I love reading—and writing—historical fiction. I love discovering new things I didn’t know about our shared past, and I love learning about historical figures who have shaped our modern values…even when we have forgotten their names and their stories.
In my novels, these stories form a backdrop for our heroine and her hero: a set of ideas that resonate in the wings (to use a theater metaphor), while, on stage, the couple find each other and their happily-ever-after.
Let me use as an example a real person: the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. Born in 1788, Byron was not yet 1 when the Bastille was stormed, starting the French Revolution; he was 11 when Admiral Nelson defeated the French fleet; and he was 26 when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. For Byron then, the World was always at war.
Lucy and Colin—our heroine and her hero—live roughly the same timeline as Byron. And for them, in Chasing the Heiress, a series of reform movements shape their world.
Here's one of those stories.
In 1756, French privateers captured the Lisbon packet on its way to Portugal. The passengers—among them John Howard (1726-1790), a wealthy Englishman on a Grand Tour—were sent to French prisons. Howard negotiated for his freedom--in exchange for that of a French officer held by the British.
But Howard's experience in prison shaped the course of his future life. When in 1773, Howard was appointed the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, he began to address the conditions of the local prisons.
Because the jailer earned his pay from fees owed by the prisoners, many who had been found not-guilty remained in prison because they couldn’t discharge their bills. Howard proposed changing the system to one where the state paid the jailer, and to discover better methods of managing the jails, Howard visited all city, town, and county jails. As a result Howard was called in 1774 to give evidence to the House of Commons.
Howard’s testimony led to legislative (though not actual) reform: jailer’s fees were abolished in favor of the jailer receiving a municipal salary; prisons were required to be more sanitary, and prisoners were required to receive medical treatment.
For the next 15 years, from 1775-1790, funded from his own resources, Howard inspected prisons in Scotland and Ireland and across Europe (Austria, Bohemia, Denmark, Flanders, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Livonia, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland). He recorded the results of his inspections in his 1777 The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (which went through 3 editions during his lifetime), as well as in supplementary volumes until his death in 1790.
The hard work of prison reform was continued by Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), a Quaker, beginning in 1813. But that’s for our next blog post.
Information about the life of John Howard comes from the Dictionary of National Biography.