Already being in possession of a husband and a good fortune, and what with the fashionable summer season drawing to a close, Mrs. Garwood decided that what she was most in want of was culture, in the form of a personal tutor, an expert, she said, in literary history and composition, someone, in fact, very much like me. Now, never let it be said that I do not know an invitation when I hear one. Her husband was happy to consent, and I was engaged, on two hundred pounds a year no less, to minister to all of Mrs. Garwood’s creative needs, of which she apparently had many.
In light of recent events, which were polarised and extreme, I was hardly thinking clearly when I made my way to the Garwood’s town house in Mayfair in my capacity as a very expensive private tutor. I was, to say the least, emotionally vulnerable. But my life was so intense just then, good and bad, that excess had become quite normal, as had the wild swings between success and failure and pleasure and pain. This is not to say that had I been in a more stable state of mind I would have done anything differently, but there might at least have been some rational thought expended upon the matter first.
This was not the first time I had visited this luxurious crib, but it might as well have been as far as my nerves were concerned. I had never ventured there before without the society of a dozen or so writers and artists to protect my neck. The attendant physical and emotional feelings were not unfamiliar either. I still vividly recalled the first night I had visited Flashy Nance. My instinct was to approach by the tradesman’s entrance, but at the last moment I corrected my trajectory and called at the front door like a proper gentleman. As I was known at the house already, the servants seemed genuinely civil, and as usual I tried to talk to them, and as usual they managed to evade. Surely they must have realised I was one of them, or, at least, had been, but they gave no sign of it as I was shown to the library.
It was a vast and beautiful space, with elaborately carved cabinets shelving thousands of books, floor to ceiling, a highly polished reading table, and a stately suite of black leather. There was a large portrait of the master and mistress of the house above a Georgian fireplace, and ancestral busts studded about the place on
marble plinths. The reading rooms of the British Museum at Montagu House were no less lavish, and, as one always is in the face of real money, I had a vision of my own exchange value in comparison to such casual opulence. I was similarly struck by how pointless and poxy were my own efforts to turn the unused servant’s quarters on the third floor of my little house in Ladbroke Grove into a library and study. Unlike my old friend Ainsworth, who was lording it up in a big house on Kensal Rise (with an even bigger mortgage), I felt very middle class.
All the same, I was heartened by an examination of some of the collections, for I began to suspect that I carried within me much more of the intelligence contained in these volumes than did the owners. Thus did the illusion of self-worth return, for whatever people say knowledge is not power.
She kept me waiting, naturally, which made the anticipation of fear and desire all the more sweet. We both knew what was coming. She played it perfectly as well. After an imperious entry, for bejewelled in a low cut gown of black and gold she was hardly dressed for scholarship, she dismissed her maid and instantly adopted a charming and uncharacteristic informality, instructing me to call her ‘Mina,’ and summoning me to sit beside her on the deep leather couch while she poured us both iced punch from an enormous jug. I watched her dainty hands, which were covered in rings, and breathed her in. My body, which was rigid with anxiety, instantly relaxed as if I inhaled raw opium. There was, I later came to understand, a scent about her which, though delicate and indefinable, was utterly hypnotic, at least to my sex for women did not like her. This was why she had not forsaken Lady Blessington in common with the majority of Society women. They were of a kind those two, and loved each other for it.
She smoked too, which was terribly daring and incredibly exciting. ‘You are contractually obligated not to reveal my secret,’ she drawled, lighting a cheroot with a long match, ‘for I don’t see why physical pleasure should be a male preserve.’ I promptly pledged myself to her honour, like a knight in a fairy tale. ‘Good boy,’ she said.
I wondered if I should at least try to talk about English literature. I had even prepared something on close reading, just in case I had completely misread the signals. It always pays to be prepared, but she wanted, she said, pouring another drink, to get to know me better first. The punch must have been stronger than it seemed, for I told her far too much, but with every revelation of my past she became more attentive, and when I got to the death of my first love she was positively flushed, and started waving a dirty great fan about.
‘My God,’ she finally said, ‘your life sounds like one of your stories.’
‘I have often thought that myself,’ I confessed, which was true. Freddie flashed before my eyes and I shuddered. You could not make such things up, could you?
Her autobiography was somewhat less sensational. She was the oldest daughter of a landed family in Surrey, and her future husband hunted with her father. When Mr. Garwood, already a very wealthy man, plighted his troth her parents deemed it a most satisfactory match and he had her up the aisle just after her sixteenth birthday. They had been married for nearly twenty years and had a small army of children, the youngest two, a boy and a girl, were still at home, although managed by a tutor and a governess so neither seen nor heard as far as I was concerned. There were four other boys, away at a boarding school somewhere in Warwickshire. I cannot recall the names.
I told her more of myself, and of my time with the Fancy. She charged my glass again, and used the act of handing it to me as an excuse to move even closer.
‘I rather fancied from your readings,’ she said, ‘that you had done much of what you wrote about, and now I am convinced.’
‘Well,’ said I, stealing a furtive look at her heaving bosom, ‘it’s all grist to the mill you know.’ She was breathing quite heavily now, and I could feel the warmth of her next to me.
‘Show me,’ she said.
It was around this time that it occurred to me that I had better write another romance. The Shivering of the Timbers had gone through three editions already, but I was under contract for two more novels, and I had nothing else half written under the bed to get me rolling. I also had Ainsworth and his beloved highwaymen to compete with, but I did not just wish to best him in the literary marketplace, I wanted to be better than myself.
Mina found it all terribly thrilling, and we discussed many ideas and potential projects, for her love of literature was insatiable and she had me in that library every chance she could. She made me feel as if I could achieve anything, and while we lay together on the big black couch or the snowy white rug by the fire, drinking and smoking and playing, we planned an epic narrative. The book-to-be belonged to us both, but for myself I was quickly bewitched and increasingly unbothered by the outside world. There was such peace to be found in her arms that I thought not of my publisher, my enemy, or his hold over my family. Neither did it concern me overmuch that I was falling desperately in love with another man’s wife.
It was Mina’s assessment that the popularity of my first novel had been founded largely on the pirates rather than the protagonist. She cited Rookwood as a precedent, for the Dick Turpin sections were already being published separately and reputedly out-selling the original novel. Ainsworth, meanwhile, was now courting literary respectability by writing a much more conventional historical romance than his breakthrough novel. His stated subject was James (‘the admirable’) Crichton and his adventures at the court of Henri III of France. By the sound of it there was nary a highwayman, a vengeful spook, or an amorous gypsy in it, for Ainsworth fancied himself the successor to Sir Walter Scott and the ‘Newgate’ label obviously troubled him.
Mina was certain my friend was making a serious commercial blunder. ‘It is not heroes that will sell your next book, my love,’ she had counselled, ‘but anti-heroes.’ I felt much the same myself, so whereas Ainsworth had rejected the obvious next move I embraced it. Was I not, after all, something of an expert on pirates?
I did not, however, wish to simply re-write my first novel, although I suspect I could have gotten away with doing just that if I wished, for many popular authors do. I still wanted to entertain, but this time I also wished to edify and challenge. I wanted to transcend Lytton’s Paul Clifford, and write a political novel that was also authentic and engaging, and to show those damned critics my mettle. Most of all, I wanted to impress my lover.
In order to achieve this goal, I returned to my roots, and the first story I ever read aloud at the Marshalsea, the life of William Kidd.
I had admittedly used Kidd as a secondary character in my first novel, but it had been a primitive portrait, with little attention paid to historical verisimilitude. As Ainsworth had done with Turpin, I had made Kidd heroic, in a bluff, straightforward sort of way, while casting him in a fictional drama that was supposed to have taken place a good quarter of a century after the original had died. I still believed that the real Captain Kidd had been a brilliant and resourceful naval tactician, rather than the avaricious braggart portrayed by the Newgate Calendars. I saw him as exploited and betrayed by politicians, just as Guy Fawkes was more likely an agent of the Crown than the papist terrorist of popular legend, both men conveniently silenced by execution.
I resolved to write the true account of the life of Kidd, in the manner of an epic tragedy crossed with a political satire. There would be genuine emotional and philosophic depth, combined with an attention to mise-en-scènic detail worthy of Hogarth and Defoe. My intension was to recreate the reality of the life of a privateer, against a late-seventeenth century colonial backdrop that was politically complex and culturally accurate. Furthermore, as both Mina and Colburn were quick to point out, that there was also a direct link between this novel and my first would not hurt the sales either.
I researched my project obsessively, and did nothing for half a year save collect, read and annotate primary and secondary sources. I immersed myself in contemporary accounts of the period and the biographies of Kidd and his cronies, effectively becoming an expert in Restoration England and her colonies, as well as maritime law, legend, and practice. Once I felt I had absolute intellectual mastery of this material, I began to plot my book. This is the secret of good historical romance, for you cannot adapt a factual account literally and expect it to function successfully as a novel. The trick is to craft a good story based upon the historical sources, but never ruled or constrained by them. You must try to honour the spirit of your subject, but make the history your own.
This still left me with the problem of the ending. There are some truths that cannot be otherwise, even in a historical romance, and it was a matter of public record that, rightly or wrongly, my hero met his end at Execution Dock. I considered, briefly, the options of concluding my narrative before his fall, or employing a theatrical device common at the time and simply changing the story so that Kidd escaped the gallows. (They were even giving Romeo and Juliet a happy ending on the Haymarket in those days.) These contingencies were quickly discounted, as the first robbed me of my main political allegory (the betrayal and show trial), while the second trivialised the subject. I finally overcame the problem of historical determinism through the application of the central tenet of Classical tragedy, inevitability. I made my Captain Kidd a tragic hero, and went so far as to have him forewarned by Cassandra in her many guises (witches, mediums, heathen priestesses, itinerant fortune tellers and the like). In the manner of the Trojans he of course paid no heed, and was thus destroyed by his own destiny. Finally, just in case the application of Aristotle’s Poetics to privateers was insufficient to guarantee success, I also plundered Rookwood and threw in a few pirate songs this time, some authentic sea shanties, others pure invention.
Once I was ready, I began to write like a steam engine. My pen flew across the page as if possessed. I barely paused to eat, sleep and wash, and stopped only to call upon Mina. The book became, in my mind, a way to consolidate my rank and status, so that I might make her more fully mine. With her implicit encouragement, I dreamed of spiriting her away from her husband forever, and for that I needed money. Her tastes were expensive.
I called the book Blessed William, playing upon the name of the first ship Kidd took and captained, and making the connection between his monarch, William III, after whom he named his vessel, and my own, William IV, to whom I expansively dedicated the book. The King let it be known in the right circles that he was delighted at this, and considered my book to be ‘a bloody good yarn.’ This right royal endorsement (which Colburn seriously considered using in advertisements until I reminded him about the Tower of London), suggested to me that His Majesty had skipped over the hegemonic critiques and conspiracy theories in favour of the jokes, the love scenes, and the fighting, which is pretty much what everyone else did. His famous hatred of the French was probably also a factor, as Kidd harried them something rotten. I was hoping for a knighthood, but he died the following year and was replaced by Victoria, who would not have given me the drippings off her snout.
Colburn again published as a three-decker, once more illustrated by Cruikshank, although the trend for serials was growing by that point. Blessed William blew all opposition out of the water like so many French merchantman, establishing the legend of Captain Kidd in much the same way that Ainsworth had done with Dick Turpin. (Whatever you think you know about these men is most likely to have originated in the pages of our books.) Mina was terribly proud, and decided that she would use one of what she termed her ‘little literary soirées’ to celebrate the launch.
The Garwood salons were, in reality, far from modest occasions, and she spent more on one of these things than I was earning for this book, the one before, and the one not yet written combined. I should have been appalled at such extravagance. But I was utterly dazzled by love, and as it was theoretically for my benefit I was nought but pathetically grateful for the opportunity to shine in the face of London Society, an elite social set to which I now so desperately wished to belong. With another bestseller under my belt, I was beginning to believe that some dreams might really come true, as my secret lover took me by the arm and led me into the light, having paused only to whisper that a room had been prepared for me and that she wore nothing beneath her gown but perfume.
As we entered the ballroom a great cheer went up, followed by a positive earthquake of applause.
‘Happy birthday, my love,’ she whispered.
I was twenty-seven years old, and the world was at my feet.
Ainsworth was there, looking tired. He was always generous in his praise of my achievements, in public and in private, and my heart went out to him, for Crichton was not a success and I knew he was stretched for cash. Mina had been right; the central character was too remote, clean-cut, aristocratic, perfect and invulnerable to appeal to fans of Dick Turpin. He had also lost his wife after Rookwood, some said to Rookwood, for she did not cope well with her husband’s newfound notoriety, and the more he grew the more she had seemed to wither. Her family had taken Ainsworth’s girls, and the lawyers had bled him white getting them back. He was there with ‘Phiz’ (Knight Browne, who had illustrated Crichton), the young publisher John Macrone, and Cruikshank, the latter talking animatedly to a slight, dark-headed man with his back to me as we approached. I guessed from the company that this must be the inimitable ‘Boz,’ who was quite the sensation that year.
I had not been paying close attention and we had yet to meet, but I had read him and been, like everyone else, deeply impressed. His sketches of London life and manners in Bell’s and the Morning and the Evening Chronicle were most entertaining. He reminded me a lot of Egan. The style was totally different, but there was that same sense of the mouvement perpétuel of the city, with a similar eye for detail and a dark humour about them, the common root, I suppose, being the urban chroniclers of the last century. A collected edition was known to be in the offing, backed by Cruikshank, who had agreed to illustrate, and published by Macrone, who had met Dickens at one of Ainsworth’s lavish parties at Kensal Lodge.
Good luck to him, thought I.
Cruikshank waved cheerfully when he spotted me, and his companion turned. He smiled warmly and extended his hand without formal introduction.
‘I see you’re still writing about pirates, Jack,’ he said.
‘Good God, Dickens,’ roared Cruikshank, ‘but you know everybody!’
And know me he did, for there before me stood little David of the Marshalsea, my biggest fan and fiercest critic, grown now to manhood and quite the rising star in his own right.
It had occurred to me long since that the reason he had so emphatically severed all ties was nothing against me, but purely a desire, if not a necessity, to put the shame of the prison behind him. (The false name had obviously been a similar defence, and from what I recalled of the shabby snobbery of his parents they would have done everything to separate us.) I had never held it against him, and saw no reason to do so now, for it is an easy thing to be magnanimous when one is at the top of one’s profession, as I was that night.
‘We were childhood friends,’ I explained to the company, ‘isn’t that right, Charles?’
‘The best,’ said he, ‘until my family moved away.’ I nodded in voiceless agreement. They do not know, I thought.
‘How charming,’ said Mina, playfully, for I had told her everything of my own youth, and she was always devilishly quick on the uptake, ‘did you boys school together?’
‘Eh, yes,’ said I, hurriedly, having no idea where bloody Boz had gone to school.
He was fast, though, he always had been. ‘Dear old Chatham,’ he said, obligingly, ‘and the worthy Mr. Giles.’
‘A mentor to us both,’ I agreed, ‘a very great man.’
I could see that everyone was loving this. Ainsworth was beaming, and a small crowd had collected to witness the meeting of what one reviewer subsequently described as ‘the three most popular writers in England.’
We all praised each other’s work at great and sentimental length, and Cruikshank made a speech about the ‘rising generation of English letters’ that went on for at least an hour after dinner. Dickens and I made plans to dine and catch up properly, and at dawn I let Mina take me to bed. The entire night was magical, and after all these years I can still hardly bear to think of it, given what came later.
Click here to read Chapter XIX