The Mask of Night begins at a Twelfth Night masquerade ball on 6 January 1820. Less than two months after the end of Secrets of a Lady, Charles’s and Mélanie’s lives are far from settled. And beyond the tapestry hung walls and Japanese lantern lit gardens of Isobel and Oliver Lydgate St. James’s Place house where the masquerade takes place, Britain is not a very settled place either.
Waterloo is only four and a half years in the past. Napoleon has been defeated and exiled to the tiny island of St. Helena, but the ruling powers from Whitehall to Paris to Moscow still fear he could escape. In France, a restored Bourbon King is on the throne, and the “Ultra Royalist” faction is in power. Their zeal to exact revenge for everything since the Revolution has brought about the “White Terror” in which scores of former Bonpartists have been imprisoned and executed. In this fevered atmosphere, political games are played for life and death stakes and personal loyalty is an ephemeral thing. The Come de Flahaut, a real historical figure who plays an important role in The Mask of Night, is fortunate to have escaped France . In the words of a character in the book, had he remained “he might well have lost his head, and not over a pretty woman this time.” Flahaut was an officer in Napoleon’s army and the lover of the Empress Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. He is also the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s wily one-time Foreign Minister (who plays an important role in Vienna Waltz). Talleyrand has managed to survive under the Bourbons and helped protect Flahaut. Flahaut has sought refuge in Britain and married a British heiress. His former lover Hortense Bonaparte is also exiled from France, living in Switzerland with her two young sons. Hortense and the Bonaparte family have past ties to Mélanie. Hortense calls on these ties in the book, putting Mélanie in a dangerous predicament.
While the British Government still worries about Bonapartist plots, the situation in Britain itself is far form easy. As I mention in the Historical Notes for Beneath a Silent Moon, the Napoleonic Wars left Britain badly in debt. With the end of the war, 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, former soldiers are flooding the job market. Work is scarce and the price of food is exorbitant. With the Government no longer buying food for the Army and foreign grain markets opening up, the price of corn (wheat) dropped. But Parliament used the Corn Laws to protect the price of homegrown corn. This also protected the profits of the landowners who grew the corn (and who had already benefited greatly from the high corn prices during the war). But the unemployed factory worker or the discharged soldier returning from the Continent (possibly less than whole), faced high prices as well as dwindling income. Yet though the conditions are bleak in Britain ‘s industrial towns, the rural poor keep leaving the countryside and pouring into the cities.
The Tory government (Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary, Lord Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary, among others) have a pervasive fear of violent revolution at home. (Echoes of the French Revolution reverberate through the politics of the day). At the same time, the Government Ministers fear Parliamentary reform and see repression rather than any sort of reform as the best way of preserving the world as they know it.
In 1817 (the year of Beneath a Silent Moon) a crowd surrounded the Prince Regent’s carriage as he drove to open Parliament. Someone threw rocks at him or possibly fired an airgun. As J.B. Priestley writes in The Prince of Pleasure, “The Regent may or may not have felt panic-stricken–if there is evidence either way, I have not found it–but Lord Liverpool’s government soon behaved as if there had been barricades in St James’s Street and the rattle of musketry along Piccadilly. They may have been genuinely alarmed or they may have seized upon a good excuse to be repressive, but what is certain is that they rushed through a number of deplorable measures, which could hardly have been worse if half the towns in England had been in flames.”
Habeas Corpus was suspended. Based on an act from the days of Edward III, magistrates were given the power to imprison anyone they thought likely to behave in a way that threatened public order (a wide definition, which could end in someone being thrown in prison for making a face at a person of higher social status). Protesting any of this in person or in writing was made difficult by acts against Seditious Libel and an act that prohibited meetings of more than fifty within a mile of Parliament at Westminster Hall.
While the Government feared revolution, they recognized that events such as the mob surrounding the Prince Regent helped pave the way for repressive measures. They also realized that revolutionary talk, violent acts, and rioting were an effective way to separate moderate radicals and reform-minded Whigs from their more extreme fellows. As Will Gordon, a young actor and radical, says to Charles in The Mask of Night, “And with every act of violence more sober bourgeois and nervous aristocrats decide that even modest reform is the first step to the guillotine.” With this end in mind, the Government, particularly Lord Sidmouth, employed agents provocateurs, who infiltrated radical groups and not only reported back to Westminster but actually incited violent action.
On 16 August 1819, four and a half months before The Mask of Night begins, a radical meeting took place at St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester. Manchester had been the site of prior meetings and demonstrations, mostly in favor of reform of Parliament and against the Corn Laws. There had been some reports of men drilling with staves, though this was perhaps at the instigation of agents provocateurs in the pay of the Government. The 16 August meeting, however, began as a more festive event with an almost country fair atmosphere. Radical groups from all over the country arrived with bands playing and banners flapping in the breeze. The men were unarmed, even with staves, and many brought their wives and children with them.
Several local magistrates watched the meeting from a house overlooking the square as a crowd of sixty to eighty thousand people gathered to hear speeches by the famed radical speaker Henry (“Orator”) Hunt and others. As Hunt began to speak, mounted men charge the crowd, trampling spectators and attacking with sabres. Almost six hundred were wounded (including over a hundred women) and at least eleven were killed. The Government claimed afterwards that they had urged caution and the local magistrates had panicked and ordered the attack. Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, would have sanctioned the use of the 15th Hussars, who were stationed in Manchester, but most of the carnage was committed by the local Yeomanry, who may have been under orders from the magistrates. However, as Priestley mentions, there have also been suggestions that Sidmouth had sent his own instructions to Manchester in secret. As with so many historical events, the truth of what happened remains open to debate.
The events of 16 August came to be called Peterloo, a darkly ironic play on Waterloo . The Prince Regent responded by thanking the magistrates and the military for “decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace.” As Priestley describes it, while “Tory loyalists were congratulating the Manchester Yeomanry as if they had cleaved their way trough Napoleon’s Old Guard, to most people in the country, of the middle as well as the working class, Peterloo came as a profound shock. Throughout the late summer and early autumn of 1819, industrial workers, especially in the Midlands and around Tyneside, still furiously reacting to the news, were buying sharpened knives to fasten to their staves–and so make pikes.”
The battle lines in the country were more clearly drawn than ever. Lord Althrop, a Whig, brought a motion in Parliament for an inquiry over Peterloo. But to some, words and Parliamentary inquiries didn’t seem an effective response. In The Mask of Night, Mélanie remembers their friend David discussing a speech he planned to make in support of Althorp’s motion and his lover Simon turning on him:
Simon had clunked down the decanter and said, Where the hell is that going to get you? Even if it passes, do you think it will change anything? The usual irony had been quite gone from his face and voice.
David had taken out his handkerchief and blotted up the port that had splashed from the decanter. It’s a start, he’d said, in a hard, even voice.
That’s brilliant, David. Simon had stared at David with the full force of the caustic wit Mélanie had never seen him turn on his lover. The Government used troops to break up a peaceful meeting. Women and children were trampled in the streets. And you’re going to make a speech saying they shouldn’t have done it.
Althorp’s motion for a Parliamentary inquiry into Peterloo didn’t pass. By 30 December (just days before The Mask of Night begins), Parliament passed the Six Acts proposed by the Government. Magistrates could search private houses without warrants and summarily arrest and sentence anyone they suspected. Meetings of more than fifty persons required the permission of a sheriff or magistrate. Anyone attending a meeting for the purpose of drill or training in weapons was liable to arrest and transportation. “Seditious libel” (a term that could be made to encompass just about anything a magistrate wanted it to encompass) could lead to immediate prosecution. And a stamp duty brought the cost of periodicals up to at least sixpence, which made it more difficult to disseminate information.
The Mask of Night unfolds against this backdrop, in a city seething with suppressed unrest, teetering on a knife edge between reaction and reform. Lord Carfax (David’s father and Charles’s former chief from his intelligence days) and Lord Castlereagh (the Foreign Secretary) are determined to suppress dissent and unrest at all cost. Charles, David, and Oliver Lydgate are increasingly frustrated at the possibility of any sort of reform. Simon questions the possibility of effecting change through legal means at all and doesn’t reveal all his activities to David. Mélanie and Charles face that fact that the past is not as far behind them as they would like it be. At heart Mélanie is still a revolutionary (and now free to voice her opinions to her husband) while Charles, however reform-minded, is still a member of the aristocracy. As Charles says in this exchange with Mélanie:
We listen to the evidence and we each make up our own mind and act as we see fit. Same as we’ve always done.”
And if we make up our minds differently?
It won’t be the first time we’ve been on opposite sides. Only this time the battle will be out in the open.