Fortune’s Hazard

On a lovely September afternoon a few years ago, Anna and I sat in a beautiful garden looking across at the southern fringe of the Snowdonia mountain range in Wales. In such inspiring surroundings it was easy to let the imagination run and we came up with a scene – one solitary scene – of a young widow in deepest mourning at her husband’s open grave while the funeral service was being read. There would be a small child, only one mourner besides herself, and a dark stranger watching the scene from a distance. What were the circumstances of the death, who the stranger was or what the precise year of the action should be were complete mysteries to us then. Would the woman sound grief-stricken or relieved, anxious or indifferent when she began to speak? Silly questions apparently, though familiar to any student of creative writing when starting a piece from such a scenario. The answers are always the same: set the characters in motion and by some strange chemistry they will assume a direction of their own.

Other things feed into the mix as well, of course. The memorial tablet I once saw in a Yorkshire church has always stayed in my mind. Between the conventional phrases of eulogy a sad, human story emerged. The stone commemorated a young officer badly wounded at Waterloo who had never fully recovered, dying in the 1820s after years of suffering. Fellow-officers had supported his wife and children during these years in recognition of his courage, and no doubt continued to do so after his death. Such stories were not uncommon, especially if men owed their lives to comrades.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in Regency England was the mania for gambling, an obsession among the moneyed classes since Queen Anne’s reign but at its zenith now. Gambling clubs or ‘hells’ proliferated in the fashionable areas of London and their less salubrious fringes, and here stupendous sums of money – entire family estates sometimes – were literally lost on a roll of the dice. White’s, Watier’s, Boodle’s, The Cocoa-Tree Club and Crockford’s were some of the exclusive establishments where names such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Charles James Fox the Whig politician and Beau Brummell, the most famous Regency dandy of them all, lost fortunes. It was an all-powerful drug, an addiction that destroyed countless lives. Hazard required no skill whatsoever, a game of chance so simple that the sums bet on it seem scarcely credible. The caster ‘called the main’ – in other words the man rolling the dice named a number between five and nine and if that number appeared when the dice were rolled, he won. The game was all the rage in these years, and the smaller clubs were a magnet for card sharps and sleight-of-hand merchants who had gravitated to the Great Wen of London where easy pickings might be found.

Fortune’s Hazard contains some of these diverse elements as well as the story of one young woman’s struggle – a single parent we would call her today, though in a far less sympathetic age than our own – to do the best for her child. The result, hopefully, is a Regency romance with a little edge!