The author of The Cunning House on a Regency cold case:
As far as the authorities were concerned, the offence had already taken place when the perfect, wooden jointed child emerged from between the knees of Richard Francis (27), aka Miss Sweet-Lips. For the men who’d assembled in the ramshackle White Swan “molly house” (gay brothel) on 28 July 1810, to perform mock child births and indulge in “bestial” passions, the real crime began with the police raid that night. It ended with the public pillorying of five “odious reptiles”, and the launching into eternity from Newgate gallows of two mollies – including Blackeyed Leonora, a 17-year-old drummer-boy.
In the history of state-sanctioned homophobia, the arraignment of Miss Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora and other “bawds in breeches” deserves to be as well known as the Oscar Wilde trials at the other end of the century. That it isn’t, owes much to another sex scandal that shook Regency London a few weeks earlier. Swap a dingy pub in the theatre district for St James’s Palace, just a short carriage ride away. Shortly after midnight on 31 May, the Duke of Cumberland’s valet, Joseph Sellis, was found stretched out on his bed with his throat cut, the pillow soaked in gore. The authorities were anxious to see his grisly death only as suicide, but the Palace servants whispered. The Duke was in the habit of visiting The White Swan … Sellis had tried his hand at blackmail. They also whispered: Sellis’s hands were found clean – not so much as a spot of blood on them …
How could a man who’d just cut his own throat calmly rise and wash his hands?
The inquest into the valet’s death was brief, conducted under the aegis of the Court of Royal Verge. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it exonerated the Duke from any involvement in the incident. As in today’s cover-ups, “national security” was the full stop to every sentence calling for a full and open investigation. Official royal biographers ever since have regarded Sellis’s death as a footnote, if to be mentioned at all. I saw a cold case, waiting to be reopened.
Increasingly, it falls to novelists to ask the difficult questions of cosy power and entrenched privilege. Fine – as long as we’re prepared for unsettling answers. My new novel, The Cunning House, lifts the carpet on a disturbing summer of plots and murder, with resonances a plenty for our own age. My investigator, Junior Prosecutor Wyre, is a man dipped in the prejudices of his age (his Courthouse day job is to deliver mollies to the hangman). Following a visit, however, from the secretive Miss Crawford – who may be both more and less than she seems – Wyre finds himself reluctantly drawn into a dark nexus of conspiracy, fanatical religious cults and agents in the war with France. By the end of the case, Wyre is thrown hard against his prejudices, and must choose between his innermost desires and those of his all-powerful masters.
The Cunning House is published by Sandstone Press. ISBN: 978-1910124109. RRP £8.99
Professor Richard Marggraf Turley teaches Romanticism and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth Univerisity