Edward proposed to her again, this time through her brother Leopold, and was accepted.

In March 1819 William and Adelaide bore a daughter who died within hours of her birth, but the seventh brother Adolphus produced a son named George.

In May, the fifth brother, Ernest, became a father. His son was also named George.

But on May 24th, Edward, Duke of Kent, and his wife delivered a daughter. As the child of the fourth brother, little Princess Victoria became the heir presumptive to the British throne.

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A dish best served cold

George Canning


Standard dueling procedure was to send a friend with a note asking for satisfaction shortly after an insult occurred. In 1798, Prime Minister William Pitt had accused opposition Member of Parliament George Tierney of harboring a desire to ‘obstruct the defense of the country’ and was challenged the next day, yet Lord Castlereagh waited a full nine days before demanding satisfaction from George Canning.

In those nine days Castlereagh learned nothing new, but his resentment grew after he was shown the months worth of correspondence that took place behind his back. Letters revealed that all of his colleagues had agreed that he should be removed from office as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies and, in a more damaging blow to his pride, that they had thought him incapable but continued to act as though he had their full confidence while making important decisions regarding the war with France. Although Canning was not the only man involved in the deception, and not the most deserving of blame, the Duke of Portland was elderly and had suffered a stroke in August, and Castlereagh’s uncle Lord Camden’s selective retelling of events had made Canning the target of his wounded pride.

As he had guessed back in July, Canning took the blame, which came in the form of an unusually worded challenge. Challenges were usually notes that asked for an explanation of the perceived insult and demanded satisfaction, but Castlereagh’s long note reads more like a compilation of grievances. “You continued to sit in the same cabinet with me,” he writes, “and to leave me, not only in the persuasion that I possessed your Confidence and Support as a Colleague, but… to originate and proceed in the Execution of a new Enterprize [referring to the failed Walcheren Expedition] of the most arduous and important nature with your apparent concurrence and ostensible approbation.”

Although the challenge addressed the dishonourable conduct in detail, what it didn’t do was give Canning a chance to respond to the allegations levelled against him. In fact, fellow Member of Parliament William Wilberforce later called it ‘a cold-blooded measure of deliberate revenge’, although he strongly disapproved of dueling in general. Canning sent his reply to the challenge the next day:

My Lord, The Tone and the Purport of your Lordship’s letter (which I have this moment recieved) of course preclude any other answer, on my part, to the Misapprehensions and misrepresentations with which it abounds, than that I will cheerfully give to your Lordship, the Satisfaction which you desire.

The duel was set for the morning of September 21st, 1809 at Putney Heath.
Although duels were slowly becoming less murderous, there were still fatalities and participants used the night before the duel to put their affairs in order. Canning wrote a letter to his wife Joan that reads as a farewell… and for good reason. Lord Castlereagh was known as a good shot while Canning had never fired a pistol in his life. Reflecting on the events leading up to the challenge, he wrote that,

“The poor old Duke’s procrastination and Lord Camden’s malice or mismanagement have led [to these] circumstances. If anything happens to me, dearest love, be comforted with the assurance that I could not do otherwise than I have done… I hope that I have made you happy; and if I leave you a happy mother and a proud widow, I am content. Adieu, Adieu.”

The next morning Canning and Castlereagh’s seconds, whose job was to ensure fairplay and attempt to defuse the situation, decided on a distance of twelve paces (one of the longer distances between participants) and that both would shoot at the same moment. Both statesmen missed their first shot and Castlereagh’s second Yarmouth commented that it was a pity Canning hadn’t fired into the air because his friend would be unable to demand a second shot honourably under those circumstances. Instead, the seconds agreed that a second shot would be the last regardless of the result. Canning’s second shot also missed, but Castlereagh’s hit his opponent in the thigh. Agreeing that honour had been satisfied, Canning was helped off the field.

Undoubtedly the wound put him out of commission while he recovered, but Canning had been fortunate that the bullet missed all major arteries, only passing through ‘the fleshy part of the thigh’. He wrote a reassuring letter to his aunts later that day:

Pray, young women, had either of you ever a Ball pass through the fleshy part of your thigh? If not you can hardly conceive of how slight a matter it is…if you have a mind to try the experiment, I would recommend Lord Castlereagh as the operator. For here I am just as well as if I had not undergone the operation two hours ago – without pain, without fever, and with only two little holes which I daresay you could see through… upon my word of honour there is not the slightest danger, pain, or inconvenience in my wound.

Although both statesmen had survived the duel, they were now faced with navigating the murky waters of public opinion…

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His ears must have been burning…

We’ve all had times when we worry, usually unnecessarily, that someone is talking behind our backs. But one man who should have worried more is Lord Castlereagh.

By 1809, Foreign Secretary George Canning had become disillusioned with the government, writing that “the government as at present constituted, does not appear to me equal to the great task which it has to perform.” Led by the Duke of Portland as Prime Minister and Spencer Perceval as Leader of the House of Commons, the government had already mishandled the ‘Duke and the Darling’ scandal involving Frederick, Duke of York, and his mistress Mary Anne Clarkes’ trafficking of army commissions.

Increasingly frustrated at being part of a government he believed to be ineffective, Canning pressed for reform. In April he threatened to tender his resignation unless changes were made, namely the removal of Lord Castlereagh from his position as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Castlereagh had been ill for months and Canning thought that he was mismanaging the War Office, but a change would also benefit the ambitious Canning on a personal level. He suggested that Lord Wellesley, a supporter of his, replace Castlereagh. The Prime Minister was elderly and he had never been a firm man. Unwilling to lose Canning, he agreed to remove Castlereagh from the War Office, as did Castlereagh’s Uncle and fellow statesman Lord Camden.

The Prime Minister, Castlereagh’s Uncle, and fellow minister in the Foreign Office George Canning, had all decided that Castlereagh would be replaced. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell him this!

First the Duke of Portland assured Canning that he was asking Castlereagh to accept another office (the Government of India), but he put off telling Spencer Perceval (The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader in the House of Commons), who explained that no changes could be made to the cabinet because a plan had just been approved that Castlereagh would have to see through.

Meanwhile, Lord Camden had assured everyone that his nephew had agreed to the proposed change, when poor Castlereagh was, in fact, completely unaware. Canning learned of the deception himself in mid-July, wisely guessing that in the end he would be blamed for it.

A few months passed in which nothing was done before Canning attempted to resign. Not only did King George III refuse to accept it, he also forbid the Duke of Portland from saying anything about the planned change of office to Castlereagh. The Duke of Portland was further silenced by a stroke in August.

So the all-important plan that Castlereagh had to see through went ahead. The campaign, an expedition to the Netherlands in hopes of assisting the Austrian Empire against the French, was a disaster. British troops seized a swampy island called Walcheren, but they began to suffer from Malaria. In early September the expedition was called off, but not before 4000 men had died, only 106 of them in combat. The failed campaign cost the government eight million pounds.

With the Prime Minister’s health precarious, the ambitious Canning thought he would be asked to form a government next, but he was passed over for office in favour of Spencer Perceval. This time Canning did resign, remaining Foreign Secretary only until a successor could be appointed, but he didn’t attend a cabinet meeting on September 9th. Noting the absence, Lord Castlereagh asked his Uncle why Canning wasn’t there and Lord Camden finally told him (likely leaving out the whole part where he assured the cabinet that his nephew knew about and approved of the plan), about the maneuvers that had been taking place behind his back for the last five months.

Nine days later Lord Castlereagh challenged George Canning to a duel.


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YotH: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.

This is my January entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.

On her blog Grammar Tales, the Grammarian has a series of posts titled ‘Great Beginnings’, in which she discusses memorable beginnings of novels. The first page of a novel should be the hook that reels you in, and few do that better than Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Set in an alternate Regency England, the novel begins as follows:

“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say that they had never harmed anyone by magic – nor done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.”

Although Clarke’s world is populated by gentlemen who study magic, it has seemingly not been practiced for centuries until the reclusive Mr. Norrell reveals that he can perform magic and has been doing so for years. Much to the dismay of Mr. Norrell, he is not the only magician remaining in England. The younger, more charming, Jonathan Strange becomes his pupil and the novel cleverly examines the relationship between these very different men, England’s only practicing magicians, as well as the limitations and consequences of using magic which affect them both.

If I hadn’t already been hooked from the beginning, this ardent admirer of English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger certainly would have been won over by a scene in which prominent politicians of the day (such as George Canning) suggest that the way to win the war against France is to resurrect the late Mr. Pitt, although they quickly think better of it.

“Then the ministers thought how Mr. Pitt had been dead for almost two years, and that, devoted as they had been to Pitt in his life, they really had very little desire to see him in his present condition.” (p. 125).

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an interesting read even for someone with no interest in history, but the rich detail adds to the novel for those who are. Clarke has done her research and includes historical figures of the day, from politicians to the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron, as minor characters. She also ties in historical events and works from history, suggesting that Lord Byron’s supernaturally-themed poem Manfred was inspired by Jonathan Strange, and mentioning in a footnote the famous duel between Secretary of War Lord Castlereagh and Foreign Secretary George Canning that occurred in 1809. These facts help ground her alternate England in reality.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not only an intelligent and witty tale of magic, it’s an intelligent and witty historical tale of magic and the setting is a part of the story with dinner parties and mentions of social class and status that are appropriate for the times. Although the presence of magic and fairies could easily make this into a work of pure fantasy, it is grounded by intelligent discussions. For example, when the British government realizes that they have a magician employed in the war against France, there is an argument over how best to put his talents to practical use. Clarke also uses footnotes to create an invented history of English magic that gives her world depth.

At over 1000 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a long read and the pace is sometimes slower than it should be, but the novel is well-written with flawed yet intriguing characters, historical depth, and imaginative scenes of magic. It’s also completely and utterly unique, blending elements of many genres and drawing on works from Austen to the modern fantasy of Phillip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien. This is one work of historical fiction that I will re-read again and again.

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