In Georgian England, fifteen-year-old Sophia is trapped by the limitations of living in a man’s world. Forced by her father to give up everything she loves, Sophia is ordered to make a new life in Bath. By day, she is trapped in the social whirl of balls and masquerades. By night, she secretly swaps her ball gowns for breeches, and turns to highway robbery to get her revenge …When one man begins to take a keen interest in her, Sophia must keep her distance, or risk unmasking her secret life.
The Girl in the Mask is set in Bath, which also happens to be where I live. In such a beautiful Georgian city, I am surrounded by history at all times. I walk the same streets Jane Austen and many other famous people have walked over the centuries. But when I began researching for this book, I discovered there was so much I didn’t know about my own city.
I discovered the city we have now is not at all the one that existed when Bath was at the height of fashion. Bath’s most popular era was much earlier. Ironically, by the time the beautiful and gracious city we see today was built, the aristocracy no longer flocked to Bath; they had moved on, drawn to Brighton by the new fashion of sea bathing and by the Regent who built a palace there. It was this earlier phase of the city’s life that I wanted to write about; nearly a hundred years before Jane Austen arrived.
I researched Bath’s famous residents of the time; Beau Nash and Ralph Allen. Richard or ‘Beau’ Nash was uncrowned King of Bath from 1704 until 1761. He was master of ceremonies in the city; in other words he organised the social life. He held balls in the Guildhall and persuaded a Mr Harrison to build Assembly Rooms for teas and cards. This was later extended to include a ballroom. He also raised money for charity, organised the roads in and out of the city being improved and many other things. He was quite a personality and, as his job was unpaid, he lived by gambling.
Ralph Allen is known for building Prior Park House (now Prior Park College) on the southern slopes of the city and for quarrying Bath stone to rebuild the city in the Georgian style. But before he did this, he was also postmaster and a spy for the King and government. It is in this first role that he appears in The Girl in the Mask.
Before it was rebuilt, the old walled city, comprising around fifteen streets and many alleys and lanes, covered only 28 acres. Into this tiny, dilapidated and rubbish-strewn space a huge number of the wealthy and aristocratic of Britain crowded every year. Bath was their summer holiday resort. They were obsessed with gambling, they danced, they gossiped, they took the waters and they promenaded. The Royal Family had made the city fashionable, so wealthy visitors came in their droves, and with them all the hangers on, hoping to make money: the card sharps, the beggars, the pickpockets and the highway men.
Bath was also the centre of the failed 1715 Jacobite rebellion. By the time I discovered this, the old walled city had come alive in my imagination. I could see Sophia socialising there by day, dressed in all the luscious and extravagant fashions of the early Georgian era, surrounded by sword-carrying gentlemen equally richly and lavishly attired; bewigged and bejewelled. I could also visualise the darker side of the old city; the poverty and crime-stricken underworld that Sophia discovers when she sneaks out in her breeches by night. She is surrounded by deceit and intrigue and it becomes woven into her life and her adventure.
The Girl in the Mask is published by the Oxford University Press.