Erotic sketches, a blackmail letter, a closeted aristocrat, and a sacrificial murder. Love, betrayal, deception and vengeance in Regency London.
London, 1810. George Rowlands is a poor aspiring artist working as a scene painter in the Haymarket Theatre. When George meets the charismatic Sir Henry Wallace, his fortunes seem to change for the better. Sponsored by Henry to study painting at the Royal Academy of Art, George finds a new world opened up to him – one that includes both his mysteriously aloof fellow-student, John McCarther, and the Gothic and eccentric painter, Henry Fuseli.
Arabella Wallace, Henry’s wife, begins to suspect there is much more to the friendship between George and her husband than meets the eye. Meanwhile, The White Swan tavern, which George has seen Wallace visit one evening in Covent Garden, is exposed as a secret gay brothel. Not long afterwards, Wallace receives a blackmail letter threatening to reveal him as a visitor to the White Swan. George is then framed for the murder of Henry’s valet. Will George face the gallows’ rope? Or will a supreme act of self-sacrifice unravel the extortionist’s knot as the fatal hour approaches?
Although the story is primarily about the relationship between two men from very different social and class backgrounds, I also want to give readers a sense of how a woman might feel when she suspects her husband has relationships with other men. I particularly wish for the book to appeal to women readers in this respect. I also hope that the novel will offer a further perspective on marriage in the Regency period. As we know from the novels of Jane Austen and her contemporaries, many marriages among the aristocracy were arranged for reasons that were less to do with love and personal happiness, than to do with securing property and financial security. It is not such a big imaginative leap to suggest that, inevitably, both ‘gay’ men and women married out of the duty to their families, and of adhering to social conventions. Often, they would then pursue their real affections elsewhere.
I also wish to draw readers’ attention to how love between men might be imagined in a period of intense social scrutiny, secrecy and repression. The homosocial environment of the art world, particularly as it is represented by the life drawing classes of the Royal Academy (a space that licenses men to look at nude men) seemed to me a natural setting in which to explore friendship, power and love between men. The cover of the book, in the image above, is a detail from Johann Zoffany’s painting, ‘The Academicians of the Royal Academy’, 1771-2, by kind permission of the Royal Collection Trust.
In this period, women were not admitted to the Royal Academy as artists, and certainly not as spectators. When an eighteen-foot bronze statue of the Greek warrior Achilles, sculpted by Richard Westmacott, was placed in Hyde Park to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s Napoleonic victories, there was a reactionary backlash from moral pundits. Protesters believed that the statue was indecent and would inflame women’s sexual passions. A suitably large stone fig leaf was placed over the offending part. Whether any men might also have become ‘inflamed’ seems never to have been thought of!
The Pretty Gentleman is currently available in a Kindle and a paperback version at amazon.co.uk and amazon.com, and related worlwide sites. The novel is also stocked in Gay’s the Word, London’s leading independent gay bookshop: http://freespace.virgin.net/gays.theword/
While writing The Pretty Gentleman, I visited many art galleries and exhibitions, including the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Ashmolean Musuem in Oxford, and Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Wallace Collection, based in Manchester Square in London, also provided a very important inspiration, both for the naming of Sir Henry Wallace (see ‘A Note’ in the novel) and also for the important collection of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings that the gallery owns. These painting are some of the examples of the kind of paintings Wallace would have collected.
Looking at paintings, portraits and prints of the period was of course invaluable in helping me to describe the settings and characters of the novel too. In particular, James Fenton’s, School of Genius: a history of the Royal Academy of Arts contains wonderful reproductions of prints and paintings of the interiors of the Royal Academy at Somerset House in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Although this wing of Somerset House now belongs to the Courtauld Gallery, it is still possible to feel the traces of the eighteenth century there; the central curving staircase is still as steep to climb as it was in Henry Fuseli’s day. The original ‘Great Room’, where the annual exhibition took place, is now divided up into a series of smaller exhibition rooms and displays famous twentieth-century paintings and drawings. However, if you look up, you can still see the three original arched windows that would have toplit the Great Exhibition Room where the English royalty had the first ‘view’ each year. An immense number of paintings were hauled up the three floors, via the curved staircase, and filled every spare inch of the exhibition space.
A visual pinboard of the paintings, sculptures and prints that inspired the novel can be found on www.pinterest.com