Restoration London, 1699-Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham, and former mistress to King Charles 11, as fallen on hard times. jailed in the notorsious debtors' prison, the Fleet, the Countess finds her only way out is to embark on a career selling sensational and explicit stories to one of London's leading tabloids.
Joining forces with her loyal ex-maidservant Alpiew, the formerly pampered and proper Countess sets out to make a living by working for he scandal sheets a line of work that inevitably leads her through some of the seamier highways and byways of the city. And she and Alpiew even find a welcome additional source of income when they are approached by a stranger who asks them to follow her husband and gather evidence to prove he's committing adultery. But the uncomfortable job of trailing after the handsome merchant in the depths of winter-whether to the half-constructed St Paul's Cathedral or through the notorious dives south of the Strand ends abruptly in Covent Garden churchyard with a brutal murder.
Implicated in the crime, the Countess and Alpiew find themselves drawn into a complex labyrinth of deceit and violence-the key to which might lie in the mysterious world of alchemy. And the more they investigate, the more complex the picture becomes, involving everyone from the most decrepit back-alley criminals to some of the most influential people in all the land.
Unnatural Fire is a wonderfully funny, lively, and audacious novel with a cast of characters that leap off the page. But underlying the vivacity and humor is a riveting mystery that perfectly captures the dark and bawdy underbelly of life in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.
About the Author
Actress and writer, Fidelis Morgan’s TV appearances include Jeeves and Wooster, As Time Goes By and the film A Little Chaos. She recently played Agnes Carpenter in Goodbye to Love. Her plays Pamela and Hangover Square won her a Most Promising Playwriting nomination. She has written 20 books including the ground-breaking The Female Wits, biographies of charismatic women from the 17th and 18th centuries and 6 novels, including the historical mystery series featuring The Countess Ashby dela Zouche. Her latest novel is The Murder Quadrille. She was the 2014 Granada Artist-in-Residence at the University of California.
Read an Excerpt
the subtle and the gross,
or the fixed and the volatile.
'Take this down..."At the stroke of 8 o'clock this morning, while the night-watch Charlies still slept in their boxes, the Honourable Marmaduke Smallwood tied a knot with tongue which he can never untie with his teeth. To whit, he married a common Covent Garden trollop, here, in the chapel of His Majesty's Prison of the Fleet..." Got it?'
Her patchy wig now askew and her heavily painted make-up starting to smear, Lady Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham, thrust both her hands through the grille and gripped tight, the better to keep her place at the front of the heaving crowd.
At sixty years of age, her ladyship was in prison for debt. It was not the first time. She owed her druggist a mere trifle of six shillings, and the vile man had had the temerity to slap a writ on her.
It wasn't like this when Charles was king. But the darling man had been dead for fifteen years. And meanwhile Society had collapsed. Anybody could get on now. Merchants lorded it. A title meant next to nothing. English Society was ruined.
To make matters worse, a Dutchman was on the throne. A Dutchman! A midget to boot. King Charles was six foot four, but this nasty little flat-lander was all of five foot.
It was hard for the Countess to adjust to this new way of life, and impossible for her to take to this king. She, like most English people, detested the Dutch. After all the English had been at war with them for years. And now here was HerrVan Nincompoop, otherwise known as William of Orange, sitting on the English throne.
But as Society had changed, becoming more and more obsessed with money, profit and wealth, the Countess herself had been driven into the marketplace to survive.
Taking her cue from a number of successful women, she wrote for money.
She had had a play, a heroic tragedy entitled Love's Last Wind, performed at Lincoln's Inn Theatre. To save her embarrassment she had composed it under the nom de plume 'The Aetherial Amoret'. Despite an outstanding cast including Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, it had closed on the fifth day. Her profits were nil.
''Twas run down by the sparks of the Town,' the Countess had explained to her friend the Duchesse de Pigalle, who was unable to attend the first performance due to a chincough, the second due to a quinsy, and subsequent performances were impossible because she had an attack of flatus and any other thing she could think of to escape the ordeal of sitting through two and a half hours of the Countess's rhymed verse.
'Young people!' the Countess elucidated. 'The brisk buffoonery and the false glittering of a youthful fancy will turn to ridicule our most delicate conversations.'
'Harrumph!' said Pigalle. 'So zat is zat! Now you know you can write a play, you need not to do it again.'
The Countess had taken the hint, given up all hopes of becoming the new Aphra Behn and turned instead to journalism. She plied her scurrilous little pieces of tittle-tattle, or blasts against quacks, or fashions, or new plays and sold them to whoever would buy.
As fortune fell, the day the debt collector thumped on her front door Lady Ashby de la Zouche happened to be between engagements, and her funds were exceedingly low.
'I bought the drugs because I was ill of an ague, don't you see?' she screamed at the bum-bailiffs who had been sent by the druggist to take her into custody. 'Is the man a simpleton that he thinks I can earn money when I am sick?'
One of the bum-bailiffs applied a hairy hand to her fore-arm. She brushed it off. 'When I am fit again, then I can pay him. But for the instant...'
At this moment the four gnarled arms of the bum-bailiffs picked her up and dumped her in the back of a cart bound for the Fleet Prison.
Hence her present confinement.
Now that she had been in prison a day and a night, she was undaunted by her surroundings, and did not appear at all troubled that she was rubbing shoulders with some of the dirtiest and smelliest people in London. She stood proudly confident of her superiority. Why, at one time she had been the mistress of a king.
Good old, dead old, Charles.
She cut a fine picture for a woman of her age. After all, most women of her age were dead. She was smartly dressed, her clothes of the finest fabrics, in the latest fashions of 1670. The only trouble was, it was now 1699.
'All of human life is here,' she exclaimed, wafting her chubby little hand at the turnkey when she was deposited at the prison door. 'Perfect writer's fodder.' She stepped daintily through the wicket gate. 'Let me drink in the atmosphere.'
She inhaled the stinking air (infused with foetid sweat and unwashed clothes; with rancid breath from hundreds of mouths full of rotting teeth; with rat droppings, and human excrement; with damp and rot and piss), then spent the whole night awake in the hope of finding a tit-bit juicy enough to expedite her instant release. Some aristocrat, maybe, confined for debt, or a well-known man of the cloth locked up for drunkenness or debauchery.
As chance would have it she was luckier than that.
Within the prison there was a chapel, a chapel which had different rules to the other chapels and churches of London. The ministers of this chapel were busy all the hours the law permitted them performing marriages for those who, for one reason or another, couldn't wait the tedious weeks required for licences and banns.
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Fidelis Morgan’s tale of love and greed and alchemy in 1699 is a heady compound of wit, wisdom and wildness. It's an unsentimental warts-and-all portrait that reeks of authenticity, written with a brio that reflects the age--Val McDermid