The Tyburn Guinea: A FragmentSean Gabb / History & Fiction
The Tyburn Guinea:
(Author of Conspiracies of Rome, etc.)
The devil take this cursed plotting Age,
'T has ruin'd all our Plots upon the Stage;
Suspicions, New Elections, Jealousies,
Fresh Informations, New discoveries,
Do so employ the busie fearful Town,
Our honest calling here is useless grown;
Each fool turns Politician now, and wears
A formal face, and talks of State-affairs…
(The Feign'd Courtizans, Aphra Behn)
The Hampden Press
I Dedicate This Book
to my dear Wife Andrea
and to my Daughter Philippa
I will begin by emphasising that this is an unrevised fragment. I began it last year, in the hope that I could diversify my historical fiction away from the Ancient and Byzantine periods in which I have so far specialised. I then became busy with something else, and I am not sure whether or when I shall find the time to come back to it. Rather than let it sit on my hard desk, perhaps until my literary executors stumble across it, I have decided to publish it as it stands. I will publish it as a free e-book, and in hard copy as cheaply as the printing costs will allow. I do this to give readers a free sample of my work. I do it also in the vague hope that some publisher will one day hurry forward with an offer I dare not refuse.
The novel is set in London in the May of 1696. The protagonist, Sarah Goodricke, is a widow who lives with her father. He is a Jacobite priest, who was deprived of his living when he refused to swear allegiance to William in 1689. He now teaches for a living. Sarah writes for the stage and is addicted to opium—though she is largely unaware of this, believing the drug is needed to treat various underlying ailments.
Other characters include Polly, a sluttish maidservant, Samuel Lambert, an obese actor, Lord Fremont, a ruthless and lascivious fop, Jeremy Collier, a Jacobite troublemaker, and Sir John Fenwick, a traitor on the run. These last two characters existed.
The novel opens a few days after the beginning of the Great Recoinage, which put England into several months of economic paralysis when all the old silver coins were called in, and could not be immediately reminted.
Sarah is out in London to collect one of her father’s debts—so she can buy more laudanum. She is shambling about, half dead from withdrawal pains, when she finds herself in the middle of a procession to the gallows at Tyburn. She is accosted by a sinister Irishman with one leg. He wants her to perform the last offices for a condemned man—that is, he wants her to pull on his legs to shorten the death pains. He offers her a guinea for doing this. When she agrees, he adds that he wants her to plant a sealed package on the hanged man. Sarah needs the money and is in no position to refuse.
The plan goes badly wrong, and Sarah has to run away from Tyburn. She wants to open the package, to see what it contains. However, while recovering herself with opiumised coffee, she meets Samuel Lambert, who is the actor-manager of the theatre for which she writes. He is putting on her latest play a week early, and needs her to finish its Prologue for that evening.
Sarah goes home, to find Jeremy Collier up to no good with her naïve father. She withdraws to her bedroom, where she pulls herself together with opium, tobacco and gin, so she can write her Prologue.
The draft ends here. In the next chapter, Sarah’s play is a triumphant success, but she realises that she is being hunted by men who will stop at nothing to lay hands on the Irishman’s packet.
In my previous novels, plots have emerged during the process of composition. None has been completed as I thought it might when I began.
If I were to provide a detailed synopsis of how this novel continues, it would bear little relation to the completed work. Indeed, if it ever is completed, the present draft of the opening will be revised and revised. Characters will be retired or split or merged. Some will stand out more prominently. New plot-lines will emerge. Some will be developed.
However, the main thread is the Irishman’s sealed package. After seven years of war with England, France is on the edge of humiliating defeat. So far, the French have relied on the Jacobite networks for espionage and disruption in England. They now realise that the Jacobites are unable to deliver. Their new strategy is to pressure William and his Ministers directly into a reasonably advantageous peace settlement. They have obtained documentary proof that William is a homosexual with a taste for very young English boys. The Irishman’s sealed package is a taster of the dirt they have on William, and they want to plant it in a manner that just avoids open scandal.
Because Sarah fails to get rid of the package, she is chased through London by those who know what it contains and by those who only know that possession of it will bring opportunities for enrichment. The Irishman needs it back, and the scrape of his iron foot on cobblestones is never far behind. Lord Fremont wants it, because he is sure it will help in his manipulations of the financial markets. The Jacobites want it, and the Government wants it.
Sarah, assisted by Polly and Samuel, must stay alive long enough to frustrate a plot that might undo the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
A further complication is that her father agrees to take in Sir John Fenwick and hide him until he can be smuggled out of England.
The climax will take place at a gala performance of Sarah’s play that is attended by John Dryden and the future Queen Anne. William III is also there in disguise. There will be lots of killing.
Or it will probably go off on a different course entirely. As said, my plots emerge while I write. They are better than the plots I have in mind at the start.
One possibility is that the character of Lord Fremont will grow until the novel reconfigures itself around him. Like all depraved noblemen, he is short of money, and wants to use the sealed packet for a notable fraud on the stock exchange.
The whole novel is set in a London where the place names are familiar, but which is intended to be both alien and frightening to modern readers. It is a combination of Gin Lane and Gustave Doré.