Rose Lerner first published this article on the History Hoydens blog when she was writing the first book in her current series, Sweet Disorder. The second book, True Pretenses, was released this month.
In March, Rose will be teaching a class through the Beau Monde Academe on Electoral Politics and Woman’s Participation. This is a fabulous class which I urge you to attend! And now, without further ado, here’s Rose:
“Where they lived in an expensive Manner”
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about early newspapers for the WIP (my heroine’s first husband was a provincial newspaper editor and his little brother, who runs the paper now, is a major character), and in From Grub Street to Fleet Street: An Illustrated History of English Newspapers, by Bob Clarke, I came across something fascinating: an account of an eighteenth century conwoman! She’d make a great heroine, I think, if you played it right. The first part of her story (at least, Clarke believes it’s the same woman, and it does seem likely but not 100% conclusive unless you see something I don’t) appears in the January 10th, 1765 St. James Chronicle:
“A few Weeks ago a genteel Woman, about 25 Years of Age, applied to a Farmer and Broom-Maker, near Hadleigh in Hants for a Lodging; telling him that she was the Daughter of a Nobleman, and forced from her Father’s House by his ill Treatment. Her Manner of relating the Story so affected the Farmer, that he took her in and kindly entertained her. In the Course of Conversation, she artfully let drop that she had a Fortune of 90,000l. of which she should be possessed as soon as her Friends in London knew where she was. After some Days Stay, she told the Farmer, that the best Return in her Power for his Favours, would be to marry his Son Thomas (a lad of about 18) if it was agreeable to him. The poor old Man was overjoyed at the Proposal, and in a short Time they were married; after which she informed her Father-in-Law she had great Interest at Court; and if he could for the present raise Money to equip them in a genteel Manner, she should procure a Colonel’s Commission for her Husband. The credulous Farmer thereupon mortgaged his little estate for 100l. and every Thing necessary being bought for the new-married Couple, they took the rest of the Money and set out for London, accompanied by three of the Farmer’s Friends, and got to the Bear Inn in the Borough on Christmas Eve; where they lived in an expensive Manner; and she went in a Coach every Morning to St. James’s End of the Town, on Pretence of Soliciting for her Husband’s Commission, and to obtain her own Fortune: but it was at length discovered that the Woman was an Impostor; and the poor Country People were obliged to sell their Horses by Auction, towards defraying the Expenses at the Inn, before they could set out on their Return Home, which they did on Foot last Saturday Morning. Before the fatal Discovery, the Company were greatly pleased with the Woman’s behavior, as she was not only very sprightly and engaging in Conversation, but sang and played on the Guitar to Perfection. By the Description given, she is supposed to be the same Woman who has for near two Years past obtained Money, by imposing on the Compassion and Credulity of different Persons in Town and Country.”
The second article is in Say’s Weekly Journal, October 24th 1767:
“At the general quarter sessions held for the borough of Devizes, on the 9th instant, one Sarah Boxall was convicted upon the vagrant act, and adjudged a vagabond: She declared her maiden name was Wilson, and that about two years since she was married to Farmer Boxall, of Frensham in Surrey, her own relations living in London.–It seems this woman has for some time past been travelling through almost all parts of the kingdom, assuming various roles and characters. At different times and places she has pretended herself to be of high birth and distinction, as well foreign as English, and according stiled herself a Princess of Mecklenbourg, Countess of Normandy, Lady Vicountess Wilbrahammon, &c., and under some or other of such names made promises of providing, by means of her weight and interest, for the families of the lower class of people, at the same time borrowing money from them, and giving notes in payment. Unto those of higher rank she has represented herself to be in the greatest distress, abandoned by her parents and friends of considerable family, either on account of an unfortunate love affair, or of religion, pretending to be Protestant against the will of her relations, Roman Catholicks, and always varying the account of herself, as she chanced to pick up intelligence of the characters and connections of those she intended to impose upon.–A description of the person of this woman was published in the evening posts of July 1, and July 15, 1766, dated from Coventry, and Great Budworth in Cheshire. Since that she has been mostly in the North of England upon the like errand, till July last, when she thought proper to direct her travels for the Western counties, and in these parts gone about to the houses of divers families; among other, she had the impudence to visit Lord Bottetourt, in Gloucestershire, and attempted the like civility to the Countess of Shelbourne, while in Wiltshire, but endeavouring to impose false and crafty representations of her distress on sundry person in the Devizes, information thereof was made before Charles Carth, Esq.; who issued a warrant for her apprehension; in consequence whereof, she is to be conveyed, by a pass, to Frensham (sworn by her to be the place of her husband’s settlement [RL: I’ve come across “settlement” before as a legal term, meaning the parish of which you are a resident and from which you’re entitled to poor relief should you become insolvent] after the time of her punishment ordered upon her conviction is expired.–She is a short, slender woman, of a pale complexion, somewhat deformed, has a speck or kell over one eye, and dresses in a lightish coloured riding habit.”
On the one hand, I love con artists (Welcome to Temptation and Faking It are two of my favorite romances EVER, and I also adore the British TV series Hustle–and I loved A Most Lamentable Comedy by fellow Hoyden Janet Mullany, in which two fortune hunters pretending to be wealthy try to marry each other for money); on the other hand, it’s hard to feel good about taking advantage of poor people’s ignorance and talking them into mortgaging their homes.
On the other other hand, I tend to get annoyed when criminals are set up to do crime for a good cause and only target evil schmucks, because I think, you know, being a con artist is unethical. And I can enjoy the fun of it as long as the narrative knows it’s unethical (I mean, I can enjoy heroes who’ve murdered people, why should a little con artistry be a deal breaker?), but once the narrative starts telling me, “No, it’s 100% okay to completely ruin this guy because he’s ugly and mean,” I get antsy about it.
I’m also, to be honest, not a big fan of stories about cops who “don’t mind getting their hands dirty when someone really needs to go down.” I like my criminal and law enforcement Venn diagram not to intersect, I guess!
One of the things I loved about Courtney Milan’s Unraveled was how the legal plotline was dealt with: the hero is a magistrate and the heroine works for the local mob doing small con jobs. Courtney Milan never shied away from the abuses and problems within the legal system, and the mob did serve a valuable function, but at the same time she really resisted the urge to romanticize vigilantism.
So what do you think? Is Sarah Boxall heroine material? If you were going to adapt her story for a romance, how would you do it?
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© 2012 – 2015 Rose Lerner
This article was originally published on the History Hoydens blog in February, 2012.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.