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Thinking about the world in which “Beneath a Silent Moon” is set, I recalled that Lady Bessborough (sister of the Duchess of Devonshire and mother of Lady Caroline Lamb) compared the brilliant Whig hostess Lady Melbourne to the Marquise de Merteuil in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”. Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel scandalized late eighteenth century society on both sides of the Channel, not because the world it described-in which seductions are strategized with the cool calculation of a chess game-seemed alien, but because it hit so very close to home. Lady Melbourne was the mother of five children, of whom probably only the eldest was actually fathered by her husband. Lady Bessborough had a long affair with the handsome diplomat Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who was thirteen years her junior. Her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, lived in a ménage à trois for years with her husband and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster.This is the world of Kenneth Fraser, Lord Glenister, and Lady Frances-the older generation in “Beneath a Silent Moon”. The world of Mozart operas such as “Così fan tutte”, where best friends try to seduce each other’s fiancées for a bet, Don Giovanni with his endless list of conquests, Count Almaviva, quick to turn his eye from the wife he was so eager to marry in favor of the girl who is betrothed to his loyal valet. The world of Fragonard paintings in which carnality pulses just beneath a spun-sugar surface. A world in which marriage is to cement alliances and produce heirs, seduction is a sport, and love is a game.

But amid this sexual license, a double standard persists. Men may be known as rakes and maintain their position in society (as Valmont does in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”). Women have to preserve a veneer of respectability (as the Marquise de Merteuil does in the novel). Lady Melbourne was able to pass her illegitimate children off as her husband’s. Lady Bessborough and the Duchess of Devonshire were not so fortunate. The Duchess of Devonshire went to France to give birth to her illegitimate daughter (by the future Earl Grey), who was then raised by her lover’s parents as their own. Lady Bessborough bore Granville Leveson-Gower two children who were fostered out in secret and eventually raised by Granville and woman he married, Lady Bessborough’s own niece Harriet Cavendish.

Harriet doted on the children and, contrary to what one might have expected, the marriage was a success (Granville, Harriet wrote, “could make an arid desert smile”). The world of her generation (and of Charles, Mélanie, Gisèle, Honoria, and the younger characters in “Beneath a Silent Moon”) had begun to change. The younger generation, as Lady Frances says in the book, “don’t necessarily play the game by the same rules.” This generation came of age in the era of Jane Austen’s novels, in which, for all their irony, love is real and can last. Of the romantic landscapes of Turner and Constable, of the vibrant emotion and daring innovation of Beethoven (whose one opera celebrates conjugal love). Romantic games are still a favorite pastime of the beau monde (Lady Melbourne’s daughter, Emily Cowper, also had children by a number of different men, including her long-time lover Lord Palmerston whom she eventually married after the death of her first husband). But the games are played more subtly, with love holding greater weight in the equation. This world, the world of the Regency, teeters between the license of the eighteenth century and the restraint of the Victorian era.

This is the milieu to which Mélanie comes as a war bride in “Beneath a Silent Moon”. It is also a world in which the echoes of the French Revolution still linger. Many of the leaders of the countries victorious at Waterloo see stifling dissent and reform and preserving the status quo as the best guarantee of stability. In France, now governed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, the zeal of the Ultra Royalists has led to the White Terror in which scores of Republicans and Bonapartists are imprisoned or executed.
In Britain, the long wars with Napoleon’s France have left Britain victorious but badly in debt. The British Government is no longer pouring money into munitions and supplies for the Army. Without Government contracts, the textile mills that made uniforms and the iron foundries that made cannon have cut back on workers (and changes in manufacturing had already made jobs scarce). At the same time, soldiers released from the army are flooding the job market.

The Scottish Highlands, where much of “Beneath a Silent Moon” takes place, are still reeling from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden over seventy years ago. Famine had always been a threat in the Highlands. Now that the society has been forcibly demilitarized by the English, a large tenant population is no longer useful as a force against raiding neighbors. Seeing the old way of life as dead, many Highland landowners are turning their land into sheep runs for lowland sheep. Unfortunately, the tenants have to be moved to make way for the sheep. Some landowners try to provide their tenants with an alternate living. Others simply burn them out (as Kenneth Fraser has done).

This is the world to which Charles and Mélanie have come in “Beneath a Silent Moon” after their adventures during the Napoleonic Wars. A world of reaction and reform, of amorous intrigues played for high stakes, a world in which the echoes of the past, both personal and political, reverberate through the present.


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